Rich Lowry

Oops, they did it again. Appeasing the elderly vote by adding a prescription-drug benefit to Medicare will cost one-third more than the Bush administration said. Instead of $400 billion during the next 10 years, it will cost $534 billion. Secretary of Health and Human Services Tommy Thompson has said he knew the figures were going to leap higher, but he didn't say anything to members of Congress: "I did not tell them because it was not my responsibility." So, exactly whose responsibility is it to tell the truth about entitlement spending in the Bush administration? Maybe it should hire someone.

The Medicare bill passed the House by only five votes at 5:53 a.m. on Nov. 22. The White House twisted arms all night long, and, in one case, supporters of the bill allegedly resorted to an act of near-bribery to strong-arm a reluctant congressman. Put together the hardball tactics and the dishonest numbers, and passage of the Medicare bill was one of the smelliest legislative acts since ... well, since the last energy, farm or highway bill.

The Medicare revision -- up 30 percent in just two months -- is just a taste of the entitlement cost explosion to come as retiring baby boomers soon begin to fatten themselves on all the benefits of the Geriatric State. Instead of trimming back and reforming retirement benefits, the administration and members of Congress added to them last year. Ronald Reagan used to say that calling Congress drunken sailors was unfair to drunken sailors. It still is. Drunken sailors might spend freely, but at least it's their own money and at least they don't live in fear of elderly voters complaining that they aren't getting enough free drinks.

The Medicare revision is, in one sense, not news. One fixed law of political physics is that entitlements always expand. At its creation in 1965, Medicare was projected to cost $9 billion by 1990. It clocked in at a cool $67 billion instead. The dynamic is always to make entitlement benefits more generous and to extend them to more people. This is what has happened with Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid -- and will inevitably happen with the prescription-drug benefit.


Rich Lowry

Rich Lowry is author of Legacy: Paying the Price for the Clinton Years .
 
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