Political ransom

When the debate over reauthorization of federal funding for the states’ Children’s Health Insurance Program, or SCHIP, began in earnest, one of the obvious dangers was that political considerations would eclipse both practical and humanitarian ones.

President Bush, as expected, on Wednesday vetoed a bipartisan bill that would have expanded the popular program that helps fund, among other such state-level initiatives, Georgia’s popular and effective PeachCare program. Its purpose is to provide health insurance for children of the working poor, families that don’t earn enough to pay for private health care plans but too much to qualify for Medicaid. The bill would have increased SCHIP funding by $35 billion over the next five years, a sum that would be paid for by more than doubling the federal cigarette tax.

All but unmentioned, especially by Democrats who claim to corner the political market on compassion, is the fact that a statistically disproportionate percentage of nicotine addicts are lower-income Americans, making this essentially a regressive tax, if technically a voluntary one. Add to that a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study showing that Americans with disabilities have a particularly high percentage of smokers, and it gets harder to dismiss this funding mechanism as a harmless “sin tax,” even if its beneficiaries are children.

Congressional Democrats have suggested they might put off efforts to override the veto — not just because they probably don’t have the votes but also, certainly, to maximize the political pressure as we head into an election year. All of which legitimately raises the question of whether what they really want is the funding or the issue.

As for the president, his justification that “I believe in private medicine, not the federal government running the health care system" is a simplistic and doctrinaire response that adds nothing useful or even accurate to the debate. Programs like PeachCare are hardly about “the federal government running the health care system,” and if these families had access to private medicine the issue would be moot.

Another opposition argument is that the bill would expand SCHIP into an entitlement for the middle class — a legitimate concern, if it’s accurate. The measure’s supporters say not so: The overwhelming majority of children who would be added to the rolls are poor, and many of the borderline families currently paying for private health insurance for their children can barely afford anything else.

That’s another problem with this standoff: Somewhere between the tired stereotypes of cruel and heartless politicians who don’t care about poor children, and reckless spendthrift politicians who want to give billions in taxpayer money away to people who don’t need or deserve it, lies the truth. But whoever has solid numbers on where that truth lies, and where reasonable compromise in the interests of those needy families might be found, isn’t sharing them.

Programs like Georgia’s PeachCare and Alabama’s AllKids have done incalculable good for countless children and ultimately save more money than they cost. That they, and the children they serve, are now being held hostage for a ransom of political advantage is beyond shameless.

— Dusty Nix, for the editorial board