Democrats' Health Care Sleight of Hand

As a former (recovering) professional magician, I've seen and perpetrated my share of sleight-of-hand. But I have never seen anything quite like the linguistic and budgetary legerdemain Democrats have performed to make President Obama's health-care plan appear "affordable."

Congressional Democrats have been forced into such chicanery because of the price goal the president set for his reform, which, he claimed in September, "will cost around $900 billion over 10 years" -- less than we have spent on the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. This $900 billion target is seemingly arbitrary, but is psychologically important ­- the president must know that the trillion dollar mark would be a deal breaker for many citizens and lawmakers. (Retail goods are labeled "only" $9.99 instead of $10 for the same reason.)

Congressional Democrats have bent over backwards, sometimes painfully, to accommodate the president's target price. For example, the $848 billion price tag that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid claims for his new health care overhaul package is a mirage, produced by "assuming unrealistic tax increases and Medicare cuts that members of Congress will not be willing to follow through on," as spoiler-sport Sen. Judd Gregg (R-N.H.) points out.

This sort of trickery has been going on all year long. On October 29, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi crowed that her new health-care reform bill "meets President Obama's call to keep the costs under $900 billion over 10 years." -- The claim was pure misdirection, a wild gesticulation to distract from the Congressional Budget Office's estimate that the gross total cost of the bill is $1.05 trillion over ten years. But don't look there!

And even that astronomical $1.05 trillion figure is only arrived at because Pelosi's bill backloads the spending in the 2010 to 2019 timeframe -­ in fact, the vast majority of the spending in that period would not kick in until after 2013!  That's three years of little or no spending to artificially bring down your cost. Ta dah!

Or how about Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid's attempt to palm off a key component of health care reform, the halt in payment cuts to Medicare physicians known as the "doc fix" as a separate, stand alone, $247 billion bill, financed entirely with deficit spending. Fortunately, this trick was so bad that the audience cried "I can see that in your other hand!" and the doc fix died a well-deserved bipartisan death.

Old magician's joke: A bunny is placed on a pedestal and covered with a screen. The magician promises to change the bunny into a completely different animal. A wave of the hand, and voila! the screen is lifted to reveals the same bunny. The magician claims it is a new animal, one with magical powers. Of course, the children are never fooled. But Pelosi seems to think the American taxpayer will fall for a similar ruse. When voters got wind that the much vaunted "public option" is really just code for government-run health care, she brazenly renamed it at a Florida senior's center -- and voila! -- the "competitive option" lives! Or is it the "consumer option"? Either way, don't mind those ears, kids, it's an entirely new beast, with the magical powers to increase coverage, reduce cost, and bring down the deficit. Abracadabra!

There's only one thing worse than a bad magic show, and that's bad legislation. Barack Obama,  Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi have given us both at once, which, when you think about it, is some hat trick.

Matt Patterson is a policy analyst for the National Center For Public Policy Research and a National Review Institute Washington Fellow. Contact him at: