Friday, April 2, 2010

A Really Big Deal

After decades in public service and several gaffs to his credit, you would think Vice President Biden would know that the microphones are always on. But, I guess he just cannot help himself. During the Health Care Reform legislation signing ceremony, he leaned over to the President and said, “This is a really big [expletive deleted] deal!”

F-Bomb aside, the VEEP is absolutely right; this new Health Care Reform Law is a really big deal. As Nancy Pelosi said the night the bill passed the House, this is the biggest and most significant piece of legislation since Social Security and Medicare were passed. That says a lot. Social Security and Medicare are two well regarded federal programs, but they are not financially sustainable as currently configured. Social Security recently passed a significant and dubious milestone; for the first time ever, payments going to Americans exceed payments by Americans into Social Security. Notwithstanding any of the arguments that Congress has raided the Social Security Fund, most experts agree that without significant structural changes the Social Security System will be insolvent some time soon after 2030. Medicare is said to be going broke even faster. Now, we have added to these two significant challenges, a new federal entitlement that may be just as unsustainable in the long term. A World War II F-Bomb comes to mind—SNAFU.

Perhaps the really big deal about Health Care Reform is not whether it is good or bad policy. There are plenty of arguments for and against health care reform and there seems to be no end to the disparate facts cited in support of either side. While politicians are quick to claim “the people” are on their side, Americans can best be described as divided on the issue. Although most polls say more people believe the recently passed plan is a bad idea, I believe even more Americans are frustrated by the way this “really big deal” went down. I cannot remember when more partisan politics have prevailed. It seems that public ire has been fueled more by the unscrupulous abuses of power than the merits of the policy.

The Republicans, labeled the “Party of No” by Health Care Reform supporters, did advance a detailed and comprehensive set of alternatives in their own health care reform bill. However, there was little or no consideration given to any alternatives to the recently passed bill. And while the Republican alternative was publicly mashed in series of legislative slams, the Health Care Reform bill of choice was crafted in a back room by a selected handful of legislators.

When the Democrats lost their super-majority in the Senate after the surprising election of Scott Brown in Massachusetts, many pundits thought Health Care Reform was dead. There appeared to be no consensus on how to reconcile the House and Senate bills and the Senate leadership feared a filibuster could not be overcome. But, the bill was revived when the majority party opted to use the Senate Reconciliation Rule to resolve differences with the House bill and circumvent the filibuster process. Oh, to be sure, the Reconciliation Rule has been used in the past by both parties to enact legislation that was substantially non-budget. The difference is that in those cases there was strong bi-partisan support for the legislation. For Health Care Reform, the only demonstrated bi-partisanship was when a number of Democrats joined Republicans in opposing it.

Americans were also frustrated by the fact that when the House passed their Health Care Reform bill, many in Congress had not even read the 2,000 page proposal. More to the point, it was only made available to Members of Congress and the public hours before the vote. It occurred to many Americans that the promise of transparency in government was a fleeting notion at best, lip service at worst.

Then along came the Senate version of Health Care Reform, and when several Democrats said they could not support the bill on principle, the Senate leader went to work. Americans have been truly outraged at the sweetheart deals made to “buy” votes in what appears to be one of the most overt forms of legislative chicanery. I have heard many Americans suggest that Article II, Section 4 of the Constitution, which provides for removing the President from office for “bribery,” should be applied to Members of Congress.

In a twist of irony that really makes a person’s head spin, Congress has once again exempted themselves and the President from the very law that they fought so hard to pass. Truly, one has to wonder if Health Care Reform is so good for America (the goose), why is it not good for Congress and the President (the gander). Apparently, Members of Congress and the President have what they call Cadillac plans. So while most Americans will likely pay more for health care and health care insurance, Congress and the President have adopted a double standard because the new law does not apply to them.

The Health Care Reform debate energized Americans and this is a good thing. People who had grown apathetic got involved, and most of this energy has been positive, it also has resulted in frustration for some. On numerous occasions the telephone systems at the Capitol were overwhelmed by callers. People calling district offices were relegated to answering machines and all too often the voice mail boxes were full. As the health care debate developed, Americans struggled to learn about the bill being considered. Because of the size of the bill, complexity, and legalese, it was unintelligible even for many Members of Congress. As time went on, more light was shed on what this legislation would do and would not do. Those opposing the bill even included many reform supporters who felt it did not go far enough when the public option was dropped. As the ground swell of opposition grew, many people felt they were not being heard, or worse yet, they were being ignored.

After the Health Care Bill was passed by the House of Representatives late on a Sunday night, many people vandalized offices and made threats to members of Congress on both sides of the aisle. This was not appropriate and I do not support this kind of activity in any way, shape, or form. But, we would do well to better understand what causes otherwise law-abiding citizens to resort to civil disobedience or even violence. For many of us who have been politically active or engaged in trying to change government policies for many years, we are used to defeat and even humiliation.

The current health care debate is over. Those of us who opposed this particular brand of reform have lost this round. To those Americans who feel disenfranchised by the process or who were abhorred by their first exposure to the making of sausage and legislation, I say do not lose heart and stay involved. Our democracy is not perfect, but it is the best form of government out there. It is not whether we win or lose; it is about how we engage in the process.

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