The Inadequacy of 30-Second Sound Bites

In its annual budget and economic outlook, the Congressional Budget Office has clearly outlined one of the most serious fiscal challenges the country is facing.  As the U.S. population ages, healthcare spending is expected to rise by eight percent annually between 2012 and 2022.  This means that government spending for Medicare, Medicaid and other healthcare programs will more than double to $1.8 trillion over the next decade.

The significance of this CBO report cannot be overstated.  Medicare’s financial challenges aren’t in some distant, far-off future.  They’re happening right now.  Ignoring these problems today brings us closer to a tomorrow in which Congress will have to either significantly raise taxes or enact harmful cuts to Medicare services in order to keep the program solvent and prevent this spending escalation from becoming a drag on the economy.

This warrants serious discussion by our elected officials.  To their credit, Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR) and Congressman Paul Ryan (R-WI) have advanced this dialogue through their bipartisan efforts on Medicare reform.  Whether their colleagues in Congress will follow suit is an open question.

Last week, the New York Times’ Robert Pear authored an article, “Medicare Seen as Battleground Issue in Congressional Races.”  In this story, it’s pointed out that congressional candidates are being urged by Washington, DC advisors to make Medicare a focal point of their campaigns, but not in any meaningful way that lead toward solution-focused discussions.  Rather, the issue is being raised in 30-second radio advertisements and ‘robocalls’ to voters claiming that lawmakers who supported the initial Ryan reform proposal “favor millionaires over Medicare.”

I’m not naïve and I don’t wear rose-colored glasses where partisan politics are concerned.  I know that candidates have to take actions that move polling numbers.  But elections have consequences, and needed Medicare reform has already been set back years by scalding campaign attacks against those who have advocated change.  The success of those attacks has reduced the number of lawmakers willing to take on this critical, yet politically dangerous, issue.

The juxtaposition of the CBO report – and director Doug Elmendorf’s testimony before the House Budget Committee this morning – and the Pear story is a matter of concern.  CBO has laid down the challenge.  We can hope that Congress responds with more than attack ads and glib sound bites.