It’s summertime, and Bill Clinton and the Republican Congress are balancing the budget, cutting taxes and putting a big Band-Aid on Medicare. Newt Gingrich has foiled a palace coup. Who’s paying attention?
America’s reaction is a shrug, a collective “wake me when it’s over.” One survey shows people would rather listen to any music CD than to the president of the United States.
The irony is that something is getting done in Washington. Tax and Medicare changes will affect millions of people. Campaign finance hearings are yielding troubling disclosures.
There’s a danger in not paying attention. When people are distracted, government has a way of producing unpleasant surprises. Favors get done that cost the taxpayers. “Solutions” that create new problems find their way into law.
It’s not that people don’t care about the issues, maintains Jean Johnson, vice president of Public Agenda, a New York-based nonprofit group that tries to explain complicated issues.
“People have a really hard time deciphering what these debates mean for their future,” said Johnson. “They have a hard time determining what are rumblings and what is really a change that will make a difference to their families and communities.”
On some issues, there’s plenty of reason to follow the action. Other issues can be safely ignored. For those who are uncertain, here’s an admittedly subjective look at what’s worth checking or chucking:
Forget this one. It’s over for now. GOP rebels are going to wait and see how their embattled leader handles the next few weeks. Republicans don’t want the dissension in their ranks to jeopardize a balanced budget deal with Clinton that includes tax cuts that they have sought for years.
Keep an eye on this one - there’s a lot of detail in it. But discount much of the rhetoric. Overall, tax burdens won’t change that much.
Investors will get a tax break on profits from the sale of stock and other assets. The details are still being hashed out, but sales since May 7 of this year would qualify.
Many parents will get a $500 per child tax credit. Details are still unclear. It may not go to some low-income families who don’t earn enough to pay federal income taxes. But low-income families got a generous tax benefit in the 1993 budget deal.
For middle-class parents, the value of the benefit depends on how you look at it. In a lump sum, $500 is pretty good. It’s a clothing budget, with enough left over for school supplies. But from week-to-week, it works out to a box of Pampers.
Families with kids in college will also get a tax break - at least for the first two years of tuition.
Married couples could shelter from taxes up to $500,000 in profits from the sale of their home, and single homeowners could shelter up to $250,000.
There are two fronts here. One is campaign finance reform legislation, which is going nowhere. Politicians are loathe to change a system that keeps re-electing them. Not much to watch there.
The other is the congressional investigation into campaign finance abuses. The hearings are plodding along, and a lot of what lawmakers are delving into has already been reported in the media. But don’t tune this out.
Lawmakers of both parties have concluded that there is evidence that the Chinese government had a secret plan to illegally influence U.S. elections - mainly congressional campaigns, but possibly the presidential campaign as well.
It’s bad enough for homegrown special interests to buy influence, but at least they can be drafted or taxed in times of war.
It’s another thing altogether for foreign governments with interests that may run counter to those of the American people to do so.
Yet the public does not seem to have registered the implications. “The scandals have not done anything to pique public interest,” said pollster Andrew Kohut of the Pew Research Center.
Congressional committees and the media plan to summarize the hearing results in late July, and again when the hearings conclude in December.
Take note of this one. Hundreds of details about the health insurance program for 38 million elderly and disabled people are in play.
Monthly Medicare premiums will increase for all, and maybe more sharply for well-to-do retirees. New preventive coverage will be added. Many more managed-care choices will be offered.
Beneficiaries in health maintenance organizations, or those who are interested in joining, should watch carefully.
Proposed changes in the way Medicare pays HMOs will save money for taxpayers as a whole. But among Medicare beneficiaries, some will lose and some will gain.
As the government tries to correct overpayments to HMOs in some parts of the country, beneficiaries in those places - South Florida, New York City and parts of California - could see benefits like dental care or eyeglasses scaled back. Some HMOs might raise co-payments for prescriptions.
But people in rural areas - where the government doesn’t pay HMOs enough to make the Medicare business worthwhile - could get the option of joining an HMO for the first time.
“Medicare HMOs are going to see some significant changes that will impact their attractiveness,” said consultant Robert Laszewski.
Don’t take your eye off the ball.
It’s finally within our reach. But if the economy goes sour, if tax breaks prove to be a bigger drain than anticipated, or if health care costs keep increasing, the balanced budget will turn out to have been a mirage.
Graphic: Fewer care about Washington news
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