The National Catholic Review
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This is the winter of our discontent. Liberals are sulking because President Obama has not given them change to believe in. Conservatives are filled with loathing at their own fantasies of his big-government takeover. Tea partiers are angry at the thought of the president succeeding at all. The media, preoccupied with politics without substance, suffer repetition compulsion, reporting hourly readings of the country’s ups and downs. Most of all, the Senate has proved itself incapable of deliberative action. Its handling of the health care bill painted the worst caricature of the legislative process as “sausage-making” since Bismarck first used the metaphor to characterize the process of lawmaking.

From the beginning, the Republican minority refused to reciprocate the president’s overtures to bipartisanship. Even after being given disproportionate representation on the Finance Committee for drawing up the Senate health care bill, Senate Republicans used the threat of filibuster to form an immovable phalanx opposing even token reform. Even while they had a 60-vote supermajority, Senate Democrats were not able to advance the legislative process. The public watched Max Baucus, Ben Nelson and Mary Landrieu feeding their egos and abetting their home state interests and said, “If this is health reform, we don’t want it.”

The White House cut premature deals with Big Pharma and the insurance companies and then let the deals stand even as the same special interests lobbied to gut the bill and stuff their pockets. Even after the State of the Union address, no one can say what the White House wants in a health care bill. If Canada can craft a health care law in a bilingual statute of 14 pages, why does the U.S. Congress need 2,000 pages, except that American lawmaking is so thoroughly ridden with special interests? The only branch of government that seems to have tried to work for the people these last months is the House of Representatives, led by its much-maligned speaker, Nancy Pelosi.

We face a vexing question of whether the political structures bequeathed us by the founding fathers can meet the challenges of the 21st century: health care, climate change, financial reform, sustainable development. Health care is only one of many issues the American political system has not been able to fix. The whole industrial world and some developing countries have more effective, less costly systems with universal coverage. Denmark has a green economy and has not increased its energy usage since the early 1980s. Canada, with its strong consumer protections and limits on banks’ leveraging and securitization of assets, was spared the worst effects of the Wall Street collapse. Europe and China devote far less of their national wealth to defense. Europe applies the gains to domestic welfare and overseas aid; China to long-term development, while the U.S. announces another modest cut in “discretionary spending” that leaves the bloated “security sector” untouched.

Some opponents of health care reform argue that deadlock is actually what the framers of the Constitution intended with their system of checks and balances, but the framers never prescribed a 60-vote supermajority to pass a bill in the Senate. The supermajority is a matter of a changeable Senate rule that requires 60 votes to close off unlimited debate intended to prevent unwanted legislation from coming to a vote. The most obvious reform the Senate needs in order to end the tyranny of the minority is to make it easier to terminate debate.

At a very minimum, notice of the intent to filibuster ought not be sufficient to close down the legislative process. The current rate of use of the filibuster to prevent legislation from coming to a vote, used in recent years against major legislation 70 percent of the time, compared with 7 percent of the time in the early 1960s, is due in part to the minimalist requirement of mere notification to block legislation. Those who want to delay legislation by nonstop talk ought to be forced to do so on television. C-Span will do the rest. Exposure will make the pettiness of the filibusters (or their wisdom) apparent for the public to see. Another step would be to reduce the number of votes needed for cloture to, say, 55 or even 51 votes.

If you are looking this anxious winter for glimmers of hope in government performance, one may be found in the U.S. military’s application of its logistical strength to the post-earthquake relief in Haiti. International organizations and private relief and development agencies would have been severely hampered without it. A second is the promise of a successful negotiation on a new Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty between the United States and Russia later this month, reducing nuclear weapons arsenals on both sides. Of course, for treaty ratification we may have to hold our breath, as we wait to see whether it gets through the Senate.

Comments

Vince Killoran | 2/15/2010 - 4:54pm

I support the single-payer plan as the most humane and Christian way to provide health care to all of our citizens. No one has explained adequately how a for-profit system is better.  

"Personal liberty"? "Tyranny"? We are talking about large, impersonal corporations driven by the profit motive-at least I can vote for my government officials.

