Can a New York Congressional Race Affect Medicare’s Future?

The Capitol Hill publication Politico had an interesting headline this morning.  It read, “Is Any Medicare Reform Political Suicide?”  That’s a natural question to ask, given the fact that the political pundits are pegging a Republican defeat in this week’s special congressional election in New York’s 26th district on Congressman Paul Ryan’s Medicare reform plan.  (The fact there was a Tea Party candidate on the ballot siphoning off votes from the Republican candidate likely made a difference as well, but the Ryan angle makes better copy.)

This is a question, though, that deserves serious discussion.  Has Medicare reform replaced Social Security as the so-called ‘third rail’ of American politics – touch it and you die, politically?

Let’s certainly hope that’s not the case.  The recently-released Medicare trustees report was a harsh reminder that the program’s window of financial solvency is closing, more rapidly than previous trustees reports projected.  In this political climate, we’ve seen rhetoric that would lead us to believe that the choice is between the Ryan plan and keeping Medicare as it is.  Both sides of that equation are false.  The Ryan plan isn’t the only proposal out there that deserves consideration, but maintaining the status quo isn’t an option at all.

Even the New York Times editorial page acknowledged today that politicians “will have to admit that Medicare cannot keep running as it is.”

We simply can’t afford to allow serious discussions on how to protect Medicare’s future become politically radioactive.  Doing nothing will eventually leave policymakers with a choice of deep benefit cuts or tax increases in order to keep the program solvent.  Perhaps the consensus will be that the Ryan plan, as currently written, isn’t the answer.  But then, that shouldn’t rule out  consideration of the premium support model, for example, advocated by former Clinton budget director Alice Rivlin and former Senator Pete Domenici (R-NM).

The bottom line is, though, that politicians need to let go of the short-term gains that come from demonizing those who advocate Medicare reforms.  Instead, both political parties need to realize that pretending the status quo is a viable option only hastens an undesirable future.