Senate Plays Political Monkey in the Middle With Medicare


Yesterday, I noted with some frustration that when John McCain introduced the first GOP amendment to the Senate health care bill on Monday, it was a proposal to stop $500 billion in cuts to Medicare. I wasn't the only one irritated with the move: At the American Spectator, Phil Klein wrote that McCain, who argued that the amendment was necessary to "preserve the solemn obligations we have made to our senior citizens," made "a mockery out of the idea of Republicans as the party of small government." Meanwhile, on the other side of the aisle, Jon Cohn and other liberals called McCain a hypocrite, noting that the Senator had called for massive cuts to Medicare during last year's campaign. And on the Senate floor, according to Congress Daily, McCain responded to Democratic accusations of  hypocrisy by reminding Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid that Reid had once called reductions in Medicare payments "immoral." 

Couple points on this:

For one thing, this is why I was so frustrated by Michael Steele's ill-considered campaign to marshal support from seniors by defending Medicare. It's absolutely true that Democrats have been misleading the public by claiming that cutting billions from Medicare won't result in benefit reductions. But thanks in large part to Steele, it now frequently seems as if Republicans, ostensibly defenders of limited government, have devoted themselves to endless, unchanging preservation of entitlements for seniors. Granted, changes to Medicare were going to be difficult regardless of GOP tactics this year, but Republicans have now boxed themselves in on this issue in such a way that it may turn out to be virtually impossible to make meaningful changes to the program. 

I'm also not sure how much it's worth pursuing arguments about hypocrisy on this issue given that basically everyone looks bad. Regardless of previous stances, some legislators are bound to use seniors' support for Medicare to their political advantage when there's an opportunity to do so, hypocrisy be damned.  

Indeed, the defense of McCain's amendment isn't that it's great policy, but that it's basically a tactical move designed to kill a terrible bill. Well, it's true that if the amendment were to pass, it would, at minimum, throw up a huge barrier to passage; perhaps it would even kill it. But the fact is that the amendment's not going to pass, and it never had a chance. So McCain may have succeeded in stirring things up a bit, but the long-term effect is to further lock Republicans into defending Medicare as untouchable. To my mind, that's hardly worth a bit of press and some temporary rhetorical point-scoring during floor debate. 

More important, though, is that this incident illustrates rather vividly what happens whenever you mix health care and politics: politics trumps all else. The debate we're seeing here isn't actually about health care; it's about party power, about winning and losing, about elections and interest groups, about polls and press and short-term tactical considerations. That doesn't strike me as a particularly appealing way to approach health care, but if reform legislation passes, I suspect we're in for even more of it than ever.