Baucus, Conrad Team Up to Surrender to Joe Wilson

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Everyone’s had a good time making fun of Joe Wilson, but it’s worth observing that Senators Kent Conrad (D-ND) and Max Baucus (D-MT) are going to make sure that Wilson’s outburst lets him win the substantive policy fight:

The controversy over Republican Rep. Joe Wilson’s shouting out “You Lie!” at the President over his claim that illegal immigrants wouldn’t benefit from health-care reform apparently sparked some reconsideration of the relevant language. “We really thought we’d resolved this question of people who are here illegally, but as we reflected on the President’s speech last night we wanted to go back and drill down again,” said Senator Kent Conrad, one of the Democrats in the talks after a meeting Thursday morning. Baucus later that afternoon said the group would put in a proof of citizenship requirement to participate in the new health exchange — a move likely to inflame the left.

The policy rationale for declining to provide subsidies to people who are in the country illegally is fairly clear. But the new Wilson-Baucus line is really nuts. They’re saying that people should be required to provide proof of citizenship before they buy health insurance on the individual market with their own money. This will have a direct cost to taxpayers since some verification mechanism will need to be put into place. It will also have an indirect cost to you and me and everyone we know—the vast majority of people, after all, aren’t undocumented immigrants but we’re all going to need to go through a citizenship check hassle before we buy health insurance. It will probably also make average premiums higher, since the exchanges will be left with a smaller risk pool and there’s no real reason to believe that the subset of undocumented immigrants who are capable of affording an unsubsidized insurance policy are below-average health risks. Last, of course, this will make the undocumented immigrant population sicker with negative public health consequences for their coworkers, friends, family, and the customers of the businesses they walk at.

That’s a mighty high price to ask U.S. citizens and legal residents to pay all for what amounts to spite. As I said yesterday, we could implement citizenship checks before you buy ibuprofen at CVS or before you get on the highway, but we don’t—it would be cruel and pointless, an inconvenience to everyone that accomplishes nothing. A person who wants to be deliberately tendentious could characterize SAFETEA-LU as a plan to “give highways and mass transit to illegal immigrants” but that would be an extremely strange way to look at it.