December 6, 2006

December 6, 2006 | Commentary on

Democrats' Agenda Appears Stuck Even Before New Congress Begins

November 7 brought news not only of the Democrats' takeover of Congress. The U.S.S. Intrepid, a retired aircraft carrier that has housed a military museum on Manhattan's West Side waterfront for a quarter century, was supposed to be towed across the river to Bayonne, N.J., for an extensive overhaul. But it was stuck so firmly in the Hudson River bottom that six powerful tugs couldn't dislodge it. The lead tugboat pilot blamed "a buildup of mud underneath the vessel." Though the tugs tried mightily "to get it to wiggle," he added, the Intrepid "came to a fix" and "just is solidly held."

Campaign Promises

With the Democrats preparing to assume control of Congress, evidence has already begun to mount that a similar buildup of mud has accumulated under the U.S.S. Democrat that threatens to keep that old vessel solidly held in port.

Consider the following:

  • Health Price Controls: During the 2006 campaign, Democrats promised to give Medicare bureaucrats unfettered authority to negotiate directly with drug-makers over drug prices. Democrats believe these negotiations will generate billions in savings, which they hope to use to expand the supposedly chintzy drug benefit.

But according to the Washington Post, the drug program has "proven cheaper and more popular than anyone imagined." Over 80% of seniors tell pollsters they like it. In 2006, moreover, it cost $30 billion, a full $13 billion less than anticipated. Apparently, more seniors had drug coverage than originally estimated and, therefore, didn't need the benefit. The program also inspired private insurance companies to compete aggressively for customers, which pressured drug companies to lower their prices, also well below projections. One former director of the Congressional Budget Office, Robert Reischauer, questioned the need for the Democrats' plan: "At some point," he said, "you have to ask, what are we looking for here?"

The incoming chairman of the Senate Health Committee, Sen. Ted Kennedy (D.-Mass), provided an answer: billions to fund other grandiose schemes. "There's a lot of money that's rattling around out there," he said, "and the question is, who's going to get it?" Kennedy believes price controls on the pharmaceutical sector will generate $400 billion in savings over 10 years. But the Congressional Budget Office argues that this fix would produce "negligible" savings.

  • The 9-11 Commission: Democrats also pledged to enact every recommendation of the 9-11 Commission. But they have encountered unexpected resistance because, as the Associated Press reports, "much of what the commission proposed has been accomplished." This includes reorganizing our intelligence agencies, adopting mechanisms to disrupt terrorist financing, tightening domestic security and improving our emergency response and air defense capabilities.

Much remains to be done, Democrats contend. They plan to move legislation requiring the inspection of all cargo containers entering U.S. ports and mandating the installation of radiation devices at every port of entry, despite industry fears that these initiatives would hobble global shipping. They also want to spend additional billions to increase security for mass transit rail systems, Amtrak and freight rail lines.

But incoming House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D.-Calif.) vows that the Democrats' new official motto will be "no new deficit spending." This would force new programs like these, which come with multi-billion-dollar price tags, to compete head on with other items on her party's agenda.

  • College costs: Pelosi's "no new deficit spending" pledge also threatens to sink another high-profile policy initiative: the campaign promise to "make college tuition deductible from taxes, expand Pell grants and cut student loan costs." Leading Democrats such as Ted Kennedy acknowledge that they have no plan to pay for these expansions of the federal role in higher education: "We're going to do it when we're prepared to talk about it."

The five-year cost of cutting the interest rate in half on the college loans taken out annually by 5.7 million students runs between $30 billion and $60 billion. Adding a new $3,000 tax credit for tuition costs requires another $7 billion. Increasing the ceiling on Pell Grants to low-income students adds $22 billion more. Little wonder Kennedy hems and haws over how he will pay for all this.

Liberal Democrats spent the last 12 years criticizing Republicans for slashing federal programs, even as the cost of those programs exploded. Now that they want to take spending to new, unimagined heights, they find themselves as stuck in the mud as the Intrepid.

Michael Franc is Vice President for Government Relations at The Heritage Foundation.

About the Author

Michael Franc Distinguished Fellow
Government Studies

First appeared in Human Events Online