The Washington Times

The scene: A bright but modest kitchen, through the back door of which, right, the noontime sun is streaming. At kitchen counter stands Louise, a fit senior citizen of indeterminate age wearing an apron over a warm-up suit. She is chopping healthy salad ingredients.

Enter Harry, her trim husband of the same vague senior age, an athletic towel draped over the back of his neck, happily aglow following some unspecified exercise regimen, through the back door.

Two-shot as Harry enters. Louise, cheerfully: “Welcome back. The mail came.”

Harry wipes brow with towel as camera pans right, bringing kitchen table into view foreground. Harry: “Anything important?”

Cut to Louise, chopping: “A letter from your company about our retirement benefits.”

Pan right to two-shot as Harry picks up letter from kitchen table. Cut to close up as he reads, his cheery expression changing first to incomprehension then to stunned worry: “Oh no, Louise.”

Cut to two-shot. Louise: “What is it, Harry?”

Harry: “They’re dropping our prescription coverage. They say it’s because of what Congress has done to Medicare.”

Cut to Louise, who has stopped chopping. Louise: “But Harry, I thought Congress was supposed to be helping people to get prescription drug coverage.”

Cut to Harry staring ashenly at letter: “Well, it looks like Congress won’t let us keep ours.”

Cut to grainy black-and-white still photo of Capitol building. Voiceover: “Tell Congress: Fix Medicare, but don’t take away seniors’ choices on prescription drug plans.”

Ah, who can forget the heady days of 1994, when “Harry and Louise” took to the airwaves in a massive counterattack on the Clinton administration’s health care reform plans? The new Clinton administration, seeing itself as completing the mission of the New Deal, proposed a massive new entitlement program to guarantee all Americans health insurance coverage. A newly energized conservative minority in the GOP was galvanized by a small group of policy intellectuals, making the case that defeat of the initiative was both politically possible and essential to the health of the system itself.

The opposition was part of a wide-ranging conservative indictment of big-government, bureaucratic entitlement programs that neither solved the problems they were meant to address [welfare and poverty, for example, and public schools and education], or whose future unfunded liabilities threatened the country’s very solvency [Medicare, Social Security]. This was the defining policy battle of the age.

Industry associations pitched in with money to fund the brilliant and notorious “Harry and Louise” campaign, in which the eponymous fictional characters discover that under the Clinton proposal, they may no longer be able to choose their doctor. The indictment of the plan was devastating. This, combined with political inexperience and miscalculation on the part of the new administration, led to the collapse of the proposal on Capitol Hill and contributed hugely to the election of a GOP House and Senate for the first time in 40 years.

That was then. Ten years later, the Republican-controlled Congress and White House are trying to cross the finish line on a prescription drug entitlement that everyone expects will eclipse even its $400 billion 10-year price tag – legislation that the GOP minority of 1994 would have denounced as sheerest Bolshevism worthy of the full “Harry and Louise” treatment, along the lines I have sketched above.

What happened? Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich finds in the prescription drug legislation an example of the maturing of the Republican Congress into a governing majority – one that recognizes that in order to stay in power, it must do what people want, but that it can do so in a fashion that includes policy reform [as this legislation modestly does] and come back later to build on those reforms.

Could be. But you could also make the case that the GOP-controlled Congress has settled into the decadence of K Street establishmentarianism. The huge energy bill that is also struggling to emerge from Congress, which as far as I can tell is entirely unnecessary in its present form, would be a good Exhibit B. The conservative domestic policy intellectuals and reformers who once stood shoulder-to-shoulder with GOP politicians have never been so lacking in influence.

The Bush administration took office planning to devote itself to tax cutting and policy reform. September 11 changed the top priority irrevocably. Tax cuts, it turns out, are relatively easy, in the sense that they are a means for Congress to bestow munificence in anticipation of political gain. Spending money is easiest of all; any pretext will do. Reform is brutally difficult, an affront to vested interests.

Mr. Bush has Iraq, Afghanistan and al Qaeda to worry about. And he’s delivered his tax cuts. But nothing, apparently, will stop an idealess, establishmentarian Congress, even a GOP-controlled Congress, from spending us silly – except maybe the president, if he’s willing to take on the challenge.

“Harry and Louise” aren’t going to reappear unless someone decides something is worth a fight – well, that is, until the real Harrys and Louises out there figure out what’s been going on in Washington.