Man Without Qualities

Thursday, October 16, 2003

Congressional Hall Of Mirrors?

Means testing of Medicare is here!

Sen. John Breaux, D-La., said there was a "developing consensus on means testing Part B'' of Medicare, the portion that provides non-hospital coverage, including doctor care.

Or is it? What is at stake is Medicare's "universality." If the bloc of Medicare beneficiaries is broken up in principle, the thinking goes, it will become much easier to treat the program as just another entitlement subject to cost controls and reductions - and less a "third rail." After all, if wealthy older people receive less from Medicare, they have less reason to support the program.

As Mickey Kaus points out, a willingness to accept means testing has existed for a long time in neo-liberals, a distinct minority of Democrats. The consequences of such Democrats expressing their opinions have often not been pretty:

At a breakfast in the spring of 1985, Paul Kirk, then chairman of the Democratic National Committee, suggested "means testing" big government benefit programs--in essence, shaving the benefits of the affluent--as a way to save money. Kirk was forced to eat his words by lunch. ("I should not have mentioned the subject of a means test.")

But liberal Democrats have not been willing to go along - and have sometimes expressed themselves with outrage. In June of this year an amendment by Sens. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., and Don Nickles, R-Okla., to apply means testing to Part B Medicare premiums - essentially the same provision now under discussion - had to be left out of the Senate's Medicare drug bill to garner liberal Democratic support in passage.

Has anything changed? Speaking to the new "developing consensus on means testing Part B,'' Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass. said: "I want to wait to see the entire bill.'' But this summer Kennedy threatened to filibuster essentially the same legislation.

All of the Congressional names in the article to which Kausfiles links are Republicans. But a "consensus" among Senate and House Republicans plus a few moderate Democrats isn't a "developing consensus on means testing Part B'' in any useful sense of that term.

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