Monday, July 27, 2009

Why the Blue Dogs and Republicans probably can't stop a good universal health insurance bill -- if Obama is willing to fight

MAJOR REVISION AT APPROXIMATELY 9:30 pm, JULY 27TH

Paul Krugman writes in today's column, "Right now the fate of health care reform seems to rest in the hands of relatively conservative Democrats — mainly members of the Blue Dog Coalition". Krugman rightly wants to put pressure on the Blue Dogs to do the right thing, but note that he uses the word "seems".

There are three key ways to consider that the Blue Dogs, Blue Dog-like senators, and the Republicans might legislatively stop a good universal health insurance bill:

1) The Blue Dogs could refuse to let the bill leave the House Energy and Commerce Committee – A July 15th CNN article states, "Democrats outnumber Republicans 36-23 on the Energy and Commerce committee, which contains eight Blue Dogs, including Ross. If seven Democrats vote with Republicans against the bill, it would fail to advance to the House floor."

What could the Democrats do in this case?

The authoritative book "Congress & Its Members", 10th edition, 2006, has an excellent chapter on committees in both houses of congress. On page 232 the authors begin a section called, "Bypassing Committees", which gives recent examples in the house and senate where uncooperative committees were simply bypassed; the bills were brought to the floor for a vote without their consent. The authors conclude the section writing, "Some analysts contend that, 'There are few consequences if [committees are bypassed] because nobody outside congress cares whether a bill went through committee or not'"

In fact, we see that bypassing the Energy and Commerce committee is being considered in an article from The Hill from just three days ago, "Waxman may let health bill skip committee":
Chairman Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) says there is "no alternative" but to have healthcare legislation bypass his Energy and Commerce Committee if Blue Dog Democrats don't accept a deal worked out Friday.

Waxman is now playing a game of legislative chicken with the Blue Dogs. He's hoping the inclusion of a study on Medicare reimbursement rates in the healthcare overhaul will be enough to placate the centrist Democrats, who say the government program short-changes hospitals and physicians in their rural districts.

If that’s not, the seven Blue Dogs could join with the committee's Republicans to "eviscerate" healthcare reform, and that’s something Waxman will not tolerate.

"I won't allow them to hand over control of our committee to Republicans," Waxman told reporters.

"I don’t see what other alternative we have, because we're not going to let them empower Republicans on the committee."

The reimbursement rates are important to the healthcare bill, because the government-run "public option" would be based on Medicare
2) Blue Dog representatives could join with Republicans to defeat the bill in a full vote of the house – The Wall Street Journal writes today that there are 52 Blue Dogs in the house. Their source is the group itself. The Democrats have 256 seats to 178 for the Republicans. If all Republicans vote no, then the Blue Dogs could defeat the bill with 39 out of 52 joining the Republicans (In the house, if there's a tie, the bill is defeated). However, the Wall Street Journal article states, "Overall, House Blue Dogs are not always in alliance. But the bloc of seven on the Energy and Commerce Committee -- an eighth Blue Dog there, Rep. Jane Harman of California, is a liberal on health-care issues -- has shown every sign of remaining unified.", so Harman should be a yes. I would hope that Obama and the Democrats would, if necessary to preserve a good effective bill, go all out LBJ style with positive and negative incentives, and really using political capital, to get at least 13 others, and would succeed

3) Blue Dog-like senators could join with Republicans in an attempt to stop the bill with a filibuster – The impetus for my recent study of congressional rules and procedures is an assertion I read by New Republic Senior Editor Jonathan Chait, that Clinton could have passed universal health care by using a procedure called Reconciliation, which prevents filibusters and allows bills that qualify for it to pass with just 50 votes, plus the vice president breaking a tie.

Chait claims this in his 2007 book, "The Big Con: The True Story of How Washington Got Hoodwinked and Hijacked by Crackpot Economics" on page 204:
Perhaps the most incredible thing about the [1993 Clinton] health care debacle is that the Democrats could have avoided the filibuster that ultimately killed the reform if not for the stubborn insistence of one senator...West Virginia's Robert Byrd...an old fashioned New Deal Democrat who supported reform but cared more about the traditions of the Senate than anything else...He would not budge in the face of pleas from Clinton and his fellow senators, and his ability to tie the senate in knots if so inclined deterred the Clinton administration from crossing him. In the end, Dole spearheaded a filibuster that killed the potential reform.
Is Chait right? and could Obama and the Democrats today use reconciliation to prevent a filibuster and pass the bill with just 50 votes and Vice President Biden breaking a tie?

It looks like probably yes based on what I've read, for at least a reasonably good universal health insurance bill. The Republicans have recently used reconciliation to pass several big bills with less than 50 votes, including tax cuts overwhelmingly for the rich that costed more than universal health insurance!

The Senate parliamentarian will make a decision on whether reconciliation can be used to avoid filibuster, or if not how the bill might be altered so that reconcilliation could be used. The Hill has a good brief article on this from April 22nd. A filibuster decision of this type by the senate parliamentarian has never been disregarded, but it may be possible. The legality, potential moves, counter moves, and supreme court rulings are difficult to say, and it's beyond my current expertise in this to conjecture here.

Conclusion:

It looks likely that if Obama is willing to really fight for the great good of a good universal health insurance bill – he cares a lot more about that than looking new-age fairy land post-partisan – he can succeed.

As I wrote in a November 6th, 2008 post:
I strongly believe that health care is the most important thing. It is the most valuable thing that can be done when considering the probability distribution of its payoffs -- in non-mathematical-economics jargon, it is the most valuable when considering how much good it's likely to do.

Why is this?

Isn't there more potential to do good (or prevent bad) in combating global warming? Yes, but the best way to combat global warming is to pass a good universal health care program, or at least to move us greatly in that direction. The reason is that this would be so enormously good for people's lives [if it were really a good bill, certainly a good single-payer would qualify, but we aren't getting that], and for the economy, that it would generate a gigantic amount of gratitude and political capital for the Democrats, and that would allow them to push through far stronger anti-global warming legislation [over the coming years and decades] -- a lot more money for alternative energy, a lot greater conservation measures, etc. And it would also help Democrats in elections for decades to come, greatly decreasing the harm Republicans can do on so many issues (at least in the Republican party's present extreme, anti-thinking form).

There's nothing more important than passing a good universal health care program, and hopefully Obama won't falsely think it's too politically risky to push for this, because once we've had it, and Americans saw the reality of just how much better it made their lives, rather than the Republican false arguments and lies [Again, if it were really a good bill, certainly a good single-payer would qualify, but we aren't getting that], it would be like the New Deal; it would generate enormous gratitude and political capital for decades; it would expose the falseness of the Republican arguments and lies, and the Republicans would never be able to get rid of it. Would the Republicans dare even to try to get rid of old age social security, medicare, or unemployment insurance? No, these are programs that the Republicans could never get rid of once enacted. Universal healthcare would be the same.

As Nobel Prize Winning Economist Paul Krugman wrote in his 2007 book, "The Conscience of a Liberal", "Health care reform is the natural centerpiece of a new New Deal. If liberals want to show that progressive policies can create a better, more just society, this is the place to start." (page 216), and, "The most dangerous government programs, from a movement conservative's point of view, are the one's that work the best and thereby legitimize the welfare state." (page 228), and finally, "Getting universal care should be the key domestic priority for modern liberals" (page 243).