Friday Talking Points [104] -- Washington Frenzy

Before we begin, I'd like to offer up an apology to Tiger Woods. Last week, I pointed out the hilarity of Woods being a paid spokesman for Gatorade (since their slogan is: "Is It In You?"). This week, Gatorade announced it will be dropping its Tiger Woods sports drink, since obviously the bigwigs at Gatorade are big fans of this column. Ahem. So for the lost income, Tiger, I am truly sorry. Really, I am. Times are tough all over, and I do apologize for your lost income, since you may now be forced to live hand-to-mouth on the mere billion dollars you have in the bank. To say nothing of what divorce will do to your bottom line.

OK, sarcasm (and crocodile tears) aside, let's quickly move on to politics. The past week in Washington has seen somewhat of a frenzy of activity. So many things are getting done (or at least getting talked about) that it's almost impossible to keep track of everything. Whether this is a good thing or not depends on your point of view, of course.

Part of this frenzy is the normal end-of-the year rush in Congress to actually do what they should have been doing all year long -- passing some bills. This happens every year around this time, as the Congresscritters scurry about in a spasm of legislation, so they can take another few weeks off before next year's session begins. "Taking a few weeks off" is the one thing that Congress truly excels at, of course -- evidenced by their stunningly generous vacation schedule all year long. They politely call these vacations "district work periods," which fools absolutely nobody. But, after taking more time off than George W. Bush ever did, Congress always finds itself at the end of the year with a whole stack of things they have failed to accomplish. Which results in a frenzy of things getting passed, or at least debated.

In addition to this yearly orgy of Congressfolk "actually doing their jobs," President Obama has also been showing some recent and frantic energy. When Obama took office, and throughout the spring, he got so many things done (and proposed so many others) that it literally set the Republicans back on their heels. Obama would introduce an issue, and the Republicans would work up a head of steam denouncing it, only to find that in the meantime Obama had introduced three other issues. Because there's only so much indignation to go around, some things slipped by the Republicans before they could even regroup and attack.

But then, for most of the summer, Washington seemingly became a one-issue town. Health care reform dominated the news, and dominated the activity (such as it was) in Congress. This played to the Republicans' advantage, since they did finally have time to focus on attacking a single issue. Which they did, quite successfully (see: summer town hall meetings).

The autumn brought another issue to the fore, which all but consumed the White House's attention -- Afghanistan. While Obama spent a few months figuring out a new war plan for the country, Congress was still deadlocked on the health care reform issue. Meaning that Washington became a two-issue town. Which was still leisurely enough for Republicans to get righteously indignant on both fronts.

But now the frenzy is upon us again. Obama, and Democrats in Congress, so far seem to be using this to good advantage, as the Republicans seem befuddled by the fast pace yet again. Since Obama announced his Afghanistan policy, the following issues have been raised (this is all in a little over a week's time): passing the budget in the House, voting on the question of abortion in the health care reform bill in the Senate, debating reimportation of drugs from other countries, a new jobs-creation scheme, TARP and how it could be used for creating jobs, reforming the rules for Wall Street, capping salaries (or not, as the case may be) at bailed-out Wall Street companies, grilling Ben Bernanke on why he should get to keep his job, debating cap-and-trade, and raising the debt ceiling another $1.8 billion. And I'm not even counting President Obama announcing his new Afghanistan policy, which seemed to be the kickoff to all this frenzied activity.

Plus a new health care reform compromise in the Senate. Oh, and plus President Obama picking up his Nobel Peace Prize, and moving on to Copenhagen for the international global warming conference -- in his spare time.

There was even time for silly stuff, like holding hearings on the White House gate crashers and changing the way college football has its "playoffs."

For our readers who may have just arrived from Mars, that is a lot of stuff for Washington to tackle in one week. In actual fact, that is a lot of stuff for Washington to tackle in six months, or even a full year, in normal times. But these are not normal times. Democrats (those that can read polls) are terrified of losing their cushy jobs next year, as the public increasingly asks: "Where is all the 'change' I voted for?" Fear of losing their elected office is the biggest motivator in Washington of all, and it seems to be lighting a fire under Democrats -- at least for now (we'll see how much they tackle next year, in the midst of election season).

