There used to be an unwritten rule in Washington that once you embraced a position, you were stuck with it.
If a lawmaker or lobbyist endorsed a piece of legislation, he was expected by social convention to continue that support, even if circumstances might dictate a change. It was important to maintain at least a semblance of consistency and integrity, no matter how uncomfortable the effort.
This often led to bizarre rituals, such as calling for votes on bills that had no chance of passage just to get lawmakers "on the record." This was a way of enforcing the code of consistency, ensuring that senators and representatives would be locked into similar votes on those issues in the future.
But all that has gone by the wayside. Flip-flopping and giving tortured pseudo-explanations for position changes are all the rage. Some examples:
Senate Minority Leader Thomas Daschle of South Dakota and other Democrats voted for a balanced-budget amendment several years ago. However, they didn't the last time it came up for a vote, when a Democrat was in the White House. Circumstances had changed, they said, and it was not nearly as good an idea as it had been a few years before.
President Clinton's fiscal 1998 budget proposal calls for the transfer of $60 billion in home health spending from the Medicare Part A trust fund to Part B, just as House and Senate Republicans had suggested in their last balanced-budget plan. Now, the GOP pillories the plan as a gimmick where once it was an innovative way to extend the life of the nearly bankrupt Medicare Part A trust fund.
Clinton said recently that he would support "means testing" Medicare Part B premiums so that wealthy beneficiaries would pay a higher share of the cost of care. Furthermore, his 1998 budget calls for extending the beneficiary portion of Part B premiums at 25% of program costs even though it is set to drop to 21% in 2002, according to the Congressional Budget Office.
Clinton previously attacked a similar provision in the GOP balanced-budget plan that would have kept the beneficiary portion at 31.5%. He blasted it as a "tax increase." Apparently moving to 31.5% from 25% is a tax increase, but moving to 25% from 21% is sound fiscal policy.
Politicians aren't the only ones dancing the "new information has come to our attention that leads us to change our tune" mambo. Special-interest groups are waltzing onto the dance floor as well.
In 1995, the Clinton administration faced a GOP Medicaid reform plan that would have ended the federal entitlement to coverage for the poor and turned the Medicaid program over to the states in the form of a block grant. The administration came up with a counterproposal that it called a "per-capita cap" plan. The proposal would set a per-person payment that would be capped each year. The federal right to receive Medicaid would be retained.
Proponents of the administration plan said it would help states burdened by sharp increases in Medicaid beneficiaries because those states would receive more money as their populations rose. A flat block grant that would not adjust to changes in population would hurt the states, they contended.
Provider groups and consumer groups alike heartily endorsed the plan.
Then the old maxim about being careful what you wish for because you might get it came back to haunt them.
The administration's 1998 budget includes a similar proposal, which would save about $10 billion over five years. But now, consumer and provider groups are up in arms.
In the past, the administration could safely count on the support of the groups that had been on board before. At the very least, the groups would be "neutralized," meaning they would not openly oppose the plan.
"We only supported it because it was better than the Republican plan. We never really wanted it," said one hospital lobbyist, who asked not to be identified. "If we have our choice between the per- capita cap and status quo, we want the status quo."
Many such lobbyists would now argue that there is no pressing need to fix the Medicaid program. Recent projections of growth in Medicaid spending have dropped to less than 8% annually from more than 10% since the per-capita cap proposal was first introduced.
But that argument is like saying that even though our house floods year after year, one year of drought means a permanent end to our troubles. Most policy analysts, along with the nation's governors, say that absent any structural reforms, the Medicaid program is only a recession away from a return to double-digit growth.
Chances are that the flip-flop by provider and consumer groups will be enough to bottle up Medicaid reform this year, so the real policy issues will never be examined. That will be good news for provider reimbursements because it will mean no reductions in Medicaid spending. It may not, however, be good news for the federal budget and the long-term future of the country.
Sure, you can say, as Ralph Waldo Emerson did, that "a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds." But no consistency and a lot of self-serving evasion are a recipe for bad government and more public antipathy toward politicians.