Patrick Button | 2/15/2010 - 4:42pm

Good job to Walter Mattingly for his comments.  The health insurance mandate that is included in the current bill is simply tyrannical.  You cannot support it and call yourself an American.  America magazine once again demonstrates it's contempt for personal liberty and its subserviance to the heresy of Liberation Theology.

C Walter Mattingly | 2/13/2010 - 1:42pm

I don't believe I was silent on the issue. I think that President Obama had the right idea, but simply failed to live up to his word: have an open debate on CSPAN with no preconditions.  Let the public become informed, for example, about the 5 million who currently qualify for health insurance but have not stepped forward to claim it, and whom the administration has made no effort to my knowledge to locate. Let them know that all US citizens currently have access to health care, as crazy and inefficient as it is, just not health insurance. Let's talk about whether or not it is legal and ethical to force the young and healthy to purchase insurance, about what our obligation is to provide health insurance for those who have broken our laws to enter the country illegally. These are hard questions, but so much of our health, our financial stability, the economic condition of our children who inherit our debt, ride on this issue. Let's get it out in the open on CSPAN, no preconditions, clean sheet, and proceed from there.

Bernard Campbell | 2/9/2010 - 9:55pm

Your article describes the tragedy of our society.  Unfortunately, ideology dominates and reality is non-existent.  Each time, in a  "conversation" with Obama critics and the health care critics, I ask what do you do with those who are without health care? They are silent?  They only respond with ideology.  Like Obama, I say give me an answer to how we solve the problem? How do you supply health care for the fifty millon without health care?  They are silent?  The health insurance industry and the pharmacutical industry has spent over three-hundred millon dollars opposing the health reform bill.  That amount of money indicates to me that this is a great bill.  But, many are allowing themselves to be influenced by people who will destroy our nation, which is built on care for each other. . . .

We are presently  faced with challenges worse than the II WW and the Cold War combined.  My fear is that our individual greed will destroy us in this "III WW."  Rome was not destroyed by its invaders.  Rather Rome destroyed itself.  Germany was destroyed by the allied armies.  But, if you read the facts closely, Hitler and the Nazis destroyed themselves, thank God!

As a nation if we fail economically (health care bill) we will gradually destroy ourselves as a nation. 

Mike Ashland | 2/8/2010 - 3:16pm

It's hard for me to believe how many commenters on this article write without fact.  One of the first group Obama met with was GOP legislators (http://www.nytimes.com/2009/01/28/us/politics/28obama.html, to the disappointment of many Dem legislators.

As far as cross-state competition of insurance companies, this is in the current legislation.

Obama has certainly failed, in my view, to advocate a clear plan for healthcare reform and to play the hardball necessary for legislation to move forward.  A lack of outreach and compromise with Republicans, however, is a ridiculous charge.  His insistence on bi-partisanship has proven tragically Pollyanna-ish.

But the writers of this piece point correctly at the single biggest difference in the failure of our Congress this last session:  the abuse of the filibuster (http://www.thepoliticalcarnival.net/2010/01/cloture-voting-1947-2008-chart-white.html) by the GOP and the failure of democratic leadership to thwart it.

I do fear for our nation and despair the dearth and failure of leadership in our government-in both parties.

Robert Oberle | 2/8/2010 - 1:18pm

When one desires to make a point it is desirable to do a little fact checking, and keep those facts in context.

The statement "Denmark has a green economy and has not increased its energy usage since the early 1980s." is incorrect.  Between 1990 and 2005 Denmark increased it's per capita energy consumption by about 10%.(http://earthtrends.wri.org/searchable_db/index.php?step=countries&cID[]=50&theme=6&variable_ID=267&action=select_years)

The statements about Defense spending also must be put into context. Europe from 1945 - 2000 had the United States as the prime assurer of its defense. China simply has not had the resources to spend on defense but the rapid expansion of its official spending, almost 500% since 1999, does not inspire confidence.

