Almost Free-- And For the Children

Posted: Oct 05, 2007 12:01 AM
Almost Free-- And For the Children

The latest Washington Post-ABC News poll found that seven in 10 Americans support the new bill to increase the State Children's Health Insurance Program (SCHIP) by $35 billion, which President Bush vetoed Wednesday.

Of course most Americans support the bill. It's for the children, and the way supporters push it, it's practically free. If Bush seems so clearly out of touch with the voters (as well as moderate and conservative elected Republicans) on the politics, then on a policy level he had reason to veto the bill.

The Senate and House have found the worst mechanism to fund the SCHIP expansion -- a 61 cents per pack increase in cigarette taxes. It is as if Washington Dems and Repubs have reached a cynical pact -- an agreement to pass bills that expand the size and scope of government, without ever coming up with an honest way to pay for them.

The cigarette tax is regressive and inadequate. But that matters little. In this Washington, no program is so important that average taxpayers should have to pay to expand it. For Bush's part, like many Repubs, he opposes any tax hike, including a tax increase to fund SCHIP. Democrats want bigger government, without cutting other domestic programs. So both parties have fallen into a default agreement -- more spending without even a modest, broad-based tax to fund it.

Supporters talk about providing more health care for poor children. Yet in six states, the Bush administration points out, SCHIP spends more on adults than children. Urban Institute health policy expert Genevieve M. Kenney explained that some 10 states, which had expanded health care for kids, were granted federal waivers to use SCHIP money for adults. She added that the new congressional bill would sharply limit SCHIP funding for adults.

The Bushies also argue that the congressional bill isn't about providing health care for poor kids -- as it would expand SCHIP for children of the middle class, with family incomes as high as $62,000 per year -- many of whom already receive employer-funded health care. In short, the vetoed bill does not put the neediest kids first.

Actually, the Bushies have argued the bill could cover children with families earning as much as $83,000 annually -- but that dishonest figure, as The Washington Post pointed out, represents a request by New York to cover families earning four times the poverty level, which the administration nixed.

"With the stroke of a pen, President Bush has robbed nearly 4 million uninsured children of the chance for a healthy start in life and the health coverage they need but can't afford," Sen. Hillary Clinton, R-N.Y., announced in a statement issued by her campaign. That statement also is off. Clinton should know that a third of the children who would sign up with SCHIP if Congress overrides the Bush veto already have coverage through their parents' employers.

Democrats also have bashed Bush for a) exercising fiscal restraint on SCHIP after bankrolling the Iraq war and b) for using his veto power on SCHIP after underutilizing it in the first term.

Essentially, they are arguing that a) since the country has gone to war, Bush should abandon all fiscal restraint on domestic spending and b) that he should continue to stick to hyper-spending, which voters rejected in 2006 -- just to be consistent.

Nuts on both counts.

Although I do think Kenney had a point when she told me, "The funding increase that's being requested to support this program is small, relative to the size of the federal budget and certainly relative to the size of other programs."

Kenney doesn't think SCHIP should be "held hostage to the quagmire."

Already, the Bush administration is making noises about a compromise. On Tuesday, Health and Human Services Secretary Michael Leavitt told The Washington Post that President Clinton vetoed welfare reform legislation twice before cutting a deal with Republicans in 1996 and signing a bill.

The next question is: Do Democrats want a new bill, or do they want a Bush veto to help them win in 2008?

This much we know: If Washington does pass a bill, both parties will cut a deal that only pretends to fund the expansion. And while Bush says he wants to put "poor kids first," he'll be in a corner that may force him to accommodate the Democratic leadership's plan to expand SCHIP to the middle class.

I, too, believe in providing health care for needy children, but in this country, we've forgotten how to draw a line.