The president’s debt commission had its first meeting this week, and all of the talk was of getting serious about putting our fiscal house in order, with everything “on the table” for consideration.
There’s no arguing with the need to get serious. According to the Congressional Budget Office (CBO), if the Obama budget were adopted in full, just the interest on the national debt would exceed $900 billion in 2020 and consume one out of every five dollars in federal revenue. To put that in perspective, in 2007, before the financial crisis hit with full force, interest payments on debt stood at $237 billion, or just 9 percent of total tax collections. A sudden and steep rise in the percentage of governmental revenue dedicated to servicing past excess consumption is a clear warning sign to lenders and credit-rating agencies that a country’s finances are approaching the point of no return.
Unfortunately, the timeline for taking corrective action may have shortened even in the past few weeks and days. What began as a slow-motion crumble of Greece’s economic house of cards is now threatening to become a serious global crisis. The flight from sovereign debt risk is now spreading to other vulnerable, highly leveraged countries, including Portugal, Ireland, and Spain. The implications for European economic recovery are ominous. And, if Europe’s economy slides backward again into a deep recession, no part of the global economy will be completely spared from the fallout, including the United States.
So we are long past the point when national leaders should have been sitting down together to hammer out a budget framework to avert the crisis everyone could long see coming. Indeed, one might have thought it would be the first order of business for a newly elected president of the United States.
But it wasn’t. Instead, President Barack Obama decided to spend 2009 using unusually large Democratic majorities in the House and Senate to jam a partisan and highly polarizing health care bill through the Congress. No Republican supported the measure, in large part because it vastly expanded federal entitlement commitments at the very moment when it was abundantly clear that the existing entitlements are the problem.
With the health legislation signed into law over the objections of a united Republican party, the president now wants Republicans to help him finance the newly enlarged welfare state.
Of course, the commission itself is a transparent maneuver to pass the buck in an election year. Voters are beyond fed up with the massive spending spree taking place in Washington. To every hostile question Democratic candidates will get in coming months about the exploding national debt, they are therefore planning the following answer: we’re waiting for the commission to make its recommendations in December. Never mind that Democrats control the White House and Congress. If they wanted to cut the budget, they could certainly do so, starting right now. Instead, they will try to use the appointment of a non-binding commission to create the appearance of a proactive agenda.
For the commission itself, the elephant in the room is Obamacare. Former Senator Alan Simpson, the co-chair of the commission, says the president has agreed that even the health law is “on the table” for discussion.
That’s good, if he means it. Because it is not possible to write a durable, bipartisan budget framework with health spending written entirely according to one party’s formulation.
Health care remains the largest problem in the nation’s long-term budget outlook, even after enactment of the health bill. On paper, the bill makes massive cuts in Medicare. But all of the supposed savings would go toward standing up a new entitlement that costs even more than the savings. So, health entitlement spending expands under the legislation, not contracts.
Moreover, the Medicare savings are from arbitrary payment-rate reductions. OMB Director Peter Orszag continues to argue the health law lays the predicate for cost-control through painless efficiency improvement in the delivery of medical services. But that’s either a smokescreen or the most alarming kind of wishful thinking. The “delivery system reforms” in the legislation are at best small pilot projects that will amount to very little. Certainly CBO assumed no savings from them. Neither did the chief actuary of the Medicare program.
The real cuts in Medicare come from reductions in payment rates. The cuts apply to all providers, across-the-board. There’s no attempt to calibrate based on the quality of the patient care or performance. If the debt commission takes Obamacare as a given when looking for additional savings in health care, it will inevitably fall into the same trap. To find quick and “scoreable” savings (that is, savings that CBO will recognize), the easiest thing to do is to further ratchet down payment rates and pretend the cuts will solve the budget problem. Going down that road would be a disaster for the quality of American medicine and would not provide a lasting solution.
What’s needed in American health care is a dynamic marketplace that drives up the productivity of those delivering medical services. That’s the only way to cut costs without harming quality. That’s genuine delivery system reform. Building such a marketplace requires, first and foremost, cost-conscious consumers, which in turn requires fundamental reform of the health entitlement programs and the tax treatment of health insurance. Fortunately, Congressman Paul Ryan’s roadmap has already shown us the way.
Like it or not, the budget debate remains in large part a health-care debate. Obamacare settled nothing because it did not solve the health care cost problem. It papered it over with price controls.