The proposed healthcare bill passed by the House of Representatives is a recipe for national bankruptcy. Saddling future citizens with a bill that is impossible to pay does not strike me as a particularly moral undertaking, particularly when this is forseeable from the outset. The focus of the government effort should be healthcare improvement, not only in terms of access but also quality and affordability. The bill attempts to deal with the first, passes on the second and completely fails on the third.

Joe Kash | 2/7/2010 - 5:01pm
The presidential veto is also "a tool of obstruction and mischief of a small minority without regard to their motivation."

Some of us think this "obstruction" is overall a good think since it prevents the monstrous, corrupt central government from growing.
ROBERT ROWDEN | 2/6/2010 - 7:59pm

A Republican filibuster was impossible prior to the recent election in Massachusetts.

One shudders to imagine what kind of majority the ruling party might need before accepting responsibility for legislation passed or failed.

Brendan Walsh | 2/6/2010 - 11:32am

My disappointment with the President and the Democrats is that they did not seem to have the intestinal fortitude to simply call the bluff of the Republicans and so called Democrats like Nelson.

It would seem that they should have said "You want to filibuster? Have fun." As it ground on and on on CSPAN 24/7 and all networks over and over; and as government ground to a halt, and the older tea-baggers noticed their checks wreen't coming, and farm "conservatives" saw the subsidy checks drying up, all hell would have broken loose on the right, the filibuster would fizzle and the Lunch Bucket Democrats could say to the Nelsons, Landreaus etc. "get in line or perish" and to Joe Liberman (the Senator from Aetna) "go to hell and join your Republican friends".  

Unfortunately it appears that the President and Majority leader could not play golf with Nancy Pelosi because only she has the essential metaphorical equipment.

FRED CLOSE | 2/5/2010 - 11:55pm
What a surprise to read Walter Mattingly's prescient comments in America, of all places! And how distressing to suffer through Michael Monahan's name calling. You are entitled to your own opinion, Michael, but not to your own facts.
But how is it possible that America can opine that "even after the State of the Union Address, no one knows what the White House wants in a helath care bill"? He wants to expand abortion on demand, he wants you and me to be forced to pay for it, and he wants to water down or eliminate conscience clause protections from participating in this holocaust, etc., etc., etc. By no means take my word for it. Go to www.lifenews.com. Read his record, and weep!
Joe Kash | 2/5/2010 - 10:50pm

Mike Evans says: "Health Care reform is being held up because the insurance companies, health care providers and big Pharma are holding our legislators hostage with their campaign financing."

Mike, why blame insurance companies, health care providers and big pharma.  Why not blame the Senate, House and President who can be bought?  Its government that you cannot trust!  They are for sale!  A good argument for the end of big central government and a return to small local government.

Mike Evans | 2/5/2010 - 9:42pm

The comments themselves are indicative of how deeply split our country is and how hard it is for people to speak civilly to each other. Health Care reform is being held up because the insurance companies, health care providers and big Pharma are holding our legislators hostage with their campaign financing. The President has offered time and time again to convene joint discussion of the issues and solutions but has been rebuffed by those seeking their own political agenda and also running for cover. May God help us all.

C Walter Mattingly | 2/5/2010 - 9:08pm

To Michael M.,

You asked me where I came up with this "stuff." My answer is from President Obama's televised speeches and debates during the campaign. But don't take my word for it. Here are the references I located (I recalled hearing him make the CSPAN statement during the campaign but could not remember where and when.)

1/ On a CNN debate, 1/20/08.

2/ Before San Francisco Chronicle also in 2008.

3/ At a Google Q & A session that was videotaped 11/14/08. Amazingly, in this session Obama said that he admired what the Clintons tried to do on healthcare, but they made one mistake: they took the process behind closed doors and kept the progress and ideas from the American people. He then said he would make it an open and transparent process and show it on CSPAN so all could see!

4/ 8/20/08 At a Virgninia Townhall mtg.

5/ 3/1/08 At an Ohio Townhall mtg.

6/ 4/25/08 At an Indiana Townhall mtg.

7/ late 07, Keene Sentinel.

