Citizens are united against Citizens United

The Thinker by Rodin

Trying to find bipartisanship these days on any political issue is virtually impossible. So when I see a poll where there is strong agreement between Democrats, Republicans and Independents, I take note. What do eighty percent of very polarized Americans agree on? They agree the recent Supreme Court decision, Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission sucks. Moreover, Americans are as mad as hell with the decision. In the 5-4 decision, the Supreme Court said that corporations and unions could spend as much as they wanted on political campaigns, overturning long-standing regulations that limited this spending for individual candidates within a few months of an election. According to The Washington Post poll, eighty five percent of Democrats disagree with the Supreme Court, as well as 76 percent of Republicans and 81 percent of Independents.

The only ones who seem to disagree, not surprisingly, are congressional Republicans. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell says he plans to oppose any legislation that would attempt to blunt the impact of this ruling. Americans of all stripes though understand what is really going on. Just like in George Orwell’s novel Animal Farm, some animals are more equal than others. With this Supreme Court decision, it’s official.

Most Americans understand what happens when one group of well moneyed interests can outspend and out organize us ordinary citizens. The result is clear in Congress: a strong resistance to change in any form and a tendency to serve the interests of those with the money. Nowhere was this more evident than in the recent health care debate. By throwing hundreds of millions of dollars into lobbying efforts, the health care industry gummed up the process rather effectively. Clearly, the status quo works fine for the health care industry, as evidenced by record health insurance company profits and exploding health care costs in general. How does it work for the rest of us who aren’t self financed multimillionaires like Rush Limbaugh? Not so well, as evidenced by outrages like 39% premium increases on some Anthem Blue Cross plans in California and the growing percentage of Americans who simply cannot afford health insurance.

Health care reform is the issue of the day but the same can be said about most of the problems that Americans care about that are affecting this country. If we were happy with the status quo, there wouldn’t be historically high levels of unhappiness with Congress in the polls. However, it’s not easy to throw the bums out and elect new bums, particularly now that the Supreme Court has given the green light to corporations and unions to spend as much as they want to elect their preferred candidates. All this does it raise the bar even higher for those of us who have less money to convince our fellow voters to vote for this other guy (or gal). And we happen to be actual breathing U.S. citizens.

Of course it also doesn’t help that most states carefully draw congressional districts to ensure they are either highly Republican or highly Democratic (generally, depending on the party in power at the time the district boundaries are drawn). The effect of this practice is to disenfranchise anyone who is not among the highly partisan wing of the predominant party of their congressional district. It also inflames partisanship in Congress and creates very safe districts for incumbents. Once elected, these incumbents can create large war chests that discourage challengers. Even with a challenger, their war chests allow them to dominate the media prior to Election Day. Not that they have to worry much about losing anyhow because their districts are specifically drawn to make it likely they will be reelected.

The effect of this policy is to reduce the influence of ordinary citizens for those who have influence money. Republicans in Democratic districts feel disenfranchised, as do Democrats in Republican districts. My congressman is Frank Wolf, who first won election to Congress in 1980. That means he has spent thirty years in Congress. Part of his district is in Fairfax County, Virginia where I live, which is principally Democratic. A much larger part of it is in safe Republican counties like Loudoun, Fauquier and Prince William. It seems likely that when Virginia redraws congressional boundaries after the census, his district will somehow manage to remain predominantly Republican. Frankly, Congressman Wolf is more likely to die in office than retire from it.

Who is funding his campaign? According to OpenSecrets.org, it’s a lot of the usual suspects. In the 2008 elections, organizations representing retirees gave him the most (about $180,000), so don’t expect him to be voting to cut Medicare or Social Security just because both are tending toward insolvency. Next were real estate ($171,000), lawyers ($99,000), Republicans and fellow conservatives ($65,000) and various Israeli lobbies ($48,000). As for the health care industry, they came in at sixth at $48,000. Needless to say, he voted against the health care reform bill in Congress.

The effect of all this extreme gerrymandering is to end up with a congress that is more deeply polarized than it would be if congressional districts were drawn up impartially. At the same time, because they are fed by well moneyed special interests, we get a Congress that is resistant to change. This is turn means that current problems like deficit spending and entitlement reform are less likely to be solved, thus making problems that much more chronic. This ultimately is what is bankrupting the country, not Bush tax cuts or prolific spending on social welfare programs.

