A few weeks ago I penned a column in which I griped that the specter of deficits is always invoked against tax cuts, not spending increases. An editorial in the Washington Post titled “Debt and Taxes” prompted me to write, “Do you suppose we’ll ever see a liberal-newspaper editorial titled ‘Debt and Prescription Drug Coverage’?” I might as well have asked, “Will Robert Byrd ever learn humility?”
As the prescription-drug benefit to Medicare heated up last week, the words “debt” and “deficit” were, quite literally, exceptionally difficult to find. Both the Washington Post and the New York Times ran seven news articles related to the prescription-drug benefit. Not one contained any mention of what the $400 billion program would add to the deficit or the national debt. Some suggested that it didn’t go far enough: An article in the Times with the lamenting headline “Seniors May Find Drug Benefit Lacking” began, “Seniors expecting a generous Medicare prescription drug benefit from Congress are likely to be disappointed.” The one exception appeared in an editorial in the Times (!). After complaining that the benefit was not enough, the editorialists conceded, “But given the current state of the federal deficit, Congress has picked the right priorities.”
Compare that to the Times‘ and Post‘s coverage in the week leading up to President Bush’s May 28 signing of the $330 billion tax cut. The Times ran five articles, the Post eight. The word “deficit” was used fifteen times in those articles, while “debt” was used eighteen. One article in the Post, titled “A Payoff Now, Paying the Price Later,” dealt with little else but the effect of the tax cut on the deficit. Another headline in the Times read “A Tax Cut Without End.” Although it warmed the cold cockles of my heart, it probably conveyed the impression of “it’s too much” to the average reader.
The lack of concern about debt and deficits regarding spending cannot be fully attributed to media bias, although that accounts for some of it. A large chunk of the blame falls on the shoulders of Washington’s politicians. While many of the usual suspects — Tom Daschle, Charles Rangel, Kent Conrad — were quoted complaining about debt and deficits in the articles on tax cuts, the lack of such quotes in the articles on prescription-drug coverage suggests that politicians are not talking about the new Medicare program in those terms. Few would expect left-of-center politicians to so complain, but what explains the silence from more conservative ones?
Expressing concern about the fiscal effects of a new entitlement would, arguably, enable conservative pols to craft a better program. By raising spending concerns in the mind of the public, congressional conservatives would have had a better chance at winning more cost-effective reforms, such as President Bush’s desire to see more of Medicare managed by private insurance companies. Perhaps even Medical Savings Accounts or even means-testing for prescription-drug coverage would have been within the realm of possibility. Nor will it likely help conservatives if and when it comes time to deal with the federal deficit. Without conservative politicians bemoaning deficits due to new spending, the public is more likely to see tax cuts as the prime cause of an increasing national debt.
The primary concern of center-right politicians appears to be political expediency. An article in the Post cited research from the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation showing that the public ranks President Bush even with Democrats on the Medicare issue. While I wouldn’t lightly dismiss the electoral concerns of President Bush and congressional Republicans, I do wonder how much of an electoral edge they would have sacrificed had they raised the deficit issue and held out for more cost-effective reforms.
Not all the news failed to cast a skeptical eye toward the new Medicare program. Robert Pear and Robin Toner had a particularly interesting look at the new bureaucratic complexity that will result from a prescription-drug benefit. It also contained what is easily the irony of the decade from Senator Clinton. The former mastermind of “HillaryCare” complained that the new Medicare program would result in “a new Medicare maze, a whole new bureaucracy.”
Nevertheless, for those who favor limited government it was a depressing week. Washington is on the verge of creating more bureaucracy and adding a new liability to the federal budget. And neither the media, nor Democrats, nor Republicans seemed much to care.