February 24, 2004,
The Tanzanianization of America proceeds apace.
This word encapsulates Washington's steady slide from transparency, the rule of law, and First World political norms toward an equatorial standard of public integrity. Tanzania, among Earth's most corrupt nations, foreshadows the ultimate destination of America's government.
Hyperbole? The Clintons' virtual auction of presidential pardons as they looted the White House, for example, oozed the sickly-sweet fragrance of a banana republic.
Alas, Republicans suffer this malady, too.
Consider the brand-new Medicare drug benefit. Citizens can debate the merits of the biggest entitlement since 1965. However, every American should deplore the shifty way it was enacted and the shady deals now benefiting powerful people associated with this law.
The White House stunned taxpayers when it announced January 29 that the new Medicare benefit's 10-year price tag would be $534 billion rather than the $395 billion advertised when President Bush signed it December 8. This news startled congressional Democrats and Republicans, many of whom opposed this bill.
Now it appears they were hoodwinked.
Late last month, congressional analysts acquired a June 11 forecast from Medicare's Office of the Actuary. It priced the Senate drug bill at $551.5 billion, approximating the White House's $534 billion cost for the similar, final measure. Had Congress learned this promptly, this bill would have flopped.
Rep. Pete Stark (D., California) said on January 30: "I am confident that they [the administration] knew prior to the vote on the Medicare bill that their estimates would continue to be considerably higher than those of the Congressional Budget Office," which foresaw spending $395 billion.
Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson claimed, "There was no attempt to keep our number camouflaged," according to the February 2 New York Times. Yet Thompson himself invoked CBO's thriftier estimate on Fox News November 24, while the Senate considered this bill.
When congressional Democrats sought these projections from Medicare's chief actuary Richard S. Foster, they slammed into a brick wall named Tom Scully, then-administrator of the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services.
"They don't have the right on the Hill to call up my actuary and demand things," Scully told the Associated Press June 25. "These people work for the executive branch, period." Scully said he would release these data "if I feel like it."
The AP's Laura Meckler added that officials in Congress and at HHS said "Scully threatened to fire Foster if he released his memo."
Scully's muzzling of Foster either undermined or violated the 1997 Balanced Budget Act. The House-Senate agreement cited in that law explains that the Office of the Actuary "serves both the Administration and the Congress." This conference report adds: "The process of monitoring, updating and reforming the Medicare and Medicaid programs is greatly enhanced by the free flow of actuarial information from the Office of the Actuary to the committees of jurisdiction in the Congress."
Thompson now concedes HHS generated unflattering estimates but failed to share them with members of Congress. "I did not tell them because it was not my responsibility," Thompson said. Yet it evidently was his responsibility last November 22 to ignore congressional customs, patrol the House floor at 5:00 A.M., and dragoon members during a two-hour, 53-minute tally that torched the House's 15-minute-vote procedures.
This protracted ballot may have helped someone attempt to bribe retiring Rep. Nick Smith (R., Mich.), a bill opponent who said that for his vote, he was offered "$100,000-plus" from "business interests" to his son's congressional campaign. To his credit, Smith's "No" vote stuck. The House Ethics Committee is investigating these allegations.
Meanwhile, Rep. Billy Tauzin (R., La.), the bill's co-author, stopped chairing the House Energy and Commerce Committee February 16. He reportedly was offered over $2 million annually to join Pharma, the drug association that lobbied for Tauzin's legislation. If he accepts, his salary could be a sort of royalty for creating this measure.
"If you want to know the price of selling seniors down the river," House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi of California said, "it's approximately $2 million a year, if you want to hire the manager of the bill on the floor of the House."
Scully, the departed Medicrat, spun through the revolving door and twirled onto two hospital companies' boards and into Alston & Bird, a Washington law firm that performs healthcare work. Secretary Thompson granted Scully an undisclosed May 12 waiver that allowed him to seek employment even as he negotiated the Medicare bill with Congress and medical lobbyists.
Democratic Reps. Stark and Illinois's Jan Schakowsky wrote Thompson on December 10 after they finally saw Scully's waiver. They were "absolutely shocked that it could pass muster." They continued: "For seven months, Members of Congress who relied on Mr. Scully for information were kept in the dark about the fact that he was actively engaged in looking for employment with firms that have significant interests in the issues at stake." They added: "It is not intended that high-ranking government officials be actively trolling for work in the very industry they are being entrusted to regulate and oversee on behalf of the public."
In apparent response to this situation, White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card issued a memo January 6 that said only the White House could issue waivers allowing top officials to seek positions with companies they supervise. On yet another front, $12.6 million in TV ads now state, "Same Medicare. More benefits." These tax-funded commercials were placed by National Media Inc., a Bush-Cheney '04 partner company.
So, to review: Taxpayers are stuck with a program that costs 35 percent more than when their bamboozled representatives approved it last November. Top officials win golden parachutes stitched together by interests they have legislated and regulated. Trampled House voting practices, a federally funded TV deal for GOP political consultants, and a bribery probe all frost this ugly cake.
This is why movement conservatives are so grumpy. They are sick of knocking themselves out to promote limited government and fiscal prudence, only to watch their solemn beliefs burn to a crisp in the increasingly Third World crucible called Republican-controlled Washington.