- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 23, 2004

In previous columns, I have warned that George W. Bush is in danger of appearing Nixonian — using Richard Nixon’s political methods, such as a willingness to subordinate everything to his re-election, including abrogation of his own principles, punishing staffers with genuine policy disagreements for being disloyal, and keeping secret information that might undermine decisions he has already made.

The clearest evidence yet of George W. Bush as Richard Nixon has arisen over the questions of what the White House knew about the cost of the recently passed Medicare drug bill, when did it know it and whether information was actively suppressed that might have defeated the measure in Congress. One cannot avoid drawing a parallel to the Iraq war, where the administration’s fundamental justification involved weapons of mass destruction that seem never to have existed.

For the time being, I am willing to grant the administration genuinely believed WMDs existed in Iraq. If it turns out there weren’t any, this was a mistake but not necessarily a matter of duplicity. However, in the case of the drug bill, it is becoming harder and harder to believe the administration was not knowingly engaged in deception. Increasingly, it appears the administration knew perfectly well the legislation would cost far more than $400 billion over 10 years — the most Congress was allowed to spend under its rules — and took extraordinary measures to suppress this fact.

The center of this brewing scandal is an obscure bureaucrat named Richard Foster, chief actuary for Medicare. It is his job to estimate spending for that program over long periods. Annually, he produces a report for Medicare’s board of trustees that lays out the program’s financial condition in excruciating detail, based on many complex mathematical calculations. Mr. Foster’s latest report was delivered yesterday, showing serious financial deterioration, largely due to the addition of a big unfunded drug benefit.

According to excellent reporting by the New York Times, Wall Street Journal and the Knight Ridder news service, Mr. Foster knew last summer that the drug bill being debated in Congress would cost between $500 billion and $600 billion. In its latest budget, the administration conceded the figure is $534 billion.

The problem is everyone knew a bill with such a large price tag would never get through Congress. As it was, it only passed with two votes to spare in the House of Representatives — and then only after holding the vote open for an unprecedented three hours, while arms were twisted to get the necessary votes. Most of the pressure was brought to bear on conservative Republicans reluctant to vote for so much new spending when the budget was already in deficit.

Reportedly, the last couple of votes were secured by warning the members an even bigger Democratic bill would be enacted unless they agreed to the White House plan. This was utterly dishonest. If the administration bill had been defeated, the House leadership would simply have pulled it off the floor while something new was cooked up. There was zero chance something like the $1 trillion Democratic alternative would ever have become law.

Another argument by the drug bill’s supporters is that only the Congressional Budget Office estimate of $395 billion was binding. The administration’s estimate would not have been official for legislative purposes. While this is technically true, it ignores the closeness of the vote and the fact misgivings about the drug bill’s cost were the final sticking point. There is no serious political observer who does not think disclosing the administration’s $534 billion estimate would have killed it, at least temporarily.

This is why the apparent effort to squelch Mr. Foster is so scandalous. Reportedly, his boss, Medicare administrator Tom Scully, threatened Mr. Foster with dismissal if he communicated any information about his estimates to anyone on Capitol Hill without Mr. Scully’s authorization. Needless to say, such authorization was not forthcoming, because Mr. Scully knew perfectly well it would doom the legislation — a high-priority White House initiative.

The administration has tried to portray this whole thing as a simple management issue. Generally speaking, career bureaucrats are not allowed to communicate officially with Congress except through channels. However, the actuaries for Social Security and Medicare have long had a measure of independence, allowing them to give technical advice directly. Consequently, the effort to withhold estimates of the drug bill appears extraordinarily unusual and politically motivated.

It looks as though Mr. Scully will be the fall guy for this scandal — convenient, since he has already left government. But the larger question of White House honesty, whether on Iraq or the drug bill, still needs to be answered.

Bruce Bartlett is senior fellow with the National Center for Policy Analysis and a nationally syndicated columnist.

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