It would be nice if, for once, Congress could get health reform right.
In his State of the Union address, Obama all but begged Congress to not walk away from health care reform.1 After the election of Scott Brown to the Massachusetts Senate seat formerly held by the late Ted Kennedy, journalists and bloggers have been declaring reform DOA (or, at best, “on life support”2). Ironically, Senator Kennedy – a champion of health care reform – was replaced by a Republican who broke the Democrats’ filibuster-proof 60-seat majority and derailed the party’s plans to streamline – or, as some might say, ramrod – healthcare reform into law, with or without bipartisan consensus. Since then, Capitol Hill has been quiet. Pelosi has said that the controversial Senate bill does not have the support in House needed to pass it there and put it on the president’s desk.3 Other legislative maneuvers are also being considered, but it seems that, at least for now, members of Congress are letting the dust settle before they figure out their next moves.
While the Massachusetts election has been alternately hailed or blamed for de-railing health reform, it could be argued that the White House and Congress were doing a good job of mangling it during negotiation. What Obama promised would be an open process – “broadcast on C-SPAN,” he claimed in his campaign – turned out to be the same old story of Washington back-room deals. The Senate dropped the public option when Joe Lieberman threatened to withhold his vote.4 Ben Nelson managed to upset everybody when he traded his vote for the “Cornhusker Kickback” – an agreement that the federal government would shoulder Nebraska’s Medicaid burden forever. All this wheeling and dealing, combined with Republicans’ absolute refusal to join in the effort and rumors of “death panels” and “socialized medicine,” has driven public opinion away from the whole convoluted process. A recent USA Today/Gallup poll found that 55% of Americans think that Congress should suspend work on current health care bills and start over.5 By the time it was ready to be reconciled, most of the public had no idea what it even said.
Ultimately, it seems our leaders are perpetually more concerned with being re-elected than they are with doing their jobs – passing legislation. Brown’s victory is the latest in a string of recent Republican victories that are making Democrats up for re-election nervous; now that things are cooling off, many of them are reluctant to re-commit to reform effort. Republicans seem to be more concerned with making Democrats look bad so they can regain control of Congress than with working with them to get something done. Even the president has begun to shift his attention to other issues, such as bank reform, to attempt to regain some popularity.6 Those of us who were so looking forward to reform after both Roosevelts, Truman, Kennedy, and Clinton had all tried and failed7 may be disappointed again.