It's no surprise that the Big 3 and the UAW have lobbied discreetly to get a federal tax credit for health care payments that the companies make for employees and retirees aged 55 through 64. It's an interesting idea and is worth discussing.
But the tax credit proposal cannot be a long-term solution because it does not address runaway health care costs.
In the surreal world of Washington, there is logic behind the proposal: Congress wants to make an across-the-board cut in the corporate income tax rate to boost American manufacturing. But the Big 3 don't make much money from U.S. manufacturing. So getting a credit for health care costs would be their way of collecting on the tax cut.
The companies also argue that the credit would help them reduce their competitive disadvantage with import-brand automakers, which have far lower employee and retiree benefit costs. In some cases that's because foreign governments shoulder a larger share of the health care burden.
But the Big 3 and the UAW are part of the problem, and they must be part of the solution. Yes, medical costs are out of control. And, yes, government policies contribute to the spiral. But union contracts are a big factor, too.
The Big 3 say they will work to control costs. But if the UAW and other unions refuse to accept more modest benefits, the tax credit would be just a Band-Aid. And that won't work.
The sooner everyone realizes that, the sooner everyone can get to work on comprehensive reforms of the tax code and the health care system.