Bipartisanship’s Short Shelf Life

Bipartisanship’s Short Shelf Life

Jennifer G. Hickey

Democrats preached peace, love and understanding as they took control of the Senate. But with the appropriations season set to kick off, this political show is destined for a limited run.

Thrift shops can be fun, and Fran Osborn was so intrigued by the rattle she heard when she shook the small box bearing the monogram M.P.G. that she quickly laid down a dollar (plus tax) for the item. Fran tried to put the best face on it she could after discovering in the package a smaller box with the words “Millard P. Griffin” and “Metrocrest Funeral Home” on an attached tag. She had not purchased a long-lost treasure but the misplaced cremains of poor Mr. Griffin, who had died in 1996, proving once again that appearances can be deceiving.

Certainly deception was the rage in Washington on June 6 — coincidentally 57 years after another D-Day — when the Senate was gaveled to order with a new (big D) Democratic majority. Led by the bipartisan urgencies of the new Senate majority leader, Thomas Daschle of South Dakota, Democratic committee chairmen oozed palliatives of cooperation and comity, to which Republicans hissed analgesic reassurances through clenched teeth.

The leaders of the two parties posed for the cameras like Patton’s troops meeting the Red Army at the Elbe. The cameras clicked and flashed to record the moment for all those middle-of-the-road voters at home who want a divided government full of folks who just love one another.

With the humiliations of minority status fresh in the minds of both Daschle and Republican Leader Trent Lott of Mississippi, plus an election around the corner, it was evident this nicely wrapped bipartisanship was destined for the cremains table at a white-elephant sale — particularly with appropriations season and debate on a patients’ bill of rights about to begin.

Even before the change of power in the Senate, it was clear President George W. Bush’s attempts more effectively to use the bully pulpit of the presidency would not go unchallenged by opponents in and out of Congress. As Bush traveled to the Florida Everglades to announce a $219 million budget request for conservation efforts (and repair damage done by continued criticism of his environmental policies), certain piratical elements of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights bypassed GOP members of the commission and circulated to the New York Times, Washington Post and ABC’s Nightline a draft report alleging racial bias in the Florida elections.

Perhaps by coincidence, the report fingered Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, who just happened to be with the president for a photo-op on the day before the report’s release, and Florida’s GOP Secretary of State Katherine Harris. Republican members of the commission saw the draft report for the first time in the newspapers.

As the president turned the most recent GOP victory in the Senate into law by signing the $1.35 trillion tax-cut bill, Daschle was indicating that many of the provisions, including a doubling of the child tax credit, would be reexamined. With 15 Democrats having voted for the bill, including Montana Sen. Max Baucus, who played a key role in its passage, the mischief for which Daschle may lust will not be easy. Cognizant of the philosophical malleability of a handful of senators, House Majority Leader Dick Armey of Texas has drawn the battle lines, stressing: “[A] minimum-wage bill will not pass without tax benefits to counter unemployment effects” of the minimum-wage increase. The Texan sees a cut in the rate of double taxation on capital gains as the most likely measure to move forward. Armey also has called for relieving any sunset on the tax cuts because “the benefits will be more profound if we can assure the American people it will be permanent.”

House Minority Leader Richard Gephardt of Missouri asserted the Bush tax cut “turns its back on fiscal responsibility” even as two appropriations subcommittees already were bursting their budgetary britches. With the ink on the tax cut yet to dry, Republicans and Democrats joined in bipartisan bliss to approve an $18.9 billion spending bill for public lands, some $800 million more than Bush requested. The House Appropriations subcommittee on Agriculture approved a $15.5 billion spending bill, a $110 million increase over Bush’s budget.

With the kickoff of the season of spending, the press conferences and demagoguery began anew. Highlighting what he perceived as “the antisocial priorities of this administration” Rep. John LaFalce, D-N.Y., blasted its decision not to invoke emergency provisions to release $40 million in supplemental appropriations for a mortgage-insurance program. Run by the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s (HUD’s) Federal Housing Administration, the program insures mortgages on rental-apartment buildings for low-income individuals. Why has HUD asked Congress for supplemental funding? The $101 million appropriated for credit subsidies for the current fiscal year already has been exhausted.

