Priorities

PRIORITIES…. Lawmakers are willing to commit vast sums of taxpayer dollars all the time, just so long as they personally approve of the investment. In the context of health care reform, it’s fascinating to see members’ priorities come to the fore. Ezra Klein noted yesterday:

The happy news is that the difference between a plan with decent benefits that’s affordable for people and a plan that’s not affordable for people and doesn’t offer decent benefits is not that large. Optimally, you’d want to spend about $1.3 trillion over 10 years. You could probably do it for $900 billion to $1 trillion. But you can’t do it for, say, $700 billion, which is a number I’m hearing fairly frequently.

The difference between doing this right and doing this wrong is, in other words, about $30 billion a year, or $300 billion over 10 years. To put that in perspective, many of the legislators who are balking at the cost of health-care reform voted for the Kyl-Lincoln bill to reform the estate tax at a cost of $75 billion a year, or $750 billion over 10 years. You can make health-care reform work at a price tag that legislators are, in theory, willing to bear, at least when the tag is attached to tax cuts.

The point isn’t that, say, $80 billion a year is nothing. Obviously, that’s a considerable amount of taxpayer money. Rather, the point is, lawmakers don’t hesitate to make that kind of investment when it suits their larger goals. In Ezra’s example, conservatives — from both parties — think $75 billion a year to cut the estate tax is fine, but a similar amount for American families with no health coverage is not.

As Matt Yglesias added, “Specifically, all the Republicans plus Senators Baucus (D-MT), Bayh (D-IN), Cantwell (D-WA), Landrieu (D-LA), Lincoln (D-AR), Murray (D-WA), Nelson (D-FL), Nelson (D-NE), Pryor (D-AR), and Tester (D-MT) thought nothing of adding hundreds of billions of dollars to the deficit when the beneficiaries were a tiny number of already wealthy households. But quite a few of these people seem very concerned about the idea of spending similar amounts of money on making health insurance affordable to middle class Americans.”

It’s one of the reasons it’s frustrating to see/hear policymakers respond to discouraging budget numbers by dismissing health care reform as folly. A Republican lawmaker recently argued, in light of the growing budget shortfalls, “[I]f the House Democrats’ unaffordable $1 trillion health care bill wasn’t dead before, it should be now.”

Putting aside the fact that the underlying point is nonsense — policymakers are committed to make reform deficit-neutral — the argument also reflects priorities. He didn’t say the Pentagon budget is “dead” because it’s “unaffordable.” He didn’t say the Bush-Cheney-era tax cuts are “dead” because they’re “unaffordable.”

The right would probably respond by saying defense and tax cuts are important. And therein lies the point: health care for Americans should be important, too.

Every Democrat who supports the estate tax cut but balks at health care investment should explain the disconnect. I’m guessing they can’t.