December 9, 2003

December 9, 2003 | Commentary on Health Care

The Cost of Doing the Right Thing

"One more such victory and I am lost." -- Pyrrhus

It's not always easy to do the right thing, especially when power and prestige hang in the balance.

That's especially true in Washington, where power in Congress means sitting on the correct committees, and party leaders can yank those plum assignments if members step out of line. So we owe a word of thanks to the conservative representatives and conservative senators who put their power and prestige at risk and voted against the Medicare "reform" bill.

We already know they'll pay a price. Republican leadership aides told The Hill newspaper that representatives who voted against the Medicare bill "can expect to remain on the back bench" next year. Still, even if their party leadership plans to hang these conservatives out to dry, they deserve our support, because they did the right thing.

Consider some of the things this bill will do:

  • Create a giant new prescription-drug entitlement and tack it on to the already failing Medicare program.
  • Cause an estimated 4 million seniors to lose their current, employer-provided prescription-drug coverage and instead be dropped into the new government plan.
  • Cost a minimum of $400 billion over the next 10 years, with a price tag in the trillions after that.

This bill represents a triple threat. It will expand the size, scope and reach of government. This one was a no-brainer: Conservatives should have voted against it en masse.

But Washington can be funny that way. Republicans are normally more open to conservative thinking, and the GOP controls both houses of Congress (narrowly) and the White House. Still, on this bill, Republican leaders decided to put politics ahead of policy.

House Speaker Dennis Hastert and House Majority Leader Tom DeLay are both good men, but they were wrong on this. They twisted the arms of many conservative lawmakers. President Bush worked the phones all night, and the House leadership kept the vote going … and going … and going until they managed to round up enough support to slip the bill through in the pre-dawn hours.

What they wanted was a bill, any bill, that they could claim as a victory on the campaign trail next year. But as we've seen, this bill isn't a victory for America's seniors -- it's just another win for big government.

There's a better solution, one that would help needy seniors without harming those who already have employer-provided coverage. To his credit, President Bush initially called for such real reform, and conservatives supported him.

Congress can still go back and craft a plan that works like the Federal Employees Health Benefits Program, the program that covers members of Congress, federal workers and retirees, and their 9 million family members.

FEHBP includes a number of private plans, and they all offer drug benefits. The wide variety of plans means seniors could choose an expensive plan with a gold-plated drug benefit, or a more basic (and less costly) plan with a smaller benefit. Plus, the millions of seniors who have employer-sponsored coverage would be able to keep it.

We need to reform Medicare. But that reform must come along free market lines. It should promote competition and fairness, not expand government control and saddle us with a one-size-fits-none prescription-drug benefit.

Conservatives once cheered at the idea of controlling both houses of Congress and the White House. But unless we base our reform on true conservative principles, we're going to fail. If all we do is expand the size and influence of government in our lives we, like Pyrrhus, will eventually find that our legislative "victories" have destroyed everything we've worked so hard to accomplish.

Ed Feulner is president of The Heritage Foundation, a Washington-based public policy research institute.

About the Author

Edwin J. Feulner, Ph.D. Founder, Chairman of the Asian Studies Center, and Chung Ju-yung Fellow
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