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Ron Wyden: Forging Common Ground on Medicare Reform

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When Democratic Senator Ron Wyden of Oregon partnered with Representative Paul Ryan, Republican of Wisconsin, to propose Medicare reform, Wyden was promptly denounced by New York Times columnist and Nobel Economics laureate Paul Krugman as a "useful idiot" who did "a bad, bad thing." Senator Sherrod Brown, Democrat of Ohio, dismissed the initiative as "lipstick on the pig," and Representative Pete Stark (D-California) hyperventilated that the new proposal "ends Medicare as we know it, plain and simple."

Not to be outdone, Dean Clancy, a Tea Party health policy analyst, wrote that, "I fear it's not the brainy Ryan who has pulled off a coup, but rather the wily Wyden, a dyed-in-the-wool progressive who makes no secret of wanting single-payer, government-run health care."

In contrast, Mitt Romney, who knows something about health care legislation, welcomed the Ryan-Wyden proposal, which is not too far removed from a Medicare reform plan the former Massachusetts Governor had put forward earlier, as "an enormous achievement."

The Ryan-Wyden plan would offer seniors, beginning in 2022, the option of choosing from Medicare-approved private plans in addition to the existing, traditional Medicare plan. Under Ryan-Wyden, wealthier seniors would eventually receive less government assistance, but participating plans would be prohibited from denying coverage based on pre-existing conditions or from charging discriminatory rates based on a senior's medical condition.

As it happens, Wyden is no conservative Democrat like Senators Ben Nelson of Nebraska and Mary Landrieu of Louisiana, who have often broken ranks to vote with Republicans. Wyden is an independent-minded political centrist with a long and strong pro-business, consumer-oriented track record and solid credentials in the arena of health care reform who has authored over 150 bipartisan pieces of legislation since entering the Senate in 1996. He has received a 100% rating from NARAL Pro-Choice America for his stance on reproductive rights, and was one of only 14 Senators to vote against the Defense of Marriage Act. In September 2005 he voted to confirm John Roberts as Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, but four months later voted against confirming Samuel Alito as Associate Justice.

Wyden is the son of two Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany. Before being elected to Congress in 1980, he founded and headed the Oregon chapter of Gray Panthers, an advocacy group for seniors and retirees, and was director of the Oregon Legal Services Center for the Elderly. In the past, he proposed a health care plan, the Healthy Americans Act, which, according to Time Magazine's Joe Klein, "would have moved us past our clunky and decrepit employer-based system, was more radical than Obamacare, but would have liberated U.S. businesses from the burden of providing health care for their employees while providing a universal progressive voucher system."

(In the interest of full disclosure, I have met Senator Wyden several times, and contributed to his 2010 reelection campaign.)

Wyden is adamant that "Medicare is the most important fiber in the social safety net. I would never do anything to shred it, weaken it or harm it in any way. Our proposal places traditional Medicare, long supported by progressives, alongside a menu of private alternatives that provide the choice and competition long supported by conservatives."

Perhaps the most serious problem with the contemporary American political landscape is that far too many prominent Democrats and Republicans alike seem to have devolved in counter-Darwinian fashion to cliché-ridden sound-bite spouting exponents of unimaginative insipid dogma. My way or the high way has become the safe option, ensuring both continued grid-lock and a refusal to even consider original ideas that do not conform to or promote a pre-set political agenda, whether from the right or the left.

President Obama has called for "a spirit of common cause" by members of "both parties," but political compromise, a coming together in the interest of a greater good, has become an anachronism. Never mind that Ronald Reagan and House Speaker Tip O'Neill found ways to work together, or that some of the major successes of the Clinton administration were the result of substantive give-and-take on both sides of the aisle. Gone are most moderates like Senator Evan Bayh (D-Indiana) and Representative Chris Shays (R.-Conn.) who could forge alliances across party lines. In this environment, the Senate vote to extend the payroll tax cut for two months, without any assurance that the House will follow suit, is considered a major bipartisan accomplishment.

I do not claim to be a health care authority. The Ryan-Wyden Medicare reform plan may well be less than perfect. But we know that all or nothing will in the end get us nothing. Ron Wyden and Paul Ryan deserve praise, not scorn, for at least trying to chart a path out of the quagmire.

Menachem Z. Rosensaft is Adjunct Professor of Law at Cornell Law School, Lecturer in Law at Columbia Law School, and Distinguished Visiting Lecturer at Syracuse University College of Law

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