Republicans and Democratics draft a bill to solve the single most pressing issue of the day. Working closely and amically they speed it to the the President's desk, he signs it and the bill becomes law. Amidst the rancor over health care legislation, this might seem like an echo of a bygone era. In fact, it happened on Thursday when the President signed the $30 billion jobs bill into law.
In a week dominated by a divisive healthcare debate, the passage of the jobs bill--equal to a large share of discretionary spending--did not receive its due. But it shows that democracy of the type envisioned by the Founders is alive and well. The bill is important for what it does--create jobs--but also because it disproves two myths that have gained currency in recent days: that the ability of the Obama Administration to govern depends on the healthcare vote and that the American system is broken. In fact, the passage of the jobs bill shows that when an emergency exists as is the case with unemployment today and a consensus is present, the venerable American democracy works. Even more to the point, it reinforces the fact that the difficulty of moving healthcare legislation is due not to a flaw in our system but rather to legitimate and principled policy differences surrounding how best to tackle a highly complex issue.
For months now, polls have shown public support for reform in general but opposition to the mix of provisions in the House and Senate bills. Opposition by the public has carried over to the views of elected officials. On the left, many believe that ordering people to purchase insurance from a private company under penalty of law is not the same thing as giving them a healthcare benefit. (I share this concern.) On the right, others seek less government involvement in healthcare, not more. Yet another group opposed federal funding of abortions. Supporters of the bills, in contrast, believe that the bills while they may not be perfect satisfactorily balance tradeoffs. Either way, the debate over the bills is not about politics but rather driven by all too real policy differences.
Notwithstanding these policy differences, as time has gone on, both supporters and opponents of the bill have tried to frame the issue in political terms. Supporters have described passage as critical to the future of the Obama Administration. Opponents meanwhile have argued that blocking passage of the bill is a way to stop Obama. Both contentions are equally false as the job bill shows. The President will have numerous opportunities to pass other legislation in coming years providing the legislation addresses an immediate concern and the President can secure a measure of consensus.
Going further, some have suggested failure to move the bill shows the US system is flawed or broken. Tom Friedman went so far as to suggest on Meet the Press that the US system compares unfavorably with China's because China can make topd own decisions. In coming years the American democracy will face increasing pressure from the demonstration effect of China's surging authoritarian economy. But this suggestion is also flawed as demonstrated by the fact that Congress is fully capable of moving legislation where there is policy consensus--which is what our democracy was designed to do. The system has resisted moving healthcare legislation not because it can't do what the people desire but precisely because the American people, by a plurality, oppose the bills.
This is not to downplay the politics of the issue. Many Members, particularly moderates in swing districts, face the real prospect of losing their jobs. But ultimately not only are the politics extraordinarily complex involving many variables, the politics follows the policy. In a world of uncertain politics, the safest course is to pursue the best policy.
In his book, Profiles in Courage, then Senator John F. Kennedy quoted Daniel Webster that "there is one sort of inconsistency that is culpable: it is the inconsistency between a man's conviction and his vote, between his conscience and his conduct". On Sunday, those Members who believe that the proposed legislation is the best thing for America should proudly cast their votes in favor. Those who believe that the health care bills may do more harm than good should proudly cast their votes against. On a matter of this significance, members can do no better than to proudly and unapologetically vote their conscience.
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