JONATHAN CHAIT FEBRUARY 8, 2010
As I said before, President Obama's bipartisan health care panel, which he unveiled yesterday, serves two basic purposes. The first is to expose the GOP as lacking any feasible solutions to the problems of access and cost control. The second is to help answer the "backroom deal" perception. An example of this perception comes from Politico:
Perhaps more interesting was the discussion about whether Dems should try to pass reform using reconciliation. There is a concern that the maneuver will be viewed by the public as an attempt to change the rules mid-game, which could hurt Democrats politically, the source said. And reconciliation would require the same kind of dealmaking that Democrats used to pass the Senate bill -- deals like the so-called Cornhusker Kickback that further soured the public on reform. It's a concern that moderate Democrats have expressed for weeks, especially as many Americans view the Massachusetts election as a repudiation of health reform.
Of course, none of these concerns make any sense. First, reconciliation isn't "changing the rules," it's using a thirty year-old rule, the provision of which was put in place specifically for health care last year. Second, yes, it will require "dealmaking," but all legislation involves dealmaking. That's not a reason to abandon reconciliation, it's a reason to abandon passing any law. As to whether reconciliation will involve grubby parochial deals like the Nebraska handout -- well, the easy answer for that is don't include any more of those handouts. The good news is that reconciliation makes it easier to avoid that sort of thing, since it avoids the 60 vote requirement that lets every Democratic Senator demand a king's ransom.
The "Massachusetts election" argument is equally vacuous. I guess the idea here is that Scott Brown's election was some kind of representation of the popular will, a proxy national election on health care reform, and Democrats would be flouting democracy to disobey it. But one special election shouldn't bind the other 534 members of Congress. And Brown, as I argued, opposed health care reform specifically and repeatedly on what he called "parochial" grounds: Massachusetts already has a plan like this, so why should they pay for the rest of the country to enjoy the benefits of a program their state already has? Whatever the merits of that argument, it's hardly one that should bind the rest of the country.
Merits aside, clearly Democrats are spooked by the fear that using reconciliation to patch the Senate health care bill will be seen as somehow sneaky or undemocratic. That's what Obama's panel is about. You have something that's open and televised, and demonstrate that his plan was arrived at because it's the most minimalistic way to achieve what most people see as necessary changes to health care. Then you take out the Cornhusker kickback, fix the House-Senate disagreements and pass the thing.