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arlen_specterAnnals of Congressional Scum (Vol. 1) 

By Matthew Yglesias

Killing Health Reform With Kindness


Ezra Klein observes that Arlen Specter says he’s for the Wyden-Bennett approach to health care reform but also says he’s against eliminating the tax exemption for employer provided health care. Inconveniently, eliminating said deduction is part of the Wyden-Bennett plan. That’s how you pay for it.

My great fear is that this is how health care reform is going to die. A handful of very conservative members of congress may position themselves as “against” reform. But many people on the center and the right are going to say that they’re all for reform. They’re just going to be against particular things such that reform is impossible. When Barack Obama proposed reducing tax deductions for wealthy taxpayers, that idea died a swift and sudden death on the Hill. And you also don’t see Senators who are eager to start taxing health benefits. Nor do I see Senators who are eager to pay for health reform with steep cuts in defense spending or a new VAT or by raising income tax rates to above their Clinton-era levels. But I’m having trouble thinking of any other possible sources of revenue.

In other words, with all that stuff off the table, health reform dies.

Insofar as I’ve heard this discussed at all, it’s sort of been in the form of concern-trolling where people say progressives shouldn’t be expending so much energy on defending the idea of a public plan. But we should be clear on who the real villains are here—Senators in the center who killed the Obama administration’s revenue concept without either putting a new revenue concept on the table or admitting that their actions are imperiling health reform. Thus far, people have been very eager to build “momentum” for reform by trumpeting all the different people and groups who say they’re for reform. But you need to watch out for a scenario in which reform’s false friends kill it with kindness. If there’s a battle between white hats and black hats we can fight the battle and perhaps win. But if we let too many black hats inside the tent, then reform’s false friends can kill universal health care with kindness. In other words, as far as I’m concerned anyone who’s “for” health reform but “against” all the ways of paying for it is against reform. Someone who’s really for reform—like me—is for paying for reform through any reasonable measures.



  1. pseudonymous in nc Says: 
    In other words, as far as I’m concerned anyone who’s “for” health reform but “against” all the ways of paying for it is against reform                      

    Tell it to David Broder. Or the cable news anchors. Or make sure that whenever people like Ezra are on the box, they bring it back to this point.

    Remember, the script for this has nothing to do with the policy, but all to do with the kabuki, and who appears to be the most “bipartisan”. That requires loud advocacy inside and outside Congress for single-payer, i.e. for putting private insurers out of business altogether for most healthcare.

    (Or for removing Senators’ health benefits.)

    If it’s framed around creating a plan that satisfies Arlen Specter from the outset, then it’s a death of a thousand cuts. (Forget about Mutual of Omaha Nelson.) If it’s framed around creating a plan that leads to something that Specter is squeezed into accepting, as far as cloture is concerned.

  2. Jimm Says: 
    I haven’t read up on or followed the pending legislation yet, but my initial impression is negative towards cutting the business tax deduction for offering employee health insurance. It just doesn’t smell right, though I realize we do need to fund new commitments. Until and when we want employers not to be the insurer of first resort for Americans, we certainly shouldn’t take away the current tax incentives we offer for that good behavior.  I’m not saying my mind won’t change about this after reading up on the legislation and ongoing debate, but I can definitely see how on a surface level people won’t like this, employers won’t like this, and the surface level is where most people reside.
  3. JonF Says: 
    From what I can see so far the Obama administration is going push health reform through come hell or high water. They will not throw it out there and move on while it dies a death of a 1000 cuts, as happened in 1994 under the Clintons.
  4. BrklynLibrul Says: 
    This is Specter Syndrome, pure and simple: talking piously out of both sides of the mouth while preserving a reactionary center-right policy agenda, enabled by a sycophantic Beltway press corps.
  5. Al Says: 
    Wait, wait. I was assured by everybody on the left that implementing health-care reform will costless money. You know, because those health insurance companies make a profit. And they have all that paperwork. Etc. Etc.After all, we keep seeing those graphs showing how all those other countries with universal coverage spend less on health care than the US does.  Now you’re telling me it will cost more money? What gives?
  6. judd Says: 
    re: Specter, you wanted him, you got him. I thought that Obama was going to pay for Health reform with cap and trade?
  7. frankie d Says: 
    lso enabled by timid progressives who are afraid to make the arguments on behalf of their position. The argument – or non-discussion – about single payer illustrates the point. Most Democrats and progressive politicians have pretty much taken a single payer option off the table. This makes no sense.
    Even if the goal is ultimately to incorporate a public option into the existing system, at this juncture, that policy goal is dramatically hurt because single payer is supposedly
    off the table. In most negotiations, it helps to aim high and settle somewhere lower. in this instance, the smart position is pushing for single payer, while willingly settling for a public option. If you give up on a negotiating position before you’ve even entered negotiations, you will always end up losing. Democrats act as though they know nothing about negotiating from a position of strength. and with a little party discipline, they would have more than enough political muscle to push a public option through. And if they fail at this point, the question has to arise:  if not now, when?
    1. becca Says: 
      Specter mentioned recently that seniors should reconsider expensive, late-in-life medical treatments. In other words, just go ahead and die, you useless old people.         

