Conservative Turncoats on Drug Freebie

“All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.”

–Edmund Burke

“I know on our budget bill, it came down to one vote, and it could happen again tonight,” Rep. Steve King (R.-Iowa) told me Thursday, referring to the upcoming vote on the Bill to give seniors prescription drugs at taxpayer expense. “I expect there will be drama on the floor of the House of Representatives tonight.”

“I’ve told leadership I’m a ‘no,’ and I’ve said the same thing to the Vice President,” he told me. It was a tough vote, he admitted, but he added, “You have to do your conscience.”

Earlier, I had spoken to Rep. Mike Pence (R.-Ind.), a leader in the conservative charge to derail the largest expansion of government in 40 years. Pence had told me he thought he and his gang of conservatives had the numbers to kill the bill.

That made it even more encouraging to hear King, a freshman, make arguments against the bill perfectly in tune with everything HUMAN EVENTS and other conservative publications had written on the topic in the last two weeks.

“It’s a large entitlement bill that’s got some uncertain scoring on it, and the potential to grow from its current size and multiply itself many times over in the upcoming years,” King told me, just hours before the House vote. “We have 76% of the seniors in this country that have their own prescription drug plan. This plan puts things in motion that’s going to incent [sic] at least some of them to leave their private plan and go on the government plan, which is going to grow and swell that.”

I was honored to talk to the young freshman conservative, about whom I’d heard so much already. That’s why I was so surprised to hear that just hours later, he did exactly the opposite of what he’d told me by voting for the plan. His single vote could have killed the House bill, preventing what will surely prove to be the biggest mistake of George W. Bush’s presidency.

Now, out of fairness to Mr. King, the same can be said of the votes of Rep. Butch Otter (R.-Idaho) and Jo Ann Emerson (R.-Mo.), who changed their votes from “nay” to “aye” on the floor. And the same could be said of Rep. Ernest Istook (R.-Okla.) who voted “present,” thus allowing the bill to pass with a plurality of 216 votes, to 215 against. (Rep. Istook actually opposed the bill, but he had made a gentleman’s agreement with Rep. Bill Young (R.-Fla.), who wanted to vote for the bill but had to attend a funeral. To compensate for Mr. Young’s absence, Istook promised to simply register his presence on the House floor rather than voting “no.”)

I asked Congressman King on Friday what sort of torture chambers the Bush administration has just off the floor of the House. After all, the White House was not about to be embarrassed, forced to renege on Bush’s unwise prescription drug promise, by a small gang of conservatives. Maybe Dick Cheney was there, pulling out members’ fingernails during the full hour they held the vote open before passage.

But then again, I am Catholic, and my church teaches me that even the devil cannot compel anyone to act against their conscience.

As it turns out, Ways and Means Chairman Bill Thomas (R.-Calif.) promised King a provision in conference that would improve the formula for Medicare funding in Iowa. The state, King told me, currently stands dead last in Medicare reimbursement.

King insisted that his vote puts him in a position to make the final bill better. “I can do more here, when I’m at the table, than I could have if I’d walked out the door,” he said. “I am convinced that if I’m at the table, I’m looking Thomas, [Commerce Chairman Billy] Tauzin [R.-La.] and [Budget Chairman Jim] Nussle [R.-Iowa] right in the eye.”

King said he had changed his mind 45 minutes before the vote. Give him credit for even holding out that long, because by all accounts, 30 or 40 House conservatives had dropped their opposition under pressure from the White House days earlier.

And so now we will never know whether a brave stand by a few conservatives could have at least slowed this measure down until fickle public opinion subsided. We might have regained our senses this summer and seen the downside of Republicans handing out freebies in order to buy votes for the next election.

I will remember this day twenty years from now, when I have a wife, a mortgage, and children to care for. By then, Democrats will have retaken the White House and Congress, perhaps by campaigning on a platform of even more generous health handouts. I will be paying 25% or 30% of my income in payroll taxes to buy “free” drugs for other people’s grandparents.

I will be able to say that I was there when it all started, and I knew a few of the men who could have made it different.