The various twists and turns of the health care reform debate have been, if nothing else, a remarkable educational opportunity for Americans. We have learned more about the concept of reconciliation than most of us ever wanted to know. We have been witness to attempts at procedural legerdemain fit to make David Copperfield blush and political gymnastics which would likely have sent Nadia Comaneci to the hospital with multiple pulled muscles. Musty Supreme Court decisions from the 19th century have been dusted off for a fresh stroll around the National Mall. And after all this, we still don’t seem to know how the story will end.
The truly remarkable aspect of this story, at least to me, is how the one thing nobody is talking about at this stage is health care. As pollsters continue to take the nation’s collective temperature, the one thing a solid majority of Americans seem to agree on is that something should be done about the cost and availability of health insurance. Exactly what that something should be, though, remains a mystery.
There are individual elements of the plans presented by both Republicans and Democrats which garner a good measure of public support. Everyone seems to like the idea of more competition among insurance companies, but we apparently can’t manage that. Reforming the out-of-control medical malpractice lawsuit industry looked like a sure fire winner until a few thousand trial lawyers demonstrated precisely where the real power in Washington resides. It seems like the only thing a consistent majority of voters could agree on was that they didn’t like the current bill crafted by Team Obama.
And yet, like the proverbial frog in the punchbowl, the Democrats have abandoned the idea of improving the product to make it more palatable and toyed with a dizzying array of plungers in an effort to jam it through the legislative pipes. In the old days, when we needed a new law, Congress was forced to come up with a bill which both chambers could agree on and convince the president to sign it. It seems like such a quaint idea today.
When the old-fashioned way of passing bills into law seemed ready to fall on its face, the Democrats floated the idea of bringing matters to a close through reconciliation. As the expected protests erupted, the Donkey Party pointed out that Republicans have used the same procedure several times in the past. This argument carried the virtue of being true, but ignored the fact that it was generally only done on matters of taxation and spending where both sides had agreed on the proposal in broad strokes but were bogged down on the percentages and pennies. Reconciliation is a valuable tool in that regard, since it pretty much assures that nobody gets exactly what they want.
By this time, President Obama’s patience had obviously expired. He declared that “the time for talk was over.” (Though the irony of saying this during one of roughly a dozen campaign style stops where he talked about it for hours on end seemed lost on him.) It was, he declared, “time to vote.” And it seemed that finally everyone agreed with him. Everyone, that is, except his own speaker of the House.
When it began to look as if even the required votes for reconciliation were not to be found, Nancy Pelosi came up with what may be the most brilliant plan of all. Rather than mucking about with all of this voting nonsense, she would simply “deem” the plan to have been passed and be done with it. I’m sure you will all agree that, as procedural sleight of hand tricks go, this one was a gem. Not only would she no longer have to worry about finding enough yes votes to pass the bill, but none of its supporters would be held accountable for it during the midterm elections.
Of course, a few old fuddy-duddys began carping about this plan as well. They reasoned that new laws — particularly those which might summon into existence massive new entitlement programs and wide ranging taxes and fees — had to have a vote recorded somewhere, didn’t they? Some went so far as to suggest that the Supreme Court should look into the matter. Surely they could set matters to rights.
Well, Mark Tapscott quickly threw cold water all over that idea. It turns out that the Supremes had ruled on a very similar question back in 1892 during Marshall Field & Co. v. Clark. In it, they determined that the judicial branch did not have standing to question the wisdom of either the speaker of the House or the president pro tempore in the Senate when it came to procedural matters such as this. Their word on the subject was, in their finding, unimpeachable when claiming that a bill had been passed.
But when a fresh wave of public outcry arose over the idea of congressional leaders simply wishing imaginary votes into existence, Congress appeared to lumber back toward the idea of drumming up votes on the noxious health care overhaul after all. And that’s where we stand today, our faith in the establishment of government well and truly restored. We may or may not have a virtual takeover of the health care industry by the federal government. It could happen this weekend, later in the summer, or not at all.
But one thing is for sure. We’re all a whole lot smarter about antiquated rules and parliamentary procedures than we were a few months ago. Don’t you feel better already?