By DAVID BROOKS
Published: March 8, 2010
We all have our emotional hot and cold spots. If you asked me about the New York Mets, you’d see a glow in my eyes. If you asked me about banking reform, words might come out of my mouth, but you’d notice me nodding off midsentence.
For the Democrats, expanding health care coverage is an emotional hot spot. Over the past year, Democrats have fought passionately for universal coverage. They have fought for it even while the country is more concerned about the economy, and in the face of serial political defeats. They have fought for it even though it has crowded out other items on their agenda and may even cost them their majority in the House.
And they’ve done it for almost no votes. The 30 million who would be covered under the Democratic proposals are not big voters, while the millions who would pay for the coverage are strikingly unhappy.
There is something morally impressive in the Democrats’ passion on this issue. At the same time, it’s interesting to compare it to their behavior on other issues in which they have no emotional investment.
For example, Democrats say the right thing when it comes to helping small businesses create jobs, but there’s no passion there. For the past year, small business owners have been screaming that they can’t hire people because they don’t know what the rules will be on health care, finance or energy. Democrats hear them, but those concerns take a back seat to other priorities.
Small business owners have been screaming about the health care bill that forces them to offer coverage or pay a $2,000-per-employee fine but doesn’t substantially control rising costs. Democrats hear their concerns, but push ahead because getting a health care bill is more important.
Then there is the larger issue of exploding federal deficits. A few Democrats are genuinely passionate about this, President Obama among them. He has fought tenaciously to preserve a commission that might restrain Medicare spending. But 90 percent of the people in Congress have no emotional investment in this issue.
They’re going through the motions. They’ve stuffed the legislation with gimmicks and dodges designed to get a good score from the Congressional Budget Office but don’t genuinely control runaway spending.
There is the doc fix dodge. The legislation pretends that Congress is about to cut Medicare reimbursements by 21 percent. Everyone knows that will never happen, so over the next decade actual spending will be $300 billion higher than paper projections.
There is the long-term care dodge. The bill creates a $72 billion trust fund to pay for a new long-term care program. The sponsors count that money as cost-saving, even though it will eventually be paid back out when the program comes on line.
There is the subsidy dodge. Workers making $60,000 and in the health exchanges would receive $4,500 more in subsidies in 2016 than workers making $60,000 and not in the exchanges. There is no way future Congresses will allow that disparity to persist. Soon, everybody will get the subsidy.
There is the excise tax dodge. The primary cost-control mechanism and long-term revenue source for the program is the tax on high-cost plans. But Democrats aren’t willing to levy this tax for eight years. The fiscal sustainability of the whole bill rests on the naïve hope that a future Congress will have the guts to accept a trillion-dollar tax when the current Congress wouldn’t accept an increase of a few billion.
There is the 10-6 dodge. One of the reasons the bill appears deficit-neutral in the first decade is that it begins collecting revenue right away but doesn’t have to pay for most benefits until 2014. That’s 10 years of revenues to pay for 6 years of benefits, something unlikely to happen again unless the country agrees to go without health care for four years every decade.
There is the Social Security dodge. The bill uses $52 billion in higher Social Security taxes to pay for health care expansion. But if Social Security taxes pay for health care, what pays for Social Security?
There is the pilot program dodge. Admirably, the bill includes pilot programs designed to help find ways to control costs. But it’s not clear that the bill includes mechanisms to actually implement the results. This is exactly what happened to undermine previous pilot program efforts.
The Democrats have not been completely irresponsible. It’s just that as the health fight has gone on, their passion for coverage has swamped their less visceral commitment to reducing debt. The result is a bill that is fundamentally imbalanced.
This past year, we’ve seen how hard it is to even pass legislation that expands benefits. To actually reduce benefits and raise taxes, we’re going to need legislators who wake up in the morning passionate about fiscal sanity. The ones we have now are just making things worse.