'Just Do It' can be taxing in D.C.

Why making progress on health care, foreign affairs and the financial system is harder than it looks.
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Why making progress on health care, foreign affairs and the financial system is harder than it looks.

The next two months in national politics are likely to be taxing (no pun intended) on all of us. Issues ranging from health-care or insurance reform, Afghanistan and global warming to financial-system reform will simultaneously be at center stage — and often testing our patience and understanding.

This period before New Year's will be particularly difficult because of the nature of the divisions in our country and the nature of practicing national politicians.

First, the latter.

It may come as a surprise to most voters but their elected officials, including their presidents, often have only limited knowledge of the issues with which they are dealing. This is particularly true of senators, members of Congress, and presidents coming from the legislative branch.

Typical U.S. senators become familiar with issues affecting their home state and with matters passing before the committees and subcommittees on which they serve. Thus it is typical that a legislator may know tax issues but be generally ignorant, for instance, of national security and foreign policy issues. Only those legislators with broad responsibility — for instance, Lyndon Johnson in his role as Senate majority leader, before becoming vice president and then president — generally have broad exposure to foreign, domestic, and economic issues. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Democratic Senate Leader Harry Reid fill such positions now but are more conversant with procedural than substantive matters. Many legislators follow, and vote with, someone in their own party they regard as knowledgeable on a given issue. Others simply take the path of least resistance and vote with interest groups that bring them votes and money.

Thus it is that Sen. Max Baucus, chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, has become point man for current dialogue about health-care reform. Taxing and spending issues related to such reform fall under his committee's jurisdiction.

Thus it is that President Obama, having pledged to enact health-care, cap-and-trade, and vital financial-reform measures, has left the details of those matters greatly in the hands of Democratic congressional committee chairs. During his brief time in the Senate, before becoming president, he had little direct experience with them.

This does not reflect a failing in the leaders involved. It simply is a fact of life. It also explains why incoming presidents often have difficult first years dealing with matters where they have limited prior exposure — think of President Kennedy getting embroiled in the Bay of Pigs, Berlin Crisis, and Cuban Missile Crisis; Johnson being pulled more deeply into Vietnam; President Carter starting his presidency by continuing a feud with the U.S. Corps of Engineers; President Clinton getting stuck in Somalia and Haiti. Then, of course, there was President George W. Bush, post-9/11, getting sucked into the Cheney/Rumsfeld proposals for war with Iraq.

In other words, neither our presidents, senators, nor members of Congress are philosopher kings or queens. Most are doing their best with limited knowledge and experience. Our expectations should not be too high.

Then, the matter of divisions in our country.

Obama campaigned on a bring-us-together platform but, in the presidency, quickly has reverted to a one-party strategy on legislation. His stimulus package was passed that way, as well as the three health-care bills passed in House committees, and the cap-and-trade bill in the House. Baucus made an effort in the Finance Committee to craft a bipartisan bill but could not get it done. No cap-and-trade bill has a real chance of Senate passage this year.

Polling tells a story. Republicans in the country strongly oppose health-care reform proposals. Democrats support such proposals — although there are real differences between liberal and moderate Democrats on the structure and cost of reform. Independents at present are leaning against. Those attitudes are directly reflected in the Congress.

There is a different alignment on Afghanistan, now under review within the administration. Republicans strongly support Obama's present "stay-the-course" policy; Democrats mostly oppose it. Independents are leaning against. Those attitudes, too, will be reflected in Congress if and when Obama makes a final decision on a go-or-stay policy.

Whatever your own outlook, it would be wrong to judge either political party as virtuous or evil, positive or obstructionist. Our elected leaders generally will reflect the attitudes of the constituents who got them elected.

This is Civics One, you might say. Nonetheless, it is widely misunderstood by voters of all political outlooks. Now, let's bring this down to practical terms and the issues in front of us.

Health care: Obama has been equivocal on a plan's final content — although lobbying actively for a general concept. The Congress is having a tough time getting to final legislation without his leadership. The Baucus bill offers the best chance of consensus reform. But, as of today, it lacks support in both parties. Moreover, both Democrats and Republicans are frustrated and angry at the box in which they find themselves. There still is a chance for incremental insurance-market reform which Obama can call "victory" and which will allow all to go home claiming they contributed to an outcome — either supporting or blocking provisions important to the home folk. That remains the most likely bet.

Afghanistan: Were his own party not increasingly moving toward a pullout strategy, Obama probably would be agreeing now to additional U.S. troops in Afghanistan. But Democrats' dissent has made Obama nervous and thus he is in the midst of a reassessment. Whatever the outcome here — and there should be a decision in the next month — important blocs of voters and many politicians will be mad as hell. No way to avoid it.

Financial reform: Fortunately for Obama, the financial crisis began during the tail end of the Bush presidency. Nonetheless, he has stirred populist discontent by spending subsequent trillions on financial and auto-industry bailouts and the stimulus package. And by proposing to spend another trillion on changes in the health-care system. While these other matters have been on the table, changes in financial governance and regulation have been put on hold. Suddenly, a year after the September 2008 meltdown, legislators and the media have realized that nothing important has been done to forestall a recurrence. Senate and House committees will begin hearings shortly.

There will be great pressure on the administration and the Congress to point by January to important reforms in this sector. A "we-did-nothing" posture simply will not be acceptable for incumbent lawmakers facing reelection in 2010 to bring home to their constituents. Some changes thus will be made. Whether they are real or cosmetic remains to be seen.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Ted Van Dyk

Ted Van Dyk

Ted Van Dyk has been active in national policy and politics since 1961, serving in the White House and State Department and as policy director of several Democratic presidential campaigns. He is author of Heroes, Hacks and Fools and numerous essays in national publications. You can reach him in care of editor@crosscut.com.