Leader Blues

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

EDITORIAL >> Health bill goes forward

The U. S. House of Representatives passed a far-reaching health-reform bill Saturday, but by the dismaying margin of only two votes. Only one Republican, a freshman from New Orleans, voted for the bill, but the surprise was that even one left the cave.

For the first time, no Arkansan had a leading role in passing landmark social insurance, nor is it likely that this will change as the battle shifts to the Senate, where Senator Blanche Lincoln is holding out for a sweeter deal for insurance companies.

Let us remember that Senator Joe T. Robinson of Lonoke, the majority leader at the time, led the way on old-age, disability and unemployment insurance in 1935, Rep. Wilbur D. Mills of Kensett crafted the legislation creating Medicare and Medicaid in 1965, and President Bill Clinton pushed through children’s health insurance in 1997 with help from Senator Dale Bumpers of Charleston. When President Ronald Reagan raised payroll and employer taxes to shore up Social Security and unemployment insurance during the great recession of 1982-83, the entire Arkansas delegation voted with him, unapologetically.

Yes, half of Arkansas’ House delegation voted for the health bill, which will bring insurance to 35 million Americans, the poorer, working variety, and begin to tamp down the skyrocketing cost of medical care and insurance, but they seemed just a trifle apologetic. They said they would have preferred something a little different than the bill hammered out over nearly a year of dickering, but that health reform was too important for them to stand in the way. No one ever likes every provision of a bill. If everyone waited for their notion of the perfect, we would have no laws — and no country.

The two congressmen from our parts, Vic Snyder and Marion Berry, voted for the bill, though meekly, and they deserve our gratitude. Berry thought, correctly we think, that the legislation went too easy on the pharmaceutical industry, but he will reserve that fight for another day.

To no one’s surprise, Rep. John Boozman of Springdale and Rep. Mike Ross of Prescott voted no. Boozman votes in lockstep with the Republican leadership, which wants to deny the president and the Democratic Party the achievement of a promise that every Democratic candidate for president and a few Republicans made in 2008 and across decades. Ross has proclaimed himself a champion of universal health insurance since going to the House of Representatives in 2001, but it long ago became clear that there would never be a circumstance where he would actually vote to do it. Ross satisfies the hundreds of thousands in his district who need help with nice words but satisfies the special interests and wingnuts opposed to health reform with his vote.

He did the same thing six years ago with the prescription drug program for seniors. He voted against the bill that provided some insurance for drugs under Medicare because he said the bill gave the role to insurance companies and he preferred to have the government do it as a defined benefit for all seniors under Medicare. Now, his stance is just the opposite. He does not want the government to offer a policy in competition with the insurance companies.

But Ross offered his constituents all sorts of reasons for voting against their interests, even though the House had weakened the bill in many ways to meet the objections of Ross and some of the other Southern “Blue Dogs,” as they call themselves. He feared that there might be a way under the bill that an immigrant without legal papers could buy an insurance policy or be treated for illness or injury. They can now; it’s guaranteed by the equal-protection clause of the U. S. Constitution. No civilized country in the world denies medical treatment to immigrants. The health reform bill goes as far as it can to prevent it, but even that is not enough for Ross.

Ross repeated the mantra that Republicans raised throughout the long debate. We should not undertake a major initiative that would raise some taxes and impose new mandates on businesses and people when the country is in a recession and has a huge budget deficit and high unemployment. In a statement to his constituents after the vote, Ross said the country should focus on lowering the deficit and unemployment instead of starting a new program. Let’s wait for the good times, he suggested.

Would it help to remind him that he voted for all the initiatives that created the $1.2 trillion deficit except one, the unfunded prescription drug program? That includes the giant tax cut for the wealthy in 2001, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and every one of their appropriations, George W. Bush’s mammoth bailout of the financial industry, both the Bush and Obama bailouts of automakers and the economic stimulus package.

If a recession and high joblessness are the wrong times to solve big problems, would he have voted against Social Security and unemployment insurance and their taxes in 1935, when unemployment was more than twice today’s levels? Would he and all the Republicans who predict doom if health reform becomes law have voted against President Ronald Reagan’s big taxes on workers and employers to shore up Social Security and unemployment insurance in 1983, when joblessness was running higher than today?

People in the Fourth District sooner or later will get the point. Ignore his lofty talk about the terrible health crisis. The bright day when he will vote to actually solve their problems will never come.