There was a moment in the past weeks’ confirmation hearings that reveals the root of what’s wrong with our government. It was not in the most contentious or well-publicized hearing — and indeed, it was a case where Senate Democrats, Senate Republicans and the new administration all agree. It was a model, in some ways, of bipartisanship.
Which makes it that much worse.
The hearings were for Tommy Thompson, the former Wisconsin governor who was just confirmed as secretary of Health and Human Services. And everyone, Thompson included, agreed on the fundamental issue: that our government should subsidize prescription drug spending for all 40 million Americans over the age of 65 — whether they need it or not.
The only disagreement was over Bush’s pledge to push for an immediate, temporary subsidy only for the impoverished elderly. This was opposed, by both Democrats and Republicans, because it is too small and too temporary. The new welfare program, both sides apparently agree, should be giant and permanent.
This issue ought to be hotly debated, because both prescription drug plans are potential disasters. Government spending on prescription drugs will be followed inevitably by price controls, as the government desperately tries to contain its spending. Those price controls, in turn, will kill any incentive for research and development on new drugs.
And for what? The allegation that people can’t afford prescription drugs, which is supposed to justify this massive new government program, is a hoax. A government survey conducted a few years ago showed that only 2 percent of Americans over the age of 65 report having trouble paying for prescription drugs. That’s fewer than one million people, a figure that can’t even justify the $12 billion per year earmarked in Bush’s small proposal.
None of this, of course, was even discussed — and that is part of what was wrong with the hearings. What is worse, perhaps, is what was said.
Why were the senators opposed to Bush’s temporary plan? First, complains Louisiana Democrat John Breaux, because it provides aid only to the impoverished, Bush’s plan would make the government subsidies look like a welfare program.
Think about that for a moment. Haven’t we been bombarded with images of elderly patients so poor that they have to choose between buying medicine and buying food? Isn’t their poverty the whole rationalization for government involvement? What else is this program supposed to be, if not a welfare program? Who does Sen. Breaux think he is fooling?
The senators want to argue for a prescription drug entitlement as if it were a welfare program, by appealing to the needs of the poor. Then they want to deny that it is a welfare program — while admitting openly, in televised hearings, that it sure as heck looks like a welfare program.
The second objection against the temporary subsidy was an even more strenuous act of evasion. Montana Democrat Max Baucus intoned that a temporary subsidy for poor elderly patients “might be enough to preclude doing more later.” This, oddly enough, was considered a strike against the Bush proposal. But if a smaller, temporary program is enough to solve the problem, why shouldn’t we embrace it?
Maine Republican Olympia Snowe made the motive clearer when she complained, “If we have a temporary program, we may never get any more on prescription drugs.” In other words, she is afraid that the temporary program might actually work; it might pay for the prescriptions of those few elderly patients who are in genuine financial distress. And that can’t be allowed, because it would destroy the rationalization for further government expansion.
The senators know that a government takeover of prescription drug spending cannot be justified by the facts. They know that the sob stories featured in Al Gore’s stump speeches were a distortion of the truth. They know it, and they implicitly acknowledge that truth in front of television cameras and scribbling reporters. But they only acknowledge it so they can then ask us — and the new administration — to forget about it, to pretend that welfare isn’t welfare and that solving the problem won’t solve the problem. Unfortunately, Thompson agreed to forget about it; he conceded that Bush won’t push his small welfare program if Congress passes the big one.
To evade the facts and arguments that haven’t been said is bad enough. To evade the truth they have just acknowledged is worse. To make evasion the basis for public policy — that is the disastrous direction in which our leaders are taking us.
Robert W Tracinski
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