Disagreement in Congress is not necessarily a sign of dysfunction. But when both parties broadly agree that something should happen yet serially fail to follow through, the nation’s leaders look particularly inept. The example of the moment is the ongoing saga of the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP), a popular service that covers 9 million young Americans - and that is rapidly running out of cash, alarming families that rely on the federal aid to keep their children healthy.
Democrats and Republicans in Congress created CHIP in 1997 to assist families who make too much to qualify for Medicaid, yet who do not have reasonable alternative options for insuring their children. Given that decent health care in early years is crucial, lawmakers rightly decided to invest in the nation’s future health. The program has been a remarkable success. But, unlike Medicaid, Congress did not make CHIP an entitlement program that automatically and perpetually draws as much money as it needs from the treasury. Rather, it required lawmakers to regularly re-up CHIP’s funding, which they did in 2015. The 2015 funding dried up in September, and lawmakers pumped in enough emergency funds to sustain the program for only a few months.
It is possible that CHIP will feature in a big compromise funding package that keeps the government open, raises unrelated federal spending caps and perhaps even determines the fate of the “dreamers.” The sooner Congress settles all of these issues, the better.
Yet the fact would remain: Funding CHIP should be routine business, and it has instead been over the past year a desperate, last-minute mess.