I suppose it is too much to expect that either party could deal effectively with the health care crisis. In fact, I would argue that our system was not set up to make such massive changes in American life so quickly, that the very nature of the legislative process prevents prudent lawmakers from overreaching and trying to do too much, too soon.
Part of that is the dance that occurs between the majority and minority. True, the atmosphere in Washington has been testy the last couple of decades. But beyond that, there are systemic checks on the majority - most of them built in to the very fabric of the House and Senate rules while others can be found in the Constitution. The Founders saw the People’s House as a place where men were governed by raw passion, and that the supposed elitists in the senate (chosen by state legislators), would put a brake on any imprudent measures passed in the lower chamber.
No, the filibuster is not in the Constitution. But I have no doubt the majority of the Founders would have approved of how it has been used in the past as well as how it is being employed now. When the GOP wanted to ram through some judges who were seen as being either poor jurists, or too extreme, the Democrats balked. The New York Times favored the tactic back in November of 2004:
The Republicans see the filibuster as an annoying obstacle. But it is actually one of the checks and balances that the founders, who worried greatly about concentration of power, built into our system of government. It is also, right now, the main means by which the 48 percent of Americans who voted for John Kerry can influence federal policy. People who call themselves conservatives should find a way of achieving their goals without declaring war on one of the oldest traditions in American democracy.
And they were right. Of course, now that the shoe is on the other foot, the filibuster is evil incarnate if you listen to many on the left. But the principle is sound; legislation that either doesn’t have the support of the people, or is flawed thinking, or whose consequences cannot be easily seen, deserves the “check” that the senate can place on it.
Does this mean that there shouldn’t be health care reform at all? Some on the right would argue this but I think I’ve made my own position clear over the last few months; when millions who want insurance, or need insurance, who are either too poor to afford it or can’t get it because of a chronic condition, something is wrong with the system. The other big reason for reform is the cost of health care - and thus, the cost to government who spends about 40 cents of every health care dollar - are out of control and desperately need to be reined in.
We can’t simply say to those who can’t get insurance, “Too bad if you get sick or hurt. Try bankruptcy, OK?” I don’t see health insurance as a “right” but neither is it fair for families to be burdened for the rest of their lives with a health care bill from a car accident or a serious childhood illness. It is the same reasoning we use for assistance to the poor. If through no fault of their own, someone finds themselves unable to pay for food or shelter, the government must step in. Again, do we say “Too bad you can’t eat. Try a church pantry, OK?”
I am of the school that sees government as an agent to fill in gaps where doing so is prudent and makes sense. Clearly, there is a role for government to play in addressing the health care problem. A purely free market solution does not prevent itself, although certainly applying market forces to the cost curve would seem to make a good deal more sense than the arbitrary manner in which the House and Senate bills address this aspect of the problem.
But government alone cannot address these problems - a position utterly rejected by the far left in the Democratic party who are driving this reform bill over a cliff. If the bill simply addressed the problem of insuring the uninsured and trying to “bend the cost curve” in health care spending, I have no doubt that many Republicans would have enthusiastically thrown themselves into the process. But the overreach written into the bill guaranteed from the beginning that the GOP would be on the sidelines.
You don’t need comity between warring parties to get something done on health care. What is needed is the application of common sense and a little prudence. Indeed, prudence has been sacrificed on the altar of process - the abandonment of the principle of “good government” in order to achieve a purely political triumph for the majority.
As a civic virtue, prudence is underrated.
Burke agrees with Plato that in the statesman, prudence is chief among virtues. Any public measure ought to be judged by its probable long-run consequences, not merely by temporary advantage or popularity. Liberals and radicals, the conservative says, are imprudent: for they dash at their objectives without giving much heed to the risk of new abuses worse than the evils they hope to sweep away. As John Randolph of Roanoke put it, Providence moves slowly, but the devil always hurries. Human society being complex, remedies cannot be simple if they are to be efficacious. The conservative declares that he acts only after sufficient reflection, having weighed the consequences. Sudden and slashing reforms are as perilous as sudden and slashing surgery.
I don’t see how anyone can apply the principle of “prudence” to this legislation. And please note that Professor Kirk is inferring the existence of a body like the United States Senate to place a check on the passions of the imprudent.
In truth, the senate has traditionally been a “conservative” body in that its rules and traditions allow for a more thoughtful and measured approach to legislation. After all, it used to be that these cloture votes would occur after hundreds of hours of talking, as an even smaller minority than the 40 GOP senators (the rules used to call for 66 votes in favor of cloture) could tie up the “World’s Greatest Deliberative Body” for weeks by reading cookbooks, the Congressional Record, and other time consuming tomes.
Cloture itself is a relatively recent invention. It was created prior to our entry into World War I when just a couple of senators could hold up the business of the senate simply by not yielding the floor (See Jimmy Stewart’s one man filibuster in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington).
The practical effect of all this talking was that bills were considerably watered down in the senate before going to conference. In order to achieve passage in the senate, the minorities concerns were addressed. And it prevented the kind of wholesale changes in American society that we are seeing with health care reform.
President Obama is not a prudent man. He is a reckless, arrogant ideologue who is so concerned with his legacy and his place in the history books, that he is willing to foist this very bad bill on the American people and damn the consequences. It is so big, so broadly drawn, encompasses so much, that it would be impossible for any group of bureaucrats to write rules and regulations that wouldn’t horribly infringe upon the liberties of the people.
There is no blueprint, no roadmap that would reveal what the long term consequences of passing this bill might be. Guessing at its cost is akin to looking into a crystal ball. And Harry Reid ain’t no gypsy. In fact, the Democrats have tried to hide the costs of the bill:
For starters, as CBO notes, the bill presumes that Medicare fees for physician services will get cut by more than 20 percent in 2011, and then stay at the reduced level indefinitely. There is strong bipartisan opposition to such cuts. Fixing that problem alone will cost more than $200 billion over a decade, pushing the Reid plan from the black and into a deep red.
Then there are the numerous budget gimmicks and implausible spending reductions. The plan’s taxes and spending cuts kick in right away, while the entitlement expansion doesn’t start in earnest until 2014, and even then the real spending doesn’t begin until 2015. According to CBO, from 2010 to 2014, the bill would cut the federal budget deficit by $124 billion. From that point on, it’s essentially deficit neutral — but that’s only because of unrealistic assumptions about tax and Medicare savings provisions. By 2019, the entitlement expansions to cover more people with insurance will cost nearly $200 billion per year, and grow every year thereafter at a rate of 8 percent. CBO says that, on paper, the tax increases and Medicare cuts will more than keep up, but, in reality, they won’t. The so-called tax on high cost insurance plans applies to policies with premiums exceeding certain thresholds (for instance, $23,000 for family coverage). But those thresholds would be indexed at rates that are less than health-care inflation — forever. And so, over time, more and more plans, and their enrollees, would bump up against it until virtually the entire U.S. population is enrolled in insurance that is considered “high cost.”
Chicanery in budgeting is not limited to the Democratic party. But it’s a question of scale, isn’t it? We’re not talking about fudging some numbers on a new jet fighter that might show a couple of tens of billions of dollars less over 5 years. We are discussing trillions of dollars in federal spending that are being covered up because if the true cost of this bill were known, it would be even more unpopular than it is now.
Prudence is a lost virtue in Washington. Neither party adheres to its meaning or even its spirit. Profligate, wastrel, wasteful, uncaring of the future - there is more broken in Washington than what passes for political discourse between the parties.