Political Animal


December 10, 2012 12:11 PM The “Entitlement Reform” Nobody Really Wants

By Ed Kilgore

Just when you thought the fiscal talks couldn’t get any more absurd, there is growing evidence that the big sticking point may be an “entitlement reform” that nobody has any real reason to support: an increase in the age for Medicare eligibility. Ezra Klein sums up the chimera nicely this morning:

Though it’s emerged, alongside chained-CPI, as the GOP’s top ask in the negotiations, it’s disconnected from any larger theory about how to slow the rise in health-care costs. There’s no particular conservative — or even non-conservative — policy goal that raising the Medicare eligibility age advances.
Raising the Medicare eligibility age doesn’t increase competition in Medicare, as some variant of premium support might. It doesn’t reduce national health spending — actually, as Medicare is cheaper than equivalent private insurance, it increases it. It doesn’t force seniors to act as more discerning consumers of health care, as various forms of deductibles and co-pays might. It doesn’t substantially pare back “the nation of takers,” as many of the 65- and 66-year-olds thrown off Medicare will enter the exchanges or be caught by Medicaid.
And it shouldn’t be forgotten: Raising the Medicare eligibility age really will hurt some seniors.

As someone living very near the bullseye of any near-term increase in the Medicare eligibility age, I don’t have to be convinced of that. But I digress.

On Thursday, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi described the Medicare eligibility age as “a trophy that the Republicans want.” That’s exactly right. For Republicans, it’s a signal that they won something big on entitlements. In a party that’s confused about where to go on Medicare, it at least proves they’re going in a direction Democrats hate.
The White House doesn’t like the idea, but administration officials see its incoherence as a virtue. The reason it doesn’t cut national health expenditures is that a lot of the pain is blunted by other players, like Medicaid and employers. The reason it doesn’t significantly pare back the safety net is that Obamacare is law, and by the time these age changes phase in, it will be deeply entrenched law. Better to give Republicans a bigger trophy than a deeper cut, or so goes the theory.

This last “theory” was one of Jonathan Chait’s arguments for going along with the “reform” in his much-maligned column last week. But even Ezra’s summary of its absurdity doesn’t capture it all: polls show it is equally unpopular among Republicans and Democrats.

So you’ve got a “reform” that makes no substantive sense to anybody, and that nobody much likes, and it’s now the linchpin of the Great Big Fiscal Debate For the Ages. That’s a sign of how detached from reality these negotiations have become.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.


  • Barbara on December 10, 2012 12:23 PM:

    Except that this so-called trophy will be wielded like a heavy object to bash Democrats over the head with in the 2014 election cycle. This isn't kabuki and people's needs should not be so cavalierly subject to political game theory. It will hurt a lot of seniors and it will do nothing concrete to solve the budget. It's the wrong thing to do so it should be cut off from the discussion right now. All it really does is show how psychotic this whole "deficit uber alles" really is.

    Time for another angry e-mail to the White House, I guess.

  • Peter C on December 10, 2012 12:35 PM:

    They want us to do something that will be terribly unpopular so their relative popularity increases. That's all this is. They want us to make things worse so we can be seen as making things worse. Even if they have forced us to do it; they feel it will be lastingly bad for us that we have. This is what they want: lasting bad for us.

  • T2 on December 10, 2012 12:38 PM:

    gee, "detached from reality" really says it all. But as Barbara says, in 2014 the Conservatives/FOX will be screaming "Dems raised Medicare Age", and the Media will go along with it. But everyone will know its a lie, but that's politics these days.

  • mb on December 10, 2012 12:47 PM:

    This is just more public sector vandalism, an incredibly useful term that, to my knowledge, was coined by one Ed Kilgore. "Useful" especially because it so well describes the MO of the GOP. Things like crashing the post office into a wall by over-funding pensions.

    This one seems especially pernicious since, while claiming we can easily raise the mcare age thanks to Obamacare, they are simultaneously trying to wreck Obamacare. It's like a public sector demolition derby. Yee Haw!

    Seems to me the only way to stop the madness is to just say no. No more sops to the right that wreck the infrastructure of governance.

    Where is Nancy Reagan when you need her? Just say "No!," Mr. President.

