If any federal program illustrates how most members of Congress are followers and not leaders, it's Medicare.
Congress is currently going through its annual bipartisan denial of reality, and that reality is this: The enormous baby-boom generation is approaching age 65, which means that the number of seniors on Social Security and Medicare is about to explode. The Congressional Budget Office estimates that by 2030, Social Security and Medicare together will consume more than one of every 10 dollars of the nation's income.
Leaders would point out to citizens that such unrestrained spending growth is a threat to America's future economic health. Leaders would make the case for trimming entitlement benefits before the baby boomers start turning 65 (around 2011). Leaders would propose either raising the eligibility age for the programs or cutting benefits to wealthier retirees.
Instead, Congress last week began debating different ways to add even more spending to Medicare, in the form of a prescription-drug entitlement. The assumption seems to be that drug costs constitute a crisis for most seniors, but the data dispute that idea. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, a typical senior in 2001 spent more money dining out ($1,314) than he spent out-of-pocket on drugs ($884). Different seniors clearly have different needs, but Washington seems only able to create programs that cater to everybody.
Washington has had a few leaders on Medicare, but they have gone unheeded. In 1999, the co-chairmen of the National Bipartisan Commission on the Future of Medicare (Democratic Sen. John Breaux and Republican Rep. Bill Thomas) proposed adding a prescription-drug benefit to Medicare, but only as part of a package that also raised the eligibility age for the program.
Earlier this year, in testimony before the Senate Special Committee on Aging, Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan echoed that sentiment. He proposed "reductions in benefits" by raising the eligibility age for Medicare. "If we delay," he warned, "the adjustments could be abrupt and painful" in the future.
But the economic peril of a productive generation's withdrawal from the labor market is only part of the story; there's also a moral cost. Since our talent is on loan from God, so to speak, the Bible essentially commands us not to default by failing to serve others. The writer of Ecclesiastes calls productive labor an integral part of a fulfilling, satisfying life. Yet much of American culture portrays an idle retirement as the key to fulfillment and satisfaction.
And the political class plays to this desire. Seniors tend to vote in greater numbers than do those in other age groups, and senior lobbying groups want a prescription-drug benefit and don't want any cuts in Social Security or Medicare. So Congress follows.