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October 18, 2007

Bartlett Should Switch His Vote

Tony Soltero

As the word indicates, a representative's job is to represent. It is to reflect the views of the constituents of his or her district, and ensure that those views are advanced in Congress.

While an elected representative usually has a core political philosophy that informs his voting patterns, it's already something he or she has inherited from the voters - if the representative didn't share that philosophy with the voting public, he or she wouldn't get elected in the first place.

But, on occasion, the voters will break with what is prescribed by that philosophy. Most Americans are pragmatic rather than dogmatic, and consequently more interested in having the government work and produce results than in having the government adhere to a rigid ideology.

So, even many conservatives, ostensibly wedded to the idea of "small government," will support a federal program that works and fills a gap that the private sphere cannot. I'm not aware of too many conservatives who want to dismantle the Interstate Highway System.

Such is the case with SCHIP. This federal program, which provides health insurance to children who otherwise cannot obtain coverage, has been very successful in delivering on its mission, and has enjoyed broad bipartisan support over the years. And as everyone knows, the program is up for renewal this year. Congress authorized its extension, only to have President George W. Bush veto the bill.

The votes may or may not be there to override the veto. One of those borderline votes is that of our own Rep. Roscoe Bartlett, who voted against the program's extension during the initial roll call. Representative Bartlett continues to insist that his vote was the proper one, citing the "conservative" nature of the Sixth District. But a recent poll indicates that this is an issue in which he is clinging to conservative dogma at the expense of his constituents' wishes.

According to a poll of Sixth District voters conducted last week by Penn, Schoen and Berland Associates, a robust 59% of Western Marylanders support the extension of the SCHIP program, and 39% of the voters strongly support it. Support for SCHIP is extremely strong with Democrats (77%) and sturdy with independents (59%), and even nearly half of Republicans (47%) support the program. The voters of the Sixth District believe that Representative Bartlett should vote to override the veto by a margin of 50% to 35%, according to that poll.

This is clearly an issue in which pragmatism overrides dogmatism. Even Americans who describe themselves as "conservative" don't believe children should be denied health care. Quite the contrary - it's an affirmation of pro-life values.

There is nothing moral about a society that means-tests the right to life.

The spurious criticisms the far right levels against SCHIP aren't resonating with the public, and with good reason. The "SCHIP costs too much" claim is laughable, given the runaway costs of the Iraq war - expected to reach a trillion dollars, if not more - and the almost complete lack of accountability concerning the war's funding. It's not a line of argument any self-described (pro-war) "fiscal conservative" can make with a straight face. We can fully fund SCHIP for what a few weeks' worth of this Iraq adventure is costing the taxpayer.

The other widely cited argument - that SCHIP is being expanded to cover "undeserving" families - is every bit as dubious and unconvincing. As I said in this space a couple of weeks ago, the American health-care system is designed to maximize profits for insurance companies, not to treat the sick. Many, many middle-class (and even upper-class) families are being denied health insurance for one reason or another - pre-existing conditions, or a record of filing "too many" claims. SCHIP helps fill in the gap that the "market" has failed so badly in covering.

What is especially curious is the allegation by the far right that SCHIP would encourage families to drop private health insurance in favor of the federal program.

Now wait a minute! Isn't the far right always claiming that private insurance is the bomb and that government can't do anything right? And if that were true, then why would any family join SCHIP when they have all these wonderful private insurers to choose from?

If the world worked the way the far right says it does, then they needn't worry - nobody will join SCHIP.

I was all ready to call out Congressman Bartlett for his recent New York Times quote about wishing to "restore the limited federal government envisioned in the Constitution," but unlike most other Republicans, he at least seems to arrive at his opinion honestly, having voted against the Patriot Act extension - the most egregious expansion of government power over the individual in American history. So I'll give him credit for that.

But on this particular issue, our congressman would be wise to be pragmatic and vote to override Bush's veto.

After all, it's what most of his constituents want him to do.

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