Monday, October 5, 2009

Star Tangled Banner

I got asked to write a column for a small, new newspaper in Saskatchewan, and said yes. We decided on a monthly piece interpreting the mysteries of American politics and public policy for Canadians, and Editor Sheri Monk came up with a great title: Star Tangled Banner.

Here is a draft of the first one, as submitted:

Health care reform debaters in U.S.

not yet on same planet, much less page

By Howard Weaver

Canada doesn’t usually play a big role in U.S. journalism unless your PM’s wife is carrying on in a backseat somewhere or Wayne Gretzky has signed with L.A. But that’s been different lately.

You’re at center stage right now, of course, because of your radical policy of making sure everybody has access to basic health care. Believe it or not, this is a matter of considerable debate in the states.

Any complex proposal that makes substantial changes to the status quo is guaranteed to generate vigorous debate, and thank goodness for that. The various proposals that have surfaced since President Barack Obama pledged to make health care reform a priority have ranged all over the map. Depending on which version of the voodoo math you embrace, it might cost a trillion dollars. Under a competing analysis, it might also be essentially free.

Certainly those kinds of differences do need to be sorted out.

So it shouldn’t surprise you to hear that debate has been hot and political posturing enthusiastic in the USA. What might puzzle you a little is how much of the debate seems to have been imported from Mars or Xerpylon or some other planet most regular people don’t ever visit.

The former governor of Alaska – and the GOP’s vice presidential candidate just months ago – claims with apparent sincerity that the president’s proposal includes plans for “death panels” that would ration care and make life-or-death decisions about Downs syndrome babies and gray-haired grannies who need care. After she floated that whopper and was pounded by criticism from Democrats and even some Republicans, she did the only reasonable thing: She repeated it and took her show on the road.

This has not been a debate a reasonable person can respect. In addition to death panel madness, many of the fringe protestors display a keep-government-out-of-my-Medicare mentality that simply defies belief. (Medicare is – as you probably know but they don’t – a 100% government program). Others of course are military veterans, who likewise receive medical care at the hospitals of the Veterans Administration, likewise completely federal.

In the meantime, many have decided to brand Obama both a socialist and a fascist, and altered photos of Obama with a Hitler mustache became popular – perhaps because the mustache is so easy to draw.

Obama responded with a powerful 48-minute speech to a joint session of Congress making financial, practical and humanitarian arguments in favor of reform. You can watch it all on YouTube.

You can also see South Carolina’s Republican Rep. Joe Wilson lose control and yell “You lie!” during the president’s speech. Of course, such behavior would hardly be noticed in a parliamentary debate. I remember reading that when a member yelled “Bullshit!” at Winston Churchill, the old bulldog pivoted and replied “We will address your special interest in a moment.” In the Congress, however, Wilson’s outburst was treated like a matter of some importance.

That’s perhaps because the subtext of the Wilson imbroglio – and much other behavior in this debate – is racism. Former President Jimmy Carter, himself a native of the Confederate south, said as much in Atlanta this week: "I think it's based on racism. There is an inherent feeling among many in this country that an African-American should not be president."

Some elected Democrats who have faced the fury of the fringe at town hall meetings have at last decided not to pretend this is all a reasonable debate between reasonable points view.

Rep. Barney Frank, a 27-year Congressional veteran widely respected for his command of complex financial matters and other issues, listened to a young woman characterize Obama as Hitler and finally asked her, in turn, “On what planet do you spend most of your time?”

It got even crazier out in California (as most things do) when a protestor told Rep. Peter Stark, "Mr. Congressman, don't pee on my leg and tell me it's raining." Stark’s response: "I wouldn't dignify you by peeing on your leg. It wouldn't be worth wasting the urine.”

In a government responsive to party discipline, the outcome of the president’s proposal ought not be even slightly in doubt. Democrats command the House of Representatives by roughly 256-178 votes, and in the 100-member senate the Democrat edge is 60-40. Importantly, 60 votes in the Senate is enough to disable the parliamentary stalling tactic of filibustering, by which minority members can postpone or even eliminate passage of legislation. (This proud Senate tradition was made famous years ago by Southern senators who filibustered against racial equality.)

Here’s that discipline question again. Members are not bound to support their party leadership or legislation, and a sizable group of more conservative Democrats worried about public reaction to spending increases has been dragging its feet to force alteration of the president’s proposals. (These members are called “Blue Dog Democrats,” but we don’t have time to get into why right now.)

It looks from here like they will succeed to some degree. Perhaps the most significant point of contention now is what we call “the public option,” meaning creation of a government insurance program to compete with private companies and extend coverage to many otherwise left out in the cold. I haven’t been much of a betting man since I stopped drinking, but I would be willing to bet this gets resolved with adoption of one of two compromise proposals: allowing the alternative insurance plans to be run my quasi-public co-ops instead of the government, or instituting a threshold test, where a government plan could come if private systems failed to cover, say, 95% of the people in a state.

I know this is Byzantine and hard for reasonable people to follow. Next column we will tackle something more straightforward – the president’s birth certificate, maybe.


Howard Weaver, a native of Anchorage, Alaska, has been a journalist for 40 years. He now lives in California. © 2009

1 comment:

Alec said...

Sheri's your new best friend I bet.