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To Sharpen Contrast, Candidates Simplify Complex Issues Have Nuances, But Campaigns Avoid Subtleties

For the next six weeks, two ordinarily nice people will say many not-so-nice things about each other, hoping to earn the right to represent Eastern Washington in Congress.

They will say them in sound bites on television. And at rallies, in somewhat longer campaign speeches. And possibly face-to-face in debates and forums leading to the Nov. 5 election.

Rep. George Nethercutt will accuse Garfield wheat farmer Judy Olson of being a tool of big labor bosses who lie about Medicaid to scare old people out of voting for him.

Democrat Olson will accuse Nethercutt and his Republican cohorts in Congress of callously chopping everything that middle-class Americans like about their federal government, from their parents’ Medicare to their children’s college loans.

They will seem to be talking about two different Americas, represented by two different Congresses. In fact, they will merely be highlighting some simplified slices of a complicated reality in their race for the 5th Congressional District.

Medicare is an example of a complicated issue that can be simplified to distortion.

Republicans proposed a slowdown in the money the federal government is scheduled to pay for Medicare over the next six years. Over that same period, the number of beneficiaries would have grown, and certain changes would have encouraged seniors to opt for managed care rather than the traditional fee-for-service style of health care.

Premiums would have gone up faster than the current schedule, and the amount that physicians and other health care providers are reimbursed for their services would have gone up slower than the current schedule.

That’s a cut, says Olson. It’s not, says Nethercutt.

The “cut or no cut” argument overlooks several important points.

One is that President Clinton also suggested a slowdown in Medicare payments, albeit less than the GOP proposal. Another is that some Republicans criticized managed care when it was a major part of Clinton’s unsuccessful health care reforms but later said it was a good way to provide savings for their Medicare proposal.

Most important, the proposal failed, and Congress is not likely to cobble together a Medicare reform before it adjourns to campaign full time. The real question is what will the next Congress do about a problem that all sides admit exists.

Whether the Medicare issue generates more heat than light remains to be seen.

Although not part of the group that drafted the Medicare reform proposals, Nethercutt has developed a working knowledge of the complicated Medicare system. Olson readily acknowledges she doesn’t have a quick answer to the problem, but contends a more reasoned, bipartisan approach would be better than the GOP’s past efforts.

Olson has accused congressional Republicans of something even more onerous than trying to cut Medicare - trying to cut Social Security.

“That’s a big lie that she and the labor unions are perpetrating on the public,” Nethercutt said on election night. There have been no proposed cuts to the nation’s system of cash payments to seniors, he said.

Olson’s campaign responded that he voted for a budget resolution that included a change in the way cost-of-living adjustments are calculated for beneficiaries. A lower COLA means payments won’t go up as fast as inflation.

That was based on figures from Clinton’s own Labor Department, and is not a cut, it’s a change in assumptions for calculating the budget through 2002, said Nethercutt spokesman Ken Lisaius. At the same time, the House voted to repeal a 1993 tax increase on Social Security benefits and raise the amount of money recipients can earn before paying penalties.

Nethercutt will talk about the declining deficit, and the unsuccessful attempts to balance the federal budget over the next seven years. He will probably not mention that the deficit had dropped for two years before he took office.

Olson will criticize the Republicans for a byproduct of that balanced budget debate - the shutdown of portions of the federal government at the end of 1995. She may not spend much time noting that Clinton, who shares budgeting responsibilities with Congress, had trouble coming up with workable budgets as the two sides deadlocked.

When the candidates get away from spending issues, look for Nethercutt to denounce a recent increase in reported drug use among young Americans. He recently called for the death penalty for anyone convicted of smuggling a marketable quantity of illegal drugs into the country, although he has not yet found or drafted the exact legislation he can support.

Olson will continue to criticize Nethercutt’s vote to repeal the Davis-Bacon Act, which sets wage rates on federal construction projects, and his vote to repeal a ban on military-style assault weapons.

, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: 2 color photos

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