Lying for Health Care Reform - LBJ's Example for Today's Democrats

NPR's Morning Edition show aired a rather disturbing segment today on how President Lyndon Johnson's political chicanery and outright lies got Medicare (socialized medicine for seniors) through Congress. The segment featured an interview with James Morone, co-author of The Heart of Power: Health and Politics in the Oval Office. Morone cheerfully explains LBJ's Medicare duplicity:

Johnson maneuvered every step of the way getting this bill through Congress, and one of the things he did — and this is a little dicey in today's climate — was suppress the costs. So this young kid gets elected from Massachusetts, Ted Kennedy, in 1962, and Johnson is explaining to him [over the phone] how you get a health bill through. And what he tells him is don't let them get the costs projected too far out because it will scare other people:

"A health program yesterday runs $300 million, but the fools had to go to projecting it down the road five or six years, and when you project it the first year, it runs $900 million. Now I don't know whether I would approve $900 million second year or not. I might approve 450 or 500. But the first thing Dick Russell comes running in saying, 'My God, you've got a billion-dollar program for next year on health, therefore I'm against any of it now.' Do you follow me?"

We believe, after looking at the evidence, my co-author [David Blumenthal] and I, that if the true cost of Medicare had been known — if Johnson hadn't basically hidden them — the program would never have passed. America's second-most beloved program would never have happened, if we had had genuine cost estimates.

As history has shown even LBJ's carefully hidden projections of Medicare's costs were way off base. As the Cato Institute's Michael Tanner and Chris Edwards point out, the Congressional Budget Office and other agencies have a history of wildly underestimating future government medical program expenditures:

A further concern is that initial cost estimates of federal health programs are usually very optimistic. When Medicare was launched in 1965, Part A was projected to cost $9 billion by 1990, but ended up costing $67 billion. When Medicaid’s special hospitals subsidy was added in 1987, it was supposed to cost $100 million annually, but it already cost $11 billion by 1992. When Medicare’s home care benefit was added in 1988, it was projected to cost $4 billion in 1993, but ended up costing $10 billion. Or consider that when Massachusetts Commonwealth Care was put into place in 2006, it was expected to cost about $725 million annually, but the expected cost for 2009 is now almost $1 billion.

The NPR segment was intriguingly titled, "Democrats Could Learn From LBJ's Medicare Push." I have no doubt that many Democrats who are pushing health care reform, especially the government-run insurance option, know that their cost projections are wildly underestimated. But like LBJ, contemporary Democrats don't care because they also know that once their health reform programs are enacted they will be almost impossible to kill. Enacting government health care is more important than telling their constituents the truth about what it will cost them. Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose! 

Bonus Ronald Reagan quote from NPR segment:

"One of the traditional methods of imposing statism or socialism on a people, has been by way of medicine. It's very easy to disguise a medical program as a humanitarian project — most people are a little reluctant to oppose anything that suggests medical care for people who possibly can't afford it. Now, the American people, if you put it to them about socialized medicine and gave them a chance to choose, would unhesitatingly vote against it."

Hearteningly, recent polls suggest that this may still be true. 

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  • ||

    I once read that LBJ used to make staffers and I think even Congressmen have discussions with him while he was sitting on the toilet. I think that says everything you need to know about the man.

  • Mike M.||

    We believe, after looking at the evidence, my co-author [David Blumenthal] and I, that if the true cost of Medicare had been known - if Johnson hadn't basically hidden them - the program would never have passed. America's second-most beloved program would never have happened, if we had had genuine cost estimates.

    I have no doubt that this is true, especially if they had known back then that the country would be on the precipice of bankruptcy less than fifty years later.

    That's what makes the political landscape today, and the democratic party in particular, so depressing to contemplate. We're all the way through the looking glass and beyond.

  • Hacha Cha||

    reminds me of what Hunter Thompson wrote about Lyndon Johnson, "told his manager to start a massive rumor campaign about his opponent's lifelong habit of enjoying carnal knowledge of his own barnyard sows." The campaign manager protests that nobody will believe that the guy's a "pigfucker."

    "I know," Johnson replied. "But let's make the sonofabitch deny it."

  • Amber Waves||

    "LBJ used to make staffers and I think even Congressmen have discussions with him while he was sitting on the toilet."

    Paging SugarFree. Paging SugarFree.

