Bread and Circuses and Obamacare

We’ve come full circle from the automakers’ bailout. As I wrote last November, these bailouts were not to benefit the companies but to preserve from the effects of bankruptcy the gold-plated retirement and health care programs that had driven the automakers to fail.  Now two key labor leaders — Gerald McEntee of AFSCME and Richard Trumka of the AFL-CIO — have said that they will oppose the Baucus bill because it taxes the “Cadillac” healthcare plans.

(The UAW remains silent so far, confident its White House and congressional minions won’t disappoint, letting the other unions do its work.)

It’s not unusual for liberal policies to be logically — or fiscally — inconsistent.  To liberals, “cognitive dissonance” — the ability to hold two contradictory beliefs at the same time — is a sign of sophistication.  But it’s not sophistication: it’s sophistry.  

So as time runs out on Obamacare, Democrats face two inconsistent ideas and two rebelling constituencies. President Obama has insisted that the health care reform measure not increase the federal deficit, and the Senate Finance Committee bill (actually no more than an outline) was dutifully scored by the Congressional Budget office as actually reducing federal expenditures. But it did so to the consternation of two constituencies that must be on board to pass a bill and get it to Obama’s desk by Christmas.

Senior citizens believe, with good reason, that Obamacare will reduce Medicare benefits and make it harder to obtain the medical care they need and want.  Union bosses who sat on Obama’s shoulders while — at taxpayers’ expense — he protected their health care and retirement plans in the fast and dirty bailouts of GM and Chrysler feel threatened by the Senate Finance Committee version of Obamacare because it imposes a large tax on the beneficiaries of those health care plans.  

The answer is the Democrats’ resort to the method used by corrupt Roman emperors to calm the restive masses:  bread and circuses.

In about 200 A.D, the poet Juvenal condemned the Roman citizenry for accepting pānem et circēnsēs — bread and circuses — instead of performing their duty of opposing corrupt emperors and policies that weakened the Roman state.  

He wrote, “… Already long ago, from when we sold our vote to no man, the People have abdicated our duties; for the People who once upon a time handed out military command, high civil office, legions — everything, now restrains itself and anxiously hopes for just two things: bread and circuses.”

So how to toss the bread to the ravening masses while Congress hashes out the details of another budget-buster, this time the one-sixth of our economy that health care represents?

First, the Dems are trying to bribe senior citizens with a one-time $250 payment in lieu of a Social Security cost of living benefit increase which isn’t otherwise coming because, well, because the cost of living hasn’t risen. Thanks to the drop in oil prices since last year, and the (so far) low inflation rates, the elderly on fixed income aren’t supposed to get a benefit hike.

The administration is trying to toss bread to the elderly crowd in the form of a one-time $250 payment in lieu of the cost of living increase in Social Security benefits that won’t be coming their way because the cost of living hasn’t increased. Will senior citizens be bought off?  Not if they understand what is going on in Social Security and Medicare even without the added burden of the awesomely expensive Obamacare legislation.

How many senior citizens today believe they won’t be alive in seven years?  Not many, I’d guess.  But in just seven years — according to the 2009 report of the six trustees of the Medicare and Social Security Trust Funds.

That report says that in 2017, Medicare won’t be able to pay full benefits, and the same is true for Social Security come 2037. They tell the tale of the impending bankruptcy of the Medicare Hospital Insurance Trust (“HI”) and Social Security’s Old Age and Survivors’ Disability Insurance Trust (“OASDI”). The latest report says, in part: 

“In 2017 and later for HI, and in 2037 and later for OASDI, there is no provision in current law that would enable full payment of benefits, once the trust funds are exhausted. If asset exhaustion actually occurred, benefits could be paid only up to the amount of ongoing dedicated revenues. Further general fund transfers could not be made to finance the deficits.” (emphasis added)

That conclusion wasn’t reached by some Obama-hating insurance actuaries. The four trustees who signed that report are Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner, Labor Secretary Hilda Solis, Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, Commissioner of Social Security Michael Astrue. (There are supposed to be two other — public — trustees, but those positions are vacant.)

The federal government finished fiscal year 2009 with a record deficit of $1.4 trillion dollars, and President Obama’s spending spree will raise that to about $9 trillion in 2020.  And that’s without the cost — an added $13 billion — that will have to be spent to make the one-time $250 payment.

Instead of preventing these impending bankruptcies, the Obama administration and congressional Democrats are trying to bribe the senior citizens into silence.  

But they can’t pass the $250 payment in the Senate, thanks to Republican Minority Leader Mitch McConnell.  Reid wants to jam the measure through without amendments, but McConnell will object. And Reid doesn’t want to allow any amendments, especially those which could prevent more deficit spending. McConnell — at least for now — seems to have Reid cornered.

Even if the seniors fall for the one-time bribe, how can the Obamacare bill remain deficit-neutral unless the taxes in the Baucus bill are imposed?

In short, it can’t. So the bribe to the union bosses will be in the form of an exemption for union healthcare plans, or the excision of the tax on “Cadillac” plans. Deficit neutrality will be as easily sacrificed as Kate Moss’s honor. And — if it’s the chosen alternative — the union exemption will be buried so deeply in complex legislative language that it could escape attention.

The circus, for political addicts, will be the next two months of Congressional maneuvering to pass the Obamacare bill despite the broken promises and over the objections of Republicans and Democratic “moderates” (if there be such).

But — thanks to master strategist Mitch McConnell — it won’t be easy.

At an October 15 press conference, McConnell tipped his hand. Citing the enormous public skepticism about Obamacare, McConnell called for a real debate on any bill, with adequate time for senators to understand it and debate amendments.

McConnell mentioned how long other big bills were debated in the last Congress: seven weeks on “No Child Left Behind,” eight weeks on the energy bill and four weeks on a farm bill.

McConnell knows quite well that the end of the legislative year is fast-approaching.  And that the only way Obamacare can pass over his objections will be if the Democrats make it a privileged measure under the “budget reconciliation” mechanism, which they are preparing to do.

But “reconciliation” holds its own dangers for the Democrats.  The bill now being prepared under the reconciliation cloak will so closely resemble H.R. 3200 — the bill that caused the townhall revolt in August — that voters will care and remember.

Bread and circuses placated Roman voters through a period in which their currency was devalued, their freedoms curtailed and their nation so weakened it could no longer sustain itself.  Obamacare, alone, isn’t enough to bring America to that point.  But it is a big step along the way.

Let’s hope Sen. McConnell can run out the clock on this year’s spending spree.  Good luck to him and all those who stand with him against this monstrosity.