RSS
Does Obama want a deal or a war?
 

“Anything important passes the Senate 70-30 or it does not pass at all.”

Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan administered that warning to Hillary Clinton on the eve of the health care debacle of 1994. His advice proved true then, and it probably still holds today.

Yet the Obama administration seems bent on disregarding it. The Washington Post reported Wednesday that the administration is planning on ramming through colossal new health and energy plans with a tactic that would cut short debate and preclude amendments.

The Washington Post:

The shortcut, known as "budget reconciliation," would allow Obama's health and energy proposals to be rolled into a bill that cannot be filibustered, meaning Democrats could push it through the Senate with 51 votes, instead of the usual 60. Presidents Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton both used the tactic to win deficit-reduction packages, while George W. Bush used it to push through his signature tax cuts.

Administration officials say they have not made a final decision about whether to use the maneuver. But White House budget director Peter R. Orszag said yesterday that it is "premature to be taking it off the table." Meanwhile, key administration officials, including White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel, are pushing for reconciliation instructions in the budget proposal that Democrats are scheduled to unveil next week, congressional sources said.

Simply put, the plan is to treat the U.S. Congress the way the original Mayor Daley treated the Chicago City Council. The plan would disenfranchise not only Republicans, but also the more moderate Democrats so carefully recruited by Rahm Emanuel himself in the 2004, 2006 and 2008 election cycles. If carried into effect, it would expose moderate Democrats—the Jon Testers and Brad Schulers—as saps and suckers, gulled into thinking they would be allowed to represent their constituents instead of getting rolled by their own leaders’ parliamentary tactics.

President Bush discovered in 2005 that he could not push through Social Security or immigration reform without persuading the country first.

And he discovered in 2005 and 2006 the horrible political costs of having taken the country to war without a full and open debate and a broad political consensus.

If the Obama administration repeats those mistakes, they will repeat the consequences.

Contemplating this looming conflict, the partisan Republican in me says: “Bring it on!” The ideological hubris and political recklessness in such an approach will cost the Democrats and the Obama administration dearly.

But after more settled thought, I hope they would repudiate the Chicago Way in favor of the consensus approach. The issues the Obama administration has identified are important. The country does need to control health care costs—and we do need a program to reduce carbon emissions and to accelerate the shift away from fossil fuels.

For both these projects, there is a 70-vote consensus that could be built.

On health care, for example, the administration could develop the ideas advanced by Senators Robert Bennett (R., Utah) and Ron Wyden (D., Ore.) to encourage employers to raise employee salaries by an amount equal to the value of the health benefits they pay—and then to create a competitive national marketplace in which employees could buy health insurance plans for themselves.

Conservatives (and Wyden) want to emancipate as many insurers as possible to offer the widest diversity of plans, everything from barebones plans at rock-bottom prices to gold-plated service at full price, with insurers incentivized to deliver improving service at declining prices—much like markets for every other good and service.

I think most conservatives would accept that the more than $1 trillion per year that the state and federal governments already pay toward health insurance (Medicare + Medicaid + Indian health + veterans benefits + the tax exclusion for employer-provided insurance) offers ample scope for subsidizing the insurance needs of poorer Americans. Indeed, the idea of taxing high-value health plans and redistributing the money to needy patients originated at the Heritage Foundation almost 20 years ago!

But regulation must be held to a minimum lest it stifle cost-saving innovation. And we will oppose to the last any attempt to introduce a government-run insurer into the competition. Such an entity would compete on unfavorable terms with private insurers and eventually monopolize the industry.

There can be a deal on health care reform—or there can be a war. It seems more sensible to choose the deal.

Ditto on climate. The Obama administration seems to imagine that it can use the climate issue to impose a vast regime of federal control on the entire energy industry. Utilities will be given quotas on how much electricity they must buy from wind or solar, with the costs embedded in customers’ bills and the entire regulatory system and its consequences hidden from view. Federal subsidies and controls will govern and distort the industry.

The entire plan is premised on what most energy economists dismiss as childish fantasies: (1) that so-called renewables will ever provide cost-effective power and (2) that U.S. electricity use can be substantially reduced. And yet here, too, there is a deal to be done.

It’s possible to curb carbon emissions in a way that is transparent, consistent with economic rationality, and that actually reduces burdens on the taxpayer. It is the carbon tax: a levy that can be imposed at the producer/importer level on every ton of coal, every barrel of oil and every thousand cubic feet of gas. A carbon tax would raise the price of those fuels and encourage conservation and substitution—especially substitution by the next-cheapest fuel sources, hydropower and nuclear power. (Wind and solar, which generally cost almost ten times as much as coal, would remain boutique options.)

Everyone would know what carbon abatement costs—and the money collected could be paid into the federal treasury to offset other taxes, starting with the Social Security payroll tax.

This concept carries wide and growing support on the right side of the aisle. It offers hope for climate improvement without the kind of government intervention that burdens a wealth-producing economy. And it, too, offers the option of a political deal in lieu of ideological war.

President Obama can make statesmanlike choices to achieve consensus problem-solving. Or he can resort to the thug tactics developed in the most corrupt city in the northern United States. It would seem an easy call. Yet he’s lingering over bad option B. I wonder why?

 

THE WEEK'S AUDIOPHILE PODCASTS: LISTEN SMARTER

Subscribe to the Week