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Four Easy Pieces

A Wish List for the Post-Recess Congress

Michael J. Ring

Congress returns from its summer recess in about a week, and it has a full slate of activities ahead of it. With this in mind, here is my wish list of what I’d like to see Congress pass -- and kill -- this fall.

Kill the $792 billion Republican tax cut. Remember when Republicans were fiscally conservative? Well, there’s nothing conservative at all about spending a projected surplus -- that is, money which does not yet actually exist. The Republican tax cut plan is dangerous speculation and bad fiscal policy on these grounds alone.

But let’s not forget, either, that this nation is already over $5 trillion in debt. Even if the entire $3 trillion of the projected surplus appears, America is so mired in red ink that we cannot pay off the debt entirely. But we can pay off a good share of it. Isn’t it better to pay down the debt than pass a risky tax plan that, if the economy sours, would easily result in increased public debt?

Finally, the Republican tax plan favors the rich -- those least in need of tax relief. A great expansion of the Earned Income Tax Credit for lower-income workers or a drastic cut in the percentage of the lowest tax bracket would both be sensible tax cuts. Reductions targeted at the most affluent in our society -- the very proposals embraced by the Republicans -- are not.

Pass the McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform proposal.

With each passing year, the power of money gains more influence in our political system. The $17 million the Gore campaign has raised so far would have turned heads just a few years ago. But it hardly causes a blink of the eye considering the Bush campaign has raked in $37 million.

The McCain-Feingold proposal would ban soft money and foreign contributions -- two of the more glaring problems in our campaign finance system. It would also stop so-called “issue advocacy” advertisements which are in reality thinly-veiled promotions or attacks on a candidate. McCain-Feingold would also provide for better disclosure of campaign fundraising activities. Perhaps most importantly, it would give the Federal Election Commission tough enforcement powers to punish campaigns that break the new laws.

Many special interests, particularly those on the right, vehemently oppose the McCain-Feingold bill. Apparently the free flow of soft money and the dirty tricks of “issue-advocacy” ads suit their purposes just fine. But all sorts of watchdog and clean-government groups have rallied behind McCain-Feingold. This bill will insure America continues to be a democracy and does not warp into plutocracy.

Pass meaningful HMO reforms. Americans should be ashamed of our health-care system. While all of our peer nations can provide some type of universal health care coverage, the United States chugs along with over 40 million of its citizens lacking health insurance. That some in Congress refuse even to take the baby step of HMO reform is frightening. We all deserve quality health care, and it’s about time the government saw it was provided.

Any HMO reform bill, to be effective, must include such provisions as allowing a patient to choose his or her own primary care physician from within the organization’s network, giving patients greater access to specialists, easing restrictions on emergency room access, and setting up truly independent boards of arbitration to which patients can appeal denials of care.

HMO reform must also allow patients to sue their care provider for punitive damages resulting from denials of care. Without a means of punishment, all of the above needed reforms are meaningless. While there are some exceptions, many HMOs are for-profit companies more concerned with their own financial health than the health of their patients. Only the threat of a multi-million dollar lawsuit for denial of care will make them listen to the entreaties of their patients needing specialized treatment.

No American should be satisfied with this nation’s health care system until every man, woman, and child has access to decent health insurance. Strong HMO reform is one small step toward insuring those already in the system are not stuck with sub-standard levels of care.

Pass strong gun control legislation. Here again we see the hypocrisy of many in the Republican Party. Conservatives who throw tantrums when others interpret the Constitution anything but literally come to the Second Amendment and drop their strict constructionist ways. Suddenly, they read an amendment intended merely to give states the power to field militias (or, as we know it today, the National Guard) as implicity giving every red-blooded American the right to own an assault weapon.

There is no “right to bear arms” in the personal sense. Bans on personal gun ownership are perfectly legal and constitutional; a few communities across the country have enacted handgun bans. But the proposals discussed in Washington and on the campaign trail aren’t even that stringent; they all leave intact the privilege (it is a privilege, remember, not a right) of handgun ownership.

The availability of handguns in this nation has enabled a proliferation of violent crime. Other industrialized nations, with either tough regulations or total bans on handgun ownership, have rates of murder and other violent crimes that are mere fractions of the rates in this country. In 1996, there were 9,390 handgun murders in the United States. In Germany, there were 213; in Britain, 30. And this spring and summer, the march of tragic crimes committed with firearms in this country has only continued.

Restrictions cannot, of course, stop all criminals from committing heinous acts, but the evidence from abroad suggests tightening the gun supply may prevent many of them from acting.

The best proposal comes from the presidential campaign of Senator Bill Bradley, who has called for national handgun registration. Registration is the best way to track the flow of handguns in our society and to insure that these weapons do not make their way into the hands of criminals. Registration does nothing to hinder the activities of those who lawfully own and use handguns. Only criminals seeking an easy supply of firearms have anything to fear from the requirements of registration.

If Congress can accomplish even half of these four proposals, it will have made America a safer, more secure, and more prosperous land. But I fear that in order to get even one of these four actions out of Congress, I may need to add to my wish list one more thing -- a return to Democratic control after the 2000 election.