The unbearable lightness of politicians dealing with bulbs and deficits
While the clock ticks on a debt-limit deal, Congress debates ... light bulbs
The U.S. House last week debated legislation intended to repeal efficiency standards for light bulbs manufactured in the future. Some characters who dwell in cable TV land have contended that these standards amount to government elimination of our sacred right to burn old-style incandescent bulbs.
The measure failed to secure the needed votes to advance, but in the surrounding coverage there were predictable quips about congressional dim bulbs debating light bulbs, how many politicians does it take to change a light bulb, etc., etc. Some lawmakers complained that Congress ought to wrestle with much bigger problems facing the nation. But maybe there’s something poetically appropriate to the activity. After all, if there’s any venue in desperate need of illumination, it’s Washington.
While the House was tackling the light bulb issue, President Barack Obama and congressional leaders were trying to hash out an agreement on federal spending and deficits. This was aimed at averting a Republican threat to not raise the debt ceiling in the absence of massive spending cuts (no tax increases allowed), a move that could plunge the nation into credit default with all the unpleasant consequences.
These negotiations have created a budget-cut one-upsmanship. The Republicans demand trillions in cuts, and the administration says, “I see your trillion and raise you a gazillion (but with tax hikes).” And everything supposedly was on the table, including deep cuts to Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security. It was even reported that Obama floated an idea proposed by Sen. Joseph Lieberman (I-Twilight Zone), for raising the Medicare eligibility age.
Before these politicos do anything drastic, especially on healthcare, they ought to retire to a clean, well-lighted place with a history book or two. Under the glow of any number of bulbs, they can read about the Great Depression and how spending cuts and tight money nearly choked off the recovery. (Massive spending on World War II saved the day.) Or how Japan failed to spend enough in the 1990s to lift it out of an economic ditch.
Healthcare has proven to be the 150-watt bulb in the darkest U.S. economy since the 1930s. June’s employment figures showed that healthcare added 13,500 jobs, while the overall economy grew by a net 18,000 new positions. Slashing at Medicare, Medicaid and other health programs with a machete will only dampen an anemic, jobless recovery. Recklessly snatching resources from the people who can afford it least and from providers who care for them will hurt the economic and physical health of the nation.
As we have said before, there is plenty of fat to trim from healthcare spending. Americans pay the world’s highest prices for care, but the overall results lag well behind those of other developed nations. But there are rational and gradual ways to go about curing the ailment without killing the patient. Ditto for the overall deficit. When GOP Rep. Paul Ryan’s proposed budget was being debated this year, nearly 200 prominent economists signed letters urging congressional leaders to refrain from a nuclear attack on Medicare and Medicaid. They said the country ought to stick with the provisions in the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act designed to evaluate spending priorities and eliminate waste.
Ironically, the reform law—based on proposals from conservative thinkers years ago—is being attacked by the lawmakers barking the loudest about soaring deficits. The Independent Payment Advisory Board provision is the specific target du jour, proving once again that politics trumps policy and logic.
Let’s hope our public officials don’t cause too much damage before they see the light.