You might also refer to the Mr. Stein's article in the Huffington post of 2/5/10; also the recent news conference of Mr Gibbs. Going public on CSPAN and being accountable was a constantly repeated theme of Mr. Obama's. Perhaps these sources will suffice to establish where I get this "stuff" from-the public record.

Like his promise to limit his campaign funds to the public funds available, which he violated when he determined he could get more money on his own efforts, Obama has said one thing and then done what he considered to be politically expedient. These dissimulations, along with such acts as agreeing to exempt union members from taxation on insurance while all other citizens with similar insurance would pay a tax (is that legal?), have in my opinion contributed to the public's loss of confidence in him and his decline registered in the polls.

If holding the president accountable to his word is "part of the problem," I admit being guilty.

robert buckenmeyer | 2/5/2010 - 6:34pm

I would say that the US congress has lost sight of the good of the people whom they were elected to serve and chosen self interest in its place; I would suggest that each congess person buy a mirror and spend one day a week looking in it to remind themselves of the people who elected them!

Joe Kash | 2/5/2010 - 6:05pm
Graham could have helped Obama with his agenda concerning the closing of Guantanamo. Obama's own Chief of Staff recommended that the DOJ/Obama give-and-take with Graham on this issue. This is what bipartisanship is all about.
DEBORAH TRUITT MS | 2/5/2010 - 5:59pm

I'm sorry.  What moderate republicans are those?  Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins?  I consider them moderate, and he did work with them.  Lyndsay Graham a moderate?  Really?

Joe Kash | 2/5/2010 - 5:42pm
A good example of Obama's (un)willingness to work with the moderate GOP was reported at politico.com today. They report the Emanual did not want KSM to be tried in NY so as to be able to work with Lindsey Graham in closing Guantanamo. Instead the DOJ went ahead (presumably with Obama's active or passive support). Obama is a great talker in the Chicago tradition.
Michael Barberi | 2/5/2010 - 5:19pm

There is enough blame in both politial parties for an endless debate.  However Obama ran on a "change" platform.  To say that you can't blame the President for the failure of change is obsurd.  At the end of the day is it leadership that causes change to happen.  The change Obama promised did not materialzie because not enough was done.  No one expected it to be easy.  If he has done much for change, as some people believe, shame on Obama for not making his efforts clear and understandable to the people. 

Now we have Washington at its worse.  Everyone is playing the blame game including the President.  Take a page out of the Clinton Presidency.  After congresssional elections, he was wise enough to move to the center because that was the only way to get things done.  He was not perfect but he accomplished a lot.  Ditto for President Reagan.  Things were different then, but that is not the point.  A leader is expected to get things done, one way or another.

President Obama is well liked with good intentions.  However his decison-making so far is wanting.   It is either reflective of a lack of senior poliicial experience, poor judgement or a far left viewpoint.  The people want him to succeed and solve our country's problems.  Let's pray he sees the light and chooses a different strategy to do so.

Dennis Long | 2/5/2010 - 4:51pm

"We face a vexing question of whether the political structures bequeathed us by the founding fathers can meet the challenges of the 21st century: health care, climate change, financial reform, sustainable development. Health care is only one of many issues the American political system has not been able to fix."

We should now acknowledge that these structures are not adequate to protect and govern us in the world which has developed. For the first time in our history, we are a nation of declining not ascending prospects. Our insitutions were not created for a people who are only fighting to keep a bigger slice of a shrinking pie. We are now unable to react to the forces which will destroy us. This paralysis will invite one of two outcomes. Either we will collapse like the Soviet Union did or we will be taken over by a despot. It may be that American style democracy was only viable so long as there were open frontiers and unlimited resources. The message of the last year in the Senate is that we are a dying nation. So sad.

Ted McGoron | 2/5/2010 - 4:33pm

   Somehow the editors were able to throw some rotten vegetables at everyone in the government except the president who has done so many about faces he should be called Barack the dervish. Just out of curiosity, what was it that Pelosi did which impressed you so? Was it her nifty use of government planes to ferry her family all over the country?

