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Jewish World Review Feb. 7, 2002 / 25 Shevat, 5762

Morton Kondracke

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Consumer Reports

Parties will use medicare to woo key senior vote -- SENIOR citizens could emerge as the most important swing group in this year's Congressional elections, giving Democrats a chance to use Medicare and Social Security as issues to offset Republican advantages on defense and homeland security.

Democrats can argue, truthfully, that President Bush's past and recommended tax cuts will leave too little money to provide seniors with a generous Medicare prescription drug benefit.

More demagogically, they can claim that the tax cuts are forcing a "raid" on the dwindling Social Security surplus, endangering retirement benefits. In fact, no current retiree will suffer any loss of benefits, though young people probably will.

Formerly a solid Democratic voting group, seniors have been trending Republican in recent elections. But indications are that they are swinging back toward the Democrats this year out of economic concerns.

According to the bipartisan Battleground survey last month, Republicans now enjoy a 2-point advantage on the generic Congressional ballot among all voters. But voters aged 65 and older - who make up 22 percent of the voting population but are likely to represent 28 percent of the November turnout - prefer Democrats by 7 points.

The overwhelming concern of senior voters is the economy, according to the poll, and within that category it's the rising cost of health care; this means drugs, which are not paid for by Medicare.

The President is proposing to phase in a drug benefit along with reforms of the Medicare system, but its emphasis is on helping low-income seniors, and its cost is only $190 billion over 10 years.

Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) has served notice that he plans to push through a pricier plan this year, costing $300 billion, but an official of the AARP seniors' lobby say that would pay for only a "thin" benefit with high co-pays and deductibles.

Hastert "clearly believes that it's key to his staying Speaker to pass a drug benefit," said AARP Policy Director John Rother, "but his benefit is not going to be attractive to seniors who expect the kind of benefit they had when they were employed."

Moreover, Rep. Ellen Tauscher (D-Calif.) points out, competitive House districts tend to be middle-to-upper income, whose seniors would not benefit from a GOP drug plan targeted at poorer people.

No proposal has yet been introduced in Congress that provides an adequate benefit covering all seniors, Rother said. A "modest" plan, he added, would cost "north of $400 billion, maybe $500 billion."

That kind of money is going to be hard to find in light of current long-term budget projections - an argument Democrats are sure to make.

A year ago, the Congressional Budget Office estimated that between 2002 and 2011 the government would run a surplus of $5.6 trillion ($2.5 trillion from excess Social Security revenues and $3.1 trillion from the rest of government).

This year, because of Bush's $1.6 trillion in tax cuts, the recession and the war on terrorism, the CBO estimate is down to $1.6 trillion for those years and $2.5 trillion for the years 2003-2012, the difference being that the Bush tax cuts are supposed to lapse in 2011.

In his State of the Union address, the President called for the tax cuts to be made permanent and their effective dates accelerated, which Bob Bixby, executive director of the Concord Coalition, says would cost about $1 trillion, including tax benefits Congress is expected to extend on its own.

Tom Kahn, minority staff director of the House Budget Committee, said the past and proposed tax cuts "drive a hole right through the Social Security and Medicare trust funds and threaten fiscal responsibility.

"The old saying is, 'If you're in a hole, stop digging.' But they've brought in a bulldozer," he continued. On top of new tax cuts, Bush is proposing new defense and homeland security outlays of about $570 billion over 10 years.

All this would lower the projected 10-year surplus to less than $1 trillion - all of it derived from Social Security revenues.

This would not affect any current retirees' benefits, but it would prevent significantly paying down the national debt or a prepayment of Social Security benefits through retirement savings accounts.

Republicans, of course, will argue that accelerated and extended tax cuts will make the economy grow faster, creating a brighter fiscal future and making all benefits more affordable.

But the fact is, Bush proposed only a $190 billion drug benefit, even when the surplus was projected to be $5.6 trillion. Hastert clearly believes that's not adequate politically.

The AARP's Rother said, "Theoretically it's possible for Democrats and Republicans to bridge their differences on prescription drugs if they want to."

But the prospects are not good, he noted. "The Republicans just want a vote on this to protect themselves, and the Democrats want the issue to run on in the fall." You can hardly blame the Democrats. It's one of the few issues they have.

JWR contributor Morton Kondracke is executive editor of Roll Call, the newspaper of Capitol Hill. Send your comments by clicking here.

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