Saturday, March 6, 2010

Disillusionment is the GOP strategy

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By Bob Williams

Writers from The Washington Post to Fox News describe a declining respect for governmental institutions. Much of this can be explained by the economic stresses many people face today.

How much dismay or disgust is there with government? Not quite as much as some hyperventilating journalists of the Fox News persuasion would have you believe. The rise in negative feelings is real and reflects rising frustration and uncertainty among Americans. Based on Pew surveys, only 40 percent say the Democrats have done well, and only 29 percent say this is true for the GOP. On the other hand, 61 percent of the respondents either favor the health plans in Congress or want Congress to continue working on them.

Many believe that government institutions are failing and Congress in particular has been ineffective and has gotten little or nothing done. This is untrue. How this misconception has arisen is worth considering. Few earlier congresses accomplished as much in one year as has this, the 111th Congress.

In health care, they provided health insurance for an additional 11 million children of low-income families. This is paid for by an increased 61-cent tax on each pack of cigarettes. They then did something only talked about by earlier congresses: They brought tobacco products under the regulation of the FDA. Third, they appropriated $19 billion to jump-start electronic health records nationwide, something advocated by Congress in 2005 but never acted upon. Fourth, they set up a program for evaluating competing medical treatments to help people get validated treatment information.

In finance, they added stringent oversight for TARP funds provided by the previous Congress but with little control attached. In personal finances, they instituted credit card regulation that just went into effect last Monday and that can protect credit card holders from the common abuses that have cost card users billions of dollars.

All of these were done early. Many were a part of the $787 billion stimulus program. Although they have gotten little credit for it, the stimulus program included a large tax cut, $288 billion of the total $787 billion. This was not expenditure in the usual sense. It was a targeted tax cut - targeted toward those who needed it most, unlike the two large tax cuts of the Bush years.

Given these and several other achievements in little over a year, why do people feel disillusionment with our government? It's due to a simple partisan strategy. The economic stimulus package was passed with no House Republicans voting for it and only three in the Senate. The Republican leadership had decided, and publicly proclaimed, that they could regain control of Congress if the Democrats failed to enact their agenda. As Rush Limbaugh said, "I hope he (President Barack Obama) fails." Republicans did not quite succeed at this with the stimulus bill, but when Democrats moved to their next agenda item - health care reform - the Party of No held its troops in line.

The minority blockage of health care reform - the exaggeration and misinformation, the sound and fury of attack - left many confused, uncertain of the truth, and often angry. The Party of No has been so encouraged by this success that its members have moved on to talk of less regulation - which brought on the Great Recession we are in; fiscal restraint - which they did not practice; a smaller government - which grew throughout their time in office. Recently, they have even reintroduced the idea of privatizing Social Security.

The conventional political wisdom is that the majority party gets blamed and suffers the fallout from whatever happens on its watch, regardless of the cause. The GOP leadership counts on this. This means the Democrats can pursue the sure-to-fail strategy of trying to show that Republican intransigence is the problem, or they can pass their major agenda item - health care reform.

Since Republicans will agree with little or nothing in President Obama's health care proposal, it is almost certain that budgetary reconciliation will be used by the Democrats to bring the proposal to an up-or-down vote that will require only a simple majority rather than 60 senators. The Bush administration used reconciliation to pass the major Bush-era tax cuts. To do this under reconciliation, the Republicans had to agree to a 10-year sunset provision on the tax cuts.

A sunset requirement could well be necessary to enact health reform under the reconciliation, which is almost certain to occur. Once a health reform package is implemented, it will be difficult for the opposition not to extend it after 10 years. But who can tell; many Republicans still hope to do away with Social Security, now in its 73rd year. We live in interesting times.

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