To demonstrate that most Republicans have no desire to reduce federal spending, one need look no further than a Politico story last Thursday. The article recounted how the pending tax bill could trigger automatic reductions in mandatory spending, including to Medicare, under the pay-as-you-go law. When presented with that scenario, Rep. Phil Roe (R-TN) responded thusly:
Medicare is underfunded as it is. If we have to change the PAYGO [pay-as-you-go] rules [that trigger the spending reductions], we’ll just change ‘em. At the end of the day, we—Republicans and Democrats—have to go home and face our constituents. I wouldn’t want to go home and face my constituents if I’d cut Medicare.
Over and above the obvious fact that Roe expressed less-than-zero interest in actually reducing federal spending, he also showed some tortured and erroneous logic in arriving at his position.
For one, Medicare is not “underfunded.” According to the Congressional Budget Office’s most recent baseline, Medicare will consume $592 billion taxpayer dollars in the fiscal year ending next September 30, a total that excludes seniors’ out-of-pocket spending (e.g., Part B premiums, co-payments, etc.). By 2027, federal spending on Medicare will nearly double, to $1.17 trillion. In the intervening decade, the federal government will spend a total of $8.63 trillion on Medicare. That’s $8,630,000,000,000.
To put Medicare’s spending in another context: According to International Monetary Fund statistics, in 2016, the program spent more than the total economic output of all but 20 nations. That same list demonstrates that Medicare spent more than the entire economic output of New Zealand, Greece, and Portugal combined. Yet Roe considers the program “under-funded.”
But Medicare Is Going Insolvent, and Fast
As I noted last year, the Medicare trustees report issued in 2009, the year before Obamacare’s enactment, predicted the program’s Part A (Hospital Insurance) Trust Fund would become insolvent in 2017—this year. The following year, after Obamacare became law, the trustees postponed the insolvency date from this year to 2029.
But, as the Congressional Budget Office noted, Obamacare did not “enhance the ability of the government to pay for future Medicare benefits.” Put simply, because Obamacare’s re-directed Medicare savings to pay for new entitlements, the provisions improved Medicare’s solvency only on paper. Then-Health and Human Services secretary Kathleen Sebelius admitted as much when, asked in congressional testimony whether the Medicare provisions were being used “to save Medicare or…to fund [Obamacare],” she answered, “Both.”
Substantively, Obamacare’s fiscal schemes did not help Medicare’s solvency one whit. The program was scheduled to become functionally insolvent this year, and because Congress has enacted few meaningful reforms to the program in the time since, can be considered as such. However, because they improved the program’s solvency on paper, Obamacare’s budgetary gimmicks have allowed people like Roe to deny the problem exists, which will only worsen the scale of fiscal adjustment needed when Medicare finally faces its fiscal reckoning.
Reducing Spending Increases Is Not a ‘Cut’
As the New York Times has noted, Republicans argued vociferously—and correctly—earlier this year that slowing the growth of Medicaid spending in their “repeal-and-replace” bills did not represent a “cut” in that program. Yet Roe quickly resurrected the familiar (and incorrect) talking point about budget “cuts” when discussing Medicare.
Over the years, Republicans have spent far too much time demagoguing Obamacare for “cutting” Medicare. (As noted above, the problem with the law wasn’t that it reduced Medicare spending, it’s that it spent those Medicare savings to fund Obamacare, rather than shore up Medicare’s finances.) They now face many of the same opportunistic attacks from the Left regarding the entitlement reform proposals included in the “repeal-and-replace” bills. So why is Roe retreating into that same mindset that a decrease in a spending increase represents a “cut?”
Roe may not want to go back home and explain to his constituents why he reduced Medicare spending. But sooner or later, he and his fellow members of Congress will have to do just that. And the more he and his colleagues continue their pattern of obfuscation and denial through these kinds of ill-informed comments, the worse those spending reductions will end up being.