Enough Spin to Make You Dizzy


By Howard Gleckman President Bush has spent most of the month basking in the glory of what the pundits have painted as great political victories -- passage of energy and patients' rights legislation in the House of Representatives.

Victories? I'd argue both were big policy defeats for the President. In each case, the legislation approved by the House was far removed from the President's wishes, even though the chamber is controlled by Bush's own party.

Let's look first at the patients' bill of rights. As governor of Texas and candidate for President, Bush strongly opposed shifting the balance of economic power from health maintenance organizations to their customers. Most of all, he flatly rejected the idea of letting aggrieved patients sue their HMOs for denying care or other misfeasance. Yet the bill passed by the GOP House allows those very suits.

ROUTED. By the time the bill came to a House vote, the debate over whether patients should be allowed to sue was over. Bush and the insurance companies had been routed. The only question was how high to cap the HMOs' financial liability. The Senate has already agreed to limit such noneconomic damages at $5 million. The House bill set the level at $1.5 million, plus an extra $1.5 million in punitive damages. That's a long way from zero, which is what the HMOs wanted.

The other major controversy was over where a patient can sue -- in state or federal court. In his campaign, Bush insisted these disputes should be left to state courts. He flipped during the spring debate, and by July wanted to leave the issue to federal judges. The House came up with the bizarre solution of allowing patients to sue in state court, but under federal rules.

Among other things, it means plaintiffs in some states would have fewer rights under the new law than they have today. This is idiotic. Even Bush's newfound ally in the HMO debate, Representative Charles Norwood (R-Ga.), concedes this provision will have to be rewritten.

Since almost no one ever sues their HMOs anyway, the size of damage awards is merely symbolic -- except in cases of really gross misconduct. But if symbolism matters, the bill does little more than split the difference between Bush's no-sue philosophy and the more litigious Democratic view. So tell me again how this was a big victory for Bush.

ENERGY HODGEPODGE. Same story with the energy bill. In response to last winter's short-lived energy crisis, Bush proposed some far-reaching changes. Among them: oil drilling off of Florida's Gulf Coast, clearing the way for new construction of nuclear power plants, and giving federal authorities the power to overturn local decisions about where power plants can be located.

Trouble is, all of those ideas were jettisoned from the legislation. The measure as approved by the House was a $34 billion hodgepodge of special-interest tax breaks -- most of which the White House never requested.

Then there was the matter of drilling for oil in the 19-million-acre Alaska National Wildlife Refuge. Bush wanted to open up 1.5 million acres to drilling rights. The House, in what was again described as a major political victory for Bush, agreed to open up 2,000 acres, or roughly 98.7% less than the President requested. And even that was something of a free vote, since the Senate is widely expected to kill the idea when it takes up the bill this autumn.

Thus it is true the House passed an energy bill. It just so happens it wasn't Bush's.

UNLIKELY BACKERS. So how did the President succeed in spinning these votes as glorious victories? In part, it's because the White House is very good at the old trick of claiming great success in a defeat over and over again. Say it often enough, and people start to believe it.

Bush didn't do this alone. He was aided and abetted by, of all people, his political opponents.

Take the energy bill. Drilling in ANWR is hot button for environmental groups -- news of any threat to it is a surefire fund-raiser. So, to keep the contributions flowing from caribou lovers everywhere, they were as anxious as the President to make it appear as if ANWR was about to be turned into West Texas. Ditto for Senate Democrats and moderate Republicans, who will happily take credit for banning drilling entirely when they take up the bill in a month.

BUSH AS BAKER. So, Bush gets an energy bill, even though it's not nearly what he had in mind just a few months ago. And he gets a patients' rights bill he never wanted and in which he concedes the very same right to sue he opposed for so long.

It's as if Bush was a baker who started to make a croissant, and ended up with rye bread. He's taking credit for having made a marvelous loaf, and nobody disagrees. After all, if you don't look too closely, it is all just water and flour. So why sweat the details? Gleckman is a senior correspondent in BusinessWeek's Washington bureau. Follow his views every Tuesday in Washington Watch, only on BW Online


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