The message delivered by the 2010 mid-term election is clearly in the eye of the beholder. Some see it as a repudiation of President Barack Obama and/or Democrats in Congress. Others see it as a rejection of incumbents of all political parties. Most everyone agrees, however, that this was an election demanding change. There are other blogs that do a great job of noodling through these kinds of issues. This blog focuses on health care reform. And while I believe the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act will be changing over the next several months, the process won’t be easy.
The difficulty is only in part because a divided Congress is a guarantee of frequent gridlock. Consider the Kabuki Theater we’ll see play out on repeal of the PPACA. My guess is Republicans in the House will push through a bill to repeal the new health care reform law. This legislation may contain language to preserve certain provisions of the PPACA, but it will be dubbed the “repeal bill.” Not that the GOP majority needs their votes, but a handful of Democrats will likely vote for this bill despite pressure by the Democratic leadership to present a unified front (Democrats aren’t nearly as disciplined as Republicans in this regard, so someone is likely to jump ship).
Democrats in the Senate will kill the bill – and will likely prevent it from coming to the floor. Either party can filibuster. Even with with a few Democratic defections (that would be Senators Joe Lieberman, Ben Nelson and Joe Manchin) the GOP will fail to garner the 60 votes necessary. So President Obama won’t even need to veto the bill as it will never get to his desk.
This script, or something much like it, has nothing to do with public policy and everything to do with politics. Each side will be playing to their base. You might even see liberal Senate Democrats put forward legislation to implement a public option or the like, safe in the knowledge that such a bill would die in the House. Again, it’s all about making partisans (and pundits) happy.
Eventually, however, members of both parties will need to focus on the substantive work of amending the PPACA. In my previous post I wrote about the need for Republicans to decide if they will seek to improve President Obama’s health care reform plan or use the PPACA as a campaign issue in 2012. In that post I also brought up the possibility that Speaker Nancy Pelosi might retire from Congress given the drubbing House Democrats received on election night. She won’t. At least not yet.
Speaker Pelosi has announced she’ll seek to become the Minority Leader in the new Congress. This no doubt delights many Republicans in the House and saddens some Democrats. As the Associated Press reports, in making the move to stay on as House Democratic leader, Speaker Pelosi “rejected pressure from moderate House Democrats – and even some liberal allies .…” Again, other blogs will dissect the broader political impact of this move. But what does it mean for health care reform?
Unfortunately, Speaker Pelosi’s decision to stay on as the Democratic leader in the House means improving the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act will be much harder than would be the case with someone else leading the Democratic caucus. First, because Speaker Pelosi is a lightning rod for conservative anger. Speaker-to-be John Boehner will have a tough enough time getting his caucus to vote for anything short of repeal of health care reform. The GOP Caucus in the House will contain a significant number of true believers: ideologues who consider compromise a mortal sin as opposed to a natural part of the political process. And even those Republican lawmakers prone to compromise will spend the next two years looking over their right shoulder evaluating whether a vote for half-a-loaf on an issue will have career-ending consequences. Getting these compromise-shy politicians to accept a deal brokered with Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi may be asking too much.
The second reason her decision makes improving health care reform more challenging is that it means no change among the negotiators. The Big Five in Washington for the past two years have been President Obama, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, Speaker Pelosi, and Minority Leader Boehner. Assuming no challenge to the two Senators (and none seems to be emerging) and with the likelihood of the House leadership simply switching offices, the same Big Five will be negotiating health care reform for the next two years. Meaning no new perspectives, no change in tone, no difference at all (other than the relative power each holds). As anyone whose survived basic chemistry in high school can tell you, if you have combine the same ingredients in the same way expect the same results. For those of us looking for improvements to the PPACA, this is not a good thing.
Democrats in the House could choose someone else as their Leader, but Speaker Pelosi is an excellent vote counter. I doubt she’d have announced her intentions without be certain they’ll be achieved.
A lot of the Democrats defeated on November 2nd were moderates – the Blue Dog Coalition in the House will be roughly half the size in the new Congress as it was in the old one. This means the Democratic caucus is more liberal going forward than it has been in the past. And given the success of the Tea Party the Republican Caucus has grown even more conservative. The gulf between the two, consequently, is greater than ever and there a fewer bridge builders to help span it.
Changing the PPACA is important. Having the same faces among the Big 5 and more extreme caucuses in the House doesn’t mean revising health care reform will be impossible. But it does mean achieving that change will be harder.