For an illuminating example of the current state of governing and lawmaking in the country, one needs to look no further than the current stalemate in Washington with the SCHIP legislation.
The State Children’s Health Insurance Program (SCHIP) is a 10-year proven success. It was originally a product of a bipartisan consensus, passed by a Republican Congress in 1997 and signed into law by a Democratic president. By most assessments, it has been one of the most successful healthcare measures created in the past decade. The program was set up to insure children in families with incomes too high to receive Medicaid but with incomes too low to afford private insurance. The $40 billion spent on SCHIP in the past 10 years financed insurance for roughly 6.6 million children a year. The money was distributed through the states, which were given considerable flexibility in designing their programs. The insurance came from private companies, at rates negotiated by the states. Governors in both political parties, 43 of them, some staunch conservatives, have praised the program.
The SCHIP legislation was up for renewal this year but with presidential electioneering starting so early it bogged down in the process and has become a bone of contention. The Congress voted to extend the coverage to an additional 4 million children, at the cost of an additional $35 billion over the next five years. The expansion, if it became law would be funded by a 61-cent-per-pack increase in cigarette taxes. The bill did pass in the House along strict party lines, and by a more than two-to-one majority in the Senate. According to national polls, nearly 80 percent of the American public were in favor of the bill and urged the president to sign it. Hundreds of organizations ranging from AARP to the YMCA and the United Way of America also called upon President Bush to sign the measure.
However, the president saw it differently and vetoed the bill. President Bush underfunded the program in his budget; the $4.8 billion extra he proposed spending on SCHIP in the next five years, according to reports, would not even finance insurance for those currently being covered. Instead he chose to make a policy statement claiming that the bill was an incremental step toward “government-run healthcare for every American.”
I am sure it was no small coincidence that most, if not all of the candidates vying to be the nominee on the Democratic Party ticket next year are advocating some form of national healthcare on the campaign trail. The president changed the debate from a children’s health issue to socialized medicine. I don’t think it was coincidence that the front-runner for the Democratic nomination and a place on the national ballot is the poster child for national healthcare, Hillary Clinton. The Democratic congress fell into the political trap.
Rather than meet the legislative challenge after the veto and go back to work to try to find a compromise that would be acceptable to more legislators and garner enough votes to override the veto, the Democratic leadership hardened their position. This time they came back with a $50 billion bill. The bill not only raised the ante, it aimed to curtail the private Medicare benefit delivery system that President Bush favors. Their position seems to suggest “by gosh we will show him” and like kids in the school yard, the line was drawn in the sand. And it is where the measure remains today — stuck in the sand.
The president vetoed the bill on Oct. 3 and a month and a half later the country still doesn’t have a bill on a program that both political parties support and want to continue. If that makes any sense I sure fail to see it. You could field a football team with all the people that are running for president and manage to have a few substitutes. Perhaps, it would make more sense for the country if they would all go home for six months and see if the sitting government could get something accomplished. It is no wonder why the approval ratings for politicians are so low.
Robert Brincefield is publisher of the Brownwood Bulletin. His column appears on Sunday. He may be reached by e-mail at email@example.com.