Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Tacking on Medicare after voters' storm -- May 25, 2011 column


Vouchers? What vouchers?

House Budget Chairman Paul Ryan has thrown vouchers, if not Grandma, off a cliff as he tries to salvage his Medicare overhaul following Tuesday’s Democratic upset in a special election in New York’s traditionally Republican 26th congressional district.

“This isn’t a voucher program,” Ryan declared after Democrat Kathy Hochul beat Republican Jane Corwin in a three-way race with Jack Davis, a wealthy Democrat-turned-tea-party-independent.

Hochul ran against Ryan’s budget plan to restructure Medicare and won 47 percent of the vote. Corwin, who backed the Ryan Medicare plan, got 43 percent and Davis 9 percent.

His Medicare plan is actually a “premium-support program,” said Ryan, a Wisconsin Republican.

Ryan will need more than a word change to move Congress on this volatile issue.

As Ryan describes his plan, beneficiaries would choose from an approved list of Medicare plans, and Medicare would send the premium-support payment, subsidizing the cost, to the plan.

House Republicans passed the budget last month, igniting voter protests. The Democratic-controlled Senate eagerly defeated the plan Wednesday, after the NY-26 election emboldened senators.

Now what?

“Medicare is $30 trillion in the hole,” Ryan warns, and the problem isn’t going away by itself.

Whether he calls the mechanism a voucher or premium support, Ryan’s plan would change fundamentally the way future seniors get health care.

Today, Medicare’s promise is that once people reach 65, government health insurance covers their medical expenses. Under the Ryan plan, the guarantee is gone.

The government would subsidize the premium by a set amount that would grow at the rate of inflation. The subsidy amount would vary by the beneficiary’s wealth, with poorer people getting a higher subsidy. People who are sick also would get higher payment support. The beneficiary would pay the difference between the subsidy and the premium.

People now 55 or older could keep the current Medicare plan or change to the new system, but workers now 54 and younger would have only the new subsidized plan starting at retirement, in 2022.

Ryan is under fire from Republicans and Democrats, but he charged that Democrats have been “demagoguing” his plan, trying to scare seniors.

While this is hardly a new notion in the politics of Medicare and Social Security, it’s also true that perhaps the most tasteless and disgusting ad ever features a Paul Ryan-lookalike pushing “Grandma” in her wheelchair and dumping the elderly woman off a cliff while “America the Beautiful” swells in the background.

“Is America still beautiful without Medicare?” asks the ad, the product of The Agenda Project, a left-leaning group.

It’s a quick, cheap hit that you can watch in a fraction of the time it takes to listen to an explanation of the plan. And that’s a problem for anyone who might want to try to make the system solvent, rather than just make political points.

Ryan tried to ally his plan with one by Alice Rivlin, former director of the Office of Management and Budget in the Clinton years. Premium support was a major recommendation of the bipartisan Commission on Medicare Reform in the late 1990s.

Last year, Rivlin and former Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M., led the Bipartisan Policy Center’s Debt Reduction Task Force that proposed transitioning Medicare to a premium-support program starting in 2018.

But Rivlin wrote in Huffington Post recently that Ryan took an idea that had bipartisan support and killed it by turning it into something that neither Democrats nor Republicans could like.

One area where Ryan strays is in not allowing future recipients to choose between current Medicare and the new plan. Ryan also would cap the subsidy amount at a lower rate of growth, so that seniors would have to pay much more for their health care than they do now or would under the debt reduction task force proposal.

Former President Bill Clinton, who knows something about the pitfalls of trying to make big changes in health care, said that while the NY-26 election was about Medicare, it would be a mistake for anyone to conclude that the race means nothing can be done to solve Medicare’s escalating costs.

“I’m afraid that the Democrats will draw the conclusion that because Congressman Ryan’s proposal is, I think, not the best one, that we shouldn’t do anything – and I completely disagree with that,” Clinton said Wednesday in a speech.

Ryan was speaking at the same event, and the two met backstage. Clinton told Ryan to give him a call if he wanted to talk. It could be a start.

©2011 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

It's time to stop demonizing food stamps -- May 19, 2011 column


Trying to save his presidential campaign, Newt Gingrich recanted his sharp critique of the House Republican budget plan for Medicare.

But he hasn’t backed off calling President Barack Obama “the most successful food stamp president in American history.”

Obama can take care of himself in name-calling contests. Gingrich, however, is really disparaging people who have to rely on food stamps to put dinner on the table, and they don’t have a soapbox. Yes, Ronald Reagan used food stamp recipients and welfare queens to make political points, but, hello, Newt, it’s not 1976.

Gingrich may think he’s the smartest man in any room, but running a 20th century campaign in the 21st century?

Today, about 44.2 million Americans receive food stamps -- not the 47 million Gingrich said last Sunday on NBC’s “Meet the Press.” That’s one in seven of us – and not one in six, as Gingrich said. But let’s not quibble. Gingrich is correct that the food stamp rolls are at a record high. Something he didn’t mention: Nearly 80 percent of benefits go to households with children.

