May 9, 2005

May 9, 2005 | Commentary on

Legislative Lowdown -- Week of May 9th

Tuesday, May 3, was another hectic day in President Bush's unrelenting effort to overhaul the unstable Social Security program. "I believe," he told 2,000 factory workers in Mississippi, "I have a duty to talk about the problem and propose a solution." Indeed, much of the day's media coverage addressed various aspects of this top-tier legislative battle.

But if we can assume that a member of Congress' Web page is a window into his or her legislative soul, few others feel the same sense of duty. A quick review of all 100 Senate Web pages on May 3 suggests that the President is waging a lonely campaign on behalf of Social Security reform.

Almost half of Senate Democrats feature the Social Security debate prominently on their home pages, inviting constituents to sign electronic petitions opposing the Bush plan, read relevant press releases, view senatorial statements on the Senate floor, or ascertain just how much they stand to "lose" under "Bush privatization." The latter includes a link to the discredited calculator designed by the liberal Center for Budget and Policy Priorities and touted by Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid.

Reid and 17 of his Democratic colleagues link to the flawed calculator, including several who ought to know better, such as Montana's Max Baucus, senior Democrat on the Senate Finance Committee (where any Social Security reform bill will originate), and two other members of that committee, New York's Chuck Schumer and Arkansas' Blanche Lincoln. Others offering their constituents this misleading link include Senators Ted Kennedy of Massachusetts, Jon Corzine of New Jersey, Barbara Boxer of California, Debbie Stabenow of Michigan and Maria Cantwell of Washington.

Visitors to the sites maintained by Republican senators, in contrast, would be clueless that a Republican President has invested so much political capital over such a sustained period of time on an issue of such importance. Barely half a dozen of the 55 Senate Republicans have chosen to highlight Social Security.

Ohio residents visiting the site of Sen. George Voinovich to learn about issues affecting seniors, for example, would search in vain for any mention of the Social Security debate. Instead, they would find a friendly letter from the senator lauding his work to make prescription drugs available through Medicare.

Special kudos, though, go to GOP senators John Sununu of New Hampshire, Larry Craig of Idaho, Johnny Isakson of Georgia and Norm Coleman of Minnesota for making their commitment to principled Social Security reform crystal clear on their Web pages.

Medicaid Melee: "Don't cut the health care for the most vulnerable," the full-page ad by the Coalition to Protect America's Health Care screams at the reader. It warns that cuts to Medicaid, the program that provides health care and nursing home coverage to the poor, could "affect one-third of all births, one-fourth of all children" and put "millions of seniors and disabled Americans" at risk. Worse, the proposed cuts would "jeopardize critical hospital services" and limit the ability of hospitals "to invest in new technology" that could--drum roll, please--"save your life."

Senior members of Congress agreed. West Virginia Sen. Jay Rockefeller described the cuts as nothing less than "horrific." Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.) decried them as "a prescription for disaster" for those "who depend on the program as their only means of health care coverage."

Wow! Has there been a resurgence of fiscal belt-tightening on Capitol Hill that we've all missed? Alas, no.

All this hand wringing came in response to the effort by Republican leaders on Capitol Hill to craft a budget that, among other things, would reduce Medicaid's explosive growth by a total of $10 billion over five years. Sound like the sort of legislative initiative that warrants such life-and-death rhetoric?

Senate Budget Committee Chairman Judd Gregg of New Hampshire said it best. "Over the next five years," he pointed out during the floor debate, "we are going to spend $1.12 trillion, a huge amount of money, on Medicaid. This budget is suggesting that we reduce that rate of spending over the next five years by $10 billion; $10 billion on a $1.12 trillion base. The practical effect of this is we are taking a program that is going to grow at 41% over the next five years and reducing its rate of growth to 39%."

Gregg was optimistic Congress would deliver on this "small but symbolically important" effort. "We can do that," he insisted. "If we are halfway decent as managers of the tax dollars of Americans."

Under last month's budget agreement, Congress has to adopt legislation to slow the growth in federal entitlement programs such as Medicaid and federal farm programs. As minuscule as they are, these budget savings nevertheless will provoke liberals to mount the sort of high volume, sky-is-falling lobby campaigns described above. As David Walker, the respected head of the Government Accountability Office, has put it, entitlement programs are on an "unsustainable" course that will require Congress to intervene and enact legislation to alleviate this threat.

The $10 billion in "horrific" reductions in Medicaid's rate of growth represent an early trial run to gauge whether Congress is up to what ultimately will be a Herculean task. 
 
Mr. Franc, who has held a number of positions on Capitol Hill, is vice president of Government Relations at The Heritage Foundation.

About the Author

Michael Franc Distinguished Fellow
Government Studies

First appeared in Human Events