In a Washington Post column, Office of Management and Budget Director Mitch Daniels counseled members of Congress to “eliminate games in gimmicks, even as we … differ and compromise on substance.” But it will take more than opinion pieces in Washington Beltway newspapers to convince Americans that “fiscal responsibility” doesn’t mean spending more on programs producing few or no results.

Daniels certainly knows that. Appearing with outgoing Senate Governmental Affairs Committee Chairman Fred Thompson, R-Tenn., at a press conference to release a report on government-management problems, Daniels acknowledged, “It is more fun to award a program than to criticize the efficacy of one.” The day before Sen. Joseph Lieberman, D-Conn., received the chairman’s gavel, Thompson released Government at the Brink, which outlines management difficulties facing the Bush administration. Thompson conceded that waste, fraud and mismanagement were long-standing problems with low standing on the list of public priorities. He noted security gaps at the nation’s nuclear labs also were low priority until “breaches at Los Alamos highlighted the problem.”

For example, in its overview of HUD, the report stated the General Accounting Office (GAO) “still considers much of what the department does to be high-risk” for mismanagement and fraud. A 2001 update of GAO’s “high-risk list included two of [HUD’s] major program areas — Single-Family Mortgage Insurance and Rental Housing Assistance.”

At the end of fiscal 1999, HUD had insurance commitments on about 6.7 million mortgages with a value of $454 billion. Big money. Yet accountability was so ignored at the department in recent years under Andrew Cuomo that it had lost huge sums each year ($1.9 billion in 2000) to waste, fraud and mismanagement. And that’s only the waste that’s been discovered. One case of abuse noted involved a former employee (eventually convicted of tax evasion and accepting bribes) who sold 82 department properties valued at $9.1 million for $2 million. “It seemed after the department fired her she had been hired as a consultant by lenders to do `quality-control work’ on Department-insured loans” the report said.

Among the top-10 worst examples of mismanagement the committee report cited were: Medicare waste, fraud and abuse; IRS financial mismanagement; unemployment-insurance fraud; and student financial-aid fraud. As waste and fraud go, conservatives may see that list as eerily similar to the potential in another list of issues: the prescription-drug bill, increased education spending and curtailing the “fiscally irresponsible” tax cut. The irony did not go unnoticed by Thompson, who argued “the Medicare program wasted almost $12 billion last year. That $12 billion could have gone to providing better health care for elderly citizens.”

So as advertising campaigns begin to pollute the airwaves and the voices of the elderly become more labored and pathetic at the next carefully arranged Democratic press conference, it might be advisable to remember how well the elderly have done under Medicare. Several inspectors general cited in the Thompson report found Medicare paid between 15 percent and 1,600 percent more than the Department of Veterans’ Affairs for 34 drugs covered by the program. Some Medicare beneficiaries, however, were unconcerned about delays and high drug prices. An estimated $20.6 million was paid by Medicare for services that began after the beneficiary’s date of death.

To deal effectively with the issues of government mismanagement and mounting costs incurred with each appropriations bill passed, Bush should read selections of the committee’s report to the American people from his bully pulpit. Although it is easier to demagogue than preach fiscal responsibility and government accountability, as Thompson says: “Our primary need is presidential leadership on this issue.”

And the next time an environmental group announces plans for a lawsuit to force the Environmental Protection Agency to buy lawn chairs for spotted owls or snorkels for sucker fish, mention this: During the 1990s, the U.S. Treasury paid $31.6 million in taxpayers’ monies for legal fees associated with environmental cases filed by Bambi lovers against the government.

COPYRIGHT 2001 News World Communications, Inc.

COPYRIGHT 2001 Gale Group