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Socialized Medicine's Front Door

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By Robert D. Novak
Thursday, September 27, 2007

The Alice in Wonderland quality of legislating in Congress was typified this week. The Democratic Congress quickly passed a national health insurance bill, drafted in secret and protected from amendment, that constitutes the most important legislation of this session. While designed for a presidential veto, it is national health insurance -- through the front, not the back, door. Democrats view it as a no-lose situation: Either landmark health care will be enacted over President George W. Bush's veto, or, if overridden, they'll have a lovely 2008 campaign issue.

This outcome was previewed a week ago by Democratic leader Steny Hoyer and Republican Whip Roy Blunt in a colloquy on the House floor. Blunt questioned the procedure under which a radical expansion of the State Children's Health Insurance Program (SCHIP) would be passed as a "bill that has not been debated." No matter, Hoyer replied. It would not really be a new bill because "there will be nothing, I think, in the bill that was not in the House or Senate bills" that were passed previously. Such is the sad state of congressional procedure today.

This business as usual on Capitol Hill is worth noting because an extension of SCHIP would cover many more than the poor children originally intended to be helped. The new bill would cover families with income up to $82,000 a year, threatening to crowd out the private health industry. Only Congress could conceive making families simultaneously eligible for SCHIP to help the poor and the alternative minimum tax to punish the rich.

SCHIP was conceived in 1997 by a Republican-controlled Congress, still uneasy about defeating Hillary Clinton's health-care plan four years earlier and intending to provide supplementary health insurance for poor children. When Democrats took control of Congress this year, they sought to transform a relatively modest program into a government takeover of health care. Separate bills were passed months ago in the House and Senate along party lines, but Republican senators blocked a Senate-House conference to iron out the differences.

After the summer break, key Democrats started meeting behind closed doors -- Republicans excluded -- the weekend of Sept. 14-15, seeking a way for the House to pass the Senate bill and send it to the president. The finished product was not put in Republican hands until 6:30 p.m. on Sept. 24, with the vote scheduled for 24 hours later. There was no chance to vote for a substitute, much less amend the bill. The legislation would extend SCHIP to families earning up to 400 percent of the poverty level ($82,000 a year) in New York, 350 percent in New Jersey and 300 percent elsewhere. States also could extend the aid to childless adults. Indeed, "children" would include anyone younger than 21.

"A growing body of professional literature shows that when government health insurance expands, up to 60 percent of existing private coverage is 'crowded out,' " a Heritage Foundation report said last week. The program's $35 billion expansion is supposed to be financed by a 61-cent increase in cigarette taxes, but financing is scheduled to abruptly fall 72 percent halfway through 2012. With private insurance probably no longer available, Congress would then have no choice but to provide additional funding.

Bush's inevitable veto will face a certain override in the Senate, where supposedly conservative Republican graybeards have defected. Orrin Hatch is in another partnership with his friend, Ted Kennedy. Chuck Grassley, the ranking GOP member on the Finance Committee, again has drifted leftward.

In the House, Republican Rep. Ray LaHood has worked closely with a fellow Illinoisan, House Democratic Caucus Chairman Rahm Emanuel, to round up Republican votes for a veto override. But LaHood and his allies were silent during yesterday's House GOP conference. Rep. Paul Ryan, the top Budget Committee Republican, declared: "This is not a back door to get socialized medicine. They went straight to the front door." A head count showed no more than 57 Republicans prepared to override Bush -- probably 11 short of what is needed.

Democrats flinched at giving Republicans a hard choice: override the veto or end the existing SCHIP program. Instead, funding is being extended by a separate bill. Nevertheless, Democrats will eagerly pummel Republicans for "voting against kids" by refusing to sanction a long step toward Hillarycare.

¿ 2007 Creators Syndicate Inc.


© 2007 The Washington Post Company

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