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Notebook - December 17, 2001

BAIT AND SWITCH I: If the proverbial man from Mars touched down in Washington to witness the current debate over the stimulus bill, he might think that President Bush is demanding, above all else, a package of generous unemployment benefits for laid-off workers. This is the part of the stimulus that White House spinners have decided is most popular, and therefore the one with which they most want the president associated. So this Tuesday, the president visited Operation Paycheck in Orlando, a center that offers federally subsidized income support and job training. A handy White House press release the same day emphasized that Bush is demanding Congress pass a stimulus to "directly help workers who have lost their jobs." By now, of course, one can assume that when the White House spends significant energy associating Bush with a popular liberal idea like unemployment benefits, its real proposal is conservative and unpopular. And those who have followed the stimulus debate closely know that this administration's sine qua non is actually the acceleration of the marginal tax rate reductions passed earlier this year. Tuesday offered a clarifying glimpse of this split between White House spin and White House policy. While Bush talked unemployment in Florida, the head of his council of economic advisers, Glenn Hubbard, gave The Washington Times a more straightforward indication of the president's priorities, noting that the president would veto any stimulus package without the tax cuts. And the unemployed? The paper notes, "Mr. Bush has offered an olive branch to Democrats, agreeing to accept additional expansion of unemployment benefits and health care payments. But Mr. Hubbard made it clear yesterday that the bulk of the package had to have the president's tax-cut incentives."

BAIT AND SWITCH II: In late November, Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary Tommy Thompson unveiled a pilot program under which the federal government would rate nursing homes on various quality measures, and then make the information available to the public on the Internet. So far, so good. But even as the administration begins putting quality-of-care information on the Web, it seems set on undermining the quality of that information by dismantling the regulations that govern nursing home safety. First came word, in a front-page New York Times article in September, that HHS might cut back on federal inspections for the nursing homes that have demonstrated better quality records in the past. Given the rapid turnover in nursing home staff and the constantly changing corporate landscape in the health care industry, that's simply begging for trouble. Apparently stung by the press coverage, the White House quickly renounced the proposal. But now, three months later, they're contemplating another regulatory rollback. Currently, government inspectors who find abuses in nursing homes can rate them as "isolated," "a pattern," or "widespread," depending on their prevalence. Under new proposed guidelines, however, they will be barred from giving the "widespread" rating unless they can document specific harm to more than 75 percent of residents. But inspectors almost never speak with three-quarters of a home's residents, because it would be a ludicrously time-consuming task; instead, inspectors meet with representative samples and extrapolate. Making the "widespread" rating so difficult to obtain will inevitably mean that nursing homes that deserve it will slip past, and thus will have less incentive to curb their abuses. In a letter to HHS protesting the proposal, Senator Charles Grassley and Congressman Henry Waxman cited as one example a Texas nursing home in which an inspector interviewed 16 residents. The inspector determined that the nursing home had improperly physically restra ined all 16 without demonstrating medical necessity, and that several of those interviewed were "declining in their activities of daily living, i.e., ambulatory abilities, hygiene, eating, transferring." Accordingly the inspector cited the nursing home for "widespread" problems--something the new rules would prohibit, since he didn't actually interview three-quarters of the home's 75 residents. HHS insists it is merely clarifying existing ambiguities in the inspection system, and adds that the proposed rules are just that--proposed. Hopefully the administration will ultimately backpedal from this awful idea, too. If not, at least people will still have that nifty new Internet rating system.

LOTT LESS: Remember Trent Lott? Since his demotion to Senate Minority Leader following Jim Jeffords's May party-switch, Lott has all but vanished from the political radar screen. And this week his GOP colleagues are probably wishing he had stayed vanished. Frustrated that Democrats were refusing to hold votes this year on a six-month cloning ban and a Republican energy bill that includes ANWR drilling, Lott decided on December 3 to force the issues himself. And so he bundled both bills into an unwieldy amendment that he then tried to attach to a Democratic railroad-worker bill. But Lott's scheme to embarrass the Dems backfired when his own troops abandoned him en masse. "We ended up picking ourselves off," said unimpressed GOP conference chair Rick Santorum. Minutes after Lott personally implored his colleagues to follow his lead, his gambit failed by 94 to 1. Even Lott wound up voting against it. For months there have been rumblings of a leadership challenge within the Senate GOP caucus. Don't be surprised if that soon becomes a roar.

DEPARTMENT OF POTS AND KETTLES: "There's nothing fixable overnight. This is the product of years of idiocy."--former State Department counterterrorism official Larry Johnson, on the lack of CIA personnel devoted to busting terrorists, Dallas Morning News, November 24 "What the evidence shows is that bin Laden has an international network of contacts, but that it's more analogous to the Elvis Presley Fan Club than a corporation like General Motors."--Johnson, quoted dismissing the threat posed by Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda in "It's Hardly Terror Inc.," U.S. News & World Report, June 11

IDIOCY WATCH, CONT'D: "This is all wonderful news. It is time to finish off the U.S. once and for all. I was happy and could not believe what was happening. All the crimes the U.S. has committed in the world. This just shows, what goes around comes around, even to the U.S. I applaud the act. The U.S. and Israel have been slaughtering the Palestinians for years. Now it is coming back at the U.S."--former world chess champion Bobby Fischer, in a phone interview with Radio Bombo in Baguio City, Philippines, September 11

DEPARTMENT OF UNDERSTATEMENT: "There are many, many qualifications to be an ambassador, and I suppose knowing the language could be one of them." --State Department spokesman Richard Boucher, on the news that America's ambassador to France, Howard Leach, doesn't speak French, November 21

This article originally ran in the December 17, 2001, issue of the magazine.