Students And Seniors Last
Moira Mack is deputy communications director for the Emergency Campaign for America's Priorities.
This week, Republican members of the House of Representatives had an opportunity to crawl out from under the thumb of special interests by opposing the misplaced priorities in the budget reconciliation bill. But they missed their chance. The budget reconciliation bill passed last night by a mere two votes, slashing health care for the poor, student loans, child support and child care by $40 billion to fund billions of dollars in giveaways to wealthy special interests. It was a sad day for America’s families.
Universally opposed by Democrats, who were joined by 13 courageous moderate Republicans, this budget is a slap in the face of the American people. The budget proves that, for all the lip service paid to cleaning up corruption and the old way of doing business, the Republican leadership is still willing to sell out constituents to benefit wealthy special interests.
Clearly, the House GOP leadership is out of step with Americans' priorities. But often, it’s not clear to voters how the power of moneyed special interests harms regular people. The current cloud of shoddy ethics has an impact that reaches beyond the spectacle of hasty denials and symbolic rituals designed to cleanse the guilt from members’ consciences (and voters’ minds). There are substantive and important reasons why something must be done about the influence of big money on politics. If you look closely, it’s easy to see how policies that directly benefit special interests are enacted at the expense of average Americans. This disastrous budget is the perfect example of how corrupt influences cause real damage for real people.
Republicans are claiming to cut the fat while giving multibillion-dollar handouts to their K Street benefactors at the expense of jeopardizing the health care of nearly 30 million poor children and the attainability of higher education for students nationwide. In a $22 billion handout to HMOs, House and Senate GOP negotiators, meeting behind closed doors last month, agreed to change a Senate-passed Medicare provision in the budget reconciliation bill. The Senate version of the bill would have lowered payments to private HMOs participating in Medicare by $26 billion over the next decade. But after lobbying by the health insurance industry, the final version reduced the projected savings to only $4 billion.
According to the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office, the Medicare Managed Care companies were able to avoid some $32 billion in cuts in the final conference agreement. Meanwhile, the poor seniors, children and people with disabilities on Medicaid will be left to pay the tab in the form of increased co-payments, premiums, red tape, and reduced services and eligibility.
Why did the HMOs and PPOs receive a level of protection not afforded to poor patients? According to the Center for Responsive Politics, the HMOs contributed more than $3 million to Congress from the 2004 cycle to the present—with most of those funds going to Republicans. Perhaps those contributions, along with the more than $9 million they spent on lobbying in 2004, bought them a level of access with which our neediest citizens could not compete. It is a sad day for America when Congress jeopardizes health care of 28 million children and nursing home care for seniors, rather than eliminate a $22 billion handout to HMOs.
This budget also protects prescription drug companies from paying higher Medicaid rebates. The Senate bill raised the Medicaid rebate paid by prescription drug companies, but this provision was also suppressed in the conference committee, leaving $3.4 billion in potential savings on the table. Maybe it should come as no surprise that the GOP leadership would give such a hefty gift to the pharmaceutical industry. After all, the pharmaceutical manufacturers spent nearly $87 million on lobbying in 2004 alone, according to PoliticalMoneyLine. They also contributed more than $13 million to political campaigns from the 2004 cycle to present—with 70 percent of that sum going to Republicans.
This bill hits the middle class just as hard with major student loan changes. Proposed increases to student lenders’ fees that would have saved the federal government as much as $1.825 billion were dropped in conference. Meanwhile, students and parents will be forced to shoulder 70 percent of the unprecedented $12.7 billion in cuts to student loan programs in the form of higher borrower interest rates and payments. These proposed increases to the cost of a college education come as tuition is skyrocketing at double-digit rates.
Congress is more concerned with lining the pockets of CEOs than with the aspirations of poor and middle-class citizens to go to college. Republican Rep. John Boehner, the chair of the House Education and Workforce Committee, raised $172,000 from student loan companies during 2003 and 2004. Rather than cut subsidies to student lenders, Boehner, one of the principal architects of this legislation, targeted middle-class families for the cuts. In a December meeting with private student lenders, he reassured them, saying: "Relax. Stay calm. At the end of the day, I believe you'll be at least satisfied, or even perhaps happy. Know that I have all of you in my two trusted hands." Presumably, no such assurances were made to the students and families of this country.
Though Boehner profited from his relationship with the student lender special interests, he was certainly not alone. In the 2004 cycle, finance and credit companies contributed more than $3 million to congressional campaigns. Sallie Mae contributed nearly $1.4 million to federal candidates and parties in the 2004 cycle, with 72 percent of the contributions going to fill Republicans’ coffers. In 2004 alone, Sallie Mae spent well over $1.25 million on lobbying.
Congress has done serious damage to America’s families, and the people of this country will not soon forget this vote. The only move that could make this budget worse is to follow up huge cuts to American families with even larger tax cuts for millionaires, as the GOP leadership intends to do. Republicans' decision to turn their backs on poor and middle-class Americans will come back to haunt them—in November 2006.