Thursday, September 24, 2009

Congs' health care need not be superior to ours -- Sept. 24, 2009 column


A reader in Alabama fired off an e-mail telling me in no uncertain terms that he’s against the federal government meddling in his health care and his future Medicare.

“P.S.,” he wrote, members of Congress “work for us, why should they have health care that is superior to ours?”

Good point. It is unfair for taxpayers who are suffering in the recession, losing their health insurance along with their jobs, to have to pay for Congress’ generous benefits, including health care. A survey by Rasmussen Reports in July found that 78 percent of voters said every American should be allowed to purchase the same health-insurance plan that members of Congress have.

And that brings us to a basic contradiction in the national debate over health-care reform.

Many who demand that Uncle Sam keep his hands off their health care also want access to what essentially is a government-run plan. To be sure, members of Congress have private insurance, not a “single-payer” system as in Canada or Great Britain, and their health care isn’t free. But it comes through a government pipeline. As for Medicare, which most seniors wouldn’t trade for love nor money, it of course is also run by the government.

Critics of reform warn that insurance exchanges like the one Congress participates in are the first step on a slippery slope to a government takeover of health care. Rep. Joe Courtney, D-Conn., challenged his fellow congressmen to confront their hypocrisy.

“When I listen to the hysterical descriptions of what is in this legislation, I would remind many members to look at themselves in the mirror. Because what they are presently entitled to as members of Congress is exactly what this legislation is proposing to create for all Americans,” Courtney said in the education and labor committee in July. He repeated his message on the House floor.

President Barack Obama is trying to make good on his campaign pledge to create a system of competing, federally approved private insurance policies as well as a public plan through which individuals and small businesses could purchase health insurance. The public plan now is in doubt, but the insurance exchanges are in House and Senate bills.

As the Senate Finance Committee plowed through more than 500 amendments to the reform bill proposed by chairman Max Baucus, D-Mont., I looked into congressional health care. This information comes from the Congressional Research Service, Web sites of members of Congress, and other sources.

Many people think that senators and House members have their own special Cadillac health plan. Not so. Congress is under the same Federal Employees’ Health Benefits Program that covers all federal workers with the same rules and benefits. (Members of Congress pay an extra annual fee for services of the Capitol physician, and they’re eligible for free outpatient medical care in military treatment facilities in the capital region.)

The insurance purchasing exchange offers about 300 private insurance plans. Health insurance companies compete and submit bids to the government. All plans cover a range of benefits, including hospital, surgical, physician, mental health, prescriptions, emergency care and “catastrophic” care. About 8 million federal workers, including members of Congress, and their families participate. Each worker has about a dozen options, depending on where he lives.

The government pays up to 75 percent of the average premium with employees picking up no less than 25 percent. This is comparable to workers in private industry. Employees of private companies pay an average of 27 percent of the premium cost for family coverage, according to a new report by the Kaiser Family Foundation.

For more details about the federal health plan, check out the U.S. Office of Personnel Management site,

In a Q&A on his Web site, Sen. Benjamin Cardin, D-Md., tackles a question on many minds: Will members of Congress be covered under the new health plan or will they retain their current benefits?

The answer to both questions is yes, the sort of squishy response that drives citizens wild. Cardin explains, however, that Congress will be covered under health-care reform, but since the bills allow people to keep their current health care, members of Congress will be able to stay on the federal employees’ plan.

The question is whether the politicians will give the people they work for a similar choice.

(Marsha Mercer is an independent columnist writing in Washington, D.C. You can contact her at

© 2009 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Is Jimmy Carter right on race? -- Sept. 17, 2009 column


In 2006 Jimmy Carter told PBS’ Charlie Rose about Barack Obama, “I just don’t think he’s got the proven substance or experience to be president.”

This was before Obama announced his candidacy, and the former president was supporting Al Gore. Carter backed Hillary Clinton during the Democratic primaries.

When Carter finally endorsed Obama in June 2008, the Republican National Committee gleefully trotted out a YouTube video of Carter’s remark to show what he had thought about Obama earlier.

I mention this to remind that Jimmy Carter is no babe in the peanut patch when it comes to the news media in the electronic age. His words, spoken and written, on Palestinians, Israel and the Middle East long have stirred controversy.

So when he told NBC News’s Brian Williams in an interview Tuesday, “An overwhelming portion of the intensely demonstrated animosity toward President Barack Obama is based on the fact that he is a black man,” Carter knew what he was doing. He was causing a headache for the president who has worked assiduously to keep race off the table.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that Carter intended to send Obama running for the Tylenol. I accept that he was speaking from the heart to Williams and at a town hall meeting at the Carter Center in Atlanta.

Many people, myself included, are deeply troubled by the harsh tone of the protests against Obama and health-care reform. But what’s unclear is how widespread the hatred is and its source.

