August 21, 2009

August 21, 2009 | Commentary on Health Care

Myths You'll Hear at Town Halls

Faced with angry constituents at town hall meetings, some congressmen and senators will say whatever it takes to calm things down. Even if it's misleading.

Two common tell-'em-what-they-want-to-hear statements now echoing in town halls are:

  • "As a member of Congress, I get the same health coverage as other federal workers" (sometimes with an added commitment to extend the same coverage to everyone)
  • "I will oppose any bill that increases the deficit."

Don't believe it.

Health Care for Congress

At a town hall for Rep. Jeff Flake (R, AZ), citizen Sally Petrich told him, "Whatever I'm on, I want you on."

When constituents clamor that Congress should be under the same plan it would impose on others, congressmen often respond by making their current coverage sound so normal that there's no reason to change it.

Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT) tells his constituents online, "As a United States Senator, my current health plan options are the same options offered to all federal employees."

Not exactly.

Although it's true that health coverage for Congress starts with the same plans made available to all federal workers, it doesn't stop there. Yes, all are offered coverage through the Federal Employees Health Benefits Plan, which lets workers pick a private insurance plan from a variety of qualified companies.

But for a modest annual fee of $503, Representatives and Senators also receive boutique-style health care, provided through the Office of the Attending Physician in the U.S. Capitol Building. It is high-quality care, ranging from vaccinations to X-rays to chiropractic adjustments.

In a word, it's nice. One newspaper described the initial visit of freshman Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-Va.):

This, by the way, is not a normal doctor's waiting room.

David Ciomperlik [the receptionist] sat behind a large, mahogany desk that looked like something more at home in a law firm than a physician's office. A huge congressional seal with "Office of the Attending Physician" scrawled across it hung over the desk.

Two large televisions were mounted on the walls, where members can watch the action on the floor of the House of Representatives and U.S. Senate live as they wait to meet with the medical staff.

"I can tell you when the next vote is," said Ciomperlik to Connolly before he went into the doctor's office.

"After receiving his shot, Connolly emphasized that the medical services are not a perk for members.

"These medical services are not free. I have to pay for them and I have the same health insurance as other federal workers," he said.

But $503 a year is a bargain for boutique health care that typically costs thousands of dollars. Congress gets the bargain because it spends a few million tax dollars a year to run the office. It is not exclusively for Congress; emergency and first-aid services for those in the U.S. Capitol complex are also provided.

The difference between Congress and others doesn't stop there, however. Senators and representatives also qualify for VIP care at Bethesda Naval Medical Hospital on the northern edge of Washington, D.C.

Congress should pay market price for these perks or end them. Otherwise, lawmakers will continue to lose the trust of the American people.

The "Won't Raise the Deficit" Ploy

Another standard line at town hall meetings is typified by what Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) told a feisty audience: "I won't vote for a bill that will increase the deficit."

It sounds like a promise not to be a big spender. Yet many who voice this promise about health care overhaul have already voted many times to increase the deficit. Cardin, for example, voted for $787 billion in deficit spending for the infamous "stimulus" bill.

Remember, deficits are in the eye of the beholder. Politicians count tax increases as an offset for spending increases. They count promises of future spending reductions as offsets for current spending increases. Of course, the tax increases happen but the future spending reductions don't.

Nobody can count how many times Congress used promises of reducing Medicare or Medicaid spending as a phony rationale for increased spending. Indeed, the White House is making this very promise as a fictitious offset to the $1-trillion-plus costs of its health care plan.

Dr. Stuart Butler of The Heritage Foundation suggests a better system: Require Congress to count only savings that have actually occurred and been put in the bank. Forget about treating a political promise as though it were reality.

Claiming you won't vote for a measure that increases the deficit is often just a delaying tactic while you prepare a loophole for doing that very thing.

The health care comments and deficit ploy are only two of the rhetorical tricks that elected officials frequently use to try to flummox -- er, I mean, calm down -- a hostile crowd. Citizens who are aware of them will be better prepared to hold the politicians accountable.

Ernest Istook is recovering from serving 14 years in Congress and is now a distinguished fellow at The Heritage Foundation.

About the Author

Ernest Istook Distinguished Fellow
Government Studies

Related Issues: Health Care

First Appeared in Human Events