THEIR VIEW: A historic house vote

By The West Virginia Record | Nov 12, 2009


Last Saturday, President Obama called on Democratic Congressmen to "answer the call of history" and support the massive health care reform legislation.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi rounded up 220 votes—just two more than necessary—to vote for the bill. Thirty-nine Democrats voted against the bill and one Republican (Rep. Joseph Cao of New Orleans) voted for it. As for the West Virginia delegation, Congressmen Nick Joe Rahall and Alan Mollohan, both Democrats, voted for the bill. Congresswoman Shelly Moore Capito, a Republican, voted against the bill.

President Obama was not the only politician to reference history. Speaker Pelosi liked the legislation to the passage of Social Security in 1935 and Medicare in 1965.

Invoking history is a common technique for politicians when they take a controversial vote. It provides some insulation from criticism. The suggestion is that if you have history on your side you've done the right thing, even if millions of Americans believe otherwise.

Whenever politicians puff out their chests and mention history, I instinctively reach for my wallet just to make sure it's still there. Nothing this grand can come without a price tag equally as momentous.

I would not argue against the benefits of Social Security and Medicare, but if the "Affordable Health Care for America Act" is on par with those landmarks, then it's worth considering the cost of each.

David Walker, the former comptroller general of the United States and head of the Government Accountability Office who now serves as president and CEO of the Peter G. Peterson Foundation, estimates the federal government has $40 trillion in total liabilities and unfunded promises for Medicare and Social Security over the next 75 years.

Washington has a way of promising and delivering benefits for today and kicking the can of cost down the road for someone else to worry about.

President Obama and House Democrats point out that the Congressional Budget Office estimates the health care reform legislation will reduce the national debt by $109 billion over ten years.

However, the CBO is like a computer; it can only calculate with the numbers it is given. The health reform bill uses ten years of revenue to pay for six years of benefits. That paradigm is going to shift dramatically in the second ten years and on into the future.

The expected reduction in the debt is also based on the assumption that Congress will be able to cut $400 million from Medicare costs over the next decade. This would be a remarkable accomplishment since Congress annually ignores planned reductions in Medicare payments.

I was struck by a sentence in a Washington Post news story about the passage of the bill. It said, "The complex package would affect virtually every American and fundamentally alter vast swaths of the health insurance industry."

This government's attempt at remaking one-sixth of the nation's economy will indeed be remembered as "historic" if it clears the Senate and is signed by the President. And some day in the not to distant future Americans will talk about the historic proportions of the cost of the entitlement.

Kercheval is host of TalkLine, broadcast by the MetroNews Statewide Radio Network from 10 a.m. to noon Monday through Friday.

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