A questioner at the Carter Center asked about the “You lie” outburst by Rep. Joe Wilson, R-S.C., and protests portraying Obama as Hitler. Carter replied, “There’s an inherent feeling among many in this country that an African-American should not be president.”

He told Williams the “racism inclination still exists. And I think it’s bubbled up to the surface because of the belief among many white people, not just in the South but around the country, that African Americans are not qualified to lead this great country.”

Carter, who will celebrate his 85th birthday Oct. 1, is a lifelong proponent of civil rights. He’s certainly entitled to his opinion, and he’s not alone in sensing racial prejudice in anti-Obama protests.

But his comments weren’t helpful to the current national debate about health-care reform or race relations in America. If he wanted to start a serious conversation about either, the way to do it was not to attack Obama’s critics as bigots.

As with Carter’s earlier comments, the RNC made hay of his words about racism. Michael Steele, the first African-American chairman of the Republican Party, said in a statement, “President Carter is flat-out wrong. This isn’t about race. It is about policy.”

Carter was speaking his own mind; the White House wanted nothing to do with him. But Steele cast it as a strategy, saying, “This is a pathetic distraction by Democrats to shift attention away from the president’s wildly unpopular government-run health care plan that the American people simply oppose.”

White House press secretary Robert Gibbs tried to downplay Carter’s remarks. Obama does not believe the criticism “comes based on the color of his skin,” nor should Carter’s remarks be the impetus for larger discussions about hostile protests, Gibbs said. The president ignored a reporter’s question on Carter’s comments.

Republicans jumped on the comments as Carter’s “playing the race card.”

“Playing the race card shows that Democrats are willing to deal from the bottom of the deck,” Steele said.

If that sounds familiar, it’s because it’s the same rhetoric John McCain’s campaign used against Obama last year.

Obama warned then that Republicans were trying to scare voters -- “You know, he’s not patriotic enough. He’s got a funny name…he doesn’t look like those other presidents on those dollar bills.”

McCain’s campaign manager fired off a statement, saying, “Barack Obama has played the race card, and he played it from the bottom of the deck.”

Republicans are happy to associate Obama with a failed, one-term Democratic president.

Jimmy Carter should know by now that even if he’s sure he’s right, it’s sometimes better to savor the glory of the unexpressed thought.

© 2009 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.


Thursday, September 10, 2009

Trust a President Under 50? -- Sept. 10, 2009 column

Note to readers: An earlier version incorrectly said President Obama is the first president born after the 1946 to 1964 baby boom. MM


In the spirit of Woodstock and the return of Beatlemania, here’s another blast from the past: “Don’t trust anybody over 30!”

That rallying cry from the 1960s has gotten a 21st century makeover. Four decades later, many baby boomers and their elders don’t trust a president who’s under 50 or his youthful White House aides.

This generation gap is a problem for President Obama if he’s to pass health-care reform. The president born near the end of the baby boom of 1946 to 1964 must persuade older boomers to trust him.

The torch has been passed to a new generation, to borrow John F. Kennedy’s famous line, and to a president born more than six months after JFK uttered those words at his inauguration.

The first baby boomers turned 60 three years ago; Obama celebrated 48 last month. Unfortunately, the angriest voices from summer town halls were those of aging white male baby boomers.

To be sure, being a certain age guarantees a politician nothing. Baby-boomer presidents George W. Bush and Bill Clinton had many foes in their generation.

But Obama was never the first choice of voters over 50. In the primaries, Hillary Clinton was the favorite of older Democrats. In the November election, voters over 60 were the only age group that chose John McCain over Obama.

With most congressional Republicans opposing reform, Obama desperately needs Democrats to believe they won’t be throwing away their careers if they support it. Seniors vote and will turn out for next year’s midterm elections.

Health-care reform will affect everyone as no other legislation has in decades. People are asking, what’s in it for me and what will it cost me?

Seniors worry that Obama’s oft-repeated promise to pay for reform without adding one dime to the federal deficit inevitably will result in cuts to Medicare benefits.

In his address to Congress and the nation Wednesday night, Obama spoke to seniors directly.

“Don't pay attention to those scary stories about how your benefits will be cut,” he declared. “I will protect Medicare.”

Obama set to rest once more the spurious claim that reform will authorize death panels. He called Medicare “a sacred trust that must be passed down from one generation to the next,” and reassured seniors “not a dollar of the Medicare trust fund will be used to pay for this plan.”

So far, so good.

But he also promised to eliminate hundreds of billions of dollars in waste, fraud and “unwarranted subsidies in Medicare that go to insurance companies.” His plan also would create an independent medical commission to identify more waste. His broad overview left many questions to be answered in coming months.

If someone is disposed to trust the president and government, such uncertainty is tolerable. But critics have spent months ginning up insecurity with false claims and scare tactics.