And, of course, just because there has been some action on a whole raft of issues does not guarantee that anything will actually get done. In the midst of this December frenzy, I can recall no actual bills being signed by President Obama yet. The deadline for health care reform (and, one assumes, for a lot of the rest of this stuff) is now set in stone: the State Of The Union speech, which takes place in late January. Between now and then, we'll be watching closely to see how much of this stuff actually makes it to the president's desk -- and how much gets punted until "later." Because that will be the true measure of whether Democrats can get anything done with the majorities the voters have given them. Getting this or that bill out of committee, or getting this or that bill through a floor vote in a single house in Congress is nice for generating headlines, but none of it means anything until Obama sticks his "John Hancock" on the bottom of the bill, magically transforming it into law.


Before we get to the Most Impressive Democrat Of The Week award, we hereby bestow an Honorable Mention to Massachusetts' Attorney General Martha Coakley, who won a multi-candidate Democratic primary to replace Senator Ted Kennedy. Massachusetts, one of the bluest (if not "the bluest") states in the Union, will go through the motions of having a general election in about another month, but it is all but a foregone conclusion that Coakley will be the next senator from the Bay State. For her strong showing (gaining 47 percent of the vote) in the primary, she deserves commendation here.

We've got 10 other Honorable Mention awards to get to as well, but it would be letting the cat out of the bag to say who they are, before we hand out the actual MIDOTW awards here.

Our first MIDOTW award will also be a bit of foreshadowing, since it was in response to the actions of the Most Disappointing Democrat Of The Week. Meaning the details of why Senator Byron Dorgan of North Dakota won Most Impressive Democrat Of The Week will have to wait for the next section.

To get us back on track, and leapfrog over all this shadowing of fores, we turn now to the other MIDOTW -- none other than Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid.

I think I just heard several of you gasp in astonishment. These gasps come as no surprise to us here, since we have awarded Harry the coveted MIDOTW only three times previously, while he has won the ignominious MDDOTW a record-setting fourteen times to date. So it's not like this column can be said to be some sort of starry-eyed Reid supporter or anything.

But we have to give credit where credit is due. And while I've been excoriating Reid's leadership abilities for what seems like an eternity now, I have to admit he did indeed lead this week in getting a compromise worked out on the health care reform bill.

A few words about this, from the technical "arcane Senate rules" angle. Reid had been under pressure (from this column, as well as others) to scrap the attempt at getting 60 votes, and instead ram health care reform through with "budget reconciliation" rules which require only a simple majority of 50 (plus Joe Biden, if it's a tie). But the problem with getting a bill passed this way is that he'd really need to pass two bills, and one of them would "sunset" in 10 years' time. Because only things directly affecting the budget (see: the "Byrd Rule") would be allowed into the simple-majority bill. Everything else in the health care reform bill would have to be done in a separate bill -- which would require 60 votes to progress, anyway. And everything in the 50-vote bill would only last 10 years -- meaning they could all disappear in 2020 or 2021, if the Republicans hold Congress and/or the White House at that point. So reconciliation has always been a "last-ditch" option, and Reid has been trying to get something together that can pass with 60 votes instead.

Now, the actual specifics of the compromise hammered out this week are still vague. There's a reason for the zipped lips on Capitol Hill, though. If the details are made public, then the Congressional Budget Office (C.B.O.) who is "scoring" the compromise right now (or putting budget numbers to each piece) can also release their findings publicly. If all the Democrats keep mum until the C.B.O. reports, then the numbers will be privately given to Reid, giving him flexibility in putting together the pieces into a final package.

This uncertainty has bred a lot of leaks, and a lot of speculation over what the bill will contain (see the Talking Points section, for our own take on the rumored details). Meaning a valid argument can be made that awarding Harry a MIDOTW this week is premature, at best.

But Reid really does deserve his accolade this week. Because he actually showed some leadership, for once. He got five progressive Democrats and five corporate-whore Democrats (oh, excuse me, I meant to say "moderate Democrats"... don't know what came over me there...) to the negotiating table, and came out with a plan that nobody immediately shot down. None other than Dr. Howard Dean -- a very trusted voice on the progressive side -- was instrumental in offering up ideas, and Dean immediately came out in favor of the plan, which gave pause to a lot of Democrats who might otherwise have immediately denounced it (due to the perceived "death of the public option"). And, on the conservative side of the Democrats, nobody yet has likewise laid down the marker of: "I can't vote for this."

