Nothing defines the difference between politicians and real people like the occasional renewal of the Incumbent Protection Act, which always appears disguised as something else.
This congressional session's Incumbent Protection Act is the so-called S-CHIP, which extends "free" (i.e., government-paid) health insurance to millions of middle-class children whose parents can afford to buy the insurance that the rest of us have to pay for.
Legislation like this makes nearly everybody feel warm and fuzzy, like a supper of beef stew and cornbread on a cold winter's night. Who wants the little children to be sick? And if the government pays for it the health insurance, not the beef stew and cornbread it doesn't cost anybody anything. The voters get "free" insurance, the congressmen get free protection against losing an election. It's win-win all around.
The polls show that the public is all for the State Children's Health Insurance Program. Why not? The public will always be for anything that's "free," even beef stew and cornbread. The Senate voted for it by 68 to 31, the House by 265 to 159, margins wide enough to put fuzzballs on the slippers of a lot of congressmen, but maybe not wide enough to overturn the president's principled veto. We can expect to hear a lot about cold, heartless Republicans who cackle like Nurse Hillary at the prospect of little children getting sick with no prospect of getting well.
Naturally the Democrats, whose idea of national defense is to deny that we need one, contrast the $60 billion the expanded child-health program will cost over five years to the president's request for $189 billion to pay for military operations in Afghanistan and Iraq. This is a version of the bumper sticker, typically seen in Cleveland Park, yearning for the day when there will be plenty of money for schools, libraries and places to hold hands and sing kumbaya and the Army and the Navy will hold bake sales to pay for their weapons. Can't we all just give peace a chance?
"While [President Bush] continues to demand billions to fund his flawed war policies he is telling the most vulnerable segment of our society that there just isn't enough money for them to have adequate health care," complains a tearful Rep. Ellen Tauscher of California, who only wants to buy the world a Coke.
The president, as Mzz Tauscher knows well, is not telling the little children any such thing. The president actually proposes to enlarge the program, and spend more money, not less $5 billion more. He proposes covering 95 percent of the poor children before considering whether to include middle-class children, some of whose parents earn up to $90,000 a year. The president would take the $5 billion for the poor children out of general revenue, and not raise the federal tax on cigarettes, which would fall mostly on the blue-collar Americans who smoke. These blue-collar smokers, who we can all agree ought to quit smoking at once, must now smoke more cigarettes to pay for the windfall for the middle-class parents who now pay for insurance on their kids. Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois is typical of the Democrats who refuse to engage debate. He told the president to sign the bill "for the sake of the kids."
Some members of the president's own party urged him to sign, too. The Republicans, despite occasional outbursts of principled opportunism, are most comfortable as the "Me, too" Party. Rather than attempt to explain what a sham this legislation is, the Republican sister women in the Senate retreat, repeating the argument that they have no choice but to vote for something they know is wrong and bad for the country. That's the only way they can stay in Congress, so they can continue to vote for more stuff they know is wrong. The first duty of every congressman is to protect the incumbent.
The president and his party would be easier to pity, even to shower with a little compassionate conservatism, if they had not abandoned their promises and principles six years ago to give the Democrats lessons in how to blow through billions of dollars in search of a bridge to nowhere.