The former House speaker blames Obama and the Democrats for the explosive growth in participation, although tough economic times always result in spikes in food stamp usage. Changes enacted over President George W. Bush’s veto expanded eligibility for food stamps and formally renamed the program the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP. Also removing some of the stigma, recipients now use electronic cards to buy groceries.

Still, many Americans who are eligible don’t receive food assistance. The Agriculture Department estimates that one in three eligible people go unserved.

On the other hand, it bolsters critics when loony loopholes allow people to game the system, such as the $2 million lottery winner in Michigan in the news this week. Fortunately, such cases are rare.

During the 2010 congressional campaign, Gingrich urged Republicans to be the party of paychecks in contrast to Democrats, whom he called the party of food stamps. His construct ignores the bipartisan support food stamps enjoyed over the years. It suggests that Democrats prefer to put people on the dole than in jobs, which is an absurd and old-fashioned idea.

As for Gingrich, he fails to see how arrogant it is for someone with champagne tastes and a beer budget to tell the needy to tighten their belts. Politico reported that in 2005 and 2006 Gingrich owed Tiffany’s up to $500,000 on a revolving charge.

He may think he’s following in Reagan’s footsteps. In 1976, the former governor of California told a crowd in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., that working people were rightly outraged when they stand in grocery lines behind “a strapping young buck” who is buying T-bone steaks with food stamps.

Such racially charged language was unacceptable even then, but historian Dan T. Carter gives Reagan the benefit of the doubt, saying the phrase was an embarrassing “slip of the tongue” that Reagan never repeated. At the time, Reagan was trying to take the GOP presidential nomination from the more centrist Gerald Ford.

Carter is author of the 1996 book, “From George Wallace to Newt Gingrich: Race in the Conservative Counterrevolution 1963 to 1994.” He notes that in the 1990s, Gingrich dismissed criticism that his demonization of welfare mothers was racially motivated.

Gingrich’s Contract with America in 1994 called for eliminating food stamps as an entitlement and turning the program into block grants to states. The current House budget plan would do just that – and cut the SNAP budget by $127 billion between 2012and 2021. The budget is dead in the Senate.

Sunday, on “Meet the Press,” Gingrich hotly denied that calling Obama the “food stamp president” was racist.

Host David Gregory showed a clip of Gingrich, a former congressman from Georgia, telling Georgia Republicans as he kicked off his presidential bid, “You want to be a country that creates food stamps, in which case frankly Obama’s an enormous success. Or do you want to be a country that creates paychecks?”

Gregory asked Gingrich if the remark had racial content.

“Oh, come on, David!” Gingrich remonstrated.

“What did you mean?” Gregory persisted. “What was the point?”

“That’s bizarre,” Gingrich objected. Obama should be held accountable for the increase in the food stamp rolls, he said.

But calling Obama the “food stamp president”? That’s so last century.

© 2011 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Whose moral values? Boehner, Republican budget rile religious community -- May 12, 2011 column


House speaker John Boehner usually gets attaboys from Catholics. He made the “No Taxpayer Funding for Abortion Act” a priority and pushed the bill through the House May 4.

Just a week later, though, the Ohio Republican became the target of withering criticism from Catholics who charge his policies hurt impoverished women and children and clash with church teachings.

More than 75 academics at Catholic colleges and universities signed a letter Wednesday calling Boehner out for his voting record and the 2012 budget he “shepherded” through the House. Boehner, a Catholic, graduated from parochial schools and Xavier University in Cincinnati. Several professors from Xavier signed, as did some from the University of Dayton in Boehner’s home state.

“Your record in support of legislation to address the desperate needs of the poor is among the worst in Congress,” the letter said. Ouch.

The House-passed budget “guts long-established protections for the most vulnerable members of society. It is particularly cruel to pregnant women and children, gutting Maternal and Child Health grants and slashing $500 million from the highly successful Women, Infants and Children nutrition program,” according to the Catholic educators.

As if counseling a wayward undergrad, the academics wrote that they hoped Boehner’s visit to the Catholic University of America as commencement speaker Saturday would “reawaken your familiarity with the teachings of your Church on matters of faith and morals as they relate to governance.”

Republicans traditionally have claimed “moral values” as their private domain, and voters who cite moral values as most important in voting choose Republicans for president. The GOP so far has been able to define moral values very narrowly, mainly abortion and gay marriage. Democrats have rarely fought on the values field. It’s been a while since even Democratic politicians championed the cause of the poor. Middle class, yes. The poor, not so much.

The scathing criticism of Boehner and implicitly of House Budget chairman Paul Ryan, R-Wis., also a Catholic, suggests a shift that could matter in the 2012 elections.

The Ryan budget passed by House Republicans cut entitlement programs for the poor and elderly without raising taxes on the wealthy and without curbing tax breaks for oil companies. While neither the House budget nor the anti-abortion bill has a chance in the Senate, the passage of both signals that House Republicans mean business.

Religious leaders across the political spectrum have begun speaking up about the moral value of caring for the most vulnerable in society.

“What would Jesus cut?” was the provocative question in a full-page ad in Politico last month paid for by progressive religious groups.

