Sunday, April 4, 2010

Health Care: If You Can Keep It?

When contemplating the passage of the Obama Health Care Bill I am reminded of a story about the Constitutional Convention of 1787. The Convention had adjourned, the Constitution had been approved, the doors were opened and the delegates filed out into the streets of Philadelphia.

Benjamin Franklin was being carried out on his sedan chair when an anxious citizen ran up to him and asked, “Dr. Franklin, is it a republic or a monarchy?”

Franklin replied, “A republic, Sir, if you can keep it,” meaning that he and the other delegates had done the best they could to create a new form of government for the fledgling United States of America but it was now up to each and every American citizen to do the best they could by exercising the rights given unto them by this new constitution to ensure that the country remained a republic.

The same metaphor applies here to the Obama Health Care bill. The Obama Administration and the Democrats in Congress worked long and hard to create legislation to augment and improve the health care system in America. After a year’s worth of negotiation, amending, deal-making, compromises, political infighting, vitriolic debate, and parliamentary wizardry, a bill was passed. Now it is up to the American people to do their part to either make this landmark legislation work by exercising the options and rights granted unto them by this legislation or else allow it to be tortured on the gibbet of American political obloquy.

Those who cry out that the bill is an example of tyranny or else complain about the methods used by Democratic congressional leaders to get the bill passed err. The fact that the bill was watered down, amended, and substantively changed from the original concept proposed by the Obama Administration; the fact that G.O.P. congressional members were granted time to debate the issue and say their piece about the legislation, and try their best at blocking the legislation exposes the lie that tyranny was afoot.

Tyranny is the absence of debate, amendments, negotiations, and offers to the opposition to have their input in the process. If the Obama Administration is a genuine dictatorship then Universal Health Care would have been passed in its original form without any subsequent amendments.

Was the bill flawed as many of its opponents said during the debate? Of course it was. Name any legislation that isn’t flawed? Even the Constitution when submitted to the states in 1787 was a flawed document that needed a lot of fine-tuning during the next two hundred and twenty-three years of its existence. The nice thing about legislation in a democracy is that it is never etched in stone. Democracy allows lawmakers to amend, add, and subtract at will. As one CNN observer recently noted, every year will see the new law being amended and changed (just as you see changes in Social Security, Medicare, and tax laws). Democracy at its absolute best is a supremely flawed form of government. Those who seek perfection will only find disappointment. If legislators were to await perfection then no real work would ever get done.

And what about those who cry out that this legislation will bankrupt the country? The fact is America is already bankrupt and has been since 1983 when the country became a debtor nation instead of a creditor nation—a dark day in American economic history. Our present state of bankruptcy has been perpetuated by both the Republicans and Democrats alike. Will the health care bill add to the deficit? Of course it will. Expanding national health care coverage is not cheap and as for the criticism that it is fiscally irresponsible? I would like to say this: where was any talk about fiscal responsibility when the Bush Administration insisted on conducting a bloody and expensive two-front war in Iraq and Afghanistan while insisting on cutting taxes and deregulating America’s financial systems? Where was the fiscal sanity in that? Why weren’t the same politicians who cavil about the health care bill’s costs saying the same things when America was being bled white financially, politically, and emotionally during the past decade?

It’s all well and good to preach about fiscal responsibility but I have not seen any of the opposition practice those policies.

It is my personal theory that what frightens the bill’s opponents the most is that the Obama health care bill turns the political tables on them. If the new health care bill survives a court challenge and attains the same political untouchable status that Social Security and Medicare now possesses then it places severe constraints on future Republican fiscal practices. If the bill and its new systems take hold and prove to be effective then future Republican congresses and Presidents will be handcuffed politically. They will not be able to casually rape and gut funding for these new programs like they can with other liberal social programs. That means there will be less money available to distribute to conservative sacred cows in the future. In short if the Obama health care plan survives and takes hold then any attempt at destroying it will mean political suicide.

The bills opponents can talk about repeal in the legislature but that nothing but political hot air. Any repeal will require absolute two-third’s majorities in both houses in order to overcome a presidential veto. Right now the G.O.P. doesn’t have the votes and it remains to be seen whether they will be get those votes in the upcoming mid-term elections in November. (For the record the last time the G.O.P. achieved two-thirds majorities in both houses was during the 19th century). They’re only chance is in convincing enough Democrats to defect in both houses of Congress to achieve repeal and that will have to wait until next year when the next Congress goes into session.

Actually conservative invocation of the dreaded “S” word (i.e. socialism) in describing the bill is nothing new. They invoked it when Social Security was established and again when Medicare was created as well. Both times they vowed to overthrow it but failed to do so when the opportunities arose. President Dwight Eisenhower said it best when asked by conservatives in 1953 to overthrow the New Deal policies of the Roosevelt and Truman administrations. He said, “Should any political party attempt to abolish Social Security, unemployment insurance, and eliminate labor laws and farm programs, you would not hear of that party again in our political history.”

If conservatives have any hope of overturning the health care bill then their best avenue of attack is in the courts. In fact conservatives shouldn’t even waste time filing suit in the district or appellate courts but should take their case directly to the U.S. Supreme Court (which you can do legally. You can bypass the lower courts and appeal directly to the Supreme Court if time is of the essence—which it is for the bill’s opponents). In fact I would not be surprised if the Supreme Court decides to take a look at the bill and try to overturn it. One only needs four justices to grant cert, i.e. agree to hear a case. The Supreme Court’s conservative bloc (Justices Roberts, Alito, Scalia, Thomas, and Kennedy) has already shown its willingness to tilt politically with President Obama; which means that there is far greater potential to overturn the health care bill by a Supreme Court ruling than there is by congressional repeal.

Is the health care bill apocalypse now? Is it the end of the world as we know it—and none of us are feeling fine? The answer is no. The bill is nothing more than a good old American compromise—just as the Declaration of Independence was…and the Constitution…and the Compromises of 1820 and 1850 were...and the Civil Rights Act of 1957 as well (please read Robert Caro’s book Lyndon Johnson: Master of the Senate and you will see why).

When I look at what has happened I am reminded of words folk singer Leonard Cohen spoke onstage at the 1970 Isle of Wight festival. Cohen was performing before a crowd of 600,000 and he said words to the effect that, “You’re a nation but you’re still weak. Still have a lot of growing up to do before you can stand on your own two legs as an adult.”

America (when compared with other countries) is still a young nation with a lot of growing pains; a nation still striving to achieve maturity (leaving death threats and smashing windows of legislators who voted for the bill is not mature behavior). We, as a People, still have a lot of growing up to do before we can proclaim ourselves a fully developed nation.

Yet the passage of the Obama health care bill represents a giant leap forward in the growing process and a proud moment in our democracy because the passage of the bill reveals that the democratic process has not been lost; compromise has not been abandoned; the Republic lives; God reigns; and the Constitution still works.

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