Leader Blues

Friday, February 26, 2010

EDITORIAL >> Dialogue was useful

It may not produce any relief for the 36 million Americans who are not insured for medical care or for the thousands more every week who lose their insurance because they are cut off or the premiums get too high, but the all-day health-care summit Thursday was historic. We would like to think it was a watershed event, too: one that leads to the reform that has eluded the country for a century and that produces more such national dialogues.

Would it not serve the nation well if from time to time the president and all the leaders of Congress of both parties assembled in front of the country and actually debated — not brayed about, but actually discussed — the burning issues of the time? It is even better than those regular televised confrontations in the House of Commons where the honorable members badger the prime minister about the course of national affairs.

For seven hours, the president of the United States, the former law school professor, led a roundtable discussion among 38 members of Congress, equally divided between the parties, on the intricacies of the deeply troubled medical and insurance systems that will soon consume 20 percent of the nation’s wealth production every year. President Obama demonstrated calm mastery of every facet of the systems and of the reform proposals of both parties, which made the Republicans so reluctant to engage in the seminar if it were going to be televised live nationally. But the Republicans, most of them, were impressive, too.

Few people could or would watch seven hours of lively but tedious discussion of any subject, but especially one so arcane.

You got a quick idea about why the bill passed by the House of Representatives was nearly 2,400 pages long, a favorite talking point of the Republicans. It can’t be, as they like to say in the Arkansas legislature, “a simple little ole bill.” If it is, you had better watch out.

Mr. Obama’s goal clearly was to create a national forum where the ideas of both parties would be so openly ventilated that it would dispel all the horror stories and fearful rumors about what the bills passed by the Democratic majorities in the House and Senate would do: the death panels, the “government takeover of health care,” Medicare benefit cuts, the mushrooming budget deficits. Insofar as the country was watching, it should have had the desired effect.

The Republicans still used those talking points — the death panels were noticeably absent — but the president politely demolished each one. One after another, the Republican congressmen talked about the mammoth costs and huge deficits the Democratic plans would produce, but the president blunted each time by pointing out that the impartial Congressional Budget Office, which the Republicans brandished when its figures favored their ideas, had concluded that both the House and Senate plans would reduce the deficits by hundreds of billions of dollars and by trillions in the second decade and that both bills would reduce the costs of insurance and medical treatment for most people who already have it.

Democrats tried to emphasize that the forum showed that the two parties were not so far apart. It was true to only one extent.

They agreed on many problems in the present system that needed somehow to be fixed. But the summit demonstrated clearly that on the central issue, they were irretrievably far apart. The Republicans do not believe that the United States should try to extend health coverage to the 36 million people who cannot or think they cannot get insurance.

The Republican plan would try to shore up coverage for people who have it now, but the others are just out of luck. The CBO estimated that over the next 10 years the GOP plan would add up to 3 million people to the insurance company rolls by letting them shop across state lines for cheap, low-benefit policies. The Democratic plans would add more than 30 million.

Obama said he hoped the Republicans would try to find common ground and enact a comprehensive plan. If not, the Democrats will have to go it alone, he implied. The first option seems farfetched. And we are dubious that the Democrats can retain a majority to pass the more moderate Senate health plan even if the Senate goes along with the reconciliation process used so often by Republicans the past 30 years to pass controversial legislation by a simple majority.

Arkansas’ vacillating congressional delegation will be little help. Either the Senate or House bill would be a bonanza for Arkansas. No state in the nation would receive more benefits or pay less for universal coverage. Arkansas would get more federal assistance to buy private insurance than any other state, and it would benefit more than any other state in the expansion of Medicaid to cover low-wage working adults.

Every Arkansas senator and congressman knows that, too. We long for the days when Arkansas’ delegates — Wilbur Mills, J. William Fulbright, Joe T. Robinson, Dale Bumpers, David Pryor — stood tall. They look like giants today.