A diverse coalition that includes the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, National Association of Evangelicals, Bread for the World, Salvation Army and National Council of Churches has called for a “circle of protection” around the poor during the budget process.

They recognize the need to tame the federal deficit, the leaders said, “but not at the expense of hungry and poor people.” The choices facing Congress are economic, political -- and moral.

“As Christians, we believe the moral measure of the debate is how the most poor and vulnerable people fare. We look at every budget proposal from the bottom up – how it treats those Jesus called the ‘least of these’ (Matthew 25:45),” the religious leaders said.

In a letter May 5, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops urged senators to protect “the needs of the poor, working families and vulnerable people” while trimming the budget.

“Access to affordable, life-affirming health care remains an urgent national priority,” the bishops declared. “Cost cutting proposals should not simply shift health care costs from the federal government to the states or directly to beneficiaries.”

The bishops also warned that a “just framework for future budgets cannot rely on disproportionate cuts in essential services to poor persons. It requires shared sacrifice by all, including raising adequate revenues…”

For his part, Boehner, who’s trying to satisfy Tea Party fiscal conservatives, has called the $14.1 trillion debt a “moral threat” to the country. Not to address entitlement programs “would be an economic and moral failure,” he has said.

He vows to continue opposing any tax increases and says Congress must cut trillions in spending before it increases the debt limit.

What would Jesus cut? The 2012 battle over moral values has begun.

© 2011 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Civil War still draws a crowd -- May 5, 2011 column


Gertrude Stein got it right: “There never will be anything more interesting than that American Civil War.”

On Monday night, the Concert Hall at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington was packed. What attracted nearly 2,400 people was, of all things, a lecture. Civil War historian and Harvard University president Drew Gilpin Faust was speaking.

Faust delivered the 40th annual Jefferson Lecture, sponsored by the National Endowment for the Humanities. The government’s highest honor for intellectual achievement in the humanities is also a small-d democratic event. People sign up for the free tickets online, and everybody gets to attend the reception afterwards. The speaker receives a $10,000 honorarium. Note to House Republicans: Private donations support the lecture.

Faust, 63, the first woman president of Harvard and the author of six books on the Civil War and the American South, grew up in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley. Her topic was “Telling War Stories,” and she began with a personal one.

“On a hot Saturday in September 1962, I crowded with my brothers and cousins into my aunt and uncle’s station wagon and drove off to war,” she said. The family drove to a reenactment of the Battle of Antietam in Maryland, the bloodiest single day in American history, when more than 3,600 Americans died. The battle also marked a turning point. Soon after the Union victory, President Lincoln issued his preliminary Emancipation Proclamation.

Not that young Drew and her family were burdened by heavy thoughts.

“We were there for a picnic and for an exciting display of seemingly lifelike military action, a spectacle that would remind us of the courage and sacrifice we had been taught to revere since the time we were very small and first began playing Civil War with toy swords and rifles in the fields and woods that surrounded our house,” she said.

Her lecture covered a lot of territory, tracing the use of war narratives from Homer to George W. Bush. She said the president’s proclamation a decade ago of a global war on terror implicitly reassured the nation that terrorism could be defeated. Her thoughts resonated on a day when the story of Osama bin Laden’s killing dominated the news.

Still, it was the Civil War that drew the crowd – and it’s the Civil War that endlessly fascinates and still divides us. As observances of the war’s 150th anniversary began last month, more than half of Americans surveyed said the Civil War is still relevant to politics and public life, according to the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press.

The publishing industry finds the reading public still hungry for the war. Books about the Civil War reportedly exceed 65,000, and the flow continues. Faust said more than a hundred Civil War books have been published every year during the past five decades.

At the war’s sesquicentennial, many historians’ views of the war’s causes and consequences have changed. “We remember a very different Civil War from the one we celebrated and contested in the 1960s,” she said.

The Civil War centennial was “designed to be less about remembrance than about forgetting. At Antietam in 1962, spectators got “carnival without carnage, a battle stripped of content and context,” she said.

A large part of the war’s missing context was slavery. “Race has moved from the margins of Civil War history to its center,” she said.

Today, most historians agree that slavery was the war’s root cause. Many people, however, don’t share that understanding. The Pew survey found no consensus about the war’s primary cause. More people – 48 percent – said the war principally was about states’ rights than said it was about slavery – 38 percent. Interestingly, people under 30 were far more likely than their elders to say the main cause was states’ rights.

When Robert K. Sutton, chief historian of the National Park Service, said in December that slavery was “the principal cause” of the war, he encountered widespread resistance and controversy, Faust said.

It should come as no surprise that our views of the past change. In July 1963, the late historian C. Vann Woodward wrote an essay for The New York Times examining the ups and downs of ideas and people in American history. The headline: “Our Past Isn’t What It Used to Be.”

One thing has not changed. For Americans, nothing is more interesting than that war.

© 2011 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

Monday, May 2, 2011

States face budget crisis -- AARP Bulletin

Cash-strapped states are cutting programs Americans rely upon from cradle to grave. Here's my story in the May issue of the AARP Bulletin.