As we go to press, the fate of President Barack Obama’s health-care reform legislation remains unclear. So do the prospects for his presidency and for the nation’s politics and future.
The victory of Republican Scott Brown in last month’s special election in Massachusetts deprived Democrats of the sixtieth vote they need in the Senate to override a Republican filibuster of any health-care reform bill that might emerge from efforts to marry the separate bills already passed by the Senate and the House. One option is for Democrats to try once again to attract at least one Republican senator to support a new and presumably modified bill. That seems unlikely. The more plausible option is to convince disgruntled House Democrats to pass the Senate version of the bill and use the budget “reconciliation” process to work through amendments. Passing legislation through the reconciliation process requires a simple majority, and is thus immune from a filibuster. Republicans (and some Democrats) claim that resorting to the reconciliation process would be an abuse of the majority’s power, but the Republicans themselves used reconciliation to pass the 2001 and ’03 Bush tax cuts, among other things. The real abuse—and what has so profoundly distorted the legislative process—is the Republicans’ eagerness to use the filibuster to obstruct everything the administration has tried to accomplish. In a representative democracy, passage of laws should require only a majority. Routinely requiring a supermajority is a recipe for governmental paralysis and political demoralization—precisely the situation now facing the country—and something the president has eloquently, but so far futilely, tried to correct.
As President Obama said in his State of the Union speech, members of Congress were sent to Washington to govern, not to engage in an endless political campaign. If the Democrats hope to convince voters that they can govern, they must take full ownership of the health-care reform package. It makes no sense for Democrats to “run for the hills” at this late date; they have already voted for reform, and the legislation will be hung round their necks whether or not it becomes law. Even more important, passing a health-care bill is the right thing to do, both morally and economically. The current system is unsustainable and the alternatives proposed by Republicans are unserious. As the president said, “Don’t walk away from reform. Not now. Not when we are so close. Let us find a way to come together and finish the job for the American people.”
As the president admitted, he has not done enough to explain to the American people why health-care reform is a necessity, and how the Democrats’ bill would help solve the problems of medical coverage and costs that deprive millions of care while threatening the nation’s economic and social well-being. President Obama explained that well in his speech, and he needs to continue doing so. What he did not say in his speech was exactly how the Democrats can finish the job. To be sure, an address to a joint session of Congress is not the best place to lay out legislative strategy, but the president needs to insert himself more forcefully into congressional negotiations over the bill. The president must lend the authority of his office to the reconciliation process, while helping to persuade wavering Democrats that their chances for reelection will not improve if they abandon health-care reform.
Of course, health care was just one of the subjects covered in Obama’s speech. He devoted most of his talk to the recession, especially the unemployment crisis. In doing so, he defended his one-year stewardship of the economy and called for sweeping new bank regulation. He also urged the Senate to pass the House jobs bill and to extend tax credits to small businesses that start hiring again. Less helpful, but probably politically unavoidable, was the president’s call for a three-year freeze on discretionary government spending, excluding defense, education, Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid. As critics point out, a freeze that excludes 80 percent of the budget will do little for the long-term deficit problem. To fix that, Congress will eventually have to raise taxes and reduce entitlement and military spending. What is equally clear, however, is that federal deficits will not be reversed until the economy starts growing again in a sustained fashion. Calls to cut government spending and balance the federal budget now, when consumer demand and private investment remain so anemic, will only prolong and possibly deepen the recession.