Such an achievement was almost unthinkable mere days ago, it needs pointing out. The two sides were seemingly intractable in their (opposing) positions, and progress seemed to have halted. Now, when we do see Reid's final bill, I'm sure there will be lots to criticize in it. It is most definitely not going to be all things to all people. But the fact that it even has a chance of passing the Senate is a ray of hope that simply didn't exist a week ago. Senate Republicans have been made utterly irrelevant to the process, as evidenced by the fact that even the mainstream media barely notices what they have to say anymore.

And that is quite an achievement indeed. For accomplishing all this, Harry Reid has, we feel, earned his Most Impressive Democrat Of The Week this week.

As for those ten Honorable Mention winners previously announced, they go to the Democratic senators who met (in yet another of those annoying "gangs" -- this time the "Gang of Ten" -- not to be confused with another "Gang of Ten" senators on energy policy) to hash all the details out. The ten senators who participated: (liberals) -- Chuck Schumer, Russ Feingold, Jay Rockefeller IV, Tom Harkin, and Sherrod Brown; (conservatives) -- Tom Carper, Ben Nelson, Mark Pryor, Mary Landrieu, and Blanche Lincoln.

Oh, what the heck, let's also give Dr. Howard Dean an Honorable Mention as well, for making several proposals which were reportedly instrumental in breaking the deadlock.

[Congratulate Majority Leader Harry Reid on his Senate contact page and Senator Byron Dorgan on his Senate contact page, to let them know you appreciate their efforts.]


For the explanation of Byron Dorgan's MIDOTW, and for the explanation of Tom Carper's Most Disappointing Democrat Of The Week award, we turn to this item in the Huffington Post today:

The White House, aided by Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.), is working hard to crush an amendment being pushed by Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.) to allow for the reimportation of pharmaceutical drugs from Canada, Senate sources tell the Huffington Post.

As a result, the Senate health care debate has come to a standstill: Carper has placed a "hold" on Dorgan's amendment and in response, Dorgan tells HuffPost, he'll object to any other amendments being considered before he gets a vote on his.

Complicating matters for the White House, the amendment has the support of a number of Republicans, including Sens. Olympia Snowe (Maine), John McCain (Ariz.), Charles Grassley (Iowa) and David Vitter (La.). Opponents of the amendment worry that many more Republicans may join the amendment not because they agree with it, but because they want to put the health care bill in jeopardy.

We are also forced to give a DisHonorable Mention to Barack Obama by this news, as well. Now, don't get me wrong -- we are not "forced to give this to Obama," we are instead "forced to give Obama only a DisHonorable Mention, since whoever is responsible truly deserves a full-on MDDOTW," but because of the anonymous sourcing (note: "the White House," instead of naming someone) we cannot in good conscience give the full award to whoever really deserves it. But since Obama's supposed to be in charge over there, and since we have to pin the blame somewhere, he'll do for now.

The rumored deal the White House cut with the drug industry earlier this year always had the possibility of coming back to bite Obama on the nether regions. Since President Obama is not Congress, he doesn't get to write the bills and is actually powerless to make such deals. Congress -- at any time -- is free to ignore such "deals." Which they are trying to do, on the issue of reimportation of drugs from Canada and elsewhere -- where they cost one-tenth what they do here in the U.S. of A.

So the White House is now on the side of Big Drugs versus saving money. Obama is also on the side of rejecting bipartisanship -- a big stated goal of his. This is one of the few ideas which could indeed help American consumers which actually has some support on both sides of the aisle -- mostly from border-state Congresscritters who hear about bus rides to Canada by elderly folks looking for a much better deal on drugs to keep them alive. Meaning the White House is on the side of big corporate profits, versus The American People. In other words, the positioning is a disaster for Obama -- because it is so nakedly against what he professes to believe in. Which is why, as I said, if Obama himself goes on the record next week against reimportation (and grinding the Senate to a halt by continuing the "hold" -- a heavy-handed tactic for a Democrat to pull in the midst of this debate), then he will immediately be awarded a full MDDOTW award for doing so. Which is probably why they're trying to keep this swept under the media's proverbial carpet.

But for now, we'll settle on awarding Senator Tom Carper the Most Disappointing Democrat Of The Week for carrying the White House's water on this issue, and threatening to derail the entire health care reform effort -- in defense of the principle of drug companies making boatloads of money off the American consumer.

