Speed and Cynicism
If you've ever wondered why Americans are so cynical about
Washington, look no further than Congress' recent moves to add a
prescription-drug benefit to Medicare.
The idea is a noble one. Several million seniors lack drug
coverage. Lawmakers could have written a bill narrowly tailored to
help those people that still allowed the 78 percent of seniors who
currently have drug coverage to keep it.
Instead they slapped together a bill with gaping holes and enormous
consequences, and then raced to vote on it. The Congressional
Budget Office estimates that, under that bill, 37 percent of
retirees with employer-sponsored coverage could lose it and instead
be thrown into the Medicare "safety net."
Lawmakers don't seem very worried about that. Maybe that's because
the legislation won't take effect until 2006. By then, most people
aren't likely to even remember who voted for what back in the
summer of '03.
Another reason they're unconcerned: They have no plans to sleep in
the same bed they're making for others. They intend to keep the
coverage they get through the Federal Employees Health Benefits
Program. Of course, they're not saying that publicly.
In fact, the Senate voted 93-3 to pass an amendment proposed by
Sen. Mark Dayton, D-Minn., to cut the drug benefit for senators to
the same level as the benefit that Medicare provides seniors.
Rest assured the Dayton Amendment will be gone when the final
version is approved. Roll Call newspaper reported recently that
Senate Republican leaders plan to strip the measure from the final
bill. In other words, lawmakers voted for it on the floor, but
they'll remove it behind closed doors.
The Senate version featured more than 1,000 amendments. In order to
speed the process, Senators were allowed just two minutes of debate
before voting on each of those amendments. Some probably made
sense; others didn't. But how could they decide after merely two
minutes of debate?
Meanwhile, Rep. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., complained that many
congressmen hadn't even seen the House bill on June 24. But the
full House still approved it (by one vote) just two days later.
Same thing happened in the Senate: The bill was unveiled on June
11. Just one day later, the Finance Committee approved it. Before
most senators even had a chance to read it, the bill was under
consideration on the floor.
The blinding speed of the process raises the question: Do lawmakers
really know what they've done? Their haste to pass a bill-any
bill-is further proof that measures taken for purely political
reasons usually end up producing bad policy.
The House bill does contain one important element absent from the
Senate version. Starting in 2010, it would require Medicare to
start competing head-to-head on price with private plans. This
would begin the process of giving seniors a real choice of
But Senate Democrats strongly oppose this provision, because they
realize it's a step away from government-managed health care. In
fact, Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., says the current Medicare
reform measure is merely a "down payment." As he assured CNN, "When
we get this as a down payment, we're going to come back again and
again and again."
This legislation would affect millions of people and cost hundreds
of billions of dollars, but it's a mess. That's because it was
thrown together too quickly, voted on without proper consideration
and will be amended behind closed doors.
President Bush should veto it and challenge lawmakers to re-earn
our trust. The need for real Medicare reform is too great to let
sound-bite policy triumph again.
Feulner is the President of The Heritage
Distributed nationally on the Knight-Ridder Tribune wire