Democrats in the White House are confronted with a dilemma. On the one hand, the clock's ticking on their temporary budget deal with the Republicans. If it runs out and there's no new agreement, we run the risk of a default and the government could shut down again. But the need to negotiate places them in a position where they might appear to legitimize the GOP's extreme positions -- positions which have been immortalized in a series of Republican budgets.
In the short term, Democrats need to negotiate. But in the longer term, we urgently need a real debate about the role of government in this country -- a debate which highlights the ever-widening gulf in values between the Republican Party, as reflected in its budgets, and the American people.
It would be tragic if Democrats won a battle, but the nation continued to lose a war.
The Republican Medicare Hoax
Rep. Paul Ryan is leading the budget negotiations on behalf of the Republicans, and is also credited -- if "credited" is the right word -- with the Republicans' last several budgets. Ryan has indicated that a top negotiation priority for his party will be "entitlement reforms," a phrase which in plain English means "cuts to Social Security and Medicare."
The most famous provision of the Ryan budget is its Medicare "voucher plan," a term they reject but which is nonetheless accurate. It would gradually dismantle Medicare as we know it and replace it with a program in which each American would receive credits to be used toward purchasing private health insurance.
Medicare does, in fact, have a long-term cost problem, although a recent slowdown in healthcare cost inflation has made that projected problem much less burdensome than had been expected. But healthcare costs in this country are still extremely high, when compared to other developed nations, and remain vulnerable to renewed cost surges.
But the Ryan voucher plan is a hoax. It does absolutely nothing to correct those cost problems. It merely passes those problems back to individual seniors, for them to contend with -- or failed to contend with -- as they well.
An Unfair "Exchange"
The Ryan plan would provide increasingly insufficient funds for healthcare coverage, studies have shown, by imposing an artificially low inflation index to the value of the vouchers each elderly American would receive. In very short order they would be paying most of their Social Security income -- and in many or most cases, most of their total income -- just for healthcare coverage.
The Republican voucher plan doesn't solve the problem. It just forces the most vulnerable among us to face that problem alone. It also illustrates the hypocrisy of right-wing talking points against Obama care, since the Ryan plan would turn Medicare enrollment from the simple sign up process it is today into something which might be fairly described as a "health exchange" -- in other words, into a seniors' version of "healthcare.gov."
Every word of Republican hyperbole against the ACA rollout is a condemnation of their own party's plan for Medicare.
Dodging the Real Issue
Medical costs are projected to increase dramatically in the next decade. But that's not because enrollees in Medicare or Medicaid are big spenders. American healthcare costs are still excessive, and we deserve an honest a national conversation about that. But that conversation shouldn't focus on how much of that burden to throw back on seniors. We should talk seriously about why our healthcare costs are so much higher than those of other developed nations, and how we can fix the problem.
That's a conversation Republicans don't want to have, because it involves the cost of corporate profit taking in our healthcare system. They've even refused to Democratic attempts to let the government negotiate healthcare purchases with Big Pharma, corporations which benefit directly from government research.
Republicans would rather have a conversation about how to stick Granny with the bill.
The Republican voucher plan wouldn't even lower costs. According to other Congressional Budget Office studies, overall medical care costs would sue would soar 40 or 50 percent under the Republican plan.
The Republican budget would also stick states with Medicaid costs they would quickly be unable to afford.
In the endless posturing that seems to inevitably take place around these issues, Republicans in the House have also indicated that they don't intend to pursue Social Security cuts. That may mean, however, that they intend to let the chained CPI cuts in President Obama's budget stand. That would afford them the dual benefit of obtaining a cut they've always wanted, and allowing the Democrats to take the devastating political hit for it.
If Democrats were smart, they'd immediately take Social Security cuts off the table, the president's budget notwithstanding. Unfortunately, Democrats on the Hill seem to be doing precisely the opposite. Just this weekend Sen. Dick Durbin explicitly put Social Security cuts on the table, and repeated some often-spoken falsehoods about the program's solvency in the process.
Democrats are running the risk of gutting an urgently-needed program, and doing the Republicans' political dirty work for them. That's tragic for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is that it draws our political discourse away from the debate the public needs and deserves.
Discretionary ExtremismThe upcoming budget negotiations won't address entitlements alone, of course, and Republican extremism extends to all areas of government expenditure. Here are a few of the discretionary spending items which Republican budgets would cut:
- flood warnings and funds for coastal emergencies
- money to process Social Security applications
- local law enforcement
- the FBI
- food assistance for poor children and their mothers
Government's Role in Society: The Silent Coup
There is an underlying principle to be defended here: that of government's role in the life of our national community. But Democrats, at least some of them, seem to have accepted the gradual dismantling of government as a positive force in American life.
There's been something of a silent coup in this area. Government has been gradually shrinking. And as it goes, so do many of the services which it successfully provided for decades were generations. Total discretionary spending -- which excludes areas like Social Security Medicare and Medicaid -- have shrunk from nine percent of GDP at the end of the Reagan administration to seven percent today, and the Congressional Budget Office estimates that number will drop to 5.5 percent by 2023.
It's something like Lenin's "withering away of the state" -- performed not by workers' "soviets," but by lobbyists and corporate politicians who are laboring to provide tax breaks for wealthy individuals and corporations.
WWTD: What Would Tip Do?
Self-described "centrist" politicians, especially on the Democratic side, have tended to idealize the negotiations between Ronald Reagan and House Speaker Tip O'Neill, often described as a "liberal lion," to resolve the genuine crisis which Social Security faced in the early 1980s.
This would be a good time to remember O'Neill's legacy. He never hesitated to speak eloquently and forcefully for the role of government in people's lives -- even while negotiating with Republicans determined to do away with government altogether.
That's a winning argument. The polls show that American support good government, by overwhelming majorities and across the political spectrum. They want Social Security benefits increased, not decreased. They want to fight poverty. They want access to medical care.
The impending resumption of Republican hostage-taking, in the form of a new debt crisis and government shutdown, is a genuine threat. But the nation faces an even greater danger. Unless some of our leaders are willing to speak out forcefully for government as a force for good, entire generations may never know the role the government has played, and should play, in a democratic society.
If Democrats don't make that case, who will?