By Eugene Robinson
WASHINGTON—To say that George W. Bush spends money like a drunken sailor is to insult every gin-soaked patron of every dockside dive in every dubious port of call. If Bush gets his way, the cost of his wars in Iraq and Afghanistan will soon reach a mind-blowing $600 billion. Despite turning a budget surplus into a huge deficit, the man still hasn’t met a tax cut he doesn’t like. And when the Republicans were in charge of Congress, Bush might as well have signed their pork-stuffed spending bills with a one-word rubber stamp: “Whatever.”
So for Bush to get religion on fiscal responsibility at this late date is, well, a joke. And for him to take his stand on a measure that would have provided health insurance to needy children is a punch line that hasn’t left many Republicans laughing.
Bush’s veto Wednesday of a bipartisan bill reauthorizing the State Children’s Health Insurance Program was infuriatingly bad policy. An estimated 9 million children in this country are not covered by health insurance—a circumstance that should shock the conscience of every American. Democrats and Republicans worked together to craft an expansion of an existing state-run program that would have provided insurance coverage for about 4 million children who currently don’t have it.
It was one of those art-of-the-possible compromises designed to advance the ball toward what has become a national goal. Health care is arguably the biggest domestic issue in the presidential contest and, while the candidates and the country may be all over the map in terms of comprehensive solutions, there’s a pretty broad consensus that some way has to be found to ensure that children, at least, are covered.
Make that an extremely broad consensus: According to a Washington Post/ABC News poll released this week, 72 percent of Americans supported the bill Bush vetoed.
The program Congress voted to expand provides health insurance for children who fall into a perilous gap: Their families make too much money to qualify for Medicaid, but don’t make enough to afford health insurance. The cost of covering an additional 4 million children was estimated at around $35 billion over five years. That’s a lot of money. But in the context of a $13-trillion economy—and set against Bush’s history of devil-may-care, “buy the house another round” spending—it’s chump change.
Bush’s stated reasons for vetoing the SCHIP bill left even reliable congressional allies—such as Republican Sens. Orrin Hatch of Utah and Charles Grassley of Iowa, both of whom supported the legislation—sputtering in incomprehension. As for me, I don’t know what to call the president’s rationale but a pack of flat-out lies.
The president said Congress was trying to “federalize health care,” even though the program in question is run by the states. The president said that “I don’t want the federal government making decisions for doctors and customers,” even though the vetoed bill authorizes no such decisions—the program enrolls children in private, I repeat private, health insurance plans.
And here’s my favorite: “This program expands coverage, federal coverage, up to families earning $83,000 a year. That doesn’t sound poor to me.” But the bill he vetoed prohibits states from using the program to aid families who make more than three times the federal poverty limit, or about $60,000 a year for a family of four. Most of the aid would go to families earning substantially less.
Bush’s spurious $83,000 figure comes from a request by New York state to be able to use the program for some families earning four times the poverty limit. That request was denied by the Bush administration last month—and that upper limit is not in the bill Bush vetoed. End of story. If New York or any other state were to ask again to be able to raise the income limits, the administration could simply say no.
Bush seems to be upset that Congress didn’t adopt his pet idea to tackle the health insurance issue through—guess what?—tax breaks. None of the major players on Capitol Hill thought this would work. When the White House persisted, Congress moved ahead on its own.
Hatch said he believed Bush had been given bad advice from his staff. He didn’t take the next step and draw what seems to me the obvious conclusion: Either Bush didn’t understand the bill he vetoed, or he’s just being petulant—with the health of 4 million children at stake.
“I hope the folks at home raise Cain,” Hatch said.
Oh, I think they will.
Eugene Robinson’s e-mail address is eugenerobinson(at)washpost.com.
© 2007, Washington Post Writers Group