Last year, when Republicans rammed a new Medicare drug benefit through Congress, I warned that they were unlikely to get the political boost they were expecting. Now, just 3 months after the legislation was signed into law, many now realize--too late--that I was right.
In a Dec. 5 column, I had this to say: "I believe that Republicans have not only made a serious policy error in enacting a new drug benefit, but a political one as well. Whatever short-run gain they have made will melt away once the costs explode--which they will. Any future Republican effort to restrain those costs will completely reverse this temporary gain. In the end, only Democrats gain politically from entitlement programs."
Since then, we have learned that the Bush Administration knew the drug bill would cost $534 billion over 10 years, instead of the $400 billion Congress thought it was voting for. According to press reports, the administration suppressed its cost estimate in order to allow the legislation to pass. It knew that if the cost were much above the $400 billion figure estimated by the Congressional Budget Office, the legislation would fail. While CBO stands by its estimate, I continue to believe that the true cost will be well above $534 billion.
One reason why I thought Republicans were being foolish is that the elderly, whose votes they thought they were buying, have such outlandish expectations of what they are owed by society that they were impossible to fulfill. In other words, they were guaranteed to be disappointed by whatever drug program was enacted, no matter how generous. This is confirmed by poll data.
Every poll taken since the drug bill was enacted shows a distinct lack of enthusiasm for it on the part of the elderly. As John Harwood of the Wall Street Journal observed in a March 3 column, "Seniors have become the law's most conspicuous critics. In the most recent Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll, those 65 and over were the only age group to express plurality opposition. Their support for the Republican Party's handling of the issue, and for Mr. Bush's re-election, declined since last summer."
As a consequence, growing numbers of Republicans who voted for the drug bill now wish they hadn't. Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC) spoke for them when he told the Washington Post on Feb. 29, "There is buyers' remorse among many who voted for it." Although Senator Graham voted against the bill, he says he has encountered no criticism from his constituents for doing so.
Bruce Bartlett is a former senior fellow with the National Center for Policy Analysis of Dallas, Texas. Bartlett is a prolific author, having published over 900 articles in national publications, and prominent magazines and published four books, including Reaganomics: Supply-Side Economics in Action.
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