Bipartisan Medicare Reform and Advent Hope

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by Michelle Crotwell Kirtley

Christmas goodwill seems noticeably absent from Washington as 2011 draws to a close.  As of the writing of this article, the House and the Senate cannot agree on extending unemployment benefits and lowering payroll tax rates.  And the negative overtones of presidential campaign politics are on full display in Iowa in advance of the January caucuses.

But in the midst of the political rancor, a rare ray of bipartisan hope has appeared.  Earlier this month, Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR) and Congressman Paul Ryan (R-WI) released a new Medicare reform proposal.

As is often the case when Members of Congress choose policy over politics, partisan attacks have been fierce.  Liberal columnist Paul Krugman titled his scathing criticism of the proposal “Ron Wyden, Useful Idiot.”  And the Center for American Progress complained, “This new plan is nothing more than a smokescreen to cover up the efforts of conservatives earlier this year to end Medicare as we know it.” The reaction of the right has been more favorable, but the preeminent tea party organization Freedom Works worries, “it’s not the brainy Ryan who has pulled off a coup, but rather the wily Wyden, a dyed-in-the-wool progressive who makes no secret of wanting single-payer, government-run health care.”

In choosing to partner with the Republican Chairman of the House Budget Committee, Sen. Wyden is undermining his own party’s efforts to use Ryan’s earlier Medicare reform proposal to bludgeon Republicans in the 2012 elections.  And the concessions Rep. Ryan makes in the new proposal—particularly the decision to leave traditional Medicare as an option going forward—make Tea Party conservatives squeamish. 

As Ryan and Wyden admit, “few issues draw more heated partisan rhetoric than the future of Medicare...[but] the more the conversation…deteriorates into partisan attacks that our opponents will ‘cut Medicare’ versus superficial campaign pledges to ‘make no changes’ to a 45-year-old program, the harder it gets to have a serious debate about the best way to ensure that seniors can rely on a strengthened Medicare program for decades to come.” 

Ryan and Wyden are to be commended for taking on “the third rail of politics.”  Their proposal inspires hope that our political system—for all its flaws—can tackle the urgent policy needs of our day.   In risking the ire of some of their allies, Ryan and Wyden demonstrate that there are sitting politicians who are looking beyond the next election to the future of our nation.  The partnership of these two men—Paul Ryan is a member of the fiscally conservative Republican Study Committee, while Ron Wyden has only a 5% rating from Grover Norquist’s Americans for Tax Refom—show that compromise is possible across the political spectrum, not just between moderates of both parties whose political views are similar.   

Their proposal demonstrates that there are members of both parties who understand that if we are to avoid the sovereign debt crisis plaguing Europe, we must renegotiate our social contract to ensure that Medicare will be there for those who need it most without bankrupting our country and sacrificing other critical functions of government. 

Our national debt—currently at 67% of GDP—is already at an unsustainable level.   More than 10,000 baby boomers will be turning 65 every day for the next 20 years.  The average life expectancy has increased almost 10 years since Medicare was first established in 1965.  Coupled with the rising cost of health care, these changing demographics mean that health care spending will be the single biggest driver of our national debt for the next 40 years.  Even with additional tax revenue, we can no longer afford to keep the promises we made to seniors in 1965. Justice demands that we take stock of the fiscal realities as they are, not as we would like them to be.  At the same time, government must ensure that the elderly have quality healthcare for as long as they live.  The Ryan-Wyden Medicare proposal takes both of these aspects of intergenerational justice into account.

Many of the details of the proposal remain unclear.  These ideas must be translated into legislative language, and the legislative process must run its course—a course that is likely to be rocky indeed, given the plan’s initial reception. But this unlikely partnership provides encouragement for us as citizens to stay politically engaged, particularly during this season of Advent, in which we wait in certain hope, working alongside our King towards the perfect justice that is to come.

—Michelle Crotwell Kirtley is the Editor of Capital Commentary, a former health and science policy advisor on Capitol Hill, and a Trustee of the Center for Public Justice.

To respond to the author of this Commentary: capcomm@cpjustice.org

Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion.