Too late to buy votes?

Paul Jacob

10/17/2010 12:00:04 AM - Paul Jacob

When compiling the numerous and monstrous advantages of incumbency, a friend argues that one should not forget to add the entire federal budget to the equation.

He has a point. Clearly, the biggest determiner in how and where and why our tax money gets spent seems to be the impact it can have on the re-election of the 535 U.S. Senators and House members who spend it.

That’s $3.6 trillion dollars doled out by Washington in fiscal 2010, divided by the ladies and gentlemen (yes, I use those terms loosely) in Congress, giving each federal legislator a $6.7 billion benefit to win friends and influence elections.

A check is so much more persuasive than a 30-second TV spot.

Is this too cynical? Even someone jaded through some experience in Washington, like myself, might fathom that in an era of severe economic distress those in Washington would be jolted back to their senses and begin to more diligently protect the health of the country.

Take the latest headline about Social Security. For the second year in a row, those receiving benefits will not get a cost-of-living adjustment, or COLA. This is because according to the economic data the cost-of-living didn’t go up and no such COLA was triggered. In fact, if cost-of-living decreases were allowed (call them COLDs), the payments would have been cut.

But President Barack Obama says this is unfair.

Last year, when Social Security recipients also failed to receive a cost-of-living increase, the president pushed to send each beneficiary a $250 check anyway. The effort failed in Congress, but as an editorial in the liberal Washington Post put it, “if Mr. Obama had his way, seniors would have received a COLA for inflation that didn’t happen.”

That’s how Washington continues to work. Now Speaker Nancy Pelosi has picked up the mantle of check-writing. With continued support from Mr. Obama, Pelosi promises to schedule a vote in the House of Representatives (again, I use that term loosely) on cutting $250 checks to 54 million likely voters. The $12 billion pay-off would happen in the lame-duck session after the election.

Seniors are rewarded because they turn out to vote. Rewarding them is good politics for incumbent politicians. Of course, the claim gets made that some seniors are struggling to survive on Social Security. And, surely, some are. Yet, the checks would go to everyone receiving benefits regardless of need.

In the case of seniors, we’re actually talking about the wealthiest portion of the population. Every age group saw its income fall last year . . . except for households headed by people 65 or older. The poverty rate for seniors fell nearly a full point last year; it is now half the rate for children.

Of course, the children would get a $250 check, too, only they can’t vote.

In an interesting twist, the children can, however, be obligated to pay for all this spending. (What politicians spend now, taxpayers pay later. That’s the rub of deficit financing.)

But as we enter the election’s homestretch, Democrats remain a step behind. All they can do is promise to pay for some votes later. Their rallying cry will have to be something even less credible than, “The check’s in the mail.”