At least someone in Congress is admitting there is more than one side to the issue of providing prescription-drug coverage for seniors — and that the scramble to pass a law is not pure altruism. “There are two things we do here: We do policy and we do politics. When it comes to prescription drugs, it’s the politics,” a Republican anonymously told this newspaper. He has a point. Politics unquestionably is involved in Medicare legislation, but that’s nothing for conservatives to be ashamed of.
There is no doubt that our republic managed alright for two centuries without a prescription-drug entitlement. But now, people are living longer than ever before and are dependent on lots of expensive medication to keep their bodies running smoothly. With a graying population, it should come as no surprise that seniors are demanding — and getting — serious attention in Washington. Polls show that more than 75 percent of the electorate is in favor of such an entitlement. The numbers are even higher among women and independents, two voting blocks the GOP is trying to woo for next year’s election and beyond. Politically, it is smart to try to gratify so many people.
That’s not to say it is bad policy. We’ve editorialized in support of passage because of the value of the legislation. Most simply, the subsidies will make life better for millions of Americans for the short-term. In the middle-term, a few of the attached provisions are likely to introduce at least mild market principles into health-care programs. Any steps in that direction will be policy improvements Alas, in the long-term, the current health-care system is a slow locomotive steaming toward a train wreck 20 years down the line. More than $400 billion for prescription drugs does add more cargo to the doomed train. Without systemic reform, there will be a disaster when all the boomers are retired. That’s the real issue.
The challenge that is being ignored by many on Capitol Hill is the very viability of Medicare. The system is poorly financed, and the government is an inefficient vehicle. In the not-so-distant future, the time will come to scrap the present system and correct its myriad deficiencies. The political will does not exist to do that now, and probably won’t until Medicare nears its zero hour. In the meantime, Republicans need to build the largest majorities in Congress possible so they can control the eventual revisions. Compromise now gets more support to pass more substantive policy later.
A significant number of conservatives are voting for prescription-drug bills but are embarrassed to take credit for what they perceive to be less-than-perfect policy. We salute the legislators who vote against the entitlement on principle, but it is a mistake for the more pragmatic souls to not take credit for passing popular legislation. The GOP made this mistake in 1997, when Bill Clinton got away with appropriating credit for the balanced-budget agreement Republicans forced him to sign because conservatives were disgruntled the deal wasn’t good enough. Co-option isn’t a danger with a Republican in the White House, but George W. Bush could use some help pushing the party’s agenda from congressional Republicans. Between now and Election Day 2004, conservatives should be trumpeting that they passed the prescription-drug law.