Saturday, April 08, 2006

Al Franken Debates Ann Coulter

Al Franken had a debate with Ann Coulter at the University of Judaism; Franken's initial presentation is here, and is quite good. There's a bit more background here--has anyone seen Coulter's response transcribed?

At one point, Franken says:

You can’t have good government without the truth. During the crafting and passage of the Medicare prescription drug bill, the chief actuary of Medicare was told to withhold from Congress the true cost of the bill. He’d be fired if he told the truth.

The bill costs so much, in large part, because the bill prohibits Medicare from negotiating with the pharmaceutical companies on the price of drugs. As a result, seniors now pay on average 44% more than veterans getting the same drugs through the VA which is allowed to use its size to negotiate with the drug companies. To get the bill passed, the vote was held open for three hours. Tom DeLay was later admonished by Republicans on the ethics committee for attempting to bribe, and then extort, Republican Nick Smith of Michigan to get him to change his vote. The chairman of the Commerce Committee Billy Tauzin who ushered the legislation through, soon left Congress for a two million dollar a year job as the chief lobbyist for the pharmaceutical industry. Obviously, a complete coincidence.

This is a series of events that shouldn't be forgotten; the details are spelled out in James Bovard's The Bush Betrayal (2004, Palgrave Macmillan) in the chapter "Spending as Caring," pp. 121-128. Some highlights:
Bush constantly portrayed the issue of new handouts in the loftiest moral terms. In a Florida speech on November 13, 2003, Bush declared, "The Medicare program is a basic trust that must be upheld throughout the generations." And because it was an issue of trust, the Bush team was entitled to use deceit and any means necessary to ram the law through Congress.
The Republican leadership thought they could score victory in the House when the bill was brought to the floor on the evening of November 2, 2003. However, when the initial vote occurred at 3 a.m., the Bush proposal lost by two votes. The Republican leadership violated House rules, which limit votes to a half hour or less, and proceeded to carry out the longest floor vote in House history--dragging out the tally until 6 a.m., when two Republicans switched their "nays" to "yeas" and the bill passed.
Rep. Nick Smith (R-Mich.), a veteran congressman in his final term, caught intense heat for opposing the bill. Efforts to sway Smith's vote focused on his son, who was running for the congressional seat his father held. Columnist Robert Novak reported: "On the House floor, Nick Smith was told business interests would give his son $100,000 in return for his father's vote. When he still declined, fellow Republican House members told him they would make sure Brad Smith never came to Congress. After Nick Smith voted no and the bill passed Duke Cunningham of California and other Republicans taunted him that his son was dead meat." Smith complained widely about the threats and bribes in the days after the vote. The House Ethics Committee eventually grudgingly launched a bribery investigation.
Barely a month after Bush signed the bill, Bush's budget director, Josh Bolton, informed Congress that the estimated cost had jumped to $540 billion for the first decade, instead of the advertised $400 billion ticket price. The revision infuriated conservative Republican congressmen, but the congressional leadership tried to brush it off as a non-issue. Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) declared, "In truth, nobody has any idea what the real figure will be at the end of the day, because we don't know what those assumptions should be as we go further." If Frist actually believed no one had any idea of what the legislation would cost, then he and other supporters were grossly negligent or deceptive in the claims they made to the American people when Congress considered the bill. ...
The Bush administration intentionally deceived Congress over the estimated cost of the bill. Thirteen conservative House members had vowed to vote against any bill costing more than $400 billion. Richard S. Foster, the top actuary at the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, privately estimated in June 2003--5 months before the final vote--that the bill would actually cost $550 billion. Foster was contacted by Democratic stafers seeking estimates on the cost of the Bush proposal. By law, Foster was obliged to provide them the information. Thomas Scully, the chief Medicare administrator, reportedly threatened to fire Foster if he provided the information. Foster later commented that "there was a pattern of withholding information for what I perceived to be political purposes." The much higher estimate of the cost of the Medicare bill was apparently known by top officials at the White House. Eighteen Democratic senators requested the GAO to investigate the potential violation of a law prohibiting the use of federal funds to pay the salary of any official who "prohibits or prevents, or threatens to prohibit or prevent" another employee from communicating with Congress. On April 1, House Republicans blocked an effort by Democrats to summon Scully and White House aide Doug Badget to testify before a congressional committee.
On May 3, the Congressional Research service released a legal analysis which concluded that "such 'gag orders' have been expressly prohibited by federal law since 1912." The Supreme Court, in a 1927 ruling on the 1912 law, declared that a "legislative body cannot legislate wisely or effectively in the absence of information regarding conditions which the legislation is intended to affect or change." But the Bush administration was too astute to fall for such radical notions.
Bovard's account goes on to describe how the Medicare prescription plan gives the bulk of its benefits to non-needy seniors--75% of recipients already have prescription drug coverage through insurance, and the National Center for Policy Analysis "estimated that only 6 to 7 percent of the expenditures in the Medicare reform bill will pay for additional drugs for the elderly." The beneficiaries are non-needy elderly, insurance companies, corporations ("the Congressional Budget Office forecast that 'at least one-third of all private companies will dump their retirees into the Medicare system as a result of the new bill'"), and, of course, the pharmaceutical companies, since there is no price negotiation under the bill.

1 comment:

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