Really, even Glenn Beck and Arianna Huffington should be able to find common ground here. Last week at the odious CPAC convention in Washington, Glenn Beck was railing about the need to elect true Conservatives instead of Republicans. Arianna Huffington is one of many liberals, like me, feeling disenfranchised by supposed “Democrats” in Congress. Beck is frustrated because he cannot get rid of the welfare state. Why? Because Republicans will ultimately do the bidding of those who give them money. There are plenty of Republicans, like Congressman Wolf, who take heaps of money from senior citizens lobbies, so don’t expect him to vote to kill Medicare. Huffington meanwhile is in a huff because Democrats like North Dakota Senator Ben Nelson vote for the interests of Blue Cross instead of supporting a public option health care plan. Why? It is because Nelson gets a ton of money from the health insurance industry. Yet it’s not only the extremes that are upset, but also those in the middle whose interests are also not being served. That’s why hardly anyone is happy with the status quo. That’s why eighty percent of Americans are irate about the Citizens United decision while also realizing it is just more evidence of who really is running the country. It sure is not the people! Conservatives and liberals should come together to kill off corporate lobbying simply so they can actually advance their agendas!

It’s the system that is providing disincentives to pragmatically solve current problems. Congress gives highest priority to those who give them the most money. Otherwise, partisanship triumphs. For those few issues that are non-partisan and which there is no vested industry with their hand in the public till, we may get bipartisanship. Consequently, the two biggest things we can do to end our national dysfunction become easy to identify.

First, and probably the hardest thing to get Congress to do, is to change the process by which Congressional districts are drawn. We have an opportunity because the 2010 census is underway. A law that required states to have an impartial commission or judges draw up congressional districts would make it possible for more moderates to be elected. Moderates tend toward being pragmatic rather than idealistic. This would have the tendency to better balance Congress so that bipartisanship is more likely.

Secondly, the power of corporations and unions to influence elections must be checked. At the Washington Post poll demonstrates, there is overwhelming support for restricting the amount of money that these institutions can contribute. Congress could probably succeed in passing a law reforming the most egregious abuses, but this is one of those cases where a constitutional amendment really is needed to settle the issue of corporate “personhood” once and for all. Nowhere in our founding documents does it say that corporations are entitled to the same rights of citizens. This was due to an earlier Supreme Court interpretation that it has now effectively codified to mean without any restraints. If an amendment could pass Congress (a tough hurdle), it is likely to be easily ratified by the various states.

If these two systemic problems could be addressed, we might actually get a government representative of its people again. Consequently, government would be more likely to do the bidding of a majority of its citizens. We might as a result still find ourselves polarized, but it won’t be because of special interests or gerrymandering. Whether America swings to the left or the right as a result is really not as important as restoring a fully representative democracy. The truth is that these days our republican form of government is at best 30-50 percent representative of the people.

Half a loaf is still better than none

The Thinker by Rodin

Polls indicate that most Americans are not happy with the health insurance reform plan emerging from Congress. Of course, most Americans are also not fully informed about the health care reform plan either. With the Senate bill alone consisting of thousands of pages, who has time to read it? We depend on the press and policy wonks to give us the bottom line. To say the least, there is disenchantment. It’s kind of like hoping for a Lexus and instead getting a Yugo. Who would not be disappointed?

I know I am. I am in line with the majority of Americans who wanted a public government administered health plan on the assumption that it would at least be fair, provide real competition and be always available when other private plans left the market. It doesn’t look like that will happen. While anything is possible in the upcoming conference committee, it is likely the House will kowtow and it will be the Senate’s version of the bill that will become law. There is no public option in there, in large measure thanks to Senator Joe Lieberman.

Many Americans are also disappointed in President Obama’s performance to date. After all, he promised change. Where is the delivery? Our disappointment is reflected in his sagging pole numbers. In reality, given polarized politics as they currently exist in Washington, Obama is doing remarkably well. Particularly when it comes to health care reform, our disappointment is because our hopes are colliding with this messy thing called reality.

