The Bigger Picture
Published on March 18th 2010 in Metro Éireann By Charles Laffiteau
For the last couple of weeks I’ve been discussing the still conciliatory but much more assertive demeanor President Obama has recently displayed in his public dealings with both Democrats and Republicans in our nation’s often dysfunctional and always fractious Congress. While I applaud this approach and believe it will yield positive results for both the President and the American people, the first national referendum reflecting the sentiments of American voters on the President’s economic and healthcare reforms will be this November’s mid-term elections.
Given the fact that many of the positive impacts of the President’s policies to revive the economy and reform healthcare will take several years before most voters can see them, it hardly seems fair to judge the success or failure of Obama’s economic and healthcare proposals at this juncture of his first term in office. But fair or not, Obama has taken on the task of convincing American voters they should be more patient by countering Republicans’ outlandish claims with an intelligent discussion of the substance of his economic and healthcare reform legislation.
‘Reconciliation’ is a legislative tool created by the Congress in 1974 that allows the US Senate to pass legislation that affects the federal budget deficit with a simple majority of votes; the same way that all bills are passed in the US House of Representatives. With reconciliation, a majority of 51 votes in the US Senate is all that is needed to pass a bill rather than the 60 vote ‘super majority’ that is normally required to stop a filibuster so Senators can vote on a bill. But its use is strictly limited to politically difficult and unpopular bills that reduce the federal deficit.
Republicans are claiming that if Democrats in the Senate “ram through” the President’s healthcare bill using the reconciliation process, the Republican Party will have another winning issue to use against Democrats in the November mid-term elections. While they could be right about, this I suspect that won’t be the case for several reasons.
First if this was such a ‘winning issue’ with voters, then why are Republicans planning to thwart the reconciliation process in the Senate? The use of parliamentary delay tactics seems very hypocritical if Republicans really believe that the Democrats use of reconciliation process to push through President Obama’s healthcare reforms is a winning political issue for them.
Of course being hypocrites is a role that Republicans in Congress are very familiar with since they were the political party that pushed through America’s last significant piece of healthcare legislation, the Medicare prescription drug benefit plan. Republicans also seem to have forgotten that this unfunded healthcare entitlement and their off budget financing of the Iraq war were the main contributors to the billion dollar annual budget deficits that President Obama inherited when he took office and has been forced to increase to deal with the economic crisis.
Furthermore, the fact that Republicans seem to have forgotten that they used the same ‘reconciliation’ process to pass President Bush’s budget busting tax cuts, underscores the danger for them in counting on this issue to help them in November. President Obama recognizes that many American voters also have notoriously short attention spans so he is betting that once his healthcare reforms have passed, most voters will cease to see this as an election issue. This helps to explains why Obama showed such a firm resolve, in his response to Republican complaints about using ‘reconciliation’ to pass his reforms, by telling them “that’s what elections are for.”
But I also think President Obama would have been much more successful and would have engendered much less public opposition to his legislative agenda if he had heeded the advice of his White House Chief of Staff, Rahm Emanuel, sooner rather than later. Make no mistake, when it comes to understanding what American voters want and expect from their political leaders, Obama’s senior White House political advisor and former campaign chief, David Axelrod, is one of, if not the best in the business. But success in getting elected President and success in getting your policies through Congress as President are two very different things.
As good as Axelrod is at understanding the mind of the American voter, Emanuel is at understanding the legislative minds of both Republicans and Democrats in Congress. A former Congressman himself, Emanuel is intimately acquainted with the kind of legislative give and take required to bridge the often competing interests of the President and the US Congress. But after Obama’s early success getting his economic stimulus package approved by Congress with weak Republican support, he then veered away from the more pragmatic approach to dealing with healthcare reform, unemployment and trials for terror suspects suggested by Emanuel.
In the early months of his first term, President Obama listened to Rahm Emanuel’s advice and succeeded in getting some modest bipartisan support for new laws mandating equal-pay, credit card protections for consumers and expanded health care benefits for children. Emanuel also took the lead in crafting the compromises that were required to get enough Republican support to ensure the passage of Obama’s economic stimulus package in Congress. Republican Senator Olympia Snowe acknowledged Emanuel’s role in gaining her support by removing $100 billion in spending from the economic stimulus bill saying that Emanuel, “understood it operationally and legislatively, what needed to be accomplished, and was very straightforward.”
But it was the President’s subsequent decision to ignore Emanuel’s advice to take the lead in pushing a smaller less expensive healthcare reform bill that led to the development of the more expansive and expensive healthcare reform legislation by Congressional Democrats. Not surprisingly the current Senate healthcare bill that will go through reconciliation is precisely the kind of smaller and less expensive healthcare proposal that Emanuel originally suggested.
The Obama administration is also walking back from an idealistic decision by Attorney General Eric Holder to try the 9/11 terror suspects in civilian courts rather than the military courts that Emanuel suggested. I’ll discuss this issue next week.