Let's stipulate that it is -- or at least could be -- a good thing that Congress is looking into providing an income increase to the nation's 50 million Social Security recipients. Many of these retirees barely get by and they count on cost-of-living increases to keep up with rising prices.
What is more, those increases go directly into the economy. Social Security beneficiaries are not banking those checks; they go toward the monthly expenses of living. The benefits are not insignificant.
Congress is considering the possibility of enacting some kind of increase -- a 3 percent raise or perhaps a lump-sum payment of $250 per recipient -- because the formula upon which cost-of-living increases is based came up with a zero for 2010. Members understand the financial stress that could cause their constituents and, no doubt, the political pain it could cause them. Thus, for reasons good or bad, they may override the law and add to the federal deficit in order to accomplish a goal many would see as praiseworthy.
Which brings us to health care reform.
In his televised speech to Congress this month, President Obama promised that health care reform would not add to the federal deficit and, as a safeguard, added that he would require any legislation to include a provision that, in the event it does add to the deficit, compensatory budget cuts would have to be made in other areas.
That sounds good, but Congress has little stomach for abiding by decisions that cause anybody any pain -- as the move to provide a Social Security increase demonstrates. The country badly needs to reform its health care system, because the current one is unsustainable, but it should recognize the president's pledge for what it is: circumventable.
When the day comes that health reform adds to the deficit and Congress is left to the painful task of reducing spending in other areas, its all but certain response will be to exempt itself from that law. Depending on the current state of politics, the economy and the election cycle, the president -- Obama or a successor -- will feel varying amounts of pressure to agree. There will be good arguments, just as there are for giving seniors an increase in next year's Social Security payments. But the bottom line, barring a revolutionary change in human nature, is that Obama's promise will mean nothing and health care reform will deepen the deficit.