Interestingly, the under-30 crowd, strongest supporters of Obama, have not rallied around health-care reform. Nobody ever expects to need health care, and the idea that everybody would be required to purchase health insurance is unpopular with invincible youth.

Obama now believes that the system won’t work unless everybody participates, a shift since the primaries.

History tells us that seniors do have the power to kill reform. Twenty years ago, the burning issue were changes in Medicare that provided more coverage but were paid for with higher Medicare premiums.

In what became a pivotal scene in August 1989, angry seniors surrounded Rep. Dan Rosentowski, D-Ill., chairman of the Ways and Means Committee, as he left a town hall meeting. Shouting demonstrators blocked his car from leaving.

“These people don’t understand what the government is trying to do for them,” a frustrated Rostenkowski complained.

Maybe so, but Congress subsequently repealed the unpopular measure.

Obama insists that his plan will provide Medicare recipients with all their promised benefits and may even save money for some with high out-of-pocket prescription costs.

“That’s what this plan will do for you,” the president said.

Obama has laid out his intentions. If he follows through and keeps the faith, he may yet convince skeptical seniors to trust a president under 50.

(c) 2009 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Waiting for Obama -- Sept. 3, 2009 column


As Paulette gave my hair a late-summer trim, I asked what she thinks now of the president who won her vote.

“I haven’t seen much change yet,” said Paulette, an independent voter, frowning. “Lots of money spent and lots of yelling. I keep waiting for him to, well, arrive.”

That’s about as good as it gets for Barack Obama these days. His critics are gleeful that the president has had a rough summer and are eager to write him off. But if voters are still waiting, he can regain momentum.

The president’s job-approval numbers are down, but Congress’ numbers are worse. Obama faces an uphill fight with health-care reform, but he has the bully pulpit to remind voters why they liked him and his plans.

This week will be critical. On Tuesday, Obama plans to give a pep talk to the nation’s students. Wednesday night, he will address a joint session of Congress, trying to revive his overhaul of the health-care system. Friday, he’ll lead a National Day of Service and Remembrance, honoring those killed in the horrific terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

It’s a sign of the times that these seemingly uncontroversial events unleashed waves of conservative criticism.

Critics flew into a tizzy over the speech to students, charging it’s an attempt to brainwash children. Republicans announced that nothing the president says to Congress will make much difference. Some talk show hosts knocked service because it shifts attention from the 9/11 attacks and the perpetrators. Plus, the groups participating in the day of service represent all parts of the political spectrum, including the left.

In his speech to students, Obama will urge kids to work hard, set educational goals and take responsibility for their learning. The speech will be broadcast on C-SPAN and the White House Web site. Education Secretary Arne Duncan encouraged school principals to have their classes tune in.

A president exhorting children to study should be inoffensive and unexceptional – but in 2009, it’s neither.

The chairman of the Republican party of Florida, Jim Greer, fired off a press release to declaring that he was appalled at Obama’s use of taxpayer funds to spread his “socialist ideology.” Greer later said the real problem was the teaching tools provided by the administration. No matter that these were optional.

Critics jumped on a suggestion that pupils write themselves letters about how they could help the president as an Orwellian attempt to indoctrinate children. The Education Department quickly rewrote the offending sentence to say that students should write themselves letters setting short-term and long-term educational goals.

Some school districts have decided not to carry the president’s speech. Others may show it but allow parents to opt out. Some talk radio hosts even called for parents to keep their children home.

This kerfuffle is embarrassing. Imagine the chatter if a foreign president sparked an uproar in his country by calling for children to study.

At least we can expect open minds on Capitol Hill, right? Not exactly. Before Obama could lay out specifics of his plan, Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky said, “The problem is what he’s trying to sell.”

Democrats are waiting for Obama to show leadership on health care. If he drops or soft-pedals the public option, a government alternative to private insurance, he could please Blue Dog Democrats, the moderates and conservatives crucial to reform’s passage, while alienating organized labor and liberals.

AFL-CIO secretary-treasurer Rich Trumka, who is expected to become the union’s president this month, called the public option “an absolute must” and said it’s time for organized labor to remember its friends and punish its enemies.

Obama’s attempt to unite the country on Sept. 11 also met with resistance. The president and first lady innocuously called on all Americans to make a difference in their communities, not just on 9/11 but in the days, weeks and months to follow.

Some commentators complained that collecting food for the hungry and other such projects distract from remembering the attacks and this somehow demeans the memory of the more than 3,000 who were killed.

A year ago, though, President George W. Bush also tried to rekindle the neighbor-helping-neighbor spirit that followed the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

“Volunteerism is strong in the country. But the truth of the matter is, the farther we've gotten away from 9/11, that memory has begun to fade,” Bush said.

September is a time for fresh starts and cooler temperatures. Voters like Paulette are waiting for Obama to arrive.

© 2009 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.