The Bush administration would much rather fight "evildoers" around the world than face the music at home, where unemployment is rising and the federal treasury appears headed back towards deficits for no good reason.
Only three years ago last September Bill Clinton celebrated the end of chronic deficit spending. It took an economic boom that Republicans predicted would never happen because the Democrats had raised taxes in 1993. Now, in just one year, George W. Bush has cut taxes, spent the surplus and Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill has notified Congress that the current $5.95 trillion debt ceiling could be breached as early as February. O'Neill asked lawmakers to move quickly to raise the borrowing limit to $6.7 trillion.
Congress has little choice: Failing to boost the ceiling would cause a default on payments to holders of government bonds. But as the Los Angeles Times reported Jan. 3, the vote will reopen the debate over the tax and spending priorities of the Bush administration. The Times' Warren Vieth noted that government surpluses are credited with helping drive the robust economic growth of the 1990s by driving down interest rates and spurring confidence among consumers and businesses. Democrats are expected to use the debt ceiling debate to renew their claim that Bush and his Republican allies squandered the surplus with last year's $1.3 trillion tax cut package.
Bush's chest is puffed out with the popularity generated by the Afghanistan turkey shoot, and he already has shown with his "not over my dead body" remarks that he is looking for a fight with the Democrats over economic policy. His economic stimulus plan, larded with goodies for his corporate benefactors (including millions in tax refunds for Enron), has been restyled an "economic security plan," suggesting that opposition to his tax cuts would be unpatriotic. He also recklessly pledged that he will not retreat from insistence on more tax breaks for the wealthy, reminiscent of his old man's ill-fated "Read my lips" pledge. Meanwhile, his own Treasury secretary is at Congress, hat in hand, asking for more borrowing authority so the Bush administration can pay the next installments of last year's tax breaks.
Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle unveiled a modest Democratic alternative economic plan which Daschle called "a growth agenda.'' It focuses on tax rebates for the working poor who didn't qualify for last year's tax cut, shorter-term tax cuts for companies that create new jobs and faster write-offs of business investments. For what it's worth, the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office said Democratic proposals had a better chance of reviving the economy at lower costs than the president's proposals, the Washington Post reported Jan. 5.
But every dollar that goes for tax breaks is a dollar that won't help to provide decent health care for every American.
Bush assured the nation last year that it could afford his tax cuts and still have plenty left over for military spending, prescription drug assistance for seniors and health coverage for working poor Americans. It turned out he was mistaken, but Bush doesn't appear to be broken-hearted about jettisoning prescription drug assistance and health coverage for the working poor. Health care has never been a priority for Bush because everybody he cares about has good insurance and gets quality care. After all, he sure has a nice HMO arrangement at the White House, and his folks are well looked-after.
But Dubya was out of touch before he got to the White House. Remember when he was governor of Texas he scoffed at reports that there were hungry people in the Lone Star State. So it's no surprise that the Sept. 11 attacks and the recession offered him the excuse, he dropped the pretense of a plan to reduce the number of uninsured Americans and to add a prescription drug benefit to Medicare.
However, people who lose their jobs, and their insurance as well, will be walking a tightrope as the recession deepens. Even if they are offered the health coverage provided by their former employer, they have to pay the full cost. If they can't afford it, they won't qualify for Medicaid as long as they own a house, a car or other major assets.
Even those workers who keep their jobs will find that many of their employers, hit by the recession and double-digit increases in health insurance premiums, are passing on more health care costs to their employees. More workers who already are strapped to pay the rent, put food in the pantry and keep the lights on may be tempted to do without health insurance and hope that nothing goes wrong.
A recent survey commissioned by the Commonwealth Fund found that one in four Americans age 19 to 64 was without health insurance for some period in the past year. That's 38.4 million people ó and doesn't count their children.
Efforts to provide health care funding in the economic stimulus bill broke down as Republicans insisted that the benefit be provided through a tax credit, which Democrats noted would be least likely to help people who are living at a subsistence level.
What passes for a health initiative for the Bush administration was a proposal this past summer to issue drug discount cards, which elderly consumers could use to help them buy brand-name medicines in metropolitan areas. The General Accounting Office recently reported that savings averaged less than 10% of retail prices. The GAO, an investigative arm of Congress, collected information on the prices available to elderly Medicare beneficiaries with drug discount cards and the prices charged to those who simply walked into retail pharmacies without such cards. For people using discount cards, it said, the average price for 12 of the most widely used brand-name drugs was 8.2% less than the average of $68.58 charged at retail pharmacies in Chicago, Seattle and Washington.
"All this is crazy," the Des Moines Register editorialized Jan. 4. "In a wealthy, civilized country, no one should have to go without health care because they lack health insurance.
"A single-payer, national health-insurance system would give the government more clout to control costs. It would free Americans from the fear of losing health care when they lose their jobs. It would free businesses from scrambling to find health coverage for their workers, at ever higher costs. And consumers might even have more freedom of choice of doctors than they have under their employer-provided managed-care plans.
"Taxes would have to be raised to pay for universal coverage, but wages also could be increased because employers no longer would have to pay for health care.
"Health-insurance companies, drug-makers and some doctors like the status quo. It works for them. They want the rest of us to fear that a national system would be modeled after failed Soviet-style medicine rather than the United States' successful Medicare program for older Americans.
"Scare tactics should not drive this discussion.
"How to provide good health care to everyone at an affordable cost should be its focus.
"The current health-care hodgepodge in this country is a failure."
We couldn't agree more.
Republicans are confident that the Democrats will not have the courage to say no to Bush and rescind the ill-conceived tax breaks they passed last year. They believe the Senate will accept the crumbs of help for the unemployed in exchange for more long-term tax breaks for corporations and the rich. Some Democrats may wonder if they have the courage to say no to Bush. Well, someone needs to say no to him. We still may not be able to initiate meaningful health care reform during this recession ó or as long as Bush is in the White House. But it makes absolutely no sense to put the Treasury further in the hole in the meantime.