Good man on a bad scene

June 21, 1994|By Russell Baker

CONGRESSMAN Rostenkowski, now under indictment for everything from mopery to failing to wash the ring out of the bathtub, is the kind of congressman this country needs more of.

Which is to say: honest.

Several weeks before the forces of law and decency brought him low, Mr. Rostenkowski spoke the only thoroughly honest word that has been spoken so far on the health-care bill.

That word: "taxes." Improving health care was going to cost money, he said, and that, he said, meant "taxes."

This was an outrageous violation of practically everything everybody in Washington stands for on health care, which is the principle that you really can fool all of the people all of the time as long as everybody in town agrees to connive in the trick.

On health care the trick was easier than usual because the people everybody was out to fool were in on the scam; they were absolutely hellbent on fooling themselves. The anti-tax movement which has the country in its pythonic coils thrives on the sucker's belief that you can, too, get something for nothing.

Everybody wanted to believe this about the health-care program, and the Clinton people encouraged the delusion. How wonderful it sounded the night the president stood before Congress and showed that little health-care card, which would bring everybody all the medical marvels just for the flashing.

And the beauty part! No mention of a price. Of taxes.

Oh, sure, there might be a tax on cigarettes, but smokers were hardly even Americans anymore. With their vile sidestream smoke, they deserved to be taxed.

They were the last minority an American could kick around with the pleasant sensation of performing a public service. So there would be a cigarette tax.

Not an alcohol tax, however. That had been mentioned, but the booze lobby had moved quickly to douse the idea. Politicians couldn't be allowed to treat drinkers as brutally as smokers.

And that was pretty much the only discussion ever heard of taxing to pay for a vast program guaranteeing health care for every citizen, including the 35 or 45 or 50 million who at present had no health insurance at all. The number varied frequently, depending on which lobby was cooking the books.

Americans often behave as though the rest of the world has nothing to teach. In most of the rest of the industrialized world national health-care standards are light years ahead of ours, and the price of maintaining them is heavy, heavy taxation.

Most Americans who had traveled abroad knew this but preferred not to draw the logical conclusion, which was that bringing our standards up to par with the rest of the industrial world would mean -- "No, no! Say it ain't so, Joe!"

Joe, of course, could say yes, it was so, all right. You couldn't get that great European-style health care for nothing. "There's no free lunch, and there's no free heart attack," he could say, being just a guy named Joe.

Bill, however, couldn't. As nominal leader of a great people who froth at the mouth the instant anybody says "taxes," Bill could only talk bookkeeping mumbo-jumbo about how eventually cutting the present national cost of health care would in the long run, one of these days . . . and so forth.

Well, everybody but the insurance industry and the kind of of doctors who can afford to maintain whole accounting departments thought a new system -- almost any new system -- would be splendid. But of course, it was unthinkable that anybody, except smokers, ought to be expected to pay for it.

This hypocrisy brings us to the present deadlock, the Clinton people having decided that maybe the inevitable tax could be disguised by asking businesses to buy the insurance and pass the cost along -- a hidden tax, of course -- to its tax-hating workers and tax-hating consumer.

Mr. Rostenkowski, then chairman of the Ways and Means Committee, home office of tax law, spoke the unspeakable truth two or three weeks before he was indicted. "Taxes," he said.

So dreadful is this word that even the network news gave him scarcely five seconds of time. Now he is indicted, and lost, the one honest man in a conspiracy of quacks. Such is the manner in which justice disposes of honesty.

Russell Baker is a columnist for the New York Times.

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