All fun and budget games, until you lose an election

Imagine that you are back at the height of the housing boom and a banker makes you an offer: You can get the big, beautiful home you’ve always wanted, and during the next four years your monthly budget will easily cover the cost of your mortgage.

What he doesn’t tell you is that he’s offering you a balloon loan, and the entire balance will suddenly come due in the fifth year.

Right now, federal prosecutors are working to send such shady operators to prison. Unfortunately, they cannot touch the Congress members who are running a similar scam with the costs of their health care reform bill.

Everyone in Washington, D.C., plays games with numbers. For years, Republican and Democratic Congresses have operated on obviously false budget assumptions, simply in order to keep up appearances.

For years, majority Republicans pretended huge future tax increases they knew would never occur would, simply in order to pad the bottom line. (See: Alternative Minimum Tax).

To this day, appropriators routinely cut back spending on vital budget items so they can fund low priorities. They later restore funding for the important things through “emergency” legislation. This allows Congress members to expand the budget despite any lack of money.

Budget tricks are just part of the game. Honest and realistic accounting in Congress would ruin future budgets.

Today’s congressional debate about health insurance reform suffers the opposite problem. It was easy for Republicans, when they controlled Congress, to pretend they would be hurting people in the future with higher taxes they knew would never come.

But President Barack Obama’s health care bill cheats the ledger in the other direction. It claims to be “deficit-neutral” through its 10-year lifespan. It achieves this semblance only by hiking taxes and cutting Medicare by hundreds of billions of dollars right away, but delaying new health care spending until 2014.

This exercise in cheating at math makes everything look better on paper, but it will also have real-life consequences. By the time Americans enjoy the supposed benefits of the new health care system, they will have already paid an extra $176 billion in taxes under the House Democrats’ bill. Among the proposed tax hikes are levies on medical-device manufacturers, insurers and drug companies, all of which will affect patients’ premiums and prices.

Perhaps more importantly, cuts to Medicare will have erased $174 billion in benefits for senior citizens by the time major reforms take effect. Most affected will be the 25 percent of seniors who pay extra each month for a Medicare Advantage plan.

Obama has said Medicare Advantage does little for seniors. Right or wrong, the seniors disagree. The program’s rolls have doubled in the past six years, so that these cuts will now directly affect more than 10 million senior citizens.

A series of consecutive Gallup polls has found that seniors are the group most strongly opposed to Obama’s reforms. They also are the age group most likely to vote in 2010.

The Democrats’ budget game means the next four years will usher in higher taxes and cuts to programs for senior citizens, without corresponding improvements to the health care system. This time, the budget trickery is a recipe for political disaster.

Examiner columnist David Freddoso is a commentary staff writer. He can be reached at dfreddoso@washingtonexaminer.com.

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