Candidates Resume Medicare Debate Nethercutt, Olson Clash Over Issue, Find Few Solutions During Round 2

MONDAY, OCT. 14, 1996

Rep. George Nethercutt and Democratic challenger Judy Olson continued their long-running debate over Medicare without settling much at their second debate Sunday.

Facing off at the Ag Trade Center theater for a public television audience, the two also clashed over tax policy, farm programs and the U.S. Department of Education.

But it seemed as though the answers to many questions found their way back to the nation’s medical insurance program for senior citizens. They accused each other of not being able to “do the math” on the changes the Republicans proposed for Medicare.

“I don’t understand your new math,” Olson said at one point during the debate. “How is it when you have fewer dollars and more people, that’s not a cut?”

“You’re not stating the facts,” replied Nethercutt, explaining that the GOP plan would raise spending from $4,800 to $7,100 per person. “That’s an increase. If you study that issue, you’ll understand that. But you’ve got to listen to me.”

Nethercutt was right that the GOP plan would have spent more money than is now being spent. But it would not have spent as much as program directors estimate is necessary for the current rate of inflation and the increase in people who will become eligible in the next six years. He contends the costs would have come down through reforms in the system.

The GOP plan was vetoed, and Congress will likely have to re-examine the issue next year. Olson said she wants a bipartisan group to study the issue and come up with a solution.

“We have to do it in a bipartisan manner or it will end up in political gridlock,” she said.

Nethercutt said Congress could save Medicare “if we’re honest about it. To kick it around like a political football…doesn’t solve anything.”

But he said he wouldn’t support an independent commission, similar to the one which decided which military bases should be closed.

“Serving in Congress means you have to make difficult decisions,” he said. “You can’t turn it over to someone else.”

Nethercutt also defended his vote to abolish the Department of Education during the debate, sponsored by The Spokesman-Review, KSPS-TV and KPBX radio.

He said he was voting to eliminate 3,000 bureaucrats in Washington, D.C.

Olson countered that if the nation wants to raise the importance of education, it needs an advocate who has “a cabinet-level presence” as secretary of education.

“What we raise is the level of bureaucracy,” Nethercutt said. “That’s not the way to get good education.”

“I don’t believe schools should be subject to a lot of regulation, but there should be some basic standards,” Olson said.

Sometimes the answers strayed far afield of the questions. When a woman in the audience asked why stay-at-home moms shouldn’t receive a tax break for day-care expenses like working moms, Nethercutt called for a complete overhaul of the tax system.

“We’ve got a tax system that’s so complicated, I’d rather have us change that,” he said. “I’d rather have a flat tax…not more write-offs.”

Olson, noting that she has been a “stay-at-home mom,” used the question to call for a balanced budget. Only then would she support tax reform, she said, using her favorite analogy that tax cuts are like candy and they shouldn’t be awarded until the vegetables are eaten.

“Tax relief is not candy. Tax relief is real money in people’s pockets,” Nethercutt shot back.

One of the hottest exchanges of the evening came in answer to a question about fair trade, which shifted quickly to farm policy and an argument over the Export Enhancement Program, which helps farmers sell grain overseas when prices are low.

Olson complained that the Republican Congress cut EEP from $800 million to $100 million. Nethercutt replied that the nation only spent about $2 million on the program last year.

“One hundred million is absolutely going to be enough,” he said.

“You are flat out wrong,” she said.

In fact, no one can be sure if that amount is too little, too much or just right because it will depend on grain prices. When prices are high, as they have been for the last year, EEP is seldom used, and the money remains in the federal treasury. When they are low, it can be used to boost exports.

Olson said after the debate that the program is an important tool and the money should have been set aside. Nethercutt said if it’s needed, Congress can allocate more. , DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: 2 Color Photos

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