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Congress Has a Second Chance to Get SCHIP Right

Second chances to legislate seem always possible and never practical, but the House now has a practical second chance to get children’s health care right.

We didn’t do a very good job the first time around, did we? And now the president has vetoed the bill that evolved when Democratic leaders blended a desperately political House bill with the mediocre policies of its Senate counterpart.

If we take the second chance to do things right, Democrats will still get what they want most from the reauthorization of the State Children’s Health Insurance Program — the opportunity to attack the president — but the actual needy children will get their health care.

SCHIP was invented 10 years ago by a Republican Congress and a Democratic president. It’s welfare, pure and simple, but not the kind that’s aimed at kids below the poverty line. (They’re covered by Medicaid.) Instead, SCHIP recognized that children of the working poor often had no insurance because their parents just couldn’t afford it.

House Democrats have been manufacturing this confrontation with the president all year. Evidently, SCHIP was too important politically to be considered by Congress at any point before the critical days when the program was about to expire, so instead of beginning the reauthorization process in January, they waited until July.

When the heat was on, they responded by largely ignoring the regular and established legislative process. In the Energy and Commerce Committee, there was no legislative hearing on the House SCHIP bill and no markup by our Subcommittee on Health. The full committee markup was restricted to reading the legislation because the 500-page bill had only been revealed to most of us at 20 minutes to midnight on July 24, just 10 hours before the markup was scheduled to open. The bill was yanked before it could be read and sent on the House floor, where amendments were barred.

Things got murkier when strategic errors by the majority generated House and Senate bills so distinctly different that a conference to work out the differences was deemed impossible. House Republicans were denied access to any part of the negotiations, a solution that was said to be “creative” by Rep. Rahm Emanuel (D-Ill.). Thus the House was finally made to consider a take-it-or-leave-it patchwork of private agreements in lieu of a normal conference report.

Republicans opposed the final SCHIP bill, and not only because of the terrifically unfair process; Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) supported it, and we think largely because she was proud of the bill’s content. Yet we gather from her remarks that she and many other Democrats also believe the makeshift bill that was vetoed is hardly perfect.

It seems to me and 18 other Republicans on the Energy and Commerce Committee that until Nov. 16, when a temporary extension of SCHIP expires, we have a second chance to get both the process and the policy right, and we’ve written to the Speaker to say so.

All Republicans have ever wanted was a fair opportunity to understand, debate and affect the legislation in a positive way. During the crafting and passage of both the Children’s Health and Medicare Protection Act and the House-Senate package of amendments, none of these possibilities was available to Republicans or, for that matter, to most Democrats. That failing can be remedied if the Speaker is willing to do what’s so obviously right.

Given a common-sense opportunity to actually read and comprehend a bill reauthorizing SCHIP — surely a handful of days could be permitted and please, this time without a midnight document delivery — our strong preference would be to stand and debate, then let the votes decide the outcome. All the Speaker needs to do is convene the relevant committees between now and Nov. 16 and tell them to go to work.

SCHIP never should have become the intensely partisan issue that it did become. A time will come, however, when no more political advantage can be wrung from it. We think that time is nearly here, and we should use it to achieve a bipartisan bill through a cooperative effort. Still, Democrats and Republicans do have rather different views, and if our principles cannot be reconciled through good-faith bipartisanship, an honest airing of facts accompanied by actual amendments and real votes cannot help but produce a better bill than the ones we have passed.

Whether intended to produce bipartisan agreement or an honest clash of values, a legislative hearing would lay the groundwork for a formal markup. Such a process can occur if the chairmen of the Energy and Commerce and the Ways and Means committees can be prevailed on to take the requisite steps, and only the Speaker can accomplish that task.

We hope she can find a way to agree that good process will produce better legislation, and that she will quickly instruct the committees to conduct public hearings followed by fair, open markups of the SCHIP extension.

Rep. Joe Barton (R-Texas) is ranking member on the House Energy and Commerce Committee.

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