ATLANTA -- Just four years ago, President Bush and the Republican Congress joined with Democrats to champion a program giving prescription drug coverage to senior citizens. It was poorly conceived and mega-expensive, an added entitlement for a group of Americans who already had good medical care. But Mr. Bush and Congress insisted that seniors deserved it.
Now, however, the president and many of his GOP colleagues adamantly oppose extending just a fraction of that good medical care to children. What sort of country lavishes health care on its old but withholds it from its young? Why do so many conservatives believe old folks are "deserving" but children are deadbeats?
It is an odd ideology, delusional and self-defeating. Having squandered a budget surplus on foolish domestic spending, tax cuts and an unnecessary war, Republicans can hardly claim fiscal prudence now. The prescription drug program will cost $534 billion over 10 years. By that standard, the State Children's Health Insurance Program (SCHIP) is modest; the bipartisan plan adds $35 billion over five years, for a total of about $60 billion over that period. (The war in Iraq, by the way, costs $2 billion a week - or about $520 billion over five years.)
Besides, health care for children is one of those programs that are actually worth running up the national debt. It would bring the country huge returns later on, when we baby boomers have retired and need a healthy work force to pay into our Social Security fund.
The president has defended his decision to veto a bipartisan plan to expand SCHIP to cover about 4 million more children, up from the 6.6 million currently covered. Started during the Clinton years and funded by both the federal government and the states, SCHIP provides low-cost health insurance to children in working-class families. It represents government at its best - giving people a hand up, not a handout.
It also acknowledges a reality about the modern American economy: Fewer jobs come with the benefit of health insurance. Globalization has decimated the U.S. industrial base, eliminating many of the jobs that gave working people a decent salary, health insurance for the family and a secure pension. Today, it is easy enough to work a full-time job and still not make enough money to afford health insurance.
One of the misconceptions about SCHIP, perpetuated by conservatives who oppose it, is that it should cover only "poor" children. Nonsense. It was never intended for the poor. Impoverished children are covered by Medicaid.
SCHIP covers children in families who earn too much to qualify for Medicaid but who still don't earn enough to afford private insurance. Countless retail clerks, house painters, child care workers and mechanics work 40 hours a week or more and still don't earn enough money to buy health insurance. If you are self-employed, health insurance can be quite expensive. It can be impossible to purchase if your children are already sick - with what insurers call "pre-existing conditions."
While states differ on their rules, the vast majority of kids covered are in families earning modest incomes. In Georgia, a family of four may earn no more than $48,527. Those families pay premiums of up to $70 a month. While critics of the program have claimed that the wealthy will also be eligible, they're just looking for a way to disguise their heartlessness. Under federal regulations, it would be quite difficult for any state to get an exemption allowing it to offer coverage to affluent families.
So why did House Republicans uphold Mr. Bush's veto? They're stuck with an old and rigid ideology that doesn't recognize changing times. They're still holding the line against something called "socialized medicine," even though the majority of Americans want affordable health insurance. Indeed, a broader social safety net, including universal health care, is necessary if Republicans want working folks to continue to support free trade.
Fighting against affordable health insurance for working families is a losing strategy for the GOP. Their conservatism shows no compassion - or common sense.
Cynthia Tucker is editorial page editor for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Her column appears Mondays in The Sun. Her e-mail is email@example.com.