U.S. Sen. John Kennedy has never been one to hold back his feelings about government programs to help people who are struggling. Often, those feelings are harshly critical.
So when Kennedy lauds not only the goals but the effectiveness of such an effort, the program he's describing must really be beyond reproach.
The Children's Health Insurance Program, or CHIP, fits the bill. The program provides health coverage for about 9 million kids and pregnant women nationwide whose families fall above the traditional Medicaid threshold but still struggle to find affordable coverage in the private market. That includes about 122,000 kids in Louisiana, Kennedy says.
It's hard to find anyone, big-government liberal or small-government conservative, who doesn't think CHIP does the job well. Kennedy, who fashions himself a taxpayer watchdog, regularly bashes Medicaid as wasteful and claims widespread abuse of food stamps, even though those programs provide vital lifelines to many of his constituents. But when it comes to CHIP, he strikes a starkly different tone.
CHIP's "helped my state a lot," he told CNN last week. “CHIP costs the state of Louisiana very little, and thousands of children receive health insurance. This is a well-managed program with little waste, and you can’t say that about many government programs."
With that kind of support from this kind of politician, you'd think keeping the lights on would be as uncontroversial as, say, naming a post office.
Nope. Not these days, and not in this Congress.
Congress let CHIP expire more than three months ago, and spent the closing days of 2017 focused on the entirely less urgent task of pushing through a party-line tax code revamp.
So while tax cuts for high rollers are already kicking in, CHIP enters the new year on running on fumes. States haven't run out of money for the program yet, but that's imminent in some places, and parents are already getting frightening letters warning them that future coverage is not assured. In Louisiana, as Kennedy pointed out in a December letter to Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, the well will run dry in mid-February.
One apparent glitch in the renewal is House Republicans' desire to use the measure to starve other health care programs. The bill they passed would raid preventative health programs set up under the Affordable Care Act and cut some Medicare funding for high-income seniors. Democrats deemed the trade-off it a non-starter, and so apparently did enough Republicans in the Senate, which has not acted.
Kennedy is now basically acknowledging that the long delay is turning into a public relations nightmare for the party that controls Washington. While most leaders have been blithely dismissing concerns that the program is in danger, Kennedy went on CNN to state the obvious.
“Everyone on both sides of the aisle knows that we are going to renew CHIP. We need to renew it now. We are scaring people unnecessarily, and it’s ridiculous,” he said.
“We need to get this done now. No excuses. CHIP is an extraordinarily worthwhile program for children and mothers in Louisiana, and across the U.S. It should be a crime to tell people it’s in danger when it’s not. It’s like telling people that you’re going to cancel LSU football unless they pay higher taxes,” he said.
Offered the opportunity to blame his own leadership, Kennedy took the folksy way out, noting that managing senators can be like corralling free range chickens. He also managed to work a gratuitous shot at the Affordable Care Act into his letter urging McConnell to act by pointedly linking a rise in premiums to the need for CHIP. A tiger's not going to change his stripes.
Still, Kennedy's got a good ear for how issues resonate with voters, and his underlying message to his own party holds: If you want people to stop raising alarms over the fact that you haven't done something, then just do it.
Correction: Friday's column incorrectly reported that the Senate did not hold hearings on the recent tax overhaul.