Politics makes bad public policy

Posted: Tuesday, August 05, 2003

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 did not. 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 plans.

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.

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

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