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Shawn Vestal: Only in Wonderland is Congress insuring children’s health

As political life becomes ever curiouser, it may be time to rename the nation’s capital: Wonderland.

In Wonderland, it is no challenge whatsoever to believe impossible things.

The impossible is the ordinary.

As the Red Queen told Alice, “Sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.”

Maybe she was reading Cathy McMorris Rodgers’ Twitter feed.

McMorris Rodgers has been tweeting out #DidYouKnow facts about tax reform and other subjects at a rapid pace lately. A lot of these facts are actually “facts,” the kinds of political statements that are true-ish but regarding which you might want to figure out what’s left out as much as what’s put in. They are meant, no doubt, as a corrective to what I’m sure McMorris Rodgers and her fellow House members consider grievously unfair media coverage, which has so unfairly pointed out the differences between what they say about tax reform and what everyone else says about tax reform.

Mostly, she’s touting publicity-stunt bonuses – and omitting the news about store closures and layoffs by the bonus granters – and all that boasting is probably understandable, given how rarely House legislation has actually made it into law during her years in office.

This week, though, one of her #DidYouKnows shot straight through the looking glass in the way it addressed the expiring Children’s Health Insurance Program. CHIP covers 9 million children in America. It is a tiny drop in the budgetary bucket and has long been considered a program with bipartisan support. Funding for CHIP is in limbo now for one reason: The party that controls the entire federal legislative process has been unable to pass simple legislation that would reauthorize the program.

So the families who rely on CHIP and the states that administer the program are left watching their money run out, wondering what in the world is happening to the priorities in Congress.

A few days ago, McMorris Rodgers – or her staff tweeter – tweeted: “#DidYouKnow: The House passed legislation to reauthorize CHIP so children across America have access to quality, affordable health care.”

Attached was a news release from two months ago in which the House GOP crows about the importance of CHIP, how very, very, very important CHIP is for American families and “the most vulnerable among us,” how the House had passed legislation reauthorizing CHIP and “ensuring that we are providing them care for years to come.”

In Wonderland, maybe.

Since Congress has failed to authorize CHIP, McMorris Rodgers and the House are simply pretending they reauthorized CHIP, trying with this linguistic sleight of hand to leave the impression that this was already done. If you know a little bit more than nothing – that the House passed legislation that the Senate has not acted on – you would get the sense of an ulterior message: Don’t blame the House, it’s the Senate fault.

But if you know a lot more than nothing about this, you’ll understand how misleading this all is. How deceitful. The House passed legislation that was loaded up with conditions, including large-scale cuts to other health care programs. They call this “paying for” CHIP. It was not necessary to “pay for” the $1.5 trillion in tax cuts, recall.

They were so dedicated to CHIP and those children, these members of the House, that they refused to reauthorize the program unless they could cut an equal amount of health care from others first – eliminating an Obamacare fund that covers half a million people, among other cuts. This is a poison pill, not a sincere or “clean” effort to reauthorize CHIP, and it reveals the true priority of the House majority much more clearly than any tweet or news release.

After all, in a negotiation, if you say, “I will do X only if you do Y,” can you legitimately claim that your true priority is X?

In Wonderland, you can.

McMorris Rodgers tries very hard to imply that the House ensured children would have coverage by passing this bill. Did we know? Did we? Only people who didn’t know anything could swallow that inference, because what the House did was sabotage the act’s chances in the Senate, with moderates in their party and Democrats. And then stage an insincere demonstration of their devotion to children.

At one point late last year – with CHIP funds expiring – I wrote a piece about what an abject failure of political leadership this was. What a grotesquerie of priorities it laid bare in Congress and the House in particular, where intractable legislative skirmishes form around whether to pass legislation that is bad for poor people or legislation that is even worse for poor people.

After I wrote that column, a spokesman for McMorris Rodgers called me to ask if I was aware that Democrats in a particular committee had not voted in favor of the House CHIP reauthorization. Did I know? Why didn’t I blame them, he wondered?

In Wonderland, this may seem like a good argument, I guess. No Democrats were needed to pass CHIP reauthorization, and blaming them is a representative kind of fakery, a criticism offered in the hope that the person who hears it will be uninformed enough to ask themselves: Yeah! Why didn’t those Democrats reauthorize CHIP?

The congressional failure on children’s health is nothing less than appalling, at a moment where the standards for political appallingness are as high as they’ve ever been. The House had many ways it could have actually worked to ensure the reauthorization of the program, but it went for its chief priority instead: gutting Obamacare.

Without that, the House’s dedication to CHIP vanishes like the Cheshire Cat.

All that’s left is a creepy smile.


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