GOP wants to cut Medicare. Here’s how real leaders would handle the deficit

by LZ Granderson

Our population was getting older and broker.

Between 1900 and 1950, the number of senior citizens in America had grown from 3 million to 12 million. Only 1 in 8 had health insurance. Only 1 in 3 made more than $1,000 a year. By 1963, the population over 65 years old had risen to 17 million.

These were the conditions that gave birth to Medicare and Medicaid in 1965. And while Republicans in the House were not thrilled at the time about Democrats’ effort to expand the New Deal — a deal the party didn’t like in the first place — they drafted legislation of their own to address the growing problem.

They understood there is a difference between being a politician and being an elected official.

A politician tells constituents what they want to hear. An elected official governs.

In a recent CNN appearance, Republican Rep. Chip Roy spent a good chunk of his time talking about spending. In fact, the gentleman from Texas voted against Kevin McCarthy 11 times as the Californian kept trying to get elected speaker of the House. Why? In part because Roy and the Freedom Caucus wanted McCarthy to promise he wouldn’t raise the debt ceiling without also requiring cuts to spending.

Believe it or not, I understand his concern. We are approaching $32 trillion in debt. That’s a growing problem.

What I don’t understand is the need to portray entitlement programs like Medicare and Medicaid as the bad guy.

We spend more on our military than the next nine countries combined spend on theirs. The 2017 tax cuts led to a 44% jump in profits for banks in 2018. And, despite (or because) of global inflation, corporate America booked record profits during 2022 while families struggled to put food on the table.

Our problem is not money. It’s priorities.

Take incarceration vs. education, for instance.

During the Great Recession, 33 out of 50 states decided to decrease education spending and increase prison spending. Between 1987 and 2007, state spending on corrections grew six times faster than spending on higher education. That’s how the U.S. ends up the nation with the highest rate of incarceration and a STEM education system that’s average at best. The Pew Research Center found a few years ago that less than 30% of Americans believe our K-12 STEM education is above average — so most people recognize at least part of the problem.

The question for Congress is less about money and more about our priorities. That’s what budgets really are: a list of our shared priorities. Sadly, we appear more interested in caging people than in educating them.

Now politicians, telling constituents what they want to hear, are setting out to cut the safety net. A safety net that public servants recognize we need.

At times during that CNN interview, Roy spoke like someone who understands the difference between being a politician and public servant. His voting record, on the other hand … let’s just say that one of his first acts in Congress was to vote against a bill guaranteeing back pay to federal workers hit by the government shutdown of 2018-19. Roy talks about government shutdowns often and fondly — which feels more like the words of a politician and less like those of a public servant or elected official.

I hope I’m wrong about the agenda of lawmakers like Roy.

I need to be wrong.

Because on the substance, he’s partially right: We should make some cuts.

But in a country in which 63% of people are living paycheck to paycheck, those who rely on entitlement programs are bleeding enough. Look elsewhere for budget cuts. On the heels of mentioning the rising cost of entitlements, Roy dubbed his chamber the “house of free stuff” on the floor. It’s the kind of rhetoric that may get a politician elected, but it doesn’t actually solve the problem.

And I’d like to think that’s why he and the 118th Congress was sent to Washington: to solve problems.

And look, everyone knows it’s not easy, and it never has been. Flaws of the New Deal are still with us today, but so are the benefits of the legislation — because President Franklin Roosevelt was trying to save the country, not destroy it. That’s what an elected official does. And when President Lyndon Johnson expanded the idea of Social Security in 1965 with Medicare and Medicaid, he was saving the vision of the United States, one in which American children would not go to bed hungry and American seniors would not be penniless on the streets. That’s what a public servant does. “Cutting funding for the woke”? That’s what a politician does.

That doesn’t mean that any of today’s entitlement programs are perfect. Only that they are essential. They’re not only well intentioned but also proved to be effective tools against poverty. They’re certainly not a cancer on the American work ethic, or an albatross on the federal budget.

Sure, politicians on the campaign trail score points by saying otherwise. But now we have elected officials in office. They need to flip the switch and think like elected officials — like public servants — because those numbers on a spreadsheet represent real lives and real people.

LZ Granderson is an op-ed columnist for the Los Angeles Times.