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Where's the Budget Outrage?

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By E. J. Dionne Jr.
Tuesday, January 31, 2006

This week the Republican Party hopes to escape its immediate past. House Republicans will elect new leaders. They hope that the party's corruption scandal will be forgotten and that the names Tom DeLay and Jack Abramoff will become as unmentionable in their world as Lord Voldemort's is in Harry Potter's.

President Bush hopes for a new start with his State of the Union address. The words from last year he wants to wipe out of the political lexicon include "Brownie," "Katrina," "heck of a job" and "Social Security privatization."

But there is an uncomfortable bit of business left over from the Republican disaster year of 2005 that will test the seriousness of the party's supposed commitment to change. The cut-the-poor, help-the-big-interests federal budget passed last year needs final ratification in the House. The vote could take place as soon as tomorrow.

Let's be clear: Anyone who votes for this fiscal mess will be standing for the bad old ways of doing business in Washington. Those who do so will have no claim to being "reformers."

At least one Republican, Rep. Rob Simmons of Connecticut, has had a change of heart, thanks to laudable grass-roots pressure -- which, to his credit, Simmons acknowledged.

"I voted for it in December," Simmons said of the budget in a statement released last week. But after consulting with constituency groups, Simmons decided that the bill "remains unsatisfactory" and that "the budget, as it stands, falls short." Moderate Republicans who had no business voting for this bill in the first place should be challenged to join Simmons.

What was known when the budget was last approved was bad enough: that in merging the fiscal plans passed by the House and Senate, Republican leaders dropped Senate provisions that would have sought savings from drug companies and preferred-provider organizations and instead imposed new burdens on lower-income Americans who rely on Medicaid. The theme of this budget was: Protect the well-connected, bash the poor.

But since the last vote, new information has emerged that would more than justify a change of heart by Republicans who voted "yes."

It's worth citing in full the first paragraph of an important piece of investigative reporting last week by The Post's Jonathan Weisman: "House and Senate GOP negotiators, meeting behind closed doors last month to complete a major budget-cutting bill, agreed on a change to Senate-passed Medicare legislation that would save the health insurance industry $22 billion over the next decade, according to the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office."

What's wrong with this picture? First, a group of legislators who claim to want to reduce the deficit gutted a provision designed to save taxpayers money, after heavy lobbying by the health insurance industry.

Second, a Congress saying that it really, really wants to change the way it does business ratified a backroom deal in the wee hours of the morning that almost nobody who voted on it knew anything about. Many on the right have been waging war on "earmarks," those special projects that members of Congress insert into bills, often at the last minute -- and that have proliferated since the Republicans took over the House. But secret special-interest deals can be at least as costly, often more so, than many of those earmarks.

And yesterday the New York Times reported on a Congressional Budget Office study of the impact of this budget on the health coverage of poorer Americans. As the Times's Robert Pear reported, the study found that "millions of low-income people would have to pay more for health care under a bill worked out by Congress, and some of them would forgo care or drop out of Medicaid because of the higher co-payments and premiums."

How strange it is that while the president claims he wants to help people get health coverage, he and his party would support a budget that could force some poor Americans to walk away from care.

It's hard these days to get the media to pay attention to budgets and their impact on the lives of citizens. Budgets are complicated and easy to spin. It's much easier to generate immense moral outrage over a memoir writer who tells lies.

But long after we've forgotten the name of that writer, a mother on Medicaid will be deciding whether she can afford to take her sick child to see the doctor. Can we please spend at least a tiny bit of our moral outrage on her behalf?

postchat@aol.com


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