Americans hate Washington these days, and for good reason. The president and Congress can't solve even the most obvious and pressing problems. The clearest example of their failure is SCHIP, a highly successful program providing health insurance to millions of children from poor and working-class families.
Polls show that three out of four voters support SCHIP (which stands for State Children's Health Insurance Program). Forty-three governors, including 16 Republicans, back its expansion. Yet President Bush has vetoed one re-authorization bill and threatens to veto another.
As a result, SCHIP has already run out of money once this fall and will again on Nov. 16. If Congress fails to act, 21 states will have to shrink or cancel coverage next year.
This is a truly dreadful way to make public policy, and legislators of goodwill are still trying to draft a workable compromise. But they keep running into hardliners on both sides who would much rather have a political issue than a practical accomplishment.
In the twisted logic of today's capital, failure is better than progress because you get to blame the other guy for the gridlock.
No wonder voters are so disgusted. In the latest ABC/Washington Post poll, President Bush's favorable rating is 33 percent, the lowest of his presidency. Congress is even more unpopular, at 28 percent. Three out of four Americans say the next president should move the country in "a new direction."
As Greg Coy of Shippensberg, Pa., told the Post: "Here's the problem with this country. Just because it's a Republican idea, Democrats don't like it, and because it's a Democratic idea, Republicans don't like it. The Congress should go with what works for the country. We have gotten away from that."
We sure have. Compromise and bipartisanship have become swear words. Mutual distrust, spiced with ideological rigidity, is the favorite dish in every Capitol Hill cafeteria. Democrats and Republicans can make Shiites and Sunnis seem like models of sweet reason.
Just look at the history of SCHIP, passed with bipartisan support 10 years ago to insure children whose parents don't qualify for Medicaid but can't afford their own coverage. There's a moral dimension to safeguarding kids, but the program also has an enormous practical benefit.
SCHIP actually pays for itself. When pregnant women get prenatal care; when kids get immunized against serious illnesses; when mild problems get checked at a doctor's office before they require a costly emergency room visit; the healthcare system saves money. Sen. Orrin Hatch, the Utah Republican who helped create the program, is absolutely right when he calls the president "penny wise and pound foolish."
Bush casts his veto as a fight for fiscal responsibility, but the money involved is relatively small, $60 billion over five years, enough to run the war in Iraq for about 40 days. And it would be financed by an increase in the tobacco tax, which also helps to reduce healthcare costs down the line. The president's real motive is clearly political.
During his first six years in office, when Republicans controlled Congress, Bush never once used his veto to reject bloated-spending bills. Why? Because Republicans used the Federal treasury to help their own districts, friends and re-election prospects. Now that spending bills are crafted by Democrats he's suddenly turned into a deficit hawk.
Moreover, the GOP strategy is clear: Thwart the new Democratic leadership at every turn, and then run next year against a "do-nothing" Congress. As Hatch told the Salt Lake Tribune, "I don't believe the administration has dealt fairly on this issue."
Democrats must also shoulder part of the blame. Many don't want a bill that Republicans can support or that Bush can sign. They see health care for kids as a winning issue next year and are already running ads against vulnerable Republicans, slamming them for sticking with the president.
The last thing Democrats want is a Rose Garden ceremony where Bush gets to burnish his legacy and GOP lawmakers get to share credit for an issue that appeals strongly to a key voting group, married moms.
The most depressing thing about the current stalemate is the implication for the future. If the two parties can't agree on covering kids, how can they possibly deal with much more controversial issues looming on the horizon: retiring baby boomers, undocumented workers, uninsured families.
The legislative system is broken. Americans are right to be mad. And the presidential candidate who taps their anger will be seizing an excellent issue next year.
Steve Roberts' latest book is "My Fathers' Houses: Memoir of a Family" (William Morrow, 2005). Steve and Cokie Roberts can be contacted by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.