Tags: obama | healthcare | budget

Beware of Obama's Healthcare Trickery

Monday, 14 Sep 2009 03:29 PM

By Ernest Istook

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When their direct path is blocked, politicians often resort to chicanery.

That approach is evident in the healthcare debate.

Political tricks like legislative “triggers” and putting a “co-op” label on government-run insurance are just two of the gimmicks to beware. Another deceptive practice is to claim a measure is deficit-neutral (or “won’t add a dime to the deficit”), then resort to cutesy book keeping to claim the promise has been kept, when it hasn’t.

Trick plays are fun in football, but not in politics. It's real life, not a game.

The trigger

Let’s start with the trigger. The gun imagery is apt because it’s like being threatened with a gun at your head. The warning is that unless something happens — or fails to happen — the trigger will be pulled.

And it’s those who wield the weapon who decide for themselves whether to fire.

So the notion that we won’t have a government-run public option for healthcare “unless X happens” is a way to give more power to those who hold the weapon. Is it unless total healthcare spending matches some arbitrary number? Unless the number of uninsured reaches a threshold? Those numbers can be juggled and adjusted to match a political agenda. The key condition might as well be “unless the sun comes up tomorrow.” It’s arbitrary nonsense.

The notion of a trigger is just a cute legislative trick for politicians to shift and dodge blame for a program they establish.

The co-op

There’s nothing wrong with a good private sector co-op, whether it’s to buy health insurance or to run a granary. These groups have a long and good history in America.

But slapping a misleading label on a government program is also a long-time and dishonorable practice. As The Heritage Foundation’s Stuart Butler says, “If it walks like a duck. . . . And if it has all the characteristics of a public plan option then it is a public plan option.

“There would be federal legislation to design a new form of national or regional co-op and set rules for how these would be run. There would be yet another federal board (presumably with yet another czar) to keep a close eye on them and to make sure they remember who is in charge. And billions of dollars in federal money to keep them tied to Washington. In short, a public plan with a co-op veneer.”

As concluded in a Heritage report, “Cooperatives must be voluntary, open to individuals who choose to freely join together without coercion or restraint, and controlled by its members, not the government; . . . viable on their own and must not receive anti-competitive government support in any form including assumption of risk, "start-up" capital, or continuous subsidies to the organization.”

Fortunately, some on the left are skeptical about co-ops also. Former Democrat National Chairman Howard Dean is one such doubter, as is Rep. Pete Stark, D-Calif., who says, “You might as well talk about unicorns . . . I think this co-op is just a way of ducking the issue of having the public plan.”

Deficit neutral

The Associated Press did a quick article to fact-check Obama’s big speech to Congress, including his claim that his plan “won’t add a dime to the deficit.”

Obama flunked the test. In fact, because federal bookkeeping is such a mess, politicians can pick and choose from a variety of budget analyses. If they don’t like the version from the Congressional Budget Office, they can get different numbers from the Government Accountability Office, or the Office of Management and Budget, or the White House Council of Economic Advisors. Or they could pick a different arbitrator. Or create a special group that would give them whatever number they want. Ultimately, they’ll find one to use to claim they’ve kept a promise about spending.

But here’s what the AP story said: “. . . the White House and congressional Democrats already have shown they're ready to skirt the no-new-deficits pledge. House Democrats offered a bill that the Congressional Budget Office said would add $220 billion to the deficit over 10 years. But Democrats and Obama administration officials claimed the bill actually was deficit-neutral. They said they simply didn't have to count $245 billion of it.”

The notion that government can expand health coverage to provide a greater variety of treatments, tests, and checkups, extend it to a larger group of people, and not raise costs, just doesn’t pass the common-sense test. Ask anybody in Tennessee, where the TennCare state program found costs for the first 10 years were triple the projection and wound up consuming one-third of the state budget.

It reminds me of an e-mail I received that says:

  • “The U.S. Postal Service was established in 1775 — you have had 234 years to get it right; it is broke.

  • “Social Security was established in 1935 — you have had 74 years to get it right; it is broke.

  • “Fannie Mae was established in 1938 — you have had 71 years to get it right; it is broke.

  • “The "war on poverty" started in 1964 — you have had 45 years to get it right; . . . it hasn't worked and our entire country is broke.

  • “Medicare and Medicaid were established in 1965 — you've had 44 years to get it right; they are broke.

  • “Freddie Mac was established in 1970 — you have had 39 years to get it right; it is broke.”

    Whether the latest claim is a trigger, a co-op, deficit neutrality, or any other gimmick, the underlying truth is that our government has a good track record of making promises but an awful track record of keeping them.

    Butler, of The Heritage Foundation, has a simple suggestion for everyone who claims we’re going to save money with a healthcare overhaul: “Bank the savings before you spend them.”

    That would be refreshing, to require a government program to prove it works before we use its projected benefits to justify higher spending right away.

    For once, that would not be a gimmick.

    Ernest Istook served 14 years as a U.S. Congressman from Oklahoma. He is a distinguished fellow at The Heritage Foundation.

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