The Machete Budget

By BOB HERBERT

New York Times

January 2, 2006

If Congress were merely useless, the country would be better off. But it's worse than useless. In the iron grip of a Republican Party that is almost slavishly devoted to the Bush administration, it's downright destructive, especially to the interests of poor and working people.

Consider the budget that will soon be sent to the president for his signature. Members of the House and Senate have agreed on legislation that achieves something approaching $40 billion in savings over five years primarily by hammering the sick, the poor, the elderly and college students and their families.

This is the same Congress that genuflects each time the president asks for yet another gift-wrapped tax cut for the wealthiest among us. The textbooks tell us that the U.S. is a representative democracy, but only the upper strata are truly represented.

The nearly 800-page budget bill would allow states to jack up the premiums and co-payments of millions of low-income Medicaid recipients. It would also allow some Medicaid benefits to be rolled back.

One of worst aspects of the Medicaid provisions is that large numbers of poor people, faced with the higher premiums and co-payments, will inevitably decide to take a pass on the health care they need. Some will die.

"The Congressional Budget Office," wrote Kevin Freking of The Associated Press, "has concluded that such increases would lead many poor people to forgo health care or not to enroll in Medicaid at all - contributing to some of the $4.8 billion in Medicaid savings envisioned over the next five years."

(I listened the other day to a story about a woman who had repeatedly postponed a visit to the doctor because she was broke and had no health insurance. It turned out she had breast cancer. By the time it was diagnosed, the cancer had already spread through much of her body. The prognosis for this woman is not good, and it should not be the policy of the United States government to encourage this kind of situation.)

You would think that a conservative, family-values, Republican-dominated Congress would, at the very least, go to the mat on behalf of child support payments. Think again.

The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, which has closely studied the budget agreement, noted that "its reductions in child support enforcement funding would, according to the C.B.O., mean that $2.9 billion in child support that otherwise would be collected over the next five years - and $8.4 billion that otherwise would be collected over the next 10 years - would go uncollected instead."

As the center noted:

"The conference agreement also includes provisions that would delay certain [Supplemental Security Income] payments for up to a year for many poor individuals with disabilities who are found eligible for S.S.I. In addition, the bill cuts federal foster care aid in a way that will make it much more difficult for states to provide federally funded foster care benefits to certain relatives who are raising children because the children's parents are unable or unfit to do so."

This is ugly stuff: mean-spirited legislators hacking like wild men with machetes at the already ragged safety net. Poor children, the very sick and the disabled are among those most likely to tumble into the abyss.

The largest chunk of "savings" in the budget bill would come from student aid. With the special interests driving up in 18-wheelers to haul away our tax dollars, Congress and the administration apparently felt that mugging college students would be a good way to recoup a bit of those losses.

"This is the biggest cut in the history of the federal student loan program," said David Ward, who heads the American Council on Education, an umbrella group for public and private colleges.

Republican leaders in Congress, working in tandem with the Bush administration on this issue, tried to throw up the usual smoke screen. As The Times reported:

"Republican negotiators said virtually all the cuts in student aid would be borne by banks and other lenders, an assertion sharply disputed by Democrats and college administrators, who said that two-thirds of the savings would be at the expense of students and their families."

Because of some minor, last-minute changes that have to be dealt with, the House will have one more crack at this bill before it goes to the president. It would be an opportunity for some Republican "moderates," who should be appalled at what is happening, to step up and be heard.

Don't hold your breath.