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Published: Wednesday, 8/11/2004

High price for drug plan

THE news that the Bush Administration exonerated itself for lying to Congress about the true cost of the new Medicare prescription drug benefit is shocking. It sets a government standard that is undesirable in a democracy.

The inspector general of the Health and Human Services Department, and the Justice Department, found nothing illegal in the aggression with which the White House conned Congress about the price of the legislation it asked members to pass.

It was even OK, the HHS inspector general said, for the administration's former Medicare chief, Thomas Scully, to threaten the job of Medicaid-Medicare actuary Richard S. Foster, who estimated that the drug benefit, instead of costing the touted $395 billion over 10 years, would actually price out at $551 billion.

These events raise the question of whether this administration, which vowed to unite Americans, is about ethics and law or common hooliganism. Its actions suggest the latter.

Even giving proper deference to the Constitution's separation of powers framework, one can be almost certain that the Founding Fathers didn't envision that the executive branch would lie to the elected representatives of the people. And should he, the expectation was that the Congress would do its own work so liars couldn't get away with it.

In this instance, both lies and laziness prevailed at first. And the administration, with John Ashcroft's blessing, has confirmed its right to mislead the legislative branch, and through it, the American people.

In the aftermath Congress' investigative arm, the General Accounting Office, is exploring whether Mr. Scully's gag order on Medicare facts violated the law. The administration hopes the issue will blow over. It won't.

Politicizing the bureaucracy to perpetrate falsehoods, as this administration has done in many areas, is bad public policy, chiefly because it perpetuates cynicism about government.

President Bush calls the prescription drug program, approved under false pretenses, his chief domestic accomplishment. What he did to get it tells all Americans to get firm assurances from presidential candidates this year that there will be no more lies.



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