Damn the Voters

Published November 10, 2009

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) declared publicly this week (ended Nov. 7) what insiders had whispered privately for some time: There will likely be no health care bill this year.

Even with a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate and an overwhelming majority in the House, Democrats in Washington have failed to pass a bill once thought to be a foregone conclusion—the top priority of a popular president, an adept White House political operation, and a massive coalition of special interests.

The timeline for the health care legislation, which leadership had originally hoped to pass this summer, slipped for a number of reasons. The largest has little to do with the Republican minority—which had no role in crafting this legislation—and everything to do with doubts and disagreements that emerged within the Democrats’ own dominant majorities on both sides of Capitol Hill.

The doubts arise foremost from voters, who never fell for President Barack Obama’s claim that the health care bill had to be rushed through as a necessary part of reinvigorating the economy. Moderate Democrats in the Senate, including Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas, Mary Landrieu of Louisiana, and Ben Nelson of Nebraska, plus Independent Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, all came out publicly against Reid’s plan because they heard loud and clear the concerns of voters in their states about the further damage that mashed-up mess of policies would do to America’s health care system.

The voters, as always, are showing more common sense than the people they elected. Lawmakers have failed to learn the lessons of Massachusetts, where well-intentioned efforts to lower costs and increase coverage ended up having the opposite effect, increasing costs by as much as 50 percent, according to a recent study by the Council for Affordable Health Insurance, and forcing patients in some parts of the state to wait more than a year for routine physical exams.

There is still no single coherent health care plan being offered by the Democratic majority. Instead of steady progress toward an ultimate goal through an open process of transparency and debate, the Democratic leadership has done much of the key legislative work behind closed doors. The result is a nearly 2,000-page House bill costing an estimated $500 million per page—and we all know how often the government comes in under budget—which is expected to be altered further, in clear violation of promises from Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) that the full legislation would be posted on the Internet for 72 hours before going to a vote.

“I have not been involved in such an open and transparent process as this,” Sen. Max Baucus (D-MT) told a group of reporters recently—between closed-door, single-party meetings where leaders negotiated in secret, traded and changed policy prescriptions, and altered key portions of the bill to please union bosses and other special-interest groups.

Of course, transparency matters little when the rush to pass a bill, any bill, is at such a fever pitch. Seventy-two hours is hardly enough time to slog through 2,000 pages of legislative text at normal reading speeds, which means few if any lawmakers will have read it when they vote on it. This is obviously not the kind of change voters were seeking last year. Instead, it’s the worst kind of Washington backroom deal-making, where the taxpayers always end up with the short stick.

Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-ME), who had expressed hope the bill could wait until after Christmas, will probably get her wish. But delay alone won’t make this legislation any better. A better gift to the voters of America would be to scrap this whole mess of kickbacks and half-measures and begin the debate about health care anew in a real and transparent matter, pursuing basic, common-sense reforms, the kind that large majorities of Americans, not just Washington’s out-of-touch leadership, will favor.

Benjamin Domenech ([email protected]) is a former political appointee at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and is managing editor of Health Care News.