- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 11, 2009

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

COMMENTARY:

When the House Energy and Commerce Committee took up the president’s stimulus package last month, one Democrat found himself standing in the middle of the street where policy and politics intersect.

“I had a prepared statement,” he began, “but it’s not here right now. I think what I want to say here, Mr. Chairman, is that there’s going to be a lot of amendments that are going to be offered here today, Mr. Chairman, that are good amendments… [but] I will vote against all these amendments” in order to back President Obama and “in the interest of unanimity.”

The next 10 hours brought repeated chances for loyalty and unanimity to defeat ideas that might have been deemed common sense most other days.

I like to think my own amendment was one of them. I proposed to stop the “decoupling” of electric bills from actual electricity usage. The decoupling idea was that big utilities should get guaranteed revenue from residential customers even after the customers put serious money into high-efficiency windows and doors or pricey EnergyStar appliances. I thought that if you consumed less electricity at home, you should expect to save some money on your electric bill.

That’s when I learned that Democrats had been transformed into the electric companies’ new best friends. They explained how keeping bills high is perfectly understandable if you just give it a chance, because it rewards the heroic utility companies for offering their many helpful services as well as their actual product, electricity. “When you pay your electrical bill, you don’t get just watts of energy. You also are buying energy services from the utility,” Rep. Jay Inslee, Washington Democrat, told us. The upshot: The stimulus bill makes certain that if you use less, you pay more.

The stimulus bill’s problems don’t stop with screwy energy policy. The committee also took up health-care issues that day, and a good idea - advancing the use of electronic health records - somehow got recast as an economic boon. Bonus payments to health-care providers for using electronic records make sense. They are an appropriate incentive designed to propel a needed policy, but how in the world are payments that start in 2011 going to re-invigorate the 2009 economy?

Similarly, the stimulus bill proposes to help the unemployed hang on to their health insurance, and then misfires when it tries to do the job. Right now, 3 in 5 Americans who are under 65 years old - 160 million in all - are insured through employer plans or another job-related arrangement. If they lose insurance when they lose a job, the government steps in to help by picking up the employer’s share. Does that include people like Bernie Madoff, the millionaire perpetrator of the biggest Ponzi scheme in history? Yes, it does, because Democrats can’t figure out how to exclude “unemployed” millionaires.

Florida Republican U.S. Rep. Cliff Stearns pointed out to Democrats that the bill obligated taxpayers for 65 percent of the premiums for the unfortunate rich who faced selling off a yacht or a Bentley to make ends meet. “It’s just not right to have your party help these people who are making so much money, and to step in and say, ‘OK, Mr. Taxpayer from Ocala, Fla., from Okahumpka, Fla., from Micanopy, Fla., from Oklawaha, Fla., and from Osceola, Fla., you guys are going to have to pay the Madoffs of this world.’ I mean, my constituents, like yours, are having a very tough time. You’re asking me to tax them and say, ‘OK, you need to pay for these rich guys on Wall Street?’ It’s not right.”

It was so plainly not right that Democrats accepted the Stearns amendment while the cameras rolled. Then they ditched it in private when they evidently couldn’t figure out how to distinguish the rich from the poor.

Another worry about the stimulus bill is that it will increase the federal share of the Medicaid program by more than $87 billion over the next two years. The plan is to shift costs onto the federal government because states are bound by balanced-budget laws and we are not. While Democrats want to add more than $40 billion to our federal deficit, wouldn’t states be far better off if Congress simply helped them eliminate the estimated 40 percent of their Medicaid expenditures that are either criminally fraudulent or simply wasteful?

I remember that when then-Gov. Mark Warner, Virginia Democrat, was in charge of the National Governors Association, he told us the unsustainable growth of Medicaid spending had both states and the federal government “on the road to a meltdown.” His solution was to modernize the severely outdated rules and regulations and allow state governments the flexibility to run their programs with some innovation, efficiency and accountability.

In fact, I think the ultimate flaw in the stimulus bill is that beneath its celebration of change, it does not provide more freedom, more innovation, more efficiency and more accountability. It’s just business as usual on a grand scale.

We can’t possibly spend $825 billion and not stimulate something, but the recession cannot be cured with utility company windfalls, health subsidies for hapless millionaires and blindness to the costly abuses in welfare.

Some will say none of this matters and others that when it’s raining money everybody deserves a bucketful. I say it matters greatly to the people who are paying for all this simulated stimulus with their taxes. That’s why we should defeat this bill and replace it with one that values economic growth more than political greed.

Joe Barton, Texas Republican, is ranking member of the U.S. House of Representatives’ Energy and Commerce Committee.

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