Congressional FUBAR

Before last year’s election, Congress passed a Medicare drug entitlement that was outrageously, irresponsibly expensive – a budget breaker, an economy stopper – but while many in Congress admit as much, they claim innocence for their errant votes.

Their whine is that George W. Bush made them do it, and Bush does have a lot to answer for in this act of fiscal mayhem – political fraud and abandonment of principle, for starters. But he no more tricked Congress, as some members allege, than a bear tricks a trapper into snagging him. Congress, which is supposed to be a check on the executive, checked nothing: It prodded Bush into this mess and has since sought sanctuary through flimsy excuses that verge on being lies.

Go back to the election campaign of 2000 and you find Bush making the case that Medicare could not afford a system of helping all beneficiaries with their drug costs.

He said the system was overburdened already and had to be repaired before taking on the additional weight. Aid the poorest beneficiaries immediately, he argued, and then aid the others after reform. It was Al Gore, his opponent, who argued for a system shoving drug-assistance funds in the pockets of the middle class and even of the rich. Gore knew elderly voters were seldom loath to take something for nothing, even if “nothing” would have to be financed by either taxes or borrowing.

Bush won the election, but Gore won the argument, owing to the help his side later got.

It got help from congressional Democrats such as Ted Kennedy, who said in effect it would be cruel not to chase down comfortably fixed beneficiaries and force drug assistance on them.

It got help from the press, which seldom paused to point out that the poorest elderly got drug help from Medicaid, that most on Medicare had supplemental insurance for the purpose, that the average annual drug bill for most beneficiaries was not ridiculously high and that the government could help the needy on Medicare without great expense.

It ultimately got help from congressional Republicans, some of whom thought they were going to take a licking on the issue come the next election. Many made clear their wish to go at least halfway with the Democrats, and the next thing you knew, Bush was signing on, asking for only the slightest concession by way of Medicare reform – some barely noticeable experiments with insurance competition – and saying the cost would not be what everyone knew it would be.

Here is where members of Congress say they were tricked. Bush deceived them about cost estimates, they contend, and it’s true that the administration did not share pertinent numbers the bureaucracy had come up with. But as someone who was writing about the issue at the time, I can promise you that no one who was paying close attention – certainly not someone worthy of being a member of Congress – could have missed knowing the obvious: The program over 10 years was going to cost something like twice the administration’s $400 billion promise.

If most in Congress concur with what many are now saying – that the official estimates of the moment show the drug package is financially disastrous — they should act on behalf of the country by reconsidering the issue and passing a bill that conforms with Bush’s earliest proposals. The drug legislation is not due to go into effect for another year, meaning that members of Congress would not be attempting political suicide by yanking from people what they already have.

The administration says it will fight back if the drug package is attacked, but the time is ripe for negotiation: Members of Congress can tell the administration they will cooperate in restructuring Social Security – a vital task for the years ahead – if and only if the administration agrees to this other adjustment also crucial for coping with the aging of baby boomers.

Bush seeks a legacy of doing what is fundamentally important to secure the American future. Congress can make the point that both Social Security and Medicare reform are equally important. It can rescue a portion of its own reputation by pushing Bush to a cave-in that, this time, could help him find a favorable place in the history books instead of a high ranking among opportunists.

(Jay Ambrose, formerly Washington director of editorial policy and editor of dailies in El Paso, Texas, and Denver, is a columnist living in Colorado. He can be reached at SpeaktoJay(at)