The legislative process is like Kabuki Theater. Very stylized. Clear-cut characters. Starts off slow, proceeds through several acts, ends fast and furious. The Congressional tussle over health care reform is no exception. We have the champions of the left and right pounding across the stage, striking poses, shouting out their predictable lines, scaring the bejeebies (whatever they are) out of the audience (otherwise known as constituents) and generally creating high drama. This is important work as it gives the 24 hour news stations something to talk about and this, in turn, keeps the commercials from running together in an endless loop of paid messages for help fighting the IRS, encouragement to ask your doctor about the benefits of an unhealthy number of medications, easy ways to get low cost loans and willing buyers of your excess gold jewelry.
At the same time we have numerous audience members who are quickly losing whatever bejeebies they might possess. If you are among the 470,000 Americans employed by the health insurance industry, for instance or among the tens of thousands of health insurance brokers in this country, you might feel like people are out to get you. Good catch because people are out to get you. Don’t feel too bad, though, you’re not alone. They’re also out to get doctors, hospitals, pharmaceutical companies and a host of others.
Every health care reform idea on the table is scary to someone. Government-run plans, exchanges, mandates to sell coverage, mandates to buy coverage, taxes, cost containment. The list of proposals go on endlessly. Everybody with a stake in health care (which is everybody) has something to lose from some these reforms and someone is out there working hard to make sure these stakeholders lose it. In the health care reform everyone is an archer and everyone is a target.
So as someone with a stake in the system, but who has also spent more time than sane people should involved in politics and the legislative process, I would like to offer some simple advice to my fellow targets:
Don’t get comfortable, but don’t panic.
The good news is the health care reform most likely to emerge from Congress will be far more moderate than the proposals whipping around the Capital hallways today imply. This is theater — and it’s politics. Everyone in Washington is busy staking out negotiating positions, trying to score points, and auditioning for an appearance on CNN, Fox or MSNBC. Which means what they say matters, but not as much as they’d like to think it does.
In negotiations you expect to compromise so you start off asking for more than you expect to get. Every eight year old discussing bed time knows this. So do politicians. What we’re seeing at this point is primarily Democrats and Republicans anchoring their positions. In Kabuki Theater, actors will strike stances that identify their role in the story. In Congressional theater, this role is played by lawmakers.
Which leads us to the effort of scoring points. Nothing revs up the base like lambasting opponents. The number of people who make a living by keeping a significant portion of the American population seething is significant and appalling. These people (and I use the term loosely) paint the world in terms of good and evil, black and white, us and them. Anyone who disagrees with “us” is a traitor, a fool, a liar or all of the above. They care less about moving the country forward than in adding to their power or their bank account. (Have you ever noticed how often their diatribes are followed by an appeal for cash or an advertisement?) These blowhards replace bombast for thought. They have honed the cheap shot and the stiletto implication into art forms. Fortunately there’s a cozy spot in Hell reserved for them where they’ll have to listen to themselves blather for eternity. Until then, we’re the ones stuck in their noisy hurricanes of malicious hot air.
The subset of these sub-humans who hold public office will be especially prominent during this portion of the legislative process. Ignore them. Like the extreme positions taken by negotiators, the extreme rhetoric spouting from these Katrinas of politics are designed to rile you up, get your money and generate news clippings, not educate or move the debate forward.
The real action on health care reform is taking place in the nooks and crannies of Washington where moderates dwell. For example, keep your eye on the Senate Finance Committee. They seem to be trying to find solutions the nation can afford and that might actually work. Track the movements of moderates in the Senate, too. Senators Olympia Snow and Susan Collins are the two trendsetters on the amazing-shrinking-group of GOP moderates. On the Democratic side of the Senate moderates gather weekly in a self-described Working Group. (Insert your own snide comment here).
The fact is, in Washington moderates win. The system is designed this way. It may not seem like it, but that’s the way it usually goes. This is the point articulately made by Jay Cost in his HorseRaceBlog over at RealClearPolitics.com. In two postings (Part 1 and Part 2) he lays out the pivot points in the legislative process and applies them specifically to the current health care reform debate. (My thanks to John Nelson for sending these my way). What he shows is that the true partisans are merely the fodder necessary to get to the number of votes needed to turn legislation into law. These pivot points vary depending on the political context.
Need to overcome a filibuster? The most powerful Senator is not the true believers who immediately vote yes or no, but the Senator who represents the 60th vote for cloture. Only that Senator can move the bill forward. The rest simply set the stage. When it comes to health care reform, watch the moderates. They are the key actors in this play because it is from among their group, along with critical negotiators like Senators Max Baucus and Charles Grassley, from which the decisive votes will come.
With 17 votes (maybe 18 now that Senator Arlen Specter is a Democrat) the moderate Democrats in the Senate will determine the final shape of healthcare reform. They are the ones the partisans on both sides are already seeking to persuade or, failing that, threaten (good news for television and radio stations in their states looking to sell advertising time). If these partisans are serious about passing something, however, that something will need to earn the votes of these moderates. Keep in mind, Democrats have a large majority in both chambers of Congress, but they got it by appealing broadly to the electorate. Democrats rarely are genetically incapable of group thought even when there’s just a few of them. Put 60 into one room (say, the floor of the Senate) and the chances of agreement on anything controversial is reduced to a theoretical nil.
What all this means is that the partisan posturing of the current debate is simply sound and fury signifying the hopes and aspirations of sincere partisans and cynical pot stirrers (which is which is sometimes hard to tell, but there is a difference — only the latter are despicable). Eventually the play will reach its final act. At this point the moderates take center stage and with their arrival the odds of disappointed extremists on both sides increases(disappointing extremists is, after all, what moderates d0).
This doesn’t mean they will come up with the perfect health care reform plan. If you care about the issue you need to make your voice heard. Moderates are capable of making bad policy — and whether the truck that runs you over is driven by a true partisan or a moderate doesn’t really matter, it still hurts. Moderates are more likely, however to produce reforms that are closer to something reasonable than might seem possible appear today.
In the meantime, let the loud and boisterous actors strike their poses. It’s all part of the play.