Will the February 25th health care reform summit merely be political theater? Or will it serve as an inflection point that leads to passage of health care reform legislation? I haven’t seen any polls on the matter, but a quick search on the topic certainly creates the impression that many believe the summit will be six hours of politics with nothing substantive emerging.
I respectfully disagree.
Yes, the bipartisan health care reform summit President Barack Obama is convening will have more than its fair share of politics. That’s inevitable when that many politicians are in the same room. And given that it is in the electoral interest of Democrats to produce health care reform and in the electoral interest of Republicans to deny Democrats this victory, that politics will pervade the proceedings is to be expected. Nor should the political facets of the summit be criticized or denigrated. America’s legislative system is political. Unlike other country’s in which the ruling party is expected to rule (thus Prime Ministers are the leaders of the legislative majority), in America we set up a system that would inevitably be adversarial.
Of course, one could argue (and I do) that this adversarial relationship has gone too far. Today’s political climate is poisoned by an unwillingness or inability by one side to recognize anything of value put forward by the other. Opponents are not simply wrong, they are evil. It’s as if the prevailing logic has become: “Reasonable people cannot disagree because anyone who was reasonable would agree with me. Ergo, people who disagree with me are unreasonable.” That this is a both foolish and unhealthy, both for the individuals involved and the Republic, doesn’t seem to matter. That radio talk shows and cable news channels (especially during prime time) pour fuel on this fire – usually embellished with misunderstood or downright erroneous facts – only makes the matter worse.
Which is a long way of saying that those who claim the bipartisan health care reform summit will fail to rise above political gamesmanship have the odds in their favor. But at the risk of being naive, I think it will lead to something more substantive. Here’s some reasons why:
- It’s hard to be political for six hours straight (even with an hour off for lunch). The participants know they’re engaged in a bit of Kabuki theater. But staying in character that long is tough. These folks do have sincerely held beliefs. Even those who stifle those beliefs in favor of scoring political points are likely to let a ray of substance shine through during the course of the day.
- And each side has an incentive to seize that ray of sunshine (to butcher the metaphor) and ratchet it up a bit.
- For Democrats, the incentive is to get on record the specific provisions Republicans demand to see in a health care reform bill and identify the ones they can live with. By expanding the Obama health care reform proposal to include as many GOP ideas as possible, the Democrats assume a no-lose situation. If including those provisions gain Republican support for a bill, they win by passing health care reform legislation. If Republicans remain united against a bill that includes ideas they profess to support, the Democrats get to paint the Republicans as obstructionist.
- For Republicans, they need to re-position themselves as something other than the Party of No. Not that their base wants them to do anything other than oppose whatever bill the Democrats put forward. But Republicans won’t win elections this November just appealing to their base. It’s independent voters who decide elections. In Virginia in 2008 those independent voters helped send a Democrat to the White House. Those same independents last year put a Republican in the Governor’s mansion. By offering substantive proposals Republicans in Congress can demonstrate they’re serious about solving problems. They can then claim to withhold their support for whatever legislation the President puts forward on the grounds that they cannot support rate regulation, or Medicare cuts, or new taxes or something. But they need to show they care about fixing America’s health care system. And that means putting ideas on the table that reduce costs and expand coverage.
- If the Republicans have used the summit to seize the high ground, the resulting legislation will be much more moderate than what the President is proposing today.
- If Republicans fail to put forward meaningful ideas, the proposal will be poorer for it, but will move forward nonetheless.
At the end of the day, I believe both chambers of Congress will vote on a comprehensive health care reform bill – something that has not happened in recent memory despite decades of effort. If Republican Senators filibuster the President’s health care reform bill, Democrats will turn to the reconciliation process (which allows them to pass legislation with a simple majority, not the super-majority overcoming a filibuster requires.) They’ll claim they gave bipartisanship a try and that they are playing by the rules (which permit circumventing filibusters in certain circumstances) and by American principals (what’s more American than “the majority rules?”)
That’s my educated guess. What’s hazier to me are two additional and critical questions.
- Will the legislation voted on by Congress be health insurance reform or will it be real health care reform that tackles the need to control costs?
- Will they be able to put forward a single bill capable of obtaining majorities in both the House and Senate?
But first things first. And first is the summit. Will either size, neither or both engage in a substantive debate? I think so. And even those who are skeptical of this result should hope so.