By contrast, the unfunded liability of Social Security is just $11.1 trillion. This means that we could repeal the drug program, fund Social Security forever with no benefit cuts or tax increases, and still cut $7 trillion off the national debt.
Historically, Republicans have opposed the creation of new entitlement programs because they always cost vastly more than estimated and they are so extremely difficult to control. The cost of the original Medicare program, for example, was seven times higher by 1980 than projected in 1965. And because the elderly, the primary beneficiaries of entitlement spending, are so politically powerful, only the bravest politician will even think about cutting their benefits. It would be easier to try and take food out of the mouths of hungry rottweilers.
It would be one thing if Republicans had won major reforms to the Medicare program as their price for the new largess. But no meaningful reforms were contained in the final legislation, in large part because early on Bush announced his intention to sign any bill, no matter what was in it. In the end, the Medicare drug program was enacted for one reason and one reason only: Republicans thought they were buying the votes of the elderly for re-election. That’s it.
Thus it is ironic that Republicans have garnered virtually no political support from this fundamental sell-out of their principles. In part, that is because implementation of the drug program has been plagued by snafus. Seniors have had difficulty figuring out the program, many have lost drug benefits they previously had, and the states have been forced to spend millions to cover gaps in the program for elderly Medicaid patients, among other things.
So it comes as little surprise that surveys have found seniors turning against Republicans for the very benefit that was designed to buy their votes forever. According to a new poll from the Democracy Corps, only 25 percent of those over age 65 favor the drug program, with 53 percent rejecting it. This may explain why Bush neglected to tout it in his State of the Union Address.
There is little doubt that the drug benefit would fail if it came up again in Congress today. I believe that Republicans would probably be better off politically if they had enacted a much smaller, less expensive and more targeted program. If they had simply done nothing, I don’t think they would be any worse off.
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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