In the Midst of Budget Decadence, a Leader Will Arise

By DAVID BROOKS

New York Times

February 19, 2005

There's going to be another Ross Perot, and this time he's going to be younger. There's going to be a millionaire rising out of the country somewhere and he (or she) is going to lead a movement of people who are worried about federal deficits, who are offended by the horrendous burden seniors are placing on the young and who are disgusted by a legislative process that sometimes suggests that the government has lost all capacity for self-control.

He's going to be set off by some event like what is happening right now with the Medicare prescription drug benefit. He's going to look at an event like that one, and he's not only going to be worried about the country's economic future - he's also going to be morally offended. He's going to sense that something fundamentally decadent is going on.

And he's going to be right.

In the past months we have learned that the prescription drug benefit passed last year is not going to cost $400 billion over 10 years. The projections now, over a slightly different period, are that it's going to cost over $700 billion. And these cost estimates are coming before the program is even operating. They are only going to go up.

That means we're going to be spending the next few months bleeding over budget restraints that might produce savings in the millions, while the new prescription drug benefit will produce spending in the billions.

That means that as we spend the next year trying to get a grip on one entitlement, Social Security, we'll be launching a new one that is also unsustainable.

Over the next few months we will be watching a government that may be millions-wise, but trillions-foolish. We will be watching a government that sometimes seems to have lost all perspective - like a lunatic who tries to dry himself with a hand towel while standing in a torrential downpour.

And much of this new spending will go to people who have insurance to pay for their drugs.

In Congress, some are taking a look at these new cost projections and figuring that maybe it's time to readjust the program. In the House there are Republicans like Mike Pence and Jeff Flake (whose predictions of this program's actual cost have been entirely vindicated by events). In the Senate there are people like Judd Gregg and Lindsey Graham. These fiscal conservatives want to make the program sustainable.

Perhaps the benefits should be limited to those earning up to 200 percent of the level at the poverty line. Perhaps the costs should be capped at $400 billion through other benefit adjustments. These ideas are akin to what the candidate George Bush proposed in 2000.

But the White House is threatening to veto anything they do! President Bush, who hasn't vetoed a single thing during his presidency, now threatens to veto something - and it's something that might actually restrain the growth of government. He threatens to use his first veto against an idea he himself originally proposed!

Have we entered another world, where up is down and rationality is irrational?

Every family and business in America has to scale back when the cost of something skyrockets. Does this rule not apply to us as a nation?

We may as well be blunt about the driving force behind all this. The living and well organized are taking money from the weak and the unborn. Over the past decades we have seen a gigantic transfer of wealth from struggling young families and the next generation to members of the AARP. In 1990, 29 percent of federal spending went to seniors; by 2015 roughly half of all government spending will go to those over 65. This prescription drug measure is just part of that great redistribution.

But what can't last won't last. Before too long, some new sort of leader is going to arise, especially if we fail to reform Social Security this year. He's going to rail against a country that cannot control its appetites. He's going to rail against Republicans who promise to be virtuous - but not just yet. He's going to slam Democrats who loudly jeer at Republican deficits but whose own entitlement proposals would make the situation twice as bad. He's going to crusade against the interest groups who are so ferocious on behalf of their members that they sacrifice the future.

It won't be a green-eyeshade economic crusade this leader will be launching. It will be a moral crusade, and it'll be quite a show.

E-mail: dabrooks@nytimes.com