Tuesday, March 16, 2010


One month ago, centrist Democrat Indiana Senator (and former Indiana Governor) Evan Bayh announced he would not seek re-election for a third term in the U.S. Senate. In his remarks, Senator Bayh stated he was leaving because there was too little bipartisanship in Washington and the Congress was unable to do the work with which it is tasked because of partisan battles. Citing the failure to establish a debt commission and the failure of a jobs bill, Senator Bayh said Washington was dysfunctional, "For some time, I have had a growing conviction that Congress is not operating as it should. There is too much partisanship and not enough progress -- too much narrow ideology and not enough practical problem-solving. Even at a time of enormous challenge, the peoples’ business is not being done." (http://bayh.senate.gov/news/press/release/?id=2bb190de-ed11-4920-a3bb-fea51fcde0dc).

The notion that, "Washington is broken," has become conventional wisdom. The pundits tell us that the American people just want results and the Democrats seem to have staked their political future on this notion as they try to pass a health insurance reform bill by any means necessary to show they can "get it done," despite the fact that the bill continues to not poll very well(http://www.gallup.com/poll/126521/Favor-Oppose-Obama-Healthcare-Plan.aspx). All decry the lack of bipartisanship in the health care debate. But, are things really different now?

Certainly there have been times when there has been broad bipartisan support for sweeping legislation: Social Security, Medicare, Americans with Disabilities Act, the Civil Rights Act, etc. Each of these bills occured in a time that was ripe for them and therefore had broad consensus of support. The current health care legislation, however, is being proposed while on one hand, the federal budget deficit is growing out of control, two overseas wars are still being waged, economic growth remains sluggish, and a very large percentage of Americans remain out of work; yet on the other hand 85% of Americans have health insurance and like their current coverage. Under this set of circumstances it is no wonder the public are split on the bill (although most polls do show only minority support) and that, according to a recent Gallup poll, only 20% view health care as the most important issue, while 55% say it is jobs or the economy (http://www.gallup.com/poll/126614/Americans-Say-Jobs-Top-Problem-Deficit-Future.aspx). Our legislative system is designed to make it difficult to pass sweeping legislation precisely so that slim majorities cannot arbitrarily force their will on the minority. A bill must pass two houses of Congress, often requiring a supermajority to end debate in the Senate (for those who complain about this rule, recall that before it a single Senator could delay a vote for as long as he or she could hold the floor and keep talking...), then the bill must be reconciled between the two houses and the final version pass in each house. It still only becomes law when the President signs it (unless there is a supermajority to override a veto). Although the past two Presidents have enjoyed their own party in control of Congress, this has actually been an anomaly for most of the last 40 years and therefore there are a lot of hurdles, by design, to passing legislation. However, bills can pass easily, with bipartisan support, when there is broad consensus. Such consensus does not currently exist for health care reform. The purpose of the high bar for passing sweeping legislation is to make sure there is broad consensus before such major changes are enacted. Perhaps, therefore, this stall on health insurance reform is not an example of a system broken, but rather a system working.

On the other hand, there is no guarantee that just because there is broad bipartisan consensus that the bill is good. Baltimore talk radio host Ron Smith likes to point out that if one party is evil and the other is stupid (take your pick which is which), then anything bipartisan is guaranteed to be both stupid and evil. The invasion of Iraq, the PATRIOT Act, No Child Left Behind, and TARP (and I would argue Social Security) are all examples of bad policy that passed with broad, bipartisan support. Perhaps our problem is really too much bipartisanship. In addition to these public examples of bipartisanship is the more subtle and insidious bipartisanship of both sides promoting the same policies regardless of the public political posturing. When Republicans were in control, an expensive health care entitlement (Medicare D) that we could not afford was passed in the midst of a recession, two overseas wars were started, a program of eavesdropping on cell phone calls made overseas without proper FISA Court warrants was initiated, much of the financial insurance industry was effectively nationalized, a trillion dollar stimulus/bailout bill was passed (the latter after Democrats had regained congressional control), and the size of the national debt doubled. Now that Democrats are in control, they are trying to pass an even more expensive health care entitlement during a recession that we cannot afford, we have passed a second nearly trillion dollar stimulus/bailout bill, two-thirds of the auto industry has been effectively nationalized, the national debt is projected to double again, we are still involved in two overseas wars, and the current administration admits to a program of targeting U.S. citizens for assassination if they are suspected of terrorist activities (http://abcnews.go.com/Politics/license-kill-intelligence-chief-us-american-terrorist/story?id=9740491). There seems to be plenty of bipartisanship at the expense of the liberty and prosperity of the American people.

Despite the Republican's hypocrisy of supporting the unprecedented expansion of federal government into our lives for eight years before suddenly becoming opposed to, "Obama's socialist agenda," if an unpopular health care bill that was attacked for partisan motives gives the American people, for one brief shining moment at least, a choice between alternate policy views, maybe that is not such a bad thing.