Tuesday, May 10, 2011

On Killing Medicare, Or, You Stand Up, They Run Scared

Oh, my, has there been a lot of news since we spoke last about the Potential Impending Death Of Medicare: obviously we’re going to have to talk about the implications of Osama Bin Laden’s death (but we’ll do that another day), President Obama very publicly congratulated Donald Trump for having the leadership skills to know that Gary Busey was the one who needed to be fired after the way he ran the men’s cooking team on “The Apprentice”, and, of course, there was that “extreme ironing incident” on the M1 near London’s Mill Hill.

But what you may not have noticed is that in the past two weeks the Grim Weeper himself, Speaker of the House John Boehner, has gone from saying “I fully support Paul Ryan’s budget, including on Medicare” to saying that the Paul Ryan “Let’s Kill Medicare” plan is “an idea … worthy of consideration”—and when that happens that quickly you know somebody applied what we might politely describe as being at least “an equal and opposite force”.

And what I’m here to suggest today is that the opposite force in question…is you.

When I left for college, I was determined never to be a victim again. I would take my lead from the Hollywood tough guys I had always looked up to: Charles Bronson, Clint Eastwood, Ned Beatty. So on Day One of my freshman year at Dartmouth, I walked into class and punched the first person I saw—my Ethics professor, Dr. Buneta.

--From the book I Am America (And So Can You!), by Stephen Colbert

So as we said, it just a couple of weeks ago that we were talking about the then-underway Congressional Recess and killing Medicare and how you could go make yourself well understood by your local member of Congress; people did exactly that, and all of a sudden the backpedaling was under way.

As we mentioned, back then it was full speed ahead for the Ryan budget plan—but two weeks of facing the voters later, Michelle Bachmann, the Chair of Congress’ Tea Party Caucus and the Woman Who Would Usurp Sarah Palin, says that:

I supported that budget blueprint, though I’ve expressed caution about how we approach the issue of Medicare. We must keep our promises to those who receive Medicare benefits, and those who are nearing the age of Medicare eligibility. Our challenge is to reduce the soaring amounts that government spends on health care, without burdening those who are most vulnerable.

And it’s not just her: virtually no legislation moves through the House unless it first clears the Ways and Means Committee, and Chairman Dave Camp says this about the Ryan plan…

“I am not interested in laying down more markers. I am interested in solutions.”

…and that is his way of saying Ryan’s proposal is toast.

Beyond that, it looks like the Republicans’ most immediate “tactical” effort, tying big cuts in the program to an expansion of the Federal Government’s “debt ceiling”, is also coming apart at the seams; to that end we have the Republican House leadership now suggesting that they understand the urgency of passing the debt ceiling even if the Medicare “reforms” are not in that agreement.

(There is, however, an element of uncertainty still extant: Speaker Weeper spoke to the Economic Club of New York Monday; he told them he’s going to attach lots of conditions to that debt ceiling extension, after which he went off to a private spa to be dipped in whatever orange liquid they use to obtain his peculiar hue.)

Republican Representative Joe Walsh, of Illinois’ 8th, says that he would like to see the Party continue to push the Ryan plan as an issue in the ’12 campaign. That might work well in certain Congressional races, but it would seem to be a problem for any Republican Presidential candidate—and we should note that Walsh himself was elected in ’10 with a very narrow margin of victory.

So that’s all good news, but it’s probably not the end of the story…and if you ask me, the next battle is going to look more like no battle at all.

Here’s what I mean:

A great way to negotiate a deal is to start out with a crazy demand, and then, when that idea falls off the table, come back with something slightly less crazy that looks good enough to the other side to be acceptable.

Another variation on this theme is to start out with an extreme demand, and then you “meet somewhere in the middle”, which ends up moving the entire negotiation farther in your direction than you might have ever achieved by “normal means”.

You would think Democrats would be smart enough to not go along with such a strategy—but with Osama dead, and the “Democrats are soft on defense” argument getting tougher to make all the time, there is going to be a ton of effort going into the ’12 campaign to show that Democrats are “soft on the deficit”, and there is a real possibility that this Administration and certain Democrats in Congress will be susceptible to some of that pressure.

This will begin to play itself out, I suspect, as the effort to reconcile the budget visions offered from the House, Senate, and Administration continues through the summer—and if you want to get a sense of how that battle might look, check out today’s hearing (Perspectives on Deficit Reduction: Social Security) before the Senate Finance Committee.

Senate Finance is Max Baucus’ Committee (Orrin Hatch is Ranking Member), so this is a Blue Dog Chairman; he’s also one of those who might be happy to make compromises to “lower the deficit” that we won’t like—including supporting cuts to Social Security or raiding the Social Security Trust Funds.

One way that could be done…very quietly…would be to put a cap on all Federal spending, and then lower that cap by some amount each year, ignoring the fact that Social Security has its own funding source and is in no way connected to the deficit—and they tell me that’s what Nancy Altman, the co-chair of Strengthen Social Security, is going to be saying to the assembled Senators today:

“Social Security lacks the legal authority to deficit-spend, and so, cannot run a deficit. Because it cannot run a deficit, it cannot add to the federal deficit…

Some policymakers are proposing a so-called universal cap as a mechanism to control federal spending. It is important to understand that unlike the general fund, Social Security already has an automatic spending cap. If Social Security were ever to lack sufficient revenue to cover the cost of scheduled benefits, the law provides that those benefits be reduced automatically

To include Social Security in deficit legislation, even with the explanation that the inclusion has nothing to do with deficit reduction, risks reinforcing the widespread belief that Congress is raiding the trust fund…”

(Full Disclosure: I’m associated with the Campaign for America’s Future, and they’re part of Strengthen Social Security.)

It’s a short story this time, so let’s wrap it up here: we’ve had great success this past couple of weeks convincing pretty much every politician in the United States of America that Social Security and Medicare/Medicaid matter to us, and that getting crazy with these programs really is political suicide—but these programs have been under assault since the very day they were born by people with their own agendas and more or less all the money in the world to fund an endless series of fights…and you can kill a popular program in subtle ways that most voters might not even notice until it’s too late; with all that in mind, this one very big victory is not a war finally won.

The shape of the next fight is going to be made more visible today, and I would encourage you to swing by C-SPAN to see how it went

Even more importantly, I want y’all to think about what this past couple of weeks really meant: we went out in force, and we scared the hell out of the politicians who thought they would slam through some major changes that we’d just somehow…accept.

Democrats and Republicans alike need a bit of direction as this electoral season gets underway, and the messages we send out there obviously have the power to turn an entire discussion, so look at what you did, let it give you a bit of confidence that you can have an impact…even in this seemingly impossible year…and then let’s get ready for the next fight, which is going to be just as rough, and just as high-stakes—but this time much of the action will be subtle and deliberately “obfuscated”, and we’ll have to be even more alert if we want to see the scam before it gets set into stone.

And of course, we’ve got to keep showing up for those “Town Halls”, eh?

FULL DISCLOSURE: This post was written with the support of the CAF State Blogger's Network Project.

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