Does bad policy make for good politics? President George W. Bush is about to find out. His leadership, for better or worse, has pushed a prescription drug benefit plan through both houses of Congress - a benefit for the elderly that lawmakers have been debating and arguing about for more than five years.
There are several significant differences between the Republican-sponsored House bill, which passed by just one vote, and the bipartisan Senate bill, which passed overwhelmingly, 76-21, but the differences are likely to be worked out in tough House-Senate negotiations.
With the president on board, there's simply too much momentum for Congress not to pass some kind of prescription subsidy soon. With $400 billion already earmarked to pay for the benefit over the next 10 years, it's being hailed as a victory for the president who promised Medicare prescription relief in his campaign.
Both House and Senate bills offer seniors prescription benefits either through private, drug-only plans for those who choose to stay in traditional Medicare, or through a new Medicare option that would deliver comprehensive health coverage through private companies.
But the House bill goes further in reforming Medicare by requiring the program to compete against private plans starting in 2010. This is what turned off all but nine House Democrats who criticized this approach as trying to destroy Medicare by luring seniors into private plans.
U.S. Reps. Charlie Norwood of Georgia and Jim DeMint of South Carolina were among a handful of House Republicans who joined Democrats in opposition - but for a different reason.
There's no cap on spending; $400 billion is the absolute minimum cost, says Norwood. "I am ultimately unable to support the bill because I am concerned the drug provision will grow into an uncontrollable entitlement."
Interestingly, both U.S. senators from South Carolina, Republican Lindsey Graham and Democrat "Fritz" Hollings, seemed to agree with Norwood and DeMint. They were among just 21 senators who voted against the upper chamber's bill. Sens. Zell Miller, D-Ga., and Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga., voted with the majority.
We agree with Norwood, Hollings and Graham and commend their courage in voting against what appears to be a very popular measure. A new prescription subsidy is good politics for politicians, including the president, running for re-election next year.
But here's why it's bad policy. Even if the cost could be contained to $400 billion, it's still a rotten bargain. Prescription costs are only a crisis for some seniors - and they can be helped without creating another entitlement for everyone which, Norwood says, could run into hundreds of billions of dollars.