Will Medicare now cover my depression about domestic politics?

Last week, Matthew Yglesias wrote: I greatly sympathize with people who are disinclined to write about Medicare, since it’s an incredibly boring issue. On the other hand, it’s also a very important one, and so it’s unfortunate that, as it happens, none of the leading lights of the blogosphere right care to lend us their ...

By , a professor of international politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University and co-host of the Space the Nation podcast.

Last week, Matthew Yglesias wrote:

Last week, Matthew Yglesias wrote:

I greatly sympathize with people who are disinclined to write about Medicare, since it’s an incredibly boring issue. On the other hand, it’s also a very important one, and so it’s unfortunate that, as it happens, none of the leading lights of the blogosphere right care to lend us their thoughts on it.

I’m not going to lie to you — for me at least, Matthew’s observations are spot-on. My automatic impulse is to skip any article with the words “Medicare,” “Medicaid,” or “prescription drug plan” in them. So I’m struggling against all my natural instincts here in writing this post. That said, the Medicare bill passed by the House this weekend — and looks likely to obtain Senate approval before Thanksgiving — bothers me for three reasons. The first is that it doesn’t appear to be a very good bill at all. The New Republic‘s &c. has been all over this — click here and here. Conservatives aren’t thrilled about it either. With regard to its fiscal effects, just let me reprint the Heritage Foundation’s graph right here:

medicare.bmp

medicare.bmp

Second, the way in which the bill was passed bothers the hell out of me. Pejman Yousefzadeh — in a must-read post — draws a great parallel between what the Republican leadership did here and what Speaker Jim Wright did fifteen years ago to railroad a budget reconciliation bill through the House. As Pejman put it, “The worm has turned.” During the eighties, it was this kind of Democratic high-handedness that built up such an enourmous reservoir of ill will among Republican House members, which got vented after the 1994 takeover. If the House should switch anytime soon, the changeover will not be pretty. Not that the Democrats have covered themselves in glory for their performance over Medicare this past week. The third is that this spending bill is merely indicative of the larger budget-busting pathology currently infecting Wasdhington. Tyler Cowen highlights the extent of the current profligacy in Washington:

We all know about the $33 billion for the energy bill, or the $400 billion for the Medicare bill. It is less well-known that Congress is moving to increase veterans’ benefits by $22 billion. Or how about peanut subsidies jumping from zero (1998) to $1.5 billion? Dairy subsidies from $318 million (1998) to $2.45 billion? The Agricultural Marketing Service is up from $726 million (1998) to $1.43 billion. The Amtrak budget has doubled to over $1 billion. And so on, and so on, and so on.

All of this comes from a Washington Post story that contains the following nugget of data:

Even conservatives who support tax cuts have begun to note the imbalance. Government spending now totals $20,000 per household, a level not seen since World War II, said Brian Reidl, a federal budget analyst with the Heritage Foundation. Meanwhile, taxes total $17,000 per household. “Conservatives are so afraid of losing their majority status right now that they feel a need to . . . pass the other side’s legislation to prove how moderate they are,” Reidl said. “But they’re showing an astonishing willingness to spend now and dump all the cost in our children’s laps, and an amazing unwillingness to reconcile the size of government with the amount of taxes needed to fund it.” (emphasis added).

Of course, Democrats are not exactly fighting this tooth and nail. And some of them can be bought on the cheap, as the Post observes:

The energy bill that passed the House — but stalled in the Senate — contains $23.5 billion in tax breaks, most of them for oil and gas producers and nearly triple the total in President Bush’s original proposal. The support of farm-state Democrats was secured by a major expansion of subsidies for ethanol, a corn-based fuel additive. Balking lawmakers from the Midwest and Appalachia were offered provisions to benefit the producers of high-sulfur coal and a last-minute $2 billion addition to help older coal-burning plants comply with the Clean Air Act. In a nod to Louisiana’s two Democratic senators, the bill would even provide financing assistance for a mall in Shreveport that is to house, among other things, a Hooters restaurant.

[You put that in the post just to link to Hooters, didn’t you?–ed. I’m just trying to sex up the issue! And let me add that I’m only interested in their magazine for the articles.] Indeed, for a pragmatic libertarian, the political landscape out there is pretty depressing at the moment. Joe Klein makes my point for me:

This was an awful week for the Democrats, who are likely to lose— politically—on all fronts. And it was a shameful week—substantively—for the Bush Administration…. The week’s events illuminate a fundamental difference between Democrats and Republicans on domestic policy. The Democrats are boxed into complicated and unpopular positions because they tend to stand on principle—although the principles involved are often antiquated, peripheral and, arguably, foolish. The Republicans, by contrast, have abandoned traditional conservativism to gain political advantage (with the elderly, for instance) or to pay off their stable of corporate-welfare recipients. The Medicare bill contains large gifts to pharmaceutical manufacturers; the energy bill is a $23.5 billion bequest to traditional-energy producers, with additional billions worth of free-range pork tossed in. “This is classic machine politics, the sort of thing we used to do,” said a prominent Democrat. Hence the Wall Street Journal‘s opposition to both bills.

Sigh.

Daniel W. Drezner is a professor of international politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University and co-host of the Space the Nation podcast. Twitter: @dandrezner

More from Foreign Policy

Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping give a toast during a reception following their talks at the Kremlin in Moscow on March 21.
Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping give a toast during a reception following their talks at the Kremlin in Moscow on March 21.

Can Russia Get Used to Being China’s Little Brother?

The power dynamic between Beijing and Moscow has switched dramatically.

Xi and Putin shake hands while carrying red folders.
Xi and Putin shake hands while carrying red folders.

Xi and Putin Have the Most Consequential Undeclared Alliance in the World

It’s become more important than Washington’s official alliances today.

Russian President Vladimir Putin greets Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev.
Russian President Vladimir Putin greets Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev.

It’s a New Great Game. Again.

Across Central Asia, Russia’s brand is tainted by Ukraine, China’s got challenges, and Washington senses another opening.

Kurdish military officers take part in a graduation ceremony in Erbil, the capital of Iraq’s Kurdistan Region, on Jan. 15.
Kurdish military officers take part in a graduation ceremony in Erbil, the capital of Iraq’s Kurdistan Region, on Jan. 15.

Iraqi Kurdistan’s House of Cards Is Collapsing

The region once seemed a bright spot in the disorder unleashed by U.S. regime change. Today, things look bleak.