Before the presidential campaign hurtles off to the next skirmish, take a moment to notice what happened this week: Mitt Romney vowed to increase the national debt by $716 billion, and no one so much as blinked.
Romney's handling of the $716 billion in Medicare cost cuts comes close to being a perfect example of why federal spending so seldom gets cut – everyone favors restraining government spending in theory, but voters seldom love it in practice.
To recap: As part of the Obama health reform law, Congress voted to reduce payments to certain hospitals, insurance companies and other healthcare providers by about $716 billion over the next 10 years. The law directed the money to help pay for expanded prescription drug coverage for seniors – eliminating the so-called doughnut hole – and to help cover younger Americans who do not have insurance at their jobs.
When Rep. Paul D. Ryan, Romney’s choice as his running mate, drafted his budget plan, he included repeal of Obama’s health law. But he kept those Medicare cost cuts and applied the savings to reducing the federal deficit. Why wouldn’t he, after all? Ryan was trying to close a huge budget gap, and here was a rare case in which Congress had already agreed to a spending restraint that was relatively non-controversial -- the hospitals and provider groups had agreed to the cuts, and they would not reduce benefits to Medicare patients.
But Ryan’s decision – logical though it may have been in the budget context – blunted a Republican attack on Obama for “raiding” Medicare. So on Wednesday, Romney made clear that he would eliminate the Medicare savings, and Ryan fell into line.
The move would mean Medicare’s main trust fund would run out of money in just four years, rather than 12 under Obama’s plan. And because Romney did not offer any new revenue to cover the $716 billion cost, nor any offsetting reductions, the price tag would simply be added to the national credit card – worsening the “prairie fire of debt” that Romney decried in a speech this spring.
How much is $716 billion? It’s equal to half of all the money that Congress agreed to cut last summer after a two-month standoff over the national debt.
Needless to say, both sides indulge in this sort of thing during a campaign year. This week, Obama was in Iowa, pledging support for a wind-energy tax credit that’s popular with Iowa farmers. But the tax credit costs a bit over $1 billion a year, roughly one-seventieth of Romney’s Medicare move.
Whether Romney’s move helps him win the election remains to be seen – it’s too early to know who is winning the campaign battle over Medicare. But if he does win, this week’s decision will make his governing tasks $716 billion harder.