Remember when the "welfare queen" was a woman driving a Cadillac? Today, that character has become a CEO riding in the back of a limousine.
The Bush administration and the Republican-led House have taken steps toward providing an unprecedented taxpayer-funded handout to private companies.
The energy bill, which passed the House and will be taken up again by the Senate in January, contains nearly $30 billion in such benefits, including $11.3 billion in subsidies for oil and gas companies that just had one of their most profitable years on record.
That bill also contains $18 billion in federal loan guarantees for private construction of a gas pipeline from Alaska to Chicago; $1.1 billion to build a nuclear reactor in Idaho to produce hydrogen; $95 million to research turning dead turkeys into energy; and funding to construct a rain forest museum in Iowa. This is while Pell Grants -- money that sends kids to college -- are being frozen for the first time in 10 years.
And despite an oft-stated commitment to family values, the Republicans' bill even contains money to build an energy-efficient Hooters restaurant in Louisiana. Now, if Hooters wants to practice energy conservation, fine. But is it really the responsibility of American taxpayers to pay for it?
Similarly, the newly passed Republican Medicare reform bill provides billions in federal welfare assistance for private businesses.
HMOs and PPOs will receive almost $80 billion in federal subsidies to administer the program. An estimated $139 billion in additional profits will flow directly to pharmaceutical companies. Rather than enabling Medicare to use its market power to bargain for cheaper drugs in classic capitalist fashion, the Medicare reform bill specifically prohibits such negotiations.
It also sets the bar so high for federal approval of safe and affordable drugs from Canada that it completely forecloses the free-market competition that might drive down U.S. drug prices by 50%.
If an HMO wants to sell insurance, it should. But it should not expect a taxpayer subsidy. If an oil company wants to build a gas pipeline, it should. But it should not expect taxpayers to help.
What has happened to the Republican Party that claimed to be the protector of free markets, the true believers in a capitalistic system in which competition would provide the greatest benefit to the greatest number? Judging by the energy and Medicare bills created by a Republican Congress, never has a political party stood for a greater dependency on government handouts for corporate titans.
The party that campaigned for years on demonizing welfare has been transformed into a party that espouses the virtues of dependency.
I am a Democrat who happens to have worked on ending the broken welfare system and the culture that goes with it. The Clinton administration's reforms were designed to decrease dependence on government and increase personal responsibility. This is a value that now must be instilled in our corporate suites and taught to the captains of capitalism.
Just as with aiding individuals on the welfare rolls, most Democrats believe in giving U.S. businesses the tools they need to compete effectively: a solid infrastructure of transportation and water systems, fair trade policies that help to equalize opportunity and, most important, a public education system that can provide American businesses with a well-trained workforce. Government should not seduce companies with public assistance when profit should be their driving force.
What today's Republicans have created is a whole new culture of welfare that threatens the very free-market system they claim to champion. It's time to get the new corporate "welfare queen" out of his limousine.