Thirteen months ago, I wrote an article for this newspaper entitled “Screw Bipartisanship,” in which I claimed there was a fundamental disagreement between Democrats and Republicans on the most important problem facing health care markets. I suggested that, rather than fruitlessly try to find common ground, Democrats should ignore the Republican point of view and muscle through legislation that would mandate individual insurance coverage.
Now, after watching the much vaunted “Health Care Summit,” a publicly televised sit-down between Republicans and Democrats in which both sides talked past each other and nearly everyone received poor marks from FactCheck, I have a thank you, an apology, and a suggestion. Thank you, Democrats, for taking my advice. Sorry it didn’t work out. Now move on.
Many on the left would like to continue the push for health care reform. Their plan is to have the House of representatives pass the Senate health care bill that made it through before Scott Brown was elected, and then use a legislative loophole called reconciliation to modify the bill after the fact so as to dodge a potential Senate filibuster.
This plan is poor for two reasons: First, reconciliation is a budgetary process not intended for use in this manner. Abusing it would not only be an affront to our democratic system, it would make permanent our current state of gridlock by showing that unless Republicans filibuster every bill with budget implications, Democrats will have the power to “reconcile” what does pass into something quite different. Second, the House lacks the votes to pass the Senate bill. After some resignations and defections (most notably by pro-life Democrats who interpret the Senate language as providing funding for abortions) Democrats will find themselves nine or ten yeas short of success.
The Democratic counter-argument is that reconciliation is the best that can be done with a broken system. It is unfair, they assert, that they should have to muster sixty votes in the Senate to pass legislation, and so long as Republicans continue their vindictive obstinacy, the GOP should be the ones to blame for whatever measures are taken to work around them.
But let’s be honest: Democrats did not seriously attempt bipartisanship. Barack Obama handed the reins of health care reform to liberals like Nancy Pelosi who, behind closed doors and without Republican input, wrote a bill so left wing that it couldn’t secure even a simple majority. Between Arlen Specter’s defection and Scott Brown’s election, all Democrats needed to do was vote down the party line in order to pass legislation, and even that was asking too much. If Democrats can’t convince their own party of the bill’s merits, how seriously can we treat their feigned dismay that Joseph Cao was the only Republican to vote with them?
To illustrate, take the issue of tort reform. If you ask a Republican what he considers the top three problems with health care, you are practically guaranteed to hear medical malpractice as one of the answers, and yet, neither the House nor Senate bill contains tort reform. Perhaps Democrats simply thought it was a waste of time — after all, many experts, including the Congressional Budget Office, are pessimistic about the prospect of tort reform significantly lowering health care costs. But while critics say tort reform is low impact, they also admit it doesn’t carry many downside risks. Even if Democrats believed it to be ineffective, had they ever had any intention of bringing Republicans into the fold, they would have at least placated them with this one harmless concession. How is it that after a year of discussion and supposed effort at bipartisanship, Democrats failed to integrate the most common Republican idea?
Secondly, the filibuster is a legitimate component of our legislative system. Four years ago when the shoe was on the other foot and it was the Republicans who were frustrated that they couldn’t pass their bills, Democrats (including Barack Obama) defended the filibuster as the sacred right of the minority. They were right then, and the Republicans are right now. If one wants to complain about not being able to pass legislation with simple majorities, they might as well go after the presidential veto too, with which a single individual can block as many as 66 senators and 289 representatives, and can sometimes block all of them if the so-called “pocket veto” is available. The Senate rules are there for a reason. Our system of government was designed with checks and balances intended to promote incrementalism and moderation. The Republicans are not abusing it — they genuinely believe the bill is bad, and the only reason they feel confident enough to use the filibuster is that after winning elections in New Jersey, Virginia, and Massachusetts, and seeing poll numbers putting them ahead in several Senate and House races, they (rightly) believe the public wants this and will back them up.
What Democrats are forgetting is that the people, and their ability to vote legislators out of office, are the ultimate check on abuses of our law-making rules. When senators act against the public interest, it is the public’s responsibility to bring them to task. The way to avoid a filibuster is not to wreck our long-standing system of government, but to take the case to the voters. Democrats tried that and failed. There is no middle ground on which to forge a compromise. Health care reform is over.
There are plenty of topics on which Democrats and Republicans can work together, but we cannot begin productive legislation until the health care debate put to rest, and the longer we dwell on the topic, the harder our divisions will become. I would like nothing more than to pass the Senate bill as-is, but I see no chance of that ever happening, and the costs of trying to do so are too high.
It was a good attempt. It was worth it to try. But now, for the good of the country, we must move on.