Friday, December 11, 2009
Bruce Bartlett, a senior policy analyst in the Reagan Administration and columnist for Forbes.com, called out Arizona Congressman Trent Franks in a recent article about the health-care debate and why Republicans have little credibility when it comes to talking about fiscal responsibility.
It's important to remember that the congressional budget resolution capped the projected cost of the drug benefit at $400 billion over 10 years. If there had been an official estimate from Medicare's chief actuary putting the cost at well more than that, then the legislation could have been killed by a single member in either the House or Senate by raising a point of order. Then-Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss., later said he regretted not doing so.
Even with a deceptively low estimate of the drug benefit's cost, there were still a few Republicans in the House of Representatives who wouldn't roll over and play dead just to buy re-election. Consequently, when the legislation came up for its final vote on Nov. 22, 2003, it was failing by 216 to 218 when the standard 15-minute time allowed for voting came to an end.
What followed was one of the most extraordinary events in congressional history. The vote was kept open for almost three hours while the House Republican leadership brought massive pressure to bear on the handful of principled Republicans who had the nerve to put country ahead of party. The leadership even froze the C-SPAN cameras so that no one outside the House chamber could see what was going on.
Among those congressmen strenuously pressed to change their vote was Nick Smith, R-Mich., who later charged that several members of Congress attempted to virtually bribe him, by promising to ensure that his son got his seat when he retired if he voted for the drug bill. One of those members, House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Texas, was later admonished by the House Ethics Committee for going over the line in his efforts regarding Smith.
Eventually, the arm-twisting got three Republicans to switch their votes from nay to yea: Ernest Istook of Oklahoma, Butch Otter of Idaho and Trent Franks of Arizona. Three Democrats also switched from nay to yea and two Republicans switched from yea to nay, for a final vote of 220 to 215. In the end, only 25 Republicans voted against the budget-busting drug bill. (All but 16 Democrats voted no.)
Otter and Istook are no longer in Congress, but Franks still is, so I checked to see what he has been saying about the health legislation now being debated. Like all Republicans, he has vowed to fight it with every ounce of strength he has, citing the increase in debt as his principal concern. "I would remind my Democratic colleagues that their children, and every generation thereafter, will bear the burden caused by this bill. They will be the ones asked to pay off the incredible debt," Franks declared on Nov. 7.
Just to be clear, the Medicare drug benefit was a pure giveaway with a gross cost greater than either the House or Senate health reform bills how being considered. Together the new bills would cost roughly $900 billion over the next 10 years, while Medicare Part D will cost $1 trillion.
Moreover, there is a critical distinction—the drug benefit had no dedicated financing, no
offsets and no revenue-raisers; 100% of the cost simply added to the federal budget deficit, whereas the health reform measures now being debated will be paid for with a combination of spending cuts and tax increases, adding nothing to the deficit over the next 10 years, according to the Congressional Budget Office. (See here for the Senate bill estimate and here for the House bill.)
Maybe Franks isn't the worst hypocrite I've ever come across in Washington, but he's got to be in the top 10 because he apparently thinks the unfunded drug benefit, which added $15.5 trillion (in present value terms) to our nation's indebtedness, according to Medicare's trustees, was worth sacrificing his integrity to enact into law. But legislation expanding health coverage to the uninsured—which is deficit-neutral—somehow or other adds an unacceptable debt burden to future generations. We truly live in a world only George Orwell could comprehend when our elected representatives so easily conflate one with the other.