   I guess you chose to ignore the republicans who every time they had the opportunity suggested the congress entertain the notion of allowing insurance companies to compete across state lines, and introduce some sort of tort reform to protect the doctors from unfounded law suits, items that would not cost us anything. I'm not surprised though, since the democrats ignored them too. Our democratic congress has done so much work from behind closed doors it reminds some of us of the way most of Vatican II was conducted. Unfortunately the outcome of the council was a sort of scrambled egg liturgy dish we are still trying to straighten out. Fortunately, though, congress is till working on the eggs.   

Andrew Di Liddo | 2/5/2010 - 4:14pm

Michael Collins' comments above are un-informed, inaccurate, and misleading.  President Obama has worked "across the aisle" in the Illinois legislature and as President.  He has had SEVERAL meetings with Republicans in the White House. 

Mr. Collins needs to do learn how to do some simple fact checking before he spouts off.

DEBORAH TRUITT MS | 2/5/2010 - 4:14pm

I agree with the editors.  The two posts above are exemplary of the typical right wing rhetoric of blaming President Obama for failed legislation.  I doubt the two who commented above actually worked in the Senate as I have.  Special interests are the true culprits here; on BOTH sides of the aisle.  It will be worse now that the a politicized Supreme Court has given corporations free reign in our political process.  Prior to attending law school, I studied American constitutional history.  In my view, the framers would be appalled at the idea that a corporation has now fully achieved, "person" status.  But that is an issue for another day.

Sausage making is unpleasant to see, and can take a long time.  However, the sour grapes displayed by the right side of the aisle from the beginning set the tone for how things would proceed.  Try to keep in mind that the executive branch is not some puppetmaster when it comes to legislation in Congress, and therefore blaming the President for a failure in that body is not only wrong, but uninformed.

Michael Monahan | 2/5/2010 - 4:08pm
to Walter: where do you come up with this stuff. What you assert is simply not true. This kind of distorted reality is a very big part of the problem. I guess this makes YOU a part of the problem.

to Michael: where have you been as this health care reform legislation has been debated. It is simply not true to say that the President did not reach out to the opposition for their imput and cooperation. It was not forthcoming. All we got were talking points. Bi-partisianship, no matter what efforts are made, is simply not possible when the opposition just wants everything their own way and says "NO" to everything else.
MICHAEL COLLINS MR/MRS | 2/5/2010 - 3:53pm
I concur with Mr. Mattingly. In my opinion Mr. Obama is a huge disappointment. He has not demonstrated that he is a leader. Were he one, he would, in my opinion, have done something along the lines of inviting the leadership of both parties, Senate and Congress, to periodic meetings in the White House and worked with those people to come up with some bi-partisan ideas for his health care reform legislation. Instead, he walked away from it and left it to Senator Reid and Congresswoman Pelosi. Insofar as I know Mr. Obama never once has worked with anyone of the opposing party, not in his pre federal office days and certainly not during his time in the Federal government. He spoke of "change" and bi-partisanship during his campaign. If that is what he truly wanted, it was up to him to reach out to the opposition to "make things happen." That, to me, is what a true leader would have done.
Joe Kash | 2/5/2010 - 3:44pm
I suspect America Magazine will want the filibuster back when the GOP regains control of the Senate.
C Walter Mattingly | 2/5/2010 - 3:27pm

I would propose a revision of the first sentence of the second paragraph of this editorial to enable it to accord with reality. On the primary focus of President Obama on healthcare, read: "From the beginning, President Obama reneged on his campaign committment to the American people to have a bipartisan debate on healthcare open the public by video on CSPAN." It might continue, "In its place, the president substituted locking Pelosi and Reid behind closed doors and ordering them to come up with a massive secretive plan, then invite the republican constituents to discuss healthcare the day before their plan is finalized as a photo-op that would give him a sort of loin-cloth cover for bipartisanship. Then, President Obama attempted to force it down the throats of the American people before they could truly critique what was in it."


This might give a more accurate insight into the collapse of bipartisanship which President Obama, by his actions, fostered.

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