A whip-smart and dry humored former boss of mine employed a great line when referring to an individual who thought highly of themselves. “Oh yeah. He’s real smart.” (Beat) “Just ask him.” One can’t help but wonder if this quip might prove a fitting summation of President Obama’s bulldozing approach to the health care bill that passed Congress late Sunday night.
By all indications, the initial road to health care reform was paved with good legislative intentions. Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.) and Ranking Member Charles Grassley (R-Iowa), the two men primarily responsible for drafting the legislation, met frequently and, by early accounts, made respectable progress. Unlike the HillaryCare debates of 1993, bipartisan thinking had evolved to the point where tangible common goals between the two parties actually appeared achievable. Agreement on portability of coverage, eliminating pre-existing condition discrimination, and risk pooling all appeared promising and actionable. The contentious issue of the public option, or “universal coverage” lingered, but moderate Democrats appeared willing to barter that golden calf of liberalism in return for an individual mandate of insurance coverage.
Then came the August recess. Members set out for their districts and were met by mob-style town halls where angry citizens proclaimed—in no uncertain terms—their distaste for this version health care reform. Congress (specifically House Blue Dog Democrats) quickly calculated that the middle of the greatest economic downturn in American history probably wasn’t the best time to stick taxpayers with a trillion dollar health care check.
But by golly, President Obama guaranteed health care reform, and he was determined to get it—whether the American people wanted it or not. It wasn’t that the American people didn’t like health care reform, the White House insisted, it was that they just didn’t yet understand why they should like it.
To remedy this “misunderstanding,” the Obama White House quickly drafted their own version of the bill that obliterated all hope of bipartisan support and left Congressmen from both parties shaking their heads. Moderate Democrats, fearful of the electoral backlash, held their fire and threatened to vote against the legislation (in fact, some of them did). That was until the Obama campaign machine revved up its engine, took to the American road, and did what, unfortunately, it appears to do best: trade snake oil for wolf tickets.
The Obama White House and Democratic Congress needed a domestic policy victory—badly—and no machination was too far-fetched to achieve it. Arcane parliamentary tactical maneuvers, pork barrel sweetheart promises, and the now infamous but unenforceable guarantee made to Bart Stupak (D-Mich.)—the leader of the “anti-abortion Democrats”—that ultimately sealed the deal. (It’s been a long time since law school, but I do seem to remember that an Executive Order and a law passed by Congress are two very different animals). As a result, Speaker Pelosi thumped her gavel to rousing cheers from the left and bewildered stares of discontent, if not downright disgust, from the right.
For a political party that asserts Jefferson and Jackson as the patrons of its lineage, it isn’t difficult to speculate what those two patriots would think of the Obama/Pelosi “no holds barred, leave the governing to the educated class” brand of legislating. It was precisely this imperial governance methodology and intra-branch collusion the Framers sought to avoid when they drafted the Constitution.
Democratic defenders of the bill will counter that “elections have consequences” and that bare knuckles brawling is sometimes necessary to win tough legislative victories. We shall see. Speaker Pelosi may have won the health care fight, but she may very well have lost her gavel come November in the process.
The real losers, however, are the American people, who elected a president on his promise to work across the aisle and to “change the way Washington does business.” Not only did Obama break both of those promises with this health care bill, but, more regrettably, he substituted his judgment for the clear will of the American people.
Cameron Lynch is a former aide to three Republican Senators and president of The Lynch Group, LLC, a Republican government affairs and political consulting firm.