Health reform is faith-based deficit reduction
Healthcare reformers in Washington are asking Americaâ€™s creditors to take a leap of faith. The plan is supposed to cut future budget shortfalls. But it depends on politicians following through on cuts and taxes, a deficit commission imposing additional discipline, and untested reforms working as expected. Owners of U.S. government debt shouldn’t bank on it.
The numbers add up on paper, at least according to the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office. Its estimate for the 10-year cost of reform is $940 billion, with cost cuts elsewhere and new taxes turning that into a $138 billion net reduction in the projected federal deficit over a decade. Go out another 10 years, and the plan racks up another trillion or so in projected savings.
One problem is that despite being nonpartisan, the CBOâ€™s methods are still dictated by Congress. That means Capitol Hill can get away with financial chicanery such as front-loading some tax increases and delaying spending plans — something that can help the numbers work because, in a fixed 10-year period, the tax income is counted for more years than the spending.
And then there are the promised but politically unpalatable fiscal fixes that fall to a future president and Congress. Proposed cuts in federal payments to hospitals, for instance, are delayed a decade. If todayâ€™s lawmakers are punting such measures, itâ€™s hard to have any confidence their successors will show any more mettle.
The reformers hope more can be saved if the healthcare planâ€™s cost-control pilot projects bear fruit and are then widely implemented. But the CBO doesnâ€™t give these projects much credit. And even the White House admits that rising healthcare costs could still threaten Americaâ€™s finances. Thatâ€™s one reason why President Barack Obama is keen on a bipartisan, deficit-cutting panel. But its potential efficacy is widely derided by veteran budgeteers.
At least with healthcare an effort is being made to do no fiscal harm. That was not the case with major spending initiatives of the past decade for which balancing cost cuts or tax increases werenâ€™t attempted. But with the U.S. ratio of debt to GDP still on track to double in a decade, it will take a leap of faith for Americaâ€™s creditors to retain their enthusiasm for Treasury bonds.