We might have actually seen the massive change that we were hoping for had we had solved a few other major problems before electing Barack Obama. Specifically, we needed meaningful campaign finance reform and limits on the influence of lobbyists in Congress. The Supreme Court in its infinite wisdom says our current corruption-laden political system is entirely constitutional. This meant, as usual, that those with the money, such as the health insurance lobbies, had a massively disproportional influence on our legislators. To me it is remarkable that in spite of the hundreds of millions of dollars spent to defeat reform we got as much reform as we did.

What we are getting is largely health insurance reform and not quite health care reform. Still, getting even health insurance reform is a remarkable achievement, given the money spent to defeat any kind of reform. Every single Republican senator lined up against reform, which meant that 58 Democratic senators and 2 independent senators had to pull together. Only of course, they did not so much pull together as kept watering down the bill until health care reform became health insurance reform. Naturally, billions of dollars in tax breaks went to appease the more recalcitrant senators. The resulting bill is a lowest common denominator bill, which is what you get when the Senate chooses to allow 41 senators to block almost any legislation.

One can complain about Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s tactical approach. He could have placated people like me by using a budgetary rule called reconciliation that required only a simple majority to pass. This could well have delivered a more liberal bill with more actual health care reform in it. He chose not to go that route. While I think it was a mistake, perhaps he had sound reasons for it. For example, he might have decided that disenfranchising conservative Democrats on this issue would eventually prove counterproductive with a whole host of other matters on which Democrats need to remain united.

Any major changes by Congress are excruciatingly difficult because there are so many well moneyed interests aligned for the status quo. This leaves the rest of us who are much less moneyed largely disenfranchised. Yet despite these odds, meaningful health insurance reform looks likely to become law. In that sense, President Obama is right that this package is a big deal. History suggests that even this much was a long shot. Once we get used to it, we will take it for granted and wonder why Republicans were so foolish as to block it in the first place.

Half a loaf is not as good as a full loaf, but it is still half a loaf. I do not agree with Howard Dean that we are better off without this bill. While it does little to address exploding health care costs, at least thanks to generous subsidies 30 million Americans will be able to acquire health insurance, and no one can be denied coverage for preexisting conditions. This should make our premiums less than they would be without reform. Every hospital or emergency room visit by an uninsured or indigent person means that their costs are passed on to the rest of us in the form of higher premiums. Reduce the uninsured and more of our health insurance premiums will actually go to treat us.

Count me among those who are disgruntled but still grateful for the half a loaf we are getting. It was not foolish of me to hope for more than what we got. It would have been foolish of me to actually think we would get it this time around. I never did.

America: An Empire in Decline (Part Two)

The Thinker by Rodin

President Obama may be our Great African American Hope, but it is hard to avoid the feeling that our great country’s best days are behind it. Politicians will not admit it, of course. From their lips, like it came from Ronald Reagan’s, it is always Morning in America. If you need more proof our best days may be behind us, look no further than the current health care “debate”. It is a sad political debacle in which “compromise” apparently means everyone’s needs will be satisfied except for the people who actually need and use health insurance in the first place.

Democrats, as usual, are busy imploding now they have returned to full power. There are few things that Democrats do better than control both Congress and the White House and then quickly splinter into disunity. We saw it happen to Bill Clinton’s Democratic Congress, and before that to Jimmy Carter’s. This time, it’s the Blue Dog Democrats (who represent conservative and southern districts) vs. the Congressional Progressive Caucus. House Blue Dogs, who consistently represent more underinsured constituents than elsewhere, nonetheless cannot seem to summon the will to vote for the mere option of a universal public health insurance plan. The House Congressional Progressive Caucus, a somewhat larger body of Democrats, won’t vote for a bill without a public option.

