There's one positive political aspect to this epic fight for health care reform. We now know for sure which congressional Democrats have to be vigorously challenged and defeated the next time they come up for re-election.
The health care reform debate has forced the toxic slag to gurgle to the surface and consequently revealed a few Democratic senators who, at every turn in this process, have proved to be far more interested in protecting their own asses by way of protecting the asses of their bosses in the health care mafia.
Suffice to say, Joe Lieberman has to be sending lots of "thank you" gift baskets and ponies and backrubs to the offices of Max Baucus and Kent Conrad. In fact, Baucus and Conrad -- the matchstick men of health care reform -- have been so insufferable, I almost forgot about Lieberman. Almost.
In fact, apart from the Republicans from whom we expected outlandish lies and cartoonish behavior, Baucus and Conrad have been much more obstructionist and damaging to real health care reform, chiefly because they possess a disproportionate level of power in relation to the nine people in the upper Midwest they represent, and because their ideas would be laughable if they weren't so ineffectual and dangerous.
To wit: Baucus Plan is just as craptastical as we all suspected it might be.
First, Baucus' entire goal was to construct a bipartisan plan. Mission accomplished. Insofar as both parties hate it. Just as we predicted, Baucus tailored his plan to appeal to the Republicans who, as it turns out, don't support the plan anyway. For example, one of his concessions to the Republicans was tort reform language which not only won't work, but has also failed to bring in any Republicans (bad policy -- bad politics). Meanwhile, the bill is so diluted and bad that roughly half of the Democrats on the Finance Committee appear to be opposed to it. Good job, senator!
Furthermore, as I described last week, there are individual mandates, but no public insurance option. Baucus included his buddy Conrad's pathetic co-ops which are destined to fail due to their limited bargaining power.
The government subsidies in the Baucus Plan don't extend deep enough into the middle class in order to protect families from massive health care debt if a family-member becomes sick or injured. Put another way, mandates would imprison families and force them to buy insurance policies that could still bankrupt them if they actually need to use their insurance for an emergency situation like an accident or being diagnosed with cancer.
The Baucus Plan also discriminates against low-income Americans. In one of the most awful provisions of the plan, the "free rider" provision, Baucus taxes businesses for each hiree who qualifies for subsidies. So this tax incentivizes businesses to not hire poor or disadvantaged workers. (How this tax is determined is corrected in the UPDATE below.)
The list goes on and on.
By Max Baucus' own estimation, his plan carries a price tag of $880 billion over ten years. The press is tossing some very serious kudos and political cover his way because this is clearly less than the $1 trillion mark. It's also $20 billion less than the number President Obama mentioned in his address to Congress last week. And it's the Baucus Plan that many centrist Democrats -- the budget hawks and fiscal conservatives -- appear to prefer.
Allow me to underline this again. The centrist Democrats prefer a bill that more closely resembles the Baucus Plan which will cost around $880 billion over ten years. Fiscal conservatives prefer this. Lawmakers who are worried about government spending appear to be supporting a plan that would cost around $880 billion.
But wait. If the centrist Democrats were legitimately worried about government spending and deficits, they ought to be supporting the Kennedy Bill (the HELP Committee bill) instead, which, according to the CBO, clocks in at $611 billion over ten years, due in part to the inclusion of the public option.
Unless we use backwards wingnut math, $611 billion is significantly less than $880 billion. So the incontrovertible reality is that the Kennedy Bill is the more fiscally conservative health care reform bill. So why aren't the self-proclaimed fiscal conservatives in the Democratic Party flocking to embrace it?
The answers are obvious. One, the fiscal conservatives aren't always fiscally conservative (most of them voted for the Bush wars, the Bush tax cuts and the Bush Medicare Part-D blank check). And two, the Baucus Plan forces you and me to pay more cash to their contributors in the health insurance industry. This works out very nicely for senators like Max Baucus who, as Roy Sekoff pointed out, has pocketed millions in contributions from the health care industry.
So how do the blue dogs and conservadems worm their way around the glaring inconsistency between their so-called "fiscal conservatism" and the cost of the Baucus Plan?
Enter Senator Kent Conrad. Ryan Grim reported Tuesday that Conrad is changing the rules in the middle of the game in order give more weight to the Finance Committee bill and, in the process, "kneecapping" the bills with the public option -- the Kennedy Bill and the House bill. In short, Conrad has asked the CBO to use cost projections that span 20 years instead of the 10 year terms the office had been previously employing.
This will make health care reform more difficult to pass because the cost projections will balloon and will be less accurate to predict over an unwieldy 20 year span -- especially the bills with the relatively new public insurance plan. Plus, due to the political stigma on the more liberal bills, the significantly larger price tags will hurt those bills the most, allowing more room for demagoguery.
Put in medical terms, Conrad has infected all of the reform bills with a virus, and he's calculating that the inaccurately perceived "fiscally conservative" bill will have a stronger chance of surviving the pandemic. He's willing to risk crushing the entire reform effort before he allows the Kennedy or House bills to become law. Yeah, and they say the House progressives are the troublemakers. That's rich.
Nevertheless, the Baucus Plan is better than the current system. But that's kind of like saying, to paraphrase Larry David, it's the "good Hodgkins" -- cancerous, but not as deadly. Either way, their obvious and hackish corruption coupled with this awful plan has made it easy for us to pick the villains out of a lineup. We can be grateful for that, at least. Now it's just a matter of what we do with this stockpile of information.
UPDATE: Ezra Klein, whose blog post about the "free rider" provision is linked here, has revised his post summarizing this discriminatory section of the plan. In short: "The employer will pay the lesser of A) the average subsidy in the exchange times the number of subsidized workers or B) $400 times the total number of workers."
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