  • ||

    Paging SugarFree.

    Ugh. No, please.

    But I do offer: Slate's Guide to Ethical Shitting.

    There are plenty of simple, low-tech things you can do to cut down on toilet-related water consumption. Make sure you check regularly for leaks using a dye test; a leaky toilet can waste about 200 gallons a day, according to the EPA. If you have an older toilet, reduce the size of each flush by putting a milk jug or soda bottle filled with water or sand in the tank. (Avoid using bricks, which can muck up the plumbing.) For the more daring among you, there's always the time-honored "if it's yellow, let it mellow" strategy-endorsed by Cameron Diaz, no less-and the "pee in the shower" strategy, which a Brazilian environmental group is touting this month via an extremely catchy commercial featuring Stephen Hawking, Mahatma Gandhi, the Statue of Liberty, and a gaggle of singing children.

  • ||

    If we weren't so racist, they wouldn't have to lie to us to get what they want. Their lies are our fault.

  • stuartl||

    Although those poll number are heartening, Obama is a lot smarter than Hillary was in 94. She didn't hide the fact that she thought us little people objecting were stupid. While many progs/dems/etc do feel that way now, Obama realizes that he needs to sell us. And he is a good saleman. She wasn't.

  • The Wine Commonsewer (TWC)||

    When we were kids we used to call him Long Blow Job. It was not because of his politics, we just thought it was hilarious.

  • Xeones||

    Ted Kennedy is sucking LBJ's dick in hell right now. Lyndon is, naturally, on the toilet.

    Shut the fuck up, NPR.

  • ||

    LBJ = El B.J.

  • Kevin||

    Another sign of the end times: a blumpkin reference on H&R involving two dead politicians.

  • Ty||

    A Ronald Reagan quote. Wow, don't see that often 'round here.

  • ||

    Great LBJ foreplay pic!

  • creech||

    Maybe opponents ought to offer an admendment:
    "If the costs of this legislation exceed projections by more than 10% [cut them a little slack] every legislator who voted for the bill, and the president who signed it, will resign his or her office immediately, and forfeit any pension earned while in political service. Every one involved with calculating the projected costs will be dismissed from their position, and forfeit any pension.....etc. etc." Publicize all those who vote "no" on the amendment and thus refuse to stand behind their b.s. about the costs of this crap.

  • soupwell||

    That's actually not a bad idea. Maybe a little over the top in the stated form- I don't know about enacting capital punishment on every desk jockey in the office that produced the numbers, but I like the accountability concept.

    Since not everybody in a budget office gets final say on exactly what the reports ultimately say, maybe let all the accountants who work on an estimate have the opportunity to endorse it. Only those who have endorsed it suffer consequences if it is wrong. Then, if the boss man puts out a report that none of his underlings agree with, it will come with no endorsements, and lose a lot of credibility.

  • Rush 2000||

    Tricked by circumstances.

  • ||

    They'd just repeal the "resign if over budget" part of the bill when they passed the budget increase.

  • ed||

    The NPR segment was intriguingly titled, "Democrats Could Learn From LBJ's Medicare Push."

    Freudian slip from The People's Radio Network?

  • ||

    And they misspelled "putsch"

  • Gene Berkman||

    Ronald Reagan also said that the closest thing to immortality we will ever see is a government program.

    Something to think about before a new massive government program gets passed.

  • wayne||

    A Ronald Reagan quote. It must gall the Dems to see a prescient quote from that "senile old man".

  • ||

    Yawn. A politican lies, changes the course of history and obligates generations to pay for his folly. And in other news, a bear dropped a deuce amidst the deciduous.

    As a class, politicians cannot say "hello" without lying. It's common knowledge and has been, apparently for millennia. Yet we keep putting them in positions of public trust. Forget whatever LBJ's use of the "Toilet Conference Room" said about HIM. What does our willingness to trust and re-elect politicians -- despite overwhelming evidence that the OPPOSITE policy is wiser -- say about US?


Get Reason's print or digital edition before it’s posted online

  • Progressive Puritans: From e-cigs to sex classifieds, the once transgressive left wants to criminalize fun.
  • Port Authoritarians: Chris Christie’s Bridgegate scandal
  • The Menace of Secret Government: Obama’s proposed intelligence reforms don’t safeguard civil liberties