It's great that Congress has finally reauthorized the Children's Health Insurance Program, or CHIP, for six years. Really, it is.
But can we dispense with the chest-beating? Also, congressional Republicans, please spare us all that overheated and misleading rhetoric about how you were the ones looking out for the kids, while Democrats who prompted the weekend's brief government shutdown weren't.
Happy ending aside, the truth is that the long-running fight over CHIP is an example of what's wrong with government, not what's right.
To recap: CHIP provides health coverage for some 9 million poor and middle class kids and pregnant women whose families would have trouble affording insurance otherwise, including about 121,000 in Louisiana. And unlike other government health care programs, it's hard to find a critic of CHIP, even among conservatives who tend to view such initiatives with skepticism. Even U.S. Sen. John Kennedy, the Louisiana Republican who has a habit of bashing government safety net programs, is a fan.
CHIP's "helped my state a lot," Kennedy told CNN recently. “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."
Yet all that love didn't stop Congress from letting CHIP expire on Sept. 30, or from using it as a pawn in the larger partisan battle over government spending, immigration and more. The money hadn't yet run out by the time Congress extended it as part of the deal to reopen government for a few weeks, but it was coming perilously close in some states, including ours. That means officials in those states were scrambling to let clients know they might lose coverage and to come up contingency plans should the money really run out. And it means the families who rely on CHIP had to worry over whether or not their kids would still have access to health care.
It's not like it had to come to this. The Republicans who control both houses of Congress could have renewed CHIP at any time as a standalone bill. The House did stage a vote, but needlessly complicated matters by linking CHIP renewal to cuts in other health care programs that they knew Democrats wouldn't accept. The Senate didn't take up the House proposal and never offered its own. Meanwhile, the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office found that renewing CHIP for a decade would have actually saved $6 billion, which undercut any argument that the country simply couldn't afford to do so.
Cost, of course, was never the real issue. This was all about leverage.
The GOP wanted to do exactly what it did, which was to pressure Democrats to vote for a measure that included something they strongly support but didn't include another priority, or to use their refusal to do so as a rhetorical weapon. In this case, the other main point of contention was a solution to the plight of the young people whose parents brought them to the United States as children, and who no longer have legal protection since President Donald Trump rescinded a Barack Obama administrative policy. They, like families who rely on CHIP, can only watch as politicians blithely use their futures as bargaining chips.
Here's how U.S. Sen. Bill Cassidy characterized the debate on WWL-TV as the shutdown loomed: "Apparently the other side cares more about the DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) issues, which again does not have to be addressed for another month and half, than the kids who next week won't have their health care coverage."
And here was House Majority Whip Steve Scalise after the shutdown ended: "It's unfortunate that (Senate Democratic Leader) Chuck Schumer led an effort to hold our troops and a health program for children hostage in favor of a fool's errand to give amnesty to illegal immigrants."
This is how business in Washington gets done, of course, and both sides do it. Still, there's something deeply cynical about a party that controls both branches of Congress using a needed and cherished program this way, then turning around and claiming to be its champion.
So great, congressional Republicans, you finally passed a bill to allow CHIP to live for another six years. Now try solving some of the country's actual problems. Then maybe you'll have earned that victory lap.