The Washington Post Column

Bumbling Bipartisanship

Around this town, “bipartisan” is a magic word. When something is described as bipartisan, that’s code for “good” or “moral” or “the kind of thing sensible people support.” If something is partisan, on the other hand, that’s code for “shortsighted” or “mean and nasty” or “the kind of thing that reasonable people oppose.” Partisan measures are what politicians take in order to get reelected by their narrow-minded constituents. Bipartisan actions are what they take for the good of the country.

Up to a point, there’s something to this. When Republicans and Democrats work together on unexpected issues, it’s hard not to feel a warm and fuzzy glow. Recently, I met a group of tattooed, multiply pierced, funkily dressed activists who praised a conservative Republican, Sen. Rick Santorum, because of his work on African debt. It was a genuine pleasure.

But “bipartisan” can also be a code word standing for something no less nasty and no less political. Sometimes when politicians compromise it is because they have reached across the vast gulf that divides them and decided, for the sake of the American people, to find a middle ground. Sometimes they compromise because, having looked closely at the political calendar, they have decided to pass a bill, any bill, before the next election. And sometimes, a little brave partisanship would make the bill a lot better.

To see what I mean, look no farther than the bipartisan plan to add both a prescription drug entitlement and a private option to Medicare, versions of which are now plodding through Congress. The full, ghastly details have been revealed elsewhere, so I won’t do it here. Suffice to say that the left hates it because it is too complicated and too expensive for the elderly. Seniors will pay a fortune in premiums and deductibles and co-pays before they get anything from the government (assuming they can even figure out what they should get from the government). The right hates it because it is too complicated and too expensive for the taxpayers. Although the drug benefit will cost a mere $400 billion over 10 years — assuming it doesn’t cost a lot more — Congress will still be left micromanaging the plan, which may not actually produce a viable new private option anyway. For even the insurance industry hates it: A surprising number of companies have already said they might not even try to provide health plans for seniors who choose to opt out of traditional Medicare, given how rigid the parameters are. All of these critics have a point: Unless this plan is altered, seniors will still not have a decent drug benefit, billions of dollars will be spent anyway, and the reforms Medicare needs won’t happen.

Given the oceans of ink spilled on Medicare, and the years spent trying to “think outside the box,” it’s not surprising that many around Washington feel let down by this plan, particularly those who have been talking for years about Medicare’s growing costs. In response, the bill’s Republicans backers say this is “just a beginning”: Down the line they’ll make the private options more attractive somehow, and make them bring down costs somehow, even if the insurance companies are too spooked to participate right now. As for the bill’s Democratic backers, they just shrug and say that down the line, of course the drug benefit will grow.

Down the line, though, we’re all going to retire and suffer the consequences of our actions. What no one wants to talk about are some of the cataclysmic consequences of a halfhearted compromise. Here’s one: The plan is passed, the private option fails completely, the nation concludes that the private sector can’t be trusted with health care, and we end up with socialized medicine. Here’s another: The plan is passed, the drug benefit increases over time, we end up very high taxes forever.

Can that be the real intention of the Republicans who have been pushing this legislation, or even all the Democrats who are supporting it? It seems unlikely. Their real intention, as many will privately acknowledge, is to get something passed before the next election so that they can tell senior voters they’ve got a drug benefit. Instead, all those who favor real Medicare reform should abandon their narrow-minded, shortsighted bipartisanship and cease trying to compromise with those who don’t share those goals.