Post Election Bipartisanship Could Spell Trouble for Social Security, Medicare

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Mark Weisbrot
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, December 24, 2000
Knight-Ridder/Tribune Media Services, December 14, 2000
The Sunday Gazette Mail,
December 24, 2000

You know there's trouble ahead when Newt Gingrich is resurrected after Al Gore's concession speech to declare that this is a time for "unifying and healing." Don't get me wrong. I'm all for civility, and respect for the rule of law is certainly the foundation of a democratic society. Even if the 5-4 decision of the U.S. Supreme Court looked and smelled remarkably partisan, it's the law of the land, and Mr. Gore did the right thing by deciding to put this seemingly endless election in a lockbox.

But when our 43rd President George W. Bush talks about bipartisanship, and conservative Democrats and Republicans start getting all cozy with each other, it is a very bad omen indeed. When they talk about "getting things done," they are not talking about seizing the moment to reform our system of financing elections, so we could choose among candidates that are not pre-screened by major corporations and rich contributors. They are not even talking about some of the more modest reforms-- such as same-day voter registration or modern voting systems-- that would expand the electorate and fix some of the problems that led to the mess in Florida.

Instead, they are talking about co-operation to reform the things that don't need to be reformed. Number one: Social Security. Remember when George W. Bush accused Mr. Gore of believing "that Social Security is a government program?" That wasn't just a slip of the tongue. Watch out for a bipartisan commission designed to hack away at America's largest and most successful anti-poverty program. Here is a system that, according to the numbers accepted by all sides in the debate, is solid for the next 37 years without any changes at all. And even for the indefinite future, there is no financial or demographic threat to the program.

But Mr. Bush made a campaign promise to partially privatize Social Security, and so he will be playing on the widely held misconception that the retirement of the baby boom generation-- which begins about seven years from now-- will break the program. Unfortunately most Democrats have accepted this mythology for their own political purposes, mainly because they felt that "saving" Social Security was a good issue for them at the polls. Now they will have to tell the truth if they really want to save Social Security from its enemies.

Medicare is another potential victim of the emerging bipartisan love-fest. The Bush campaign promoted the legislation proposed by Democratic Senator John Breaux and Republican Representative Bill Thomas, who headed up the National Bipartisan Commission on Medicare Reform. Senator Breaux is currently under consideration for a position in the Bush administration.

Their proposals would radically privatize the insurance provided by Medicare, eroding the guaranteed benefit that Medicare currently offers to senior citizens and the disabled. By setting up a system of private plans that would compete to insure the healthy and avoid the sick, such "bipartisan" legislation would be likely to increase the segregation of senior citizens by health risk, with the less fortunate ending up with inferior coverage. Recent experience with Medicare HMOs also indicates that overall costs would increase, leading to continuing pressure for benefit cuts.

Like Social Security reform, Medicare reform is based on false assumptions and popular misconceptions about the program and its future. Medicare is sound for the next 25 years, and has traditionally done better at containing costs than the private health care system. In fact, the problems that it may face more than 25 years from now are overwhelmingly due to projected cost increases in the private health care system-- a system that spends nearly twice as much per person as the rest of the industrialized world, and still manages to leave 43 million Americans uninsured. It is not Medicare but the private health care system that is in need of reform, and the proposed privatization of Medicare would only take us further from this goal, with the elderly and disabled paying the price in dollars and health.

Watch out for a bipartisan tax cut too, that could include a fantastic windfall for the super-rich: elimination of the estate tax, which passed Congress but was vetoed by President Clinton in September. A staggering $400 billion of its $750 billion cost to the Treasury over 20 years would go to the richest one-tenth of one percent of all households.

With only 48 percent of the popular vote, less than a quarter of the eligible electorate backing him, and a big question mark over the actual results of the election, Mr. Bush has no mandate for the "reforms" that he is pursuing. Let's hope that his opposition in Congress doesn't forget that.


Mark Weisbrot is co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research, in Washington, D.C. He is also president of Just Foreign Policy