      Pretty horrendous, considering he’s 79 and receiving lots of expensive treatment for his cancer recurrence on the public dime. The Senate is doing its damnedest to kill off those who can’t fill their campaign coffers. I hate these craven toadies just as much as they hate the average, non-leisure class American. 

      Jasper Says: May 5th, 2009 at 1:09 pm  

      This is why I say all of you progressives are lying, fake Keynesians. You aren’t sure how to pay for it now, but in the name of “stimulus” we need it now. If we’re not in recession we can afford it. So, it doesn’t matter what’s happening with the economy or how expensive a program is (except the Iraq War) as long as the government is spending the money, it’s a good idea.

    2. Healthy Markup: Pay back is fair play in my book. Reagan used the economic turmoil that greeted his arrival in Washington to great effect by putting us on a ruinous path of stagnating wages, growing economic inequality, eroding social mobility, and massive public debt. Why shouldn’t liberals use this crisis to right these past wrongs? Moreover, unlike conservatives and their voodoo economics, liberal advocacy of Keynesian measures happens to have the virtue of being correct on the merits.
    By Sam Stein (5.3.09)

    Democrats eager to see what kind of Senator Arlen Specter would be now that he has left the Republican Party likely weren’t counting their blessings after watching his appearance on “Meet the Press” this Sunday.

    The Pennsylvanian, while insisting that his switch in party affiliation was driven as much by values as politics, nevertheless came out forcefully against two of progressives’ most cherished policies.

    On the Employee Free Choice Act, which would allow for easier unionization, Specter strongly suggested — as he did during the speech announcing his party switch — that he would support a filibuster of the legislation. “I’m still against that bill,” he said. “Democrats are all for it. Republicans are all against it. I’m the critical vote. If I see that there are other issues where I feel a matter of conscience, I will continue a filibuster against legislation.”

    On a public option for health insurance — which conservatives claim will end the private market, but most observers say could bring down the costs of coverage for millions of Americans — Specter said he would be in opposition. “That’s what I said and that’s what I meant,” he added later, when asked if he would vote “no” on public health care.

    At several other points, Specter did lay out areas in which he had “diverged materially from the Republican line,” including raising the minimum wage, the stimulus package and abortion rights. But he went to great lengths to insist that he did not, as reported, tell Democratic leadership or the White House that he would be a loyal party member.

    “I did not say,” he told host David Gregory, “I would be a loyal Democrat. I did not say that.”

    Perhaps the strongest evidence of where Specter’s sentiments currently lie came when he lamented the fact that, because the GOP lacked a Senate majority from 2006 through 2008, “34 Republican judges” were “left on the table unconfirmed.”

    “The [conservative] Club for Growth has undertaken campaigns to defeat moderate Republicans in the primaries knowing that they would lose in the general election. Take one case that was slightly different on procedure and that was Linc[oln] Chafee. The Club for Growth beat Linc Chafee, made him spend his money on the primary,” Specter explained. “Had Linc Chaffee been elected in 2006, the Republican Party would have controlled the Senate in 2007 and 2008 and would have confirmed 34 Republican judges which were left on the table unconfirmed. I think that my colleague senator Olympia Snowe had it right in her New York Times op-ed piece, that you have to have a big tent.”


    But with Democrats like these, who needs Republicans?

    It’s just about time the American political system had some minimum principles.  And the first principle ought to be that treacherous scumbags like Ben Nelson should be kicked out of the Democratic party when taking up positions identical to a run-of-the-mill Republican. Demand that this kind of flotsam be expelled from the party or party tickets mean nothing….—Eds.

    By Ryan Grim: Ben Nelson Plans To Oppose Public Health Plan

    bennelson-largeSen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.) said Friday that he will oppose legislation that would give people the option of a public health insurance plan. The move puts him on the opposite side of two-thirds of Americans.

    poll released this week by Consumer Reports National Research Center showed that 66 percent of Americans back the creation of a public health plan that would compete with private plans. Nelson, in comments made to CQ, joins the 16 percent of poll respondents who said they oppose the plan.

    Nelson’s problem, he told CQ, is that the public plan would be too attractive and would hurt the private insurance plans. “At the end of the day, the public plan wins the game,” Nelson said. Including a public option in a health plan, he said, was a “deal breaker.”

    A Nelson spokesman didn’t return a call for comment.

    As he so often does, Nelson said, according to CQ, that he planned to form a “coalition of like-minded centrists opposed to the creation of a public plan, as a counterweight to Democrats pushing for it.”

    That coalition will not include 16 Democratic senators who signed a letter calling for a public plan earlier this week, including Senate leaders Dick Durbin (Ill.) and Charles Schumer (N.Y.).

    If Democrats use the reconciliation process to pass health care reform, however, Nelson’s vote would not be needed, as only a simple majority could pass the legislation.

    Ryan Grim is the author of the forthcoming book This Is Your Country On Drugs: The Secret History of Getting High in America






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