The Four Most Dangerous Words in Washington

More than three decades ago, Ronald Reagan rightly characterized the nine most terrifying words in the English language: “I’m from the government, and I’m here to help.” In Washington, a quartet of four words rank close behind Reagan’s nine in their ability to terrify: What are you for?

Countless people in official Washington, from leadership staff to reporters to liberals to lobbyists, use these four words, or some variation thereof, to try to get conservatives to endorse bad policy. Their words carry with them an implicit argument: You have to be for something, rather than just opposing bad policy.

Reagan would find that reasoning nonsensical. Why do you have to be for something when all the available options undermine conservative principles—because you’re from the government and you’re here to help? It’s a lazy straw-man argument, which might explain why so many people in Washington use it, but it’s a premise that conservatives should reject.

Example 1: Drug Price Legislation

On Monday, House Republican leaders released their alternative to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s prescription drug legislation. Their very first bullet in the summary of the legislation said that the bill includes “350 pages” of provisions. (Technically, the bill has 352 pages of content, while by contrast, the Rules Committee print of Democrats’ prescription drug legislation weighs in at 275 pages.)

Republicans quite rightly criticized Pelosi almost a decade ago for the awful process she used to enact Obamacare. Remember the speaker’s infamous quote about the legislation in March 2010, which House Republicans still have on their YouTube page:

Yet including the bill’s size as the first bullet point in their summary suggests Republican leadership considers it a feature, not a bug: “Look at how substantive we are—our bill is 350 pages long!” Granted, the House Republican package consists of a grab-bag of provisions related to drug pricing, most of which existed well before this week. Some of them doubtless contain good ideas, and ideas I have previously endorsed.

But think about what went into creating this “new,” 350-page bill. A bunch of leadership staffers sat around a big desk in the Capitol, decided what bills and provisions to include in the package—and, by extension, which bills to exclude from it. I know, because I’ve sat in those types of meetings. They released the legislation on Monday, and Congress likely will vote on it late Wednesday night (early Thursday at the latest).

Republican Members of Congress won’t have time to read all 352 pages of the House Republican bill. Some of them may not have time to read even the four-page summary of the bill. And their staff, who are currently overwhelmed by the litany of issues on Congress’ December agenda, from impeachment to a massive defense policy bill to another massive spending bill to the prescription drug debate, have neither the time nor the bandwidth to provide thoughtful advice and counsel.

But most if not all Republican members of Congress will vote for this drug price alternative they have not read and many do not fully understand. Why? Because most think they need to “be for something.” Because they believe that (false) premise, they will have effectively handed their voting card to unelected leadership staffers—who may or may not actually know what they are doing—to define what Republicans are “for.” It’s no way to run a railroad, let alone the country.

Example 2: Entitlements

My article last week about Democratic presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg’s proposed long-term care entitlement prompted an e-mail from a colleague. The e-mail asked a polite variation of the question noted above: If you don’t like Buttigieg’s approach to long-term care, what would you do instead?

My response in a nutshell: Nope. As I pointed out in the original post, our country faces $23 trillion—that’s $23,000,000,000,000—in debt—and rising. We can’t afford the entitlements and government programs we have now. To even talk about creating new programs (which would face their own solvency and sustainability concerns) only gives lawmakers and the American public a permission structure to avoid the hard decisions Congress should have made years ago to right-size our entitlements.

Example 3: ‘Surprise Billing’ Legislation

On Sunday, several members of key committees announced an agreement in principle on federal legislation regarding “surprise billing,” which arises when physicians and medical providers seek to recover charges when patients obtain care out-of-network during emergencies, or when patients inadvertently see an out-of-network physician (e.g., an anesthesiologist) at an in-network hospital.

(Disclosure: I have consulted with various firms about the potential outcomes and implications of this legislation. However, these firms have not asked me for my personal policy positions on the legislation, nor have they asked me to advocate for a position on it—as my positions, as always, are mine alone.)

I wrote back in July that this issue largely represented a solution in search of a problem, for multiple reasons. First, a relatively small number of hospitals and providers impose most of the “surprise” bills. Second, states have the power to fix this issue on their own by regulating providers, even if federal law makes it difficult for states to regulate all the insurers in their state.

So why do Republicans feel the need to sign off on federal legislation addressing a problem that states can decide to fix (or not to fix) themselves? Again, because lawmakers feel the need to “be for something.” That again brings to mind Reagan’s axiom about the nine most terrifying words, and the proposition that “I’m from the government and I’m here to help” often leads to unintended consequences.

No, Don’t Just ‘Do Something’

Perhaps by this point, some observers might have come up with an obvious question: How can you win elections if you don’t try to “do something?” The question has two simple answers.

First, citizens quite obviously do not vote solely based on a candidate’s ability to “do something,” such as expand the regulatory state, the welfare state, and government in general. If conservatives want to run campaigns based on giving voters “free stuff,” but just slightly less “free stuff” than Democrats, guess how many elections the conservative would win?

Second, as noted above, the “What are you for?” question has an obvious four-word response: “We can’t afford it.” That retort sadly has the feature of truth about it, as our country cannot sustain its current levels of government spending.

Any responsible parent knows that, no matter how often his child asks, letting that child eat ice cream three times a day does not represent good parenting. Congress long since should have imposed some of that sense of discipline on itself, and the American people.

Given our current fiscal situation, many policy proposals, no matter how popular, are not fiscally sustainable. The “What are you for?” question cleverly tries to elide that debate, in ways that will only undermine conservative principles, and our country’s solvency.

I’ll end by noting my strong support for the First Amendment: “Congress shall make no law.” (What, you thought it contains some other words too?) If Congress spent the majority of its time stopping bad laws and policies—particularly policies considered only slightly less bad than the original proposals—maybe our country wouldn’t face the prospect of paying off a growing mountain of debt.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.