OUR NATION'S capital recently has been deep in a debate on the issue of health care. Only a few days ago, the Senate voted on a package of health-care reforms, a so-called "Patient's Bill of Rights." Rather than agree to any form of compromise, Senate Republicans decided to push their own version of the bill. In an essentially party-line vote (two Republicans defected), they succeeded in pressing their end of the debate. Democrats predictably lamented the event as a loss for all Americans. While that is not quite true, the way this bill, and indeed the entire issue of health care, has been handled stands out as a particularly unfortunate failure of American legislators in recent years.
Before we even get to the specifics of the bills, this episode already reeks of legislative incompetence. Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott's (R-Miss.) decision to ignore the bipartisan proposal that Sen. John Chafee (R-RI) put forward makes moderately good political sense, in that it gives the GOP a better chance to keep it's proposals in the final bill after the House and Senate versions are resolved. On another political angle, however, it is a ridiculous move, because it makes the Republicans appear more intransigent and enslaved to big-money industries than ever before. From the perspective of actually doing right by the people of America, his decision makes no sense at all. On an issue as important as health care, falling back on the party line is hubristic and dangerous.
Some of the competing measures make this clear. The GOP bill only covers the approximately 48 million Americans not presently covered by state regulations. This "some patients" bill of rights likely will not resolve the problems that the bill was supposedly meant to address, as most of those were issues that had arisen between those who were already insured and the companies that mistreated them. The Democratic proposal in this case was the better, actually bothering to cover all 161 million Americans who receive health care.
Another central issue was the disposition of lawsuits against HMOs. The Democratic proposal placed essentially no caps on this. Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) called this a horrible idea, and he's completely right. Doubtless, his experiences in tort-happy Alabama taught him the sometimes dangerous result of letting people sue for as much as they can get. The initial Democratic proposal would almost certainly have sent premiums into an upward spiral.
The Republican proposal, however, was just as ludicrous. Under the GOP bill, people have very limited rights when trying to sue their HMOs. This is over-the-top pandering to industry. Excessively weakening the ability of citizens to sue the corporations that wrong them denies them the most basic venue of public redress. The Republican's idea here was horrific. This issue would have been better resolved by the compromise bill, which forbade punitive damages and capped compensatory ones.
In general, the Republican excuse for their irresponsible behavior on this issue was that there was no need to legislate on the national level when state laws would suffice. Of course, unnecessary legislation should be avoided. Nonetheless, the GOP argument conveniently ignores the fact that many HMOs are multi-state enterprises. As such, it is the responsibility of Congress, not the states, to regulate them as interstate commerce.
This adds up to the fact that Senate Republicans are digging themselves a very big hole. According to CNN polls, most Americans are in favor of some reforms to health care. And while a good percent fear that the Democrats are going too far, an equal number feel that the GOP plan doesn't do enough. Had the Senate gone with the compromise plan, everyone would have been able to vote on it and claim a party victory. The political balance sheets would have been even, but that's a better outcome than the Republicans probably face now.
The most likely course of events is that the differences between the Senate and House bills will be resolved in September or October. Two things can happen at that point. The Democrats might have enough of a victory in the House that the bill that eventually reaches the White House will be a true compromise. If that happens, then the Democrats and the Republicans might go home with even scorecards.
But that's not likely. The Republicans still hold a majority in the House, and it is likely that the bill which they eventually hammer out with the Senate will mostly feature their plans. President Clinton will certainly carry out his threat to veto such a bill. Then he will turn around and use that single experience to tell the average voter all through the next year (an election year, no less) how the GOP delivered them a nice kick in the teeth, ignoring the conciliatory efforts of Democrats who wanted to win some freedoms for the American people.
Clinton always does this. Almost every adversity he has faced has been turned into a victory for himself or the Democratic Party. The Republicans, like mad bulls, refuse to learn from their past experiences and so keep on charging right into his matador's sword. Lott's insistence on the party line will come back and hurt his party in the end.
But that's not the worst part. The greatest failure is that while the parties play political football with this issue, nothing will happen, and more harm will be done. And thus closes another chapter of legislative incompetence.
(Sparky Clarkson edits the Opinion Section of The Cavalier Daily.)