As featured on p. 218 of "Bloggers on the Bus," under the name "a MyDD blogger."

Friday, July 24, 2009

The End Around The Blue Dogs

One of my co-guests on NPR today was Henry Cuellar, a Blue Dog. And 30 minutes goes fast with three guests, so I didn't get to confront him and his arguments as much as I wanted. For instance, McAllen, TX, is in his district, and that was the subject of the widely touted Atul Gawande piece in The New Yorker about disparities in health care delivery and effectiveness. But Cuellar pretty much harped on costs, costs, costs as an impediment to getting something done. I countered that cost control and expanding access, in many cases, are complementary. This makes the Blue Dog argument incoherent. They want to cut costs, but they are reluctant to enact the reforms that actually would do it. Not to mention the fact that they talk of fiscal responsibility while trying to carve out funding for rural health care, for example, which is the exact opposite of cost-cutting. And Steven Pearlstein picks up on this today.

The challenge for the Blue Dogs is that they want an America where everyone has insurance but are reluctant to force workers to buy it or employers to help pay for it.

They understand that achieving universal coverage will require subsidies for low-income workers and small businesses, but they insist that none of those changes add to the federal deficit or raise anyone's taxes.

They want to introduce more competition into the private insurance market, but not if it comes from a government-run insurance plan.

They complain constantly about the need to rein in runaway Medicare costs while at the same time demanding higher Medicare reimbursement rates for doctors and hospitals in rural areas.

You see what I mean about mushy centrism?

Yes. Yes I do.

The truth is that the Blue Dogs are slaves to entrenched power, serving the interests of powerful lobbies rather than the middle-income voters in their districts. Cutting subsidies to 300% of poverty level from 400% would make health care less affordable to working people - and it's only being considered in the House because Blue Dogs want to protect those making half a million a year from a surtax.

Henry Waxman refuses to let the Blue Dogs make chicken salad out of the House plan. He's talking about bypassing his committee entirely and bringing the bill already voted out of two other committees to the floor.

Chairman Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) says there is "no alternative" but to have healthcare legislation bypass his Energy and Commerce Committee if Blue Dog Democrats don't accept a deal worked out Friday.

Waxman is now playing a game of legislative chicken with the Blue Dogs. He's hoping the inclusion of a study on Medicare reimbursement rates in the healthcare overhaul will be enough to placate the centrist Democrats, who say the government program short-changes hospitals and physicians in their rural districts.

If that’s not, the seven Blue Dogs could join with the committee's Republicans to "eviscerate" healthcare reform, and that’s something Waxman will not tolerate.

"I won't allow them to hand over control of our committee to Republicans," Waxman told reporters.

Just like that, this morning, word leaked that Democrats in the House have agreed to include President Obama's "MedPAC on steroids" proposal to assemble a team of health care policy experts to make annual recommendations about Medicare, including reimbursement rates and delivery changes, that would face an up or down vote in Congress. This deal was the result of late night negotiations between Rahm Emanuel and the Blue Dogs. But they do not seem to have fully satisfied them.

At some point, I think you do have to pull the trigger. Matt Yglesias makes the moral case, that good legislation matters more than good process.

Something a lot of progressive legislative leaders seem to have forgotten until this Congress actually got under way is that historically congressional procedure is a challenge to be surmounted when you want big change to happen. It’s not actually a fixed feature of the landscape that people “have to” accommodate themselves to. For years you couldn’t get a decent Civil Rights bill because segregationists controlled the Judiciary Committee that had jurisdiction. This problem was “solved” by just deciding to bypass the Judiciary Committee. When you decide you want to get things done, you find a way to get them done. Even the allegedly sacrosanct filibuster rule has been changed repeatedly over the years. The law is the law and the constitution is the constitution, but the rules of congressional procedure are not law. They’re internally made rules, they’re subject to change, and the criteria for a good set of rules is that you want rules that produce good legislation and good governance.

If the internal rules are in place you should work to change them if they obstruct a change both the majority of Americans and the majority of the Congress clearly want. the way, I agree with Pearlstein that Medicare might not be the best program to use for reforming the system:

The problem with using Medicare to serve as the leading edge of reform, however, is that it relies on a patient population, the elderly, that is least able and willing to embrace change. A better vehicle would be the new government-run insurance option that has become a political must-have for House leaders and President Obama. In return for dropping their opposition to such a "public option," the Blue Dogs could have insisted that it not be structured as a fee-for-service plan along the lines of Medicare but rather offer services through a network of high-quality, lower-cost hospitals and clinics that use teams of salaried doctors to provide coordinated care, along the lines of the Mayo and Cleveland clinics that Obama is always touting. In a competitive market, the success of such a government-run plan would force other insurers to follow suit. the Blue Dogs claim that talks broke down today to resolve differences with Waxman, and I have to say he appears to be full of it. He says that Waxman took things off the table that, an hour before, Waxman was hailing in public as part of a breakthrough agreement? Doesn't pass the smell test. Someone's lying.

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