John Feehery: Speaking Engagements


Newt Deserves Credit on Medicare Modernization

Posted on December 13, 2011
The current leader in the Presidential derby is getting flack for his role in a Medicare expansion law and he doesn’t deserve the abuse.

Newt Gingrich played a critical role in getting the Medicare Modernization Act.   As Politico recounts it, Gingrich gave an important speech to a skeptical Republican conference and then penned an influential article in the Wall Street Journal prodding his former colleagues to vote for the legislation.

I remember because I was working for House Speaker Denny Hastert at the time.

It is fair to say that Hastert couldn’t have done it without Newt’s help.  At that point, we needed all the help we could get.

By adding a prescription drug benefit to the Medicare program, Republicans were bowing to reality.  Senior citizens (and their families) were demanding that we modernize the 50 year-old program with a component that could help old people pay for their expensive drugs.

Some Republicans and more than a few Democrats were pushing for strategies that would have imposed price controls or allowed seniors to import cheaper drugs from around the world, with a special emphasis on Canada.  The problem with those strategies is that they wouldn’t really work.  Price controls never work, and allowing drugs to be imported from Canada would have caused a safety disaster.

The plan put forward by Hastert and Bill Thomas used free-market principles to keep down the costs, inspire competition and provide seniors with plenty of choices.

The model used by the Hastert bill has proven so successful, that it inspired the Ryan Medicare plan.  Give consumers more purchasing power, get companies to compete with one another, provide plenty of options.

And guess what?  The plan has worked.  It is very popular with senior citizens.  The cost has come in under budget expectations.  And drug prices have stabilized.

Unlike Newt Gingrich, who stuck his neck out and strongly supported the plan, Dick Armey, who once wanted to be Speaker, but retired once he figured out he would never get there, was not so helpful.  He wrote an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal urging his former colleagues to vote against the law, screwing my boss in the process.  Armey, who had helped Republicans pass a prescription drug benefit when he still served in the Congress, sensed political opportunity and used it to stick it to his former colleagues.

Armey later raised an army of Tea Party rabble-rousers after he got fired as a lobbyist for a Washington D.C. law firm.

The Medicare Prescription Drug benefit has proven to be very popular with seniors, but very unpopular with Republican activists.  Some analysts now believe that Newt’s role in its passage will hurt him in the primaries.

Maybe it will, but Republicans have to come to grips with a few facts.

First, laissez-faire on health care is not a strategy that works with the voters.  We can all lament the fact that health care insurance is too expensive in this country and that the government often plays a counter-productive role in driving up costs.  But we must also understand that if government played no role, plenty of people would die in the streets from a lack of medical attention.

Second, we aren’t going to repeal Medicare.  It is too popular of a program.  We also aren’t going to let it wither on the vine.  So, as long as we have this program, we might as well do what we can to improve it.

Third, the Republicans can’t come to the Congress with an agenda to do nothing.  They have to be problem solvers.  The American people don’t elect their representatives to go to Congress to warm seats and make hot speeches.  They vote to send people to Congress who will work to improve society.   The challenge for Republicans is to not only come up with good ideas and not only to act on them, but also to defend them when they enact the good ideas into law.

The Medicare Modernization law was good policy.  Newt Gingrich played a limited but important role in getting it enacted.  He should be commended for his efforts, not condemned for them.