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David Sirota Headshot

The Deafening Silence on Deficits

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"I'm not going to vote for a bill that's not deficit-neutral." - Sen. Blanche Lincoln (D-AR)

"I have also pledged that health insurance reform will not add to our deficit over the next decade - and I mean it." - President Barack Obama

In a health care debate whose lines have been moving in the ever-shifting sands, Democrats have drawn at least one immovable line in that sand: The health care bill, which will cost about $1 trillion over the next decade, must not add to the deficit. This is arguably the most confusing aspect of the entire health care discussion. I say that not because of any value judgment on the general concept of deficit neutrality, but because this line in the sand is not being drawn on any other piece of legislation, even those that are far more costly and deficit-expanding than health care.

If the deficit is so important, why aren't Democrats looking to cut the defense budget, which is rife with waste, and which costs $600 billion a year? If the deficit is so important, why aren't Democrats using their legislative power to stop Ben Bernanke from handing out trillions more in bailout cash, and where was Democratic opposition to the bank bailouts? If the deficit is so important, how come "budget hawk" Democrats are against the public option - a tool originally proposed as the primary way of driving health care costs/spending down? And if the deficit is so important, why aren't Democrats working to halt - rather than extend - the Bush tax cuts?

The Urban Institute's Howard Gleckman answers this last, most vexing question:

It is interesting, and perhaps worth noting, that while political opposition seems to be hardening against the $1 trillion, ten-year cost of the early versions of health reform, barely a peep of concern has been raised about the $3 trillion price tag for President Obama's plan to extend most of the Bush-era tax cuts. The message seems pretty clear: The President, congressional Democrats, and nearly all Republicans are fine with busting the budget to cut taxes for nearly everyone, notwithstanding a cumulative deficit over the next decade of $9 trillion. They are, by contrast, unwilling to spend one-third as much to provide medical insurance for those who cannot afford it.

The politics of this is easy to understand. When it comes to aiding industries and rich people (i.e. special interests with lobbying armies in Washington), all counter-arguments, even those about the deficit, are ignored. But when it comes to aiding regular people who haven't bought members of Congress, every argument - and especially deficits - are cited as reasons to do nothing.

What's genuinely confusing is the media's complicity in this. Reporters and journalists are employed to report, analyze and clarify the political debates in Washington. Quite literally, that's what they are paid to do.

And yet, almost nobody has asked any simple questions about why the deficit argument being put up against health care reform isn't put up against anything else that Congress considers. All that is reported is that the deficit is the major obstacle to health care, and that we need a commission to slash Medicare and Social Security - but nothing else - to deal with the deficit.

Why haven't reporters asked Blanche Lincoln how she can cite her deficit concerns on health care only months after voting for the bailout? Why haven't reporters asked President Obama how he can promise a deficit-neutral health care bill after he renominated Bernanke - the ultimate deficit exploder - to the most powerful financial position in the government?

I really cannot come up with an explanation for this, other than sheer laziness, power-worshiping and the same hypocritical ideology in the media as in the Washington political establishment. The absolute silence from the press corps on the deficit issue seems like the most ironclad proof that political reporters have all but given up on the most basic tenets of journalism.