Offutt’s Law, which I told you about on October 7, 2005, is this: “The more important it is for you to know something, the less likely it will be volunteered to you.” Usually, being its victim is the result of someone innocently forgetting to mention something you need to know that you would never know otherwise. Other times, however, it is deliberate, with the intention of causing embarrassment or harm and/or achieving selfish goals.
A personal example of this occurred during my two years in the late 1970s at the public high school in Wynne, Arkansas. I was teaching the honors U. S. history class, but not the way the newly-appointed chair of the social studies department had taught it before I arrived that year. The veteran teacher protested to the principal daily that I was wasting class time teaching the students ridiculous things like the cultures of the Native Americans. Eventually the distraught woman had a massive heart attack – for which many held my existence to be the major cause. However, she never gave up her position as department chair while she convalesced at home for the rest of the school year. It was there she waited until she could make me a victim of Offutt’s Law!
Late in the school year, she attended an after school faculty meeting and asked the social studies teachers to stay afterward for a departmental meeting. That’s when she announced that the annual U. S. history contest given by the nearby East Arkansas Community College was going to take place the next morning! The other U. S. history teacher and I were to send ten students to compete with the teams from the other schools in the area. She emphasized that our school had always done well in the contest. I later learned that when she had taught my course she had routinely drilled her team in the evenings at her home for weeks before the contest. Our school had always earned the first place team trophy and several of the ten individual achievement trophies.
That evening, the other teacher (also new to the district) phoned the two students he recommended, and I called the other eight. We apologized to each of the students for the short notice, but all of them agreed to do it, mainly just to get an excused absence from school. The next morning, when the students met me in front of the school to leave, I was greeted with, “Mr. Offutt, you aren’t going to look very good if we don’t do well, are you?” They all knew exactly what was going on.
To the students’ credit, they returned with the second place team trophy and two of the individual trophies. However, most of the students were really angry. They had missed getting first place for our school by only a few questions. Also, they felt they had been deprived of the chance to receive more personal trophies because they had no chance to review. They all said that the test that was given was easier than any that I had given them all year! In her effort to discredit me, the department chairperson hadn’t cared whether or not she also hurt the school or the students.
The next year, I made sure I was informed of the date of the contest. For their preparation, I returned to the students all the tests they had taken in my class up to that time. We had previously gone over each test question in class, and each student had been able to correct on the test paper any wrong answers. I always returned all their test papers to them for them to review for semester exams. This time, as always, they could review them or not – it was up to each one who had agreed to be in the contest. The result: First place team trophy for the school and seven of the ten individual trophies. All of us had known what we needed to know before it was too late.
The examples of Offutt’s Law mischievously at work in the Bush-Cheney Administration are legion, and one of them is George W. Bush’s Medicare prescription drug boondoggle. Its enactment depended on keeping a knowledgeable, dedicated public servant silent so that the people would not be told the truth until the bill had passed.
Had Richard Foster told Congress what he knew about the cost of the administration’s Medicare prescription drug bill, we may have been spared the complicated, deficit enhancing mess that seniors now have to contend with. Mr. Foster is the chief actuary for Medicare, which means that he is the one responsible for analyzing the numbers and interpreting how much something will cost.
Eager to get some kind of prescription drug bill passed before the 2004 election, the administration convinced enough members of Congress that this abomination’s cost would be only $400 billion over a ten-year period. Mr. Foster knew that the real cost would be $535 billion or more. So why didn’t he speak up? “We can’t let that get out,” he was told. His boss was Thomas Scully, who had been a lobbyist for the hospital industry before Mr. Bush appointed him to be the fox in charge of the Medicare hen house.
Leslie Norwalk, a lawyer who worked at Medicare, told Foster that even though it was unethical, the administration was not breaking any law by prohibiting someone in the executive branch from communicating with the legislative branch. Mr. Foster understood that to defy a direct order from his superior would probably result in his being fired. He considered resigning in protest so that he could go public with what he knew. However, he was persuaded by fellow staffers to stay on and try to make a difference from within the system.
One of the worst aspects about this bill is its prohibition for Medicare to negotiate the cost of drugs with the pharmaceutical companies. Being able to do this is one of the reasons the Veterans Health Administration has been so cost effective since its Clinton-era reforms. So why is Medicare not allowed to do this? The administration’s chief ally in steering this monstrosity through Congress was a Republican representative from Louisiana, Billy Tauzin. Where is Mr. Tauzin now? He is the president of Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, a major lobby for the drug industry. By the way, Mr. Scully quickly left Medicare to also become a drug industry lobbyist.
Instead of payments being handled directly by Medicare, some 40 private health care/insurance providers each offer three options from which to choose. This leads to unnecessary administrative middle-man costs, as well as increased confusion. My oldest brother, a retired doctor, insists that a senior needs two things to select a plan: good computer skills to do the research and a medical degree. Even after squandering two years to get the software ready, if Mr. Bush ever bothers to hire someone who knows how to fix the computer glitches between Medicare and those 40 companies, a senior with any plan should personally save money.
Regardless, we needed to know the reasons for the real cost of this vital program before Mr. Bush’s boondoggle for insurance and pharmaceutical companies ever came to a vote. It should cost the taxpayers much less and add much less to the deficit. Remember: “The more important it is for you to know something, the less likely it will be volunteered to you.” Bush-Cheney’s renegade co-presidency – consumed by secrecy, incompetence, and servitude to contributors – is devoted to Offutt’s Law.
by David Offutt
A version of this essay was published March 2, 2006,
in the El Dorado News-Times as a letter to the editor.