CHICAGO - Gridlock is that phenomenon, much dreaded by Washington insiders and commentators, in which partisan bickering and gamesmanship prevent bold legislative action. But it's not necessarily something to dread. It often serves to block shameless pandering and force sober reflection. Last week, it also turned out to be the taxpayer's best friend.
The two parties have been quarreling for months over how to furnish prescription drug coverage to Medicare recipients, something no one is much inclined to oppose.
House Republicans managed to pass their program, which subsidizes private insurance plans that offer drug coverage. House Democrats had preferred a more comprehensive plan that would benefit all seniors and pay most of the cost of these medicines.
In the Senate, no bill could muster enough votes for passage. Last Wednesday, senators voted down a compromise measure, leaving the whole matter unresolved for the foreseeable future.
The Republicans accuse the Democrats of fiscal irresponsibility, which is like Latrell Sprewell accusing Allen Iverson of anti-social tendencies.
The difference between the two parties on this issue is one of scale, not principle.
What all the plans have in common is that they would add a costly new entitlement to the federal budget without figuring out how to pay for it. Although, to be fair, our leaders do have an idea how they will pay for it: Enormous sums of cash are going to fall out of the sky.
If that doesn't happen, Congress will simply put it on the national credit card and leave the bill to our children and grandchildren, along with the rest of the growing federal deficit.
There's nothing wrong with the idea of covering prescription drugs. Given the nature of modern health care, which relies more on pharmaceutical therapies and less on surgery and hospitalization, it makes sense to restructure Medicare to reflect the changes since its inception. We could even save money and improve health care that way.
But if you're waiting for genuine reform, you'd better have a lot of patience.
No one in Washington, or among senior citizens, is particularly interested in trading some existing benefits for this new one. The idea is just to pile prescription drug coverage on top of what Medicare already provides.
That might be acceptable, except for this gloomy fact: Medicare is grossly overextended and running out of money.
Already one of the biggest programs in the federal budget, its outlays are expected to grow by 35 percent just in the next five years.
And that's before baby boomers start retiring en masse, which is when costs will really mushroom, putting a huge burden on taxpayers.
All this, keep in mind, is without prescription drug coverage.
Congress could structure the new benefit as a form of insurance - with senior citizens forking over premiums that would cover all expenses. But there's no political advantage in asking the elderly to pay for what they get. Much better to minimize the costs to seniors while maximizing the benefits.
Everyone in Washington agrees on this last goal, which is why any of the options on the table would swell the deficit.
The measure passed by the Republican-controlled House would cost some $350 billion over the next decade, while the House Democrats' plan would add some $800 billion in new expenditures during that period. Even the scaled-back version pushed by Democrats in the Senate carried a $390 billion price tag.
Why so much? Because no one wants to ask the elderly to give up much in exchange for this supposedly vital help.
Under the bill that fell short in the Senate, the fee to participate would amount to a whopping $25. Not per month - per year. Even in the supposedly stingy House GOP version, the premium would be just $33 a month.
You can't blame Medicare recipients for preferring to get more and pay less rather than the other way around. But the paramount goals should be protecting them from catastrophic expenses, not routine ones, and doing so without bloating the budget.
Two out of three seniors pay less than $1,000 a year of their own money for prescriptions. If our leaders are worried about hardship cases, they should concentrate on the 9 percent whose annual outlay exceeds $3,000. If those seniors can be helped at a reasonable cost, broader coverage may be in order. If not, better to lose a small gamble than a big one.
But for now, no one in Congress is ready to stand up and say that we can't afford to give the elderly what they want.
Instead, our elected representatives spent so much time trying to one-up each other for political purposes that they couldn't agree on anything. Bless them.
Steve Chapman is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune, a Tribune Publishing newspaper. His column appears Tuesdays in The Sun.