TCS Daily

Let's Have a Do Over

By Radley Balko - February 11, 2005 12:00 AM

When Congress approved the prescription drug benefit in 2003, it did so with the understanding that the bill's projected price tag would amount to about $400 billion over ten years. Even then, the bill barely squeaked by, and was nearly universally condemned by economists, editorial boards, and opinion leaders from across the political spectrum. Since then, the bill has become rather symbolic of the way the Republican Party has abandoned all allegiance to the principles that swept it into power in 1994. The party that ran ten years ago on limited, open, accountable, ethical government has since grown the size of government by unprecedented levels, run misinformation campaigns to achieve its objectives, and sacrificed its core values to keep its grip on power. And the selling, passing, and subsequent growth of the drug benefit is a neat and tidy microcosm of what's befallen the GOP in the last decade. Consider:

· Just months after it passed, the estimated cost of the benefit jumped from $400 billion to $550 billion. Last summer, a Department of Health and Human Services report revealed that Medicare's chief actuary knew the real cost of the bill and attempted to relay the information to Congress, but that Medicare administrator Thomas Scully threatened him with termination if he did so. After the report was made public, Scully denied threatening to fire the actuary, but acknowledged instructing him to withhold the cost of the bill from Congress. HHS knowingly lied to Congress about the cost of the largest new entitlement program in forty years, in all likelihood because had the true cost been known, the bill never would have passed. Remarkably, knowingly lying to Congress about the cost of a piece of legislation isn't a crime, and neither is threatening a subordinate who wants to tell the truth. It is, however, government at its worst.

· We have also since learned that as the bill was being debated, GOP Majority Whip Tom DeLay coerced fence-sitting Republicans with threats of loss of influence and, in one case, promises of campaign contributions to a family member running for office. The House ethics committee rebuked DeLay, but didn't sanction him. Whether DeLay broke the law or violated House ethics rules is open for debate. Here's what's clear: The most influential Republican in the House of Representatives used ethically-questionable tactics of persuasion -- not to encourage members to vote to limit or restrict the size and scope of government, but to coerce them into passing a bill that would significantly grow it.

· Those charges against DeLay, along with several others alleging wrongdoing in his efforts to secure his party's majority, then led the Republicans to consider revoking an ethics rule barring any Congressman who's been indicted from holding a leadership position -- it's a rule the GOP passed shortly after the 1994 revolution in response to the corruption charges against Rep. Dan Rostenkowski. Speaker Hastert and the Republicans reconsidered after a media outcry and significant dissent from voices within their own party.

· Hastert did however kick DeLay's fiercest (some would say most impartial) Republican critics off the ethics committee, and replaced them with members who have made significant contributions to DeLay's defense fund. Hastert's office dropped a press release announcing the changes just hours before the State of the Union, a classic, timed information dump designed to bury bad news under coverage of more pressing events. It's a move the Clinton administration perfected. And stacking the ethics committee with partisan votes is exactly the kind of thing voters were weary of when they voted the Democrats out of power two years into Clinton's first term.

· Just this week, we've now learned that even the $550 billion price tag is a gross underestimation. The total cost of the program over the next decade could well hit $1.2 trillion, though the White House insists savings and costs offsetting adjustments could push that figure down to $720 billion. A recent report from my colleagues at the Cato Institute insists that even that figure could prove to be well lower than the actual cost.

One can't help but think that the idealistic freshman class of 1994 would be mortified to see what it would morph into in just 10 years. They would quickly realize that, to borrow from Walt Kelley, they have met the enemy. And it is them. The prescription drug bill Congress narrowly passed a little over a year ago was bad enough as it was passed. But the bill the government's now asking us to pay for is a far cry from even that.

In response to all of this, Cal State Northridge economist Glen Whitman has come up with a suggestion for how the Republicans might repair some of the damage they've done: Let's do the whole thing again.

Speaker Hastert and Majority Leader Frist should bring the prescription drug benefit bill and its new price tag to the floor of Congress for another vote. As the kids say on the playground: Let's have a do-over. Let's have this debate again, only this time without blinders. President Bush no longer needs to worry about winning the support of seniors for reelection. Limited government conservatives in Congress -- who seem to be itching to assert their principles -- could this time vote on ideology without fear of significant reprisals from the White House. Let's have hearings. Let's let economists testify to what this thing is really going to cost us. A revote wouldn't nullify the deception and arm-twisting that went into passing the bill the first time around, but a new debate and a new vote would make those tactics less significant.

More importantly, a new vote on the prescription drug benefit would restore some accountability and transparency to our federal government, not to mention to a ruling party that seems to have lost sight of the values that lifted it to power.


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