Meanwhile, over in the Senate, alleged “Democratic” Senator from Montana Max Baucus, who is also chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, and whose reelection campaign is largely funded by the health insurance lobby, tried mightily to create a “bipartisan” health care bill. He did so by systematically excluding input from all but a handful of personally selected senators on his committee. “Bipartisan” meant trying to be inclusive to three Republicans, only one of whom (Olympia Snowe) may actually vote for his “bipartisan” bill. Baucus hopes that taxes on “Cadillac” health insurance plans plus murky promises to reduce future waste and fraud in Medicare will help subsidize health insurance for the working poor and the middle class. Everyone will be required to have health insurance, but will have to buy their plans from the same insurance companies that keep raising their premiums and dropping them as customers for sins like not disclosing that they had acne. With premiums alone currently running $13,000 a year for a family, and with subsidies anticipated to pay for only a small part of the premium, it is unclear where these already stretched families will find the dough to buy health insurance, but they risk a fine if they do not. The sad reality is that if the Baucus bill becomes law, most families will opt to pay the fine because they still will not be able to afford health insurance.

The winners, naturally, will be health insurance companies who will get plenty of new customers, many of whom are younger and thus less likely to get sick. While insurance companies will not be allowed to deny people insurance based on preexisting conditions or kick them off the plan when their care gets too expensive, they can keep raising premiums as much as they want. No insurance commissioner will be policing their premium rate increases. An independent commission may make recommendations for providing more efficient health care, but these are likely only to apply to Medicare, Medicaid and maybe physicians. A public option may or may not survive. It is likely to pass the House, but the assumption is that the Senate won’t pass it and they hold the trump card.

This is as close to health care reform as we are likely to get. In short, if you have insurance you cannot be dropped. If you don’t have it, you cannot be denied it even though you may not able to afford to do so. In addition, nothing serious will be done to slow the escalating costs of health insurance, meaning that it will only become more unaffordable as time goes on.

When a nation cannot find a pragmatic way to solve a pressing national problem that a majority of Americans earnestly want solved, you know government is becoming dysfunctional. Yes, the seeds for the eventual unraveling of our country are being planted through myopic and reckless acts of self-interest like these. Rather than be the United States of America, we are becoming the Divided States of America. You can see it in the senior citizens attending health care rallies, determined to protect their Medicare benefits at all costs while somehow blissfully unaware they are using socialized medicine. For those younger than them who cannot afford health insurance, well, screw ‘em. They got their government bennies first and they’ll be damned if anyone else will get any at their expense.

What would real health insurance reform look like? For one thing, we would mercilessly tax the things that are driving up health care costs, like we have been doing with tobacco and alcohol. There would be a ten cent per can surtax on every sugary beverage sold, from Coca Cola to a Starbuck Carmel Frappuccino. This alone would pay for much of our health care costs, but we could also do the same with any food the Surgeon General determines is unhealthy. We would give premium discounts to people who maintained a healthy weight. We would offer subsidies so the overweight and obese can enroll in successful weight loss programs like Weight Watchers. We would provide these companies bonuses for keeping people at healthy weights and physically active. We could require employers provide gyms and basketball courts and make sure their white-collar workers get cardiovascular exercise during the day.

No doubt, Republicans would scream about more socialism and higher taxes, and the food industry would oppose any reforms. And of course, they would win because this is America. In America, the interest groups that can best influence Congress (and these amount to those who have the most money, which is generally corporations) tend to get their way. Moreover, based on arguments recently before the Supreme Court, it looks like conservatives on the court will give corporations permission to spend unlimited amounts of money on campaign related advertising and propaganda too. We can look forward to even more government of, by and for the corporation.

Most sensible governments like the rest of the first world came to a reasonable solution a long time ago. A good American model would look a lot like Switzerland’s, where everyone buys private health insurance but niggardly insurance regulators set all sorts of conditions on premium increases and quality of care standards. However, we could not do that here, you see, because that would be “socialism” and might affect health insurance company executives and their $500M a year salaries.

Sadly, America has a long tradition of capitalism triumphing over common sense. Moreover, many of us will gleefully applaud policies that will only make us unhealthier and kill us faster. It’s the American way! From our growing guts, to our obsession with drugs, to our addiction to SUVs we cannot get beyond our own short sighted interests and pragmatically deal with the longer term problems that are crippling not only ourselves but destroying our great country.

I get the sense that we are doomed. I doubt even our Great African American Hope can pervade over such entrenched, self destructive and selfish dynamics. Shame on us.