Thursday, March 25, 2010

Health care reform afterthoughts:
Speculative glimpses of democratic possibilities

Several years ago, back when there was no reason to believe an obscure African-American junior senator from Illinois would be our next President and try to pass health care reform, a wise friend explained to me one reason why it was so hard to make progress on this issue. He's one of those policy wonks, a researcher of health economics.

"Did you know that, by and large, people who have health insurance now are registered to vote? And most of them vote. The uninsured? -- they are not registered and don't vote!"

No wonder our politicians have taken more than half a century to make a commitment to getting almost everyone some kind of access to insurance.

So, now that they've expanded coverage, does that mean that it's the moment to work hard on getting the previously uninsured into the voting pool? It seems realistic to think that people who have newly received health insurance through government action might think that trying to influence what that government does had some value to them. Any such movement into the political class will take awhile; expanding registration is slow, tough work. But it is just possible that, like our improbable President's campaign, this reform is a step in the direction of expanding the electorate.
One of the best results of the excruciating HCR process has been delegitimating the U.S. Senate and U.S. Senators. Okay, the Founders had to throw a bone to the tiny population states (think Rhode Island, New Hampshire, Delaware) to get them to throw down with the big ones (New York, Virginia, Pennsylvania). And so the Constitution gave us the Senate. But what do these preening peacocks with their crackpot rules do for our democracy anyway? Not much, though their unchecked individual and collective power to gum up the works makes them an attractive buy for lobbyists.

(I am writing this while Senators are holding a "voterama" while trying to polish off the amendments to the insurance legislation. I could explain, but the point is to get rid of these curlicues, not understand them.)

I doubt we'll manage in my lifetime to get rid of the Senate; the current tiny states such as Wyoming like it too much. But the political pundit class is beginning to define the Senate as a problem. Retiring Senator Evan Bayh denounced misuse of Senate rules such as the requirement for 60 votes to end debate on anything (filibuster) for breaking the institution. We may get some reforms of some rules in the next session if Democrats retain the majority. (This is likely, though they may be reduced from 59 members to more like 53 out of 100.)

More generally, popular education about what a useless, anti-democratic body the Senate has become can create strong pressures for somewhat better behavior. Let's do it.

1 comment:

Tom Degan's Daily Rant said...

The commentators keep reminding us that Theodore Roosevelt was the first president who tried to bring universal health care to the American people. That's not quite true. He never really expressed the idea while he was in office. In 1912 Roosevelt had been out of office for four years when he attempted to reclaim the presidency from William Howard Taft, the man he had picked to succeed him. Once in office, Taft began to dismantle most of the progressive reforms that Teddy had put into place. When he sought the nomination once again, his campaign slogan was "a square deal for every man and every woman in the United States." Part of the "Square Deal" was health care for all. He arrived at the convention that summer with all the delegates he needed (and then some) to seize the mantle of standard bearer. It was not to be. His party would betray the people by giving the nomination to Taft in spite of his victory. They had had enough of Theodore Roosevelt and his progressive reforms. 1912 was the year that the progressive wing of the Republican party died. He was the last great Republican president - the very last.

A generation later TR's distant cousin Franklin attempted to pick up the torch of universal health care. In his 1944 State of the Union address, he told the American people that his major goal for the post war world was national health insurance. Unfortunately for you and I, FDR did not live to see the war's end. A film of that speech can be viewed in Michael Moore's film, Capitalism: A Love Story. It's is now out on DVD and is essential viewing.

The new health care bill is not perfect - far from it - but as the old Chinese saying goes, "The journey of a thousand miles begins with the first step." There will be improvements made on it down the years - there absolutely needs to be - but this is a fairly good first step. We're on our way! The Conservatives will whine, but that's what they do best. They'll whine just as they whined when Lyndon Johnson signed into law the Voting Rights Act of 1965, or the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Just as they whined when Harry Truman desegregated the army in 1947, or when Franklin D. Roosevelt brought Social Security into being in 1935. They'll whine just like they did when Woodrow Wilson tried to form the League of Nations in 1919 - or when Abraham Lincoln ended the institution of slavery in 1863! They whine a lot. Did you ever notice that?

Tom Degan

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