Deem and pass, health care, and the failure of leadership

Posted on March 18, 2010

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With the release of the CBO’s preliminary report, the stage is set for the House to move on its health care reform bill by Sunday. The failure of a Republican resolution to block the Slaughter Strategy means that the “deem and pass” method of enacting legislation remains strongly on the table. And some early “yes” vote announcements have many giddily predicting victory this weekend.

What would that victory look like? Well, it would obviously result in a bill being passed through the House by whatever means necessary, and the Senate bill would be able to be signed into law while the reconciliation fix is pending. It gets murkier after that, but Democrats could simply stop at that point and have the health care reform bill they’ve so desperately sought for the past fourteen months.

Never mind, of course, that the American public isn’t clamoring for this bill – quite the opposite, in fact. True, Americans want reform in general, and certain aspects poll well, but for the whole enchilada, pick your poll – Pew, Gallup, Rasmussen, Fox – all of them show heavy opposition and weak support for the current health care bill with only the margin of opposition to support in question. A CNN poll just a few weeks ago noted that some 65% wanted Congress to scrap everything altogether. The people of Massachusetts elected a man in Scott Brown who campaigned specifically on being the 41st vote against the current version of health care, and the bluest of the blue states sent a Republican to Washington. Health care wasn’t the only factor in his victory, but to deny it played any factor at all flirts with the denial of reality.

The response to all of this has been a resounding … “So what?” The thinking, you see, is that the American people are either too stupid, too partisan, or too easily misled by those evil Republicans to recognize what a stellar bill Congress has before it. History is on the verge of being made, you see, so we can’t be bothered with what the poor saps in flyover country think.

Yet if this was such a great bill – or even if it was just a good bill – we wouldn’t see Washington in the state we see it today. We’d see a unified Democrat caucus with moderate Republicans like Graham, Collins, and Snowe itching at the chance to sign on to such a historic piece of legislation.

Instead, one can’t help but wonder how bad the bill must be if the President has to lean on Democrats to vote for it. Or why it takes special deals like the Cornhusker Kickback, the Louisiana Purchase, Gator-Aid, or others to sweeten the pot for hesitant legislators. Or why a bill so beneficial and necessary must be herded through by arcane methods reserved for far less important legislative matters.

That brings us to “deem and pass.” Yes, it’s been used before, and yes, the Republicans themselves used it. Pelosi, Reid, and Slaughter all opposed it at the time, but never mind that. Was it used for Social Security reform, for education reform, for dissolving the IRS, for any fundamental change to our governmental system or our way of life? They used it to raise the debt ceiling, a legislative act so heinous that Democrats did it themselves just a few weeks ago.

Technically, deem and pass is a viable option – but to use it on such a massive and transformational piece of legislation is an admission of the lack of a mandate to enact it through normal means, as is the use of reconciliation. Democrats may use the method to get around thorny issues, but doing so on such a high-profile bill forever changes the game in Washington. When the majority changes hands, as it inevitably will, the precedent will have been set to use arcane methods like these to enact sweeping change.

But beyond that, squeaking the bill through on technicalities alienates more than one half of the country and destroys any chance of bringing the country together for the forseeable future. “Good riddance,” some will say, “those fools just don’t know what’s good for them.” Fine enough, but that’s not the kind of government we were promised when Pelosi took the gavel in 2006 and when Obama took the White House in 2008. The agenda of one side will be realized, but at the expense of bridging the gap between red and blue.

It didn’t have to be this way. Leaders and statesmen would have started from a mutual base of agreement, and under good stewardship, a unified Democrat party could have been able to sway enough Republicans to form a broad bloc of approval that would have made all of this chicanery unnecessary. With smaller and more focused bills, both parties could have chipped away at the problem of health care in a far more constructive manner.

Instead, flush with victory and the fleeting illusion of a Mandate from Heaven, the House shut the Republicans out and the Senate scrapped the one bill that gained a Republican vote to draft a monstrosity of kickbacks and backrubs that unified the GOP and left many moderate and conservative Democrats hesitant and shaky with the size, scope, and direction of the mammoth all-at-once legislation. Obama is now obligated to push this through just to prove that he can so that his Presidency can be “saved” for whomever is left to impress at this point. All of this for a bill that doesn’t start in earnest for another four years.

Though the final die has not yet been cast, Democrats may end up getting their legislative victory in the House on Sunday. But passage of the bill will in truth represent a failure of leadership and massive lost opportunity that this country will never see again. Greater division and discord, not lower costs, will be the final legacy of this bill, and the price of victory for Democrats may be too great for this nation to bear.

Cross-posted at The Moderate Voice
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