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President Obama’s passion for health care reform is sincere and clear. Fixing America’s health care system was central to his campaign. Reform is critical to his economic recovery strategy. As moderates and others question the cost and approach to reform, the President’s tolerance is wearing thin. Here’s how CBS News reported on a speech he gave in New Jersey yesterday: “We have finally reached a point when inaction is no longer an option," Obama said, his hoarse voice rising in volume and anger. "I will not defend the status quo." Obama brushed off his opponents as naysayers who expect a different outcome with the same-old approaches to a decades-old challenge. "It’s a path where our health care costs keep rising. … That’s not a future I accept," Obama told the friendly audience.
The ramp-up in rhetoric is tied to an increase in concern about the legislative proposals moving through Congress. Take the preliminary analysis of the health care reform package being considered in the House of Representatives by the Congressional Budget Office. (The analysis does an excellent job of summarizing that bill as well). In his blog, CBO Director Douglas Elmendorf described the findings: “enacting those provisions by themselves would result in a net increase in federal budget deficits of $1,042 billion over the 2010–2019 period. “ His office also estimates that it would reduce the number of uninsured in the country “by about 37 million, leaving about 17 million nonelderly residents uninsured (nearly half of whom would be unauthorized immigrants).” That would increase the number of Americans under the age of 65 with coverage to an impressive 97 percent. But that trillion dollar plus price tag is causing sticker shock in Washington, causing widespread hyperventilation among lawmakers and pundits. (It is important to emphasize that the CBO analysis was preliminary and did not take into account all of the provisions of the bill).
Then there were the meetings President Obama held with moderate Senators Republican Olympia Snowe and Democrat Ben Nelson – both of whom urged him to slow down the process and let negotiations take their course. Add to the mix a letter to Congressional Leaders signed by Senators Snowe and Nelson, along with Senators Susan Collins, Joe Lieberman, Mary Landriu, and Ron Wyden (two Republicans and four Democrats) asking for additional time to find a compromise on health care reform, and you can see why the White House is pushing hard to keep the August deadline alive.
But that’s the wrong focus. The President’s need for speed is a political one. The longer the debate goes on the greater the possibility outside events or internal political fighting will derail the effort. Passing legislation as complicated and controversial as comprehensive health care reform requires momentum and a sense of urgency. The August deadline, especially in the context of legislation passed by Congressional Committees so far, create both.
Legislation as complicated and controversial as comprehensive health care reform also requires careful consideration and broad support. The careful consideration minimizes the unintended consequences that will surely result from changes of this nature. The broad support assures increases the odds of the new law being enacted smoothly and with a minimum of interference by a future Congress.
By calling those who want to delay passage of health care reform obstructionists implies that the President supports the versions currently before Congress. Yet when asked about specifics the President and his spokespeople note that the details need to be worked out by lawmakers and everything is still on the table. In other words, President Obama wants Congress to hurry up and pass something. He’s outlined what he’d like in it (a public plan, exchanges, a host of cost control measures) and what he doesn’t like (taxing high-end benefits), but he’s not pushing for any specific bill. He’s just pushing.
The problem with this approach is that the President is putting his political capital and prestige into play for a timeline, not a policy. If Congress fails to enact a bill by August the President will be seen as having lost, even if they return from their summer recess and pass a sound bill. Worse, from his point of view, he’s giving opponents another argument for voting against reform if it’s brought to a vote next month: that the process was rushed.
The President would be far better served politically to have the Senate Finance Committee continue to work toward bi-partisan health care reform even if it means pushing back passage of a bill by a couple of months. The nation would be far better off with this outcome, too. The resulting legislation would be more likely to make America’s health care system better, more efficient, more fair and more broadly accepted.
Arm twisting lawmakers into enacting health care reform by an arbitrary date is politics as usual. President Obama promised something different. He should keep that promise and focus on getting health care reform right, not just fast.