To some constituents they may look like heroes, but the members of Congress who helped secure passage of the prescription drug bill ought to be grateful there are no laws calling for incarceration of senators and representatives whose sense of responsibility has dwindled to imperceptibility.
This Medicare measure — though including a few good ideas — is by and large an outrage, calling as it does for a massive, unaffordable, economy-threatening expenditure to fix a problem that does not exist.
The cost will be at least $400 billion over the next decade — maybe twice that, according to some calculations. The following decade, the cost could be as high as $2 trillion — and for what? There's no doubt that many Medicare recipients would like others to pay for their prescription drugs, even if those others have a fraction of their wealth. But the repeatedly documented fact is that only a tiny percentage of recipients really have their backs against the wall, and the new entitlement will be available to all recipients.
The bill, which is part of an incredible spending spree, does more than address prescription drugs. It distributes goodies to just about anyone who happened to hold up his hand during the debate, including corporations, insurance companies, health providers and drug companies. Among the consequences of the costs is a threat to Medicare itself. The program, already rickety, cannot bear the weight.
Of course, some provisions in the 1,100-page piece of legislation are meant to strengthen Medicare, such as health savings accounts, experimental Medicare competition with private health plans and higher premiums for some services for people with incomes over $80,000. There is promise in all of these ideas, though it can rightly be asked whether they are correctly shaped and whether the total impact won't be meager compared to what is needed.
Perhaps between now and 2006, when the drug coverage takes effect, some parts of the legislation can be improved, but now the prospect is for a disaster, especially when baby boomers start retiring. Then, because of this bill and other spending increases, either taxes or borrowing or both will have to increase enormously, and the money-starved economy will be faced with growth somewhere between slim and none.
The fault here lies with a White House that did not want to be banged over the head next year with the prescription-drug issue and with politically motivated, responsibility-shirking members of both parties. (Most of the Democrats who opposed this bill, such as Ted Kennedy, wanted something worse.) The public is to blame, too. Too many Americans have come to think they can have something for nothing, or else just don't care that some younger generation
will pay the price.