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Health care reform is a bipartisan shipwreck

Published: August 28, 2009
Section: Opinions


I worry about the future of bipartisanship in America.

If our republic was perfect, no bill would become law without undergoing a rigorous process including, but not limited to, extensive research and rational, intelligent discourse on the part of our elected officials. From the introduction to the final floor vote, lawmakers would work together to formulate good legislation that would benefit the nation as a whole, balancing conflicting ideologies with pragmatism.

If what I have just described sounds like fantasy, that’s because our republic is far from perfect. We all know this. The legislative process is not always effective, and our two-party system can sometimes create an ideologically triggered deadlock. Often, good legislation is weakened or even killed when the opposing sides of a debate fail to come to a consensus. But most Americans—aware as we are of our political system’s failings—still hope that the men and women they elected to office will put aside their petty differences and do what it takes to serve their constituents. In short, most Americans support bipartisanship in government.

Not long ago, many of our leaders were failing to live up to this dream. As a nation we were saddled with the unpopular presidency of the failed George W. Bush, who himself was surrounded by a small but loyal group of Republican leaders. Opposing them were the Democrats who, flush with newfound support, pledged to oppose the President’s attempts at forwarding a conservative agenda at all costs.

It was a perfect recipe for conflict, made even more potent by a mass of media coverage that for the most part consisted of television show hosts and partisan strategists shouting at each other, as if the loudest voice would win the debate at hand.

Then, just in time, the election of 2008 rolled around, and straight from the land of Lincoln arrived a young, oddly hopeful rising star politician named Barack Obama. Suddenly, the promise of change filled the air. Obama promised more than the usual platforms of the average Democratic presidential candidate. He offered his vision of a post-partisan nation, in which leaders would put aside their petty squabbles and end what he called, “the smallness of our politics.” It invoked an image rarely seen in American politics today—that of two Senators or Congressmen from opposing parties sitting down with each other after a hard days legislating and enjoying a steak dinner and some small talk.

How could America refuse a leader who promised to end the divisiveness that had caused so many of us to lose faith in our system? We couldn’t. On Election Day, we sent Obama to the Oval Office with as much hope as we could muster. Not to mention good-sized Democratic majorities in the House and Senate.

To his credit, Obama tried to usher in his “new era of bipartisanship” the second he began working on his agenda. While he mostly appointed Democrats to top positions, he also included some Republicans, including Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood, and most famously, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates. When it came time for Congress to pass the stimulus package, he encouraged legislators to work together and build a bipartisan consensus, thereby creating a bill that members of both parties could support. And when Congress began working on health care—the cornerstone of Obama’s agenda—legislators immediately made bipartisanship a major goal of the process.

This, however, is where the problems started. While Obama seems confident in his core belief—that Democrats and Republicans need only sit down together and talk in order to discover that they have more in common than they care to admit—events in Congress have proven otherwise.

The stimulus package was designed to boost the ailing economy through a combination of tax cuts and spending increases, and was worth $787 billion when signed by President Obama. Originally, the House version of the bill was worth $820 billion, and a version drafted by Senate Democrats was worth $827 billion. But these numbers were cut down in the final bill when Democrats accepted certain Republican amendments, which increased tax cuts and cut spending. To the Obama Administration and his Congressional allies, this appeared to be a good way to garnish Republican support and to prove, once and for all, that American politics can be a bipartisan affair in a time of great need.

But when the votes were tallied, it didn’t quite work out that way. Not a single Republican in the House, and only three in the Senate, voted in favor of the final, weaker package. Efforts to reach across the aisle had been wasted, and foolishly so. All Democrats had done was allow Republicans to weaken a bill that they never wanted to support anyway.

Unfortunately, it seems that what should have been a valuable lesson for President Obama and Democratic leaders has instead been dismissed as a minor setback. As the debate over health care reform heats up to the boiling point, Democrats are following the same bipartisan strategy—and giving Republicans far more power over the process than one would expect a minority party to have. Republicans, of course, are taking advantage of it.

Compare the recent statements of White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs and Senator Chuck Grassley (R-IA), ranking member of the Senate Finance Committee.

When asked at a morning briefing if the White House planned to give up on working with Republicans, Gibbs responded, “Absolutely not…we continue to be hopeful that we can get bipartisan support and will continue to work with those that are interested in doing that.”

On the other hand, when Senator Grassley was asked at a town hall meeting in Iowa about certain end-of-life counseling provisions in the House version of the health care bill, he told constituents that they should fear that the government might “pull the plug on grandma.” In a few short words, a United States Senator, part of a Committee made up of three Democrats and three Republicans tasked with designing a serious health care reform bill, had endorsed a radical, unsubstantiated conspiracy theory.

Grassley is not alone in Congress. Many, if not most, of his Republican colleagues join him in opposing any sort of meaningful reform that threatens the status quo of for-profit insurance companies preying on average Americans. Emboldened by the support they have received from a small group of loud conservatives—who apparently live in fear of “government takeovers,” “death panels,” and “fascism”—Republicans have taken a strong stand against many of President Obama’s provisions. In many cases, it has worked. The end-of-life counseling provisions that Grassley attacked were stripped from the House version of the bill, despite posing no actual danger to grandma, or for that matter, grandpa. Even the “public option,” which Obama proudly toted on the campaign trail, may very well be reconsidered by Democrats who don’t want to scare away their Republican counterparts with anything that even resembles government intervention in the health care industry. As time goes on and the debate continues, it appears that health care reform can only get more conservative.

In a sense, the Republican Party has become the black hole of the United States government. It may be small, but it is impossible to ignore, and it insists on sucking up everything that comes into its path without any thought of giving back. And while a spaceship full of Democrats can try to be bipartisan with a black hole, and try to find some common ground, one way or another that spaceship is going to be crushed into subatomic particles. Or perhaps, sent off to the parallel universe where Sarah Palin lives.

I hope President Obama realizes that he will never be able to keep his promise for reform unless he learns to use his majorities and ignore radical Republican demands. In bipartisanship, just as in life, it takes two to tango, and the Republican Party is currently sulking in the corner away from the dance floor.

Yet still I worry. Because even though that is a short-term solution, albeit a good one, it still doesn’t solve our long-term problem of government. Progressive Democrats may present President Obama with a good health care bill that actually fixes the system and helps millions, but this is only one bill out of many more that are sure to come. And in the future, Democrats may not have their overwhelming majorities with which to work. We may have to ask Republicans to dance, and I have a feeling that we don’t know the same steps.

How can bipartisanship ever hope to work if one side is so stubborn that the other is forced to choose between working on its own or going down with the ship? This is the question that I have pondered since the very beginning of Obama’s term, and one that more of us should consider as it continues.