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Baucus Committee OKs a Health Bill, But Not Reform
If every kid in class finishes their homework except for one, guess which kid will get the most attention. That's right, the slacker.
And, when the slacker finally does turn in the assignment, it is invariably a slapdash job that fails to meet minimum standards.
So it is in the U.S. Senate, where the Finance Committee finally got around to finishing its health care reform assignment.
The vote on the measure -- which does not include a public option to hold insurance companies to account -- was 14-9, with all Democrats on the committee and Maine Republican Olympia Snowe voting Tuesday to toss the measure into the legislative sausage-grinder that will eventually produce final legislation for the Senate to consider.
The important thing to remember is that for all of Tuesday's attention to the finance committee vote, the full Senate will never vote on this particular measure.
Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee chair Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, has said throughout the process that "the bill that (the Finance Committee) proposes is just that - a proposal."
Harkin is too polite to state the obvious: The Finance Committee proposal is no more likely to become law than the slacker student's last-to-be-handed-in homework assignment is to be awarded academic honors.
That's a good thing because the Finance Committee bill falls far short of real health care reform. It steers billions of taxpayer dollars into the accounts of insurance companies while failing to provide a realistic, humane or fiscally-responsible alternative to their profiteering.
Of course, that embarrassing omission did not prevent the committee's chairman, Max Baucus, a Montana Democrat whose campaign accounts are overflowing with insurance-industry contributions, from hailing his "accomplishment."
Baucus has always fancied himself as the man who would define the parameters of reform. On the committee, he set up an elaborate process for achieving bipartisan "buy-in." He assured everyone that he would get all the warring camps of the Senate Democratic Caucus behind one bill. And he promised that it would be a good bill.
Baucus failed on all three counts:
1. He blew deadline after deadline, delaying action for so long that the entire reform initiative was put in jeopardy.
Baucus patted himself on the back at the start of Tuesday's final finance committee session for puttering away on the project "for 2 years now," as if that was some kind of accomplishment. It wasn't.
Instead of making it possible for the Congress to craft comprehensive legislation before the August break - and giving Americans something real to consider - Baucus delayed for so long and created so much confusion that extremists were able to take advantage of the recess to spin fantasies about "death panels," "massive tax increases" and "creeping socialism."
2. He never achieved meaningful consensus - between Democrats and Republicans and even on some issues among Democrats.
Comically, the chairman bragged on Tuesday that, "Six Members of the Committee - three Republicans and three Democrats -- held 31 meetings to try to come to consensus. We held exhaustive meetings. We met for more than 61 hours. We went the extra mile."
What Baucus did not mention was that the Democrats and Republicans who went through the "exhaustive" and time-consuming exercise did not come to any kind of consