broder

Wisconsin sends its best to serve the nation

WASHINGTON – Maybe it’s something in the waters of Lake Mendota. Maybe it’s just their personal makeup. But the two folks who migrated from Madison, Wis., to the top job at the Department of Health and Human Services – former University of Wisconsin Chancellor Donna Shalala and former Wisconsin Gov. Tommy Thompson – have set a remarkable standard for leadership in that largest of all civilian agencies.

Shalala, who served as secretary through all eight years of the Clinton administration, leaves Washington this week to take up her new duties as president of the University of Miami. Thompson, who succeeded her last January, is showing the same kind of energy and independence that made Shalala’s run such a success.

The two are of opposite parties – she a liberal Democrat, he a conservative Republican. But they share a certain feistiness and down-to-earth realism which made them partners in their Madison days. At a farewell dinner in Washington last week, Shalala recounted the phone call she received from the then governor one Monday morning at her campus office. “Were you at the Packers game in Green Bay yesterday?” he asked.

“No,” she said.

“Well, have you heard what your band did?”

“No.”

The Badgers’ marching band, notorious for its irreverence, had ended its halftime performance, Thompson said, by insulting the Packers’ opponent with the loud, unison chant, “Bears suck! Bears suck!” Chicagoans in the crowd were insulted, the governor said, and the NFL would probably demand discipline.

Shalala paused for the briefest moment, and said, “Well, governor, I can hardly punish the band for saying something that’s true.”

Thompson, she told us, roared with laughter, and promptly repeated the remark to a news conference – thus endearing both of them to the entire state.

Shalala used similar wit to disarm the Republicans who ran Congress for six of her eight years at HHS and, indeed, managed to get record boosts in funds for the National Institutes of Health and other parts of her large domain. She sometimes had less luck at the White House – losing the internal debate on welfare reform, for example – and warned her friend and successor to mind his relations with the Bush staff.

Characteristically, she turned down the offer of the presidency of Brown University, telling its officials, “You are very good already. You don’t need me.” She picked Miami over a bunch of other academic and administrative offers, she said, because she wanted to live in a racially diverse community, and because there is work to be done to make the university’s reputation the equal of its football teams.

Not that she is anti-football. “David Boren (the former senator, now president of the University of Oklahoma) and I already have made plans to meet at the Rose Bowl,” site of the next college football championship game, she said.

Meantime, Thompson is learning how right Shalala was to predict that the White House would cause him more problems than Congress. He did not want the HHS job; he would have preferred Transportation, in part because he loves railroads and in part, friends say, because Thompson, a conservative Roman Catholic, knew HHS would take the brunt of the pressure on all the most divisive social issues.

On embryonic stem cell research, in which the University of Wisconsin is a leader, Thompson has walked a careful line, making clear his own support for the research while telling everyone that he will accept whatever decision President Bush makes.

When groups that support family planning services for low-income women, knowing that Bush had declared during the campaign that abstinence-only programs had a higher claim to federal funds, complained that HHS was delaying waiver applications from states that wanted to provide contraceptive advice and equipment, Thompson did not equivocate.

He promptly ordered his bureaucracy to approve two of the requests and promised a complaining member of Congress that all the others would also be approved – with the single proviso that they offer women patients primary care services along with the family planning. “As a matter of sound public policy,” Thompson wrote Rep. James Greenwood, “if it’s important to provide a poor woman access to family planning services, it is equally important she can see a doctor when she has the flu or another illness, rather than forcing her to go to an emergency room where the cost of service is much higher and the continuity of care is far less.”

Thompson told me that he recognizes the constraints on federal and state health care budgets, but is determined to reduce the number of uninsured Americans every way he can.

The Medicaid waiver reforms he announced last weekend are designed to encourage states to do just that.

Another reason to say to Madison: Keep sending us good people.

David Broder is a columnist for The Washington Post Writers Group. His address is 1150 15th St. N.W., Washington, D.C. 20071.