  • Celui on December 10, 2012 12:57 PM:

    This article is dead on, and the ensuing commentaries are valuable voices to share. Sure, it's all posturing and negociating for whatever totem can be held up before the tribes. Meaningless in accomplishing anything of value; just air and shiny stuff for the noisemakers. Speaking of which, copy this article and the commentaries in their entirety, and MAIL the pages to your senators and reps. Share this by mail and it will be more likely to get seen; seems that the pols' office staffs are particularly likely to overlook important messages at this juncture. Just tell it plainly and repeatedly, and maybe even get it going in your local print media. Newspapers still do have a valuable circulation, especially where the truth can be shared and illumined. Price of a stamp ain't that much.

  • jeri on December 10, 2012 1:00 PM:

    This is awful policy that will go through so that Obama can bolster his centrist credentials. Nothing says centrist like infuriating the left. If it's bad policy--well, w ho pays attention to policy except a few bloggers in their pajamas?

    Feeling thinner today--must be that heavy bus that just ran over me.

  • KK on December 10, 2012 1:15 PM:

    A great plan to lose a generation of D voters. Any D goes along with, my Sebators or Congressperson, won't ever get my vote again. I do find it hard to believe anyone from the D party will vote for it. They have to run again and all non incumbents that didn't vote on it can use it like club, similar to BO bashed Hillary on her war vote. You lose all Liberal cred and invite a primary. This is my main reason not to worry about what the WH thinks.

  • zandru on December 10, 2012 1:18 PM:

    Offer a Counter Proposal

    Offer dropping the Medicare eligibility age to 50. This would save middle-aged Americans many thousands a year ("it's YOUR MONEY!!!"™ - a trademark of the "G"OP) which they could then pump into the productive economy, rather than wasting it with for-profit insurance.

    Because the 50-64 yos are much healthier than the 65+ set, their (still incredibly low!!) monthly premiums would make Medicare MORE solvent, analogous to the case where 65-66 yos are removed from the pool, causing it to lose more money. Dropping the eligibility age would save MORE than increasing it! Bring out the graphs and tables of numbers.

    Businesses currently providing medical insurance would also be big savers, allowing them to give even bigger bonuses to those hard(ly)-working upper execs that the Tea-bag community so idolizes. Win-Win! Moreover, it would again be possible to hire the 50+ worker, who has been heavily victimized by the bad economy.

    Meet the "G"OP half way - say you'll change the Medicare age ... DOWN.

  • bigtuna on December 10, 2012 1:37 PM:

    God almighty. Here is a very direct question to rs.

    If you want to stimulate job growth, one way to do that is to enable they economic system to create openings - either trough growth, or retirement. Increasing the medicare age will mean that MANY relatively low income, middle class people will CLING to the jobs until medicare age, AS THE DO NOW!!!!! So that they will have coverage. This will stifle job growth, but creating a defactor retirement age increase. Why do this???

    AND most analyses show that "cost savings" will not be much. SO you want to increase the age, plug up the opportunities for new workers, and not save much.

  • Nancy Cadet on December 10, 2012 1:43 PM:

    I love Zandru's comment, and always include a line about that (enrolling the age 50 or 55+ in Medicare) when I email my Congress reps on these issues. Digby (aka Heather Parton at Hullaballoo) made the acute observation that these rumors about raising the Medicare age are most likely a trial balloon, and that we opponents need to raise a ruckus now to stop it. It is true that GOP negotiating stances are incoherent and weak, but Obama has stated many times that he wants to strike a "Grand Bargain" and is open to "entitlement reforms." Irony alert: My European friends love Obama, worship him, but also think we Americans are crazy for accepting and living with such a minimal safety net.

  • Daryl McCullough on December 10, 2012 1:47 PM:

    I made the same comment on the article about means-testing, but it's also applicable to raising the Medicare age: Republicans consider it a PLUS that a proposed change to a government program makes it less popular.

  • Barbara on December 10, 2012 2:08 PM:

    zandru, Great idea! There are lots of negotiators who know that the best way to get to yes is to keep upping the ante when you hold all the cards. Right now, Obama holds most of the cards and if Rs keep dithering he should just keep adding more asks to his offer. In no way should he "offer" a concession. A concession is what they ask him for. That's how negotiating in the "free market" world works, though it's pretty clear that most of them have no f'ing clue what free market looks like even if it hit them over the head with a two by four.

  • Th on December 10, 2012 2:12 PM:

    I am with Zandru and Nancy Cadet on this one (along with being Ed's age) at least as far as opening Medicare to 55+ in the exchanges. I wish someone in congress would ask the CBO to score these various proposals.

  • 14All on December 10, 2012 2:17 PM:

    You have to admit, though, that as a step towards destroying Medicare entirely, which is a major Republican goal, raising the age for eligibility can't be beat.