For shame, Tom. Search your conscience. Do the right thing. Lift your "hold."

[Contact Senator Tom Carper on his Senate contact page, to let him know what you think of his actions.]


Volume 104 (12/11/09)

I realize I'm going to get some pushback this week, because these Talking Points are such a blatant attempt to put a bright smile on something that a lot of Democrats are understandably upset about -- the health care reform compromise in the Senate.

Such is the nature of coming up with "talking points," otherwise colloquially known as "spin." As I pointed out Wednesday, because the details of the compromise have not been released, a lot of this is like trying to nail smoke to a wall -- an impossible task.

But if we're going to get any health care reform at all, something has got to make it through the Senate. If it's going to happen before Obama's State Of The Union speech next month, then it pretty much has to clear the Senate by Christmas.

So the question at this point becomes "Is the Senate compromise better than nothing?" For me, the answer is a conditional "yes" at this point (still waiting to see those details...). If the answer for you is "no" then feel free to ridicule the Talking Points, because I can all but guarantee you won't like them this week.

And remember, the Senate bill will not be the final bill. There will be a conference committee between the House and the Senate, where they are free to start from scratch and totally rewrite the whole thing. So, just like the House bill -- with its odious Stupak Amendment on abortion -- things can change in the final bill. All is not lost yet.

But those of us who follow this stuff closely need to occasionally realize that we are in the minority. Most Americans are simply not paying all that close attention to the twists and turns of the legislative process. Democrats still need to continue to make the case for the good health care reform ideas in the bill -- ideas which the majority of Americans will indeed appreciate if passed. And ideas which will not happen if Democrats throw in the towel and give up on the effort.

So, for your enjoyment and/or excoriation, here are this week's talking points.


   Banning pre-existing conditions

This one is enormous. But it keeps getting lost in the scuffling over other details. It really needs to be put front and center in any discussion of health care reform, because it is probably will have the biggest impact on normal people's lives. So beat this drum loudly, and often.

"We spend a lot of time haggling over the 30 percent of the various health care bills moving through Congress where Democrats are not in agreement, but very little time spotlighting the 70 percent where we do all agree. I think that's a shame, and I think a few things need pointing out. The first is that the term 'pre-existing condition' will go the way of the buggy whip. We will make it flat-out illegal for health insurance companies to reject people on a whim. Every American should have the right to purchase health insurance, and not be denied that right by some bean-counter from the insurance industry. This will be welcome relief for millions upon millions of Americans, some of whom are in some very desperate straights indeed. This is one of the key ideas behind Democrats' push to reform health care, and it is something we all agree will be in the final bill."


   Banning rescission

This is a continuation of the first one, really.

"Another thing all Democrats agree upon, and another thing which will make millions of lives better in this country, is banning the practice of 'rescission,' where an insurance company is free to deny coverage to a person who has paid all their premiums and thought they had good health insurance. We Democrats think this is an odious practice, and we will make it illegal. The American people deserve the health insurance they have paid for, instead of being arbitrarily dropped when they get sick, winding up with no coverage at all. We consider this to be out-and-out fraud, and we will put an end to it permanently."


   Banning lifetime caps on coverage

And the final point in this initial trio.

"The last point I want to make about the things all Democrats agree will be in the final bill is banning the notion of 'lifetime caps' on coverage. This allows insurance companies to throw out on the street patients who are desperately ill, after reaching some arbitrary dollar amount of 'lifetime' coverage. Even some of the best insurance plans around have these caps, and we think it is wrong. Democrats think that banning lifetime caps, ending rescission, and banning pre-existing conditions are three giant steps towards making terms such as 'uninsurable' and 'medical bankruptcy' as obsolete as the concept of phrenology. We are fighting hard to achieve these goals, because we -- unlike Republicans -- think it is a disgrace that Americans lose their life's savings paying for medical care, when they thought they were insured. Over sixty percent of bankruptcies in this country are caused because of sickness. We aim to stop that."


   55-and-up Medicare buy-in will help millions

This was reportedly one of Dr. Howard Dean's ideas in the compromise negotiations. It's an old idea -- Dean didn't originate it -- but it's an interesting one, for a few reasons. Some progressives immediately pounced on it, and decried it as "allowing insurance companies to dump older people on Medicare," but that ignores a very large part of the equation -- the millions who could see this as a -- quite literal -- lifeline.

