I wonder whether the commander in chief realizes that he's the president of the whole country.
That means Republicans and Democrats alike, young and old, wealthy and poor - not just the special interests. It's time President Bush governed as if he listened to the American people and understood the needs of families struggling to make ends meet. They could use his leadership now.
Perhaps the president has received, as Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah believes, some “bad advice.” Maybe the president did get some terrible advice when he decided to veto the reauthorization of the State Children's Health Insurance Program (SCHIP) - a vital bipartisan program that extends health insurance coverage to children of families earning too much to be eligible for Medicare but too little to be able to afford private insurance.
The president took out his dusty pen to issue only his fourth presidential veto. In doing so, he killed the program that gave health insurance to millions of children in working poor families who do not receive health coverage at work and can't afford coverage on their own. It's essential to giving every child a “healthy start in life,” something the president once stated was his goal. I wonder what possessed the president to go back on his word.
SCHIP has reduced the number of poor, uninsured children by 32 percent in the past decade, according to the Commonwealth Fund. These are children who would have otherwise been left untreated for major illnesses. Many of the families who are eligible earn less than $60,000 a year. Even though the president said he wanted to cover the more than 9 million children who are uninsured and many more that often fall through the cracks, his veto sent them a loud message: Not now. What a sad day in America when the leader of the free world vetoes a bill that helps poor, often minority children in America.
The Center for Budget and Policy Priorities recently reported that even as the number of uninsured children grew by 1 million in just the last two years, the SCHIP program helped reduce the percentage of uninsured. Perhaps that is why Utah's Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. called the presidential veto “ill-advised.” He's not the only Republican furious with the president. Sen. Gordon Smith of Oregon called Bush's decision “an irresponsible use of the veto pen.” Amen to that.
Unlike some of the bills currently pending before Congress, SCHIP had overwhelming bipartisan support. It was not a red state program or a gift to blue states. It is something both major parties believed in - helping to cover children from low-income families who do not qualify for Medicaid, and those from middle class families who have lost their employer based coverage or can't afford the steep premiums of private insurance.
The bill the president vetoed would have continued the program for an additional five years and expandd its reach to provide more stable insurance coverage to more children. According to the Congressional Budget Office (CBO), it would have covered nearly half of the 9 million uninsured children in this country. The Democratically controlled Congress wanted to invest an additional $50 billion in this program, but they compromised with the Republicans and watered it down to $35 billion.
When the country is spending a little over $10 billion every month fighting wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, spending a fraction of that here at home for our children's health is a good investment in the future.
And it's the future of this great nation that should be a priority for not only the current commander in chief, but those seeking to replace Bush in 2009. As Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco stated “health insurance is fast becoming a luxury when it should be a basic right.” In my home state of Louisiana, more than 100,000 children depend on this program for their critical health care needs. The last thing those families need, still struggling after a catastrophic hurricane, is to lose their coverage.
Now, House and Senate leaders must come together again not with a partisan flare, but with compassion to override the presidential veto. They should focus on the fact that this bill is morally right and fair. They should also remind the president that, as Sen. Maria Cantwell of Washington stated, under his watch “health insurance premiums grew 78 percent while family wages grew only 19 percent.” People worry themselves sick over their medical bills, and that is the kind of sickness they call ill-afford
Kids get sick. They fall down. They get scraped, infected, sprained, broken, bumped, pierced, allergic, asthmatic, and unlucky. They need medical care regardless of how much money their parents make. What does change based on their parents' income is whether they have access to it. There is a crack in the system, right between Medicare eligibility and affordable private health care, and 9 million kids fall into it. SCHIP hoped to spread a net across that divide so that fewer children go with broken bones unset, infections untreated, diseases undiagnosed.
There are 9 million children without coverage who deserve a healthy start in life. There are 9 million children who deserve a chance to go outside and play without fearing that their parents are too poor to afford an emergency room visit if they fall off the monkey bars. There are 9 million reasons for Congress to override this presidential veto.
Donna Brazile is a political commentator on CNN, ABC and NPR, contributing columnist to Roll Call, the newspaper of Capitol Hill, and former campaign manager for Al Gore.