"The proposal to allow people 55 and older to buy in to Medicare is a good idea -- and three-fourths of the American people agree, according to polls I've seen. Anyone who doesn't think it is a good idea should talk to [any Democratic officeholder should have these example names ready] Mrs. Joan Smith, a constituent of mine, who is 63 years old and has a heart condition. She is praying every night that she survives the next two years, so that she can join Medicare and get the treatment she needs. She would be ecstatic to be able to buy in to Medicare now, and not have to rely on fate to see if she makes it to her 65th birthday or not. Or talk to Anthony Jones, who got laid off recently at age 59, and cannot find another job because nobody wants to hire him and pay for his health insurance. Mr. Jones would likewise be grateful to be able to purchase Medicare at a reasonable price, and is quite willing to do so -- but the rules say that he can't until he is 65. I hear these stories from my constituents every day -- heartbreaking stories of people who have worked all their lives and for whatever reason are trying to stretch time until they're allowed in to the Medicare system. Anyone against the idea of allowing these hard-working folks to buy in to Medicare must not have heard from these people daily, the way I have. This could be the difference between life and death for millions of Americans, which is why I support the idea."


   Limiting overhead to ten percent

For some strange reason, this aspect is just not getting the press it deserves. Part of the reason, of course, is that no hard details have been released, but still it deserves a little more of the spotlight.

"The compromise in the Senate has one detail a lot of people haven't noticed yet -- the hard requirement that health insurers pay out at least ninety cents of every dollar they take in towards actual health care. This limits both the overhead and the profits of the entire health insurance industry. If it works as designed (since we don't have the details yet), this will rein in some of the worst abuses of the system as it stands today. Instead of an insane race for the quarterly bottom line, health care companies would no longer be able to spend upwards of 30 percent on overhead and profits for investors. This would be a profound change in the entire health care system, which is why I am at a loss as to why few people are talking about it in this debate."


   Democrats getting something done

This is a continuing theme here at FTP -- getting Democrats to repeat loudly and continually how they are getting something done, and how the Republicans are doing everything they can to fight for the status quo. Why oh why can't Democrats toot their own horn a little louder? Sigh.

"I should point out that reforming healthcare is going to come about pretty much single-handedly from Democrats. We will be judged on the success or failure of our efforts, of course. If reform turns out badly, or doesn't work, then we fully expect to pay the price politically. But if all those horror stories from Republicans simply do not come to pass, and this reform effort does indeed change millions of American lives for the better, then we Democrats also expect the public to remember that we were the ones who got it done. This is a historic undertaking, and it has come from the Democratic Party. For the first time in 44 years, we are tackling an issue that Republicans have either ignored or actively tried to kill. We tried to work with them, and got nothing in return for our efforts. We may pass health care reform without a single Republican vote in either the House or the Senate. Republicans held both houses of Congress for a long time -- and they did nothing on these health care reforms. So, like I said, while Democrats will pay a political price if it all goes badly, we will also reap a political harvest if it does turn out well. I trust the voters to fairly judge our efforts in the end."


   Consider the alternative

And finally, this one is for the naysayers. The perfect is the enemy of the good, and all of that.

"The health care reform bill, in its final form, will not be a perfect bill. There are many ideas which will not make it into the final legislation which are good -- even excellent -- ideas. Unfortunately, they did not have enough broad support within Congress to pass. To paraphrase Dick Rumsfeld, you go to legislative battle with the Congress you have, not the Congress you'd like to have. Does this mean some good ideas didn't even get a fair hearing? Sadly, yes. Does this mean some good ideas never made it out of committee? Also, sadly, yes. Does this mean some good ideas got thrown under the bus in both houses for a floor vote? Yes, it does. Does this mean some Democrats negotiated in bad faith because of the millions of dollars in campaign funds they receive from the industry? Assuredly so. But, even having said all of that, we are still confident that what we pass is ultimately going to be better than the alternative -- which is to let the status quo continue, and to do nothing about it. That is the question all of us have to answer, and the question that the public will also have to answer -- is doing something better than the alternative of doing nothing? I believe it will be, for the American people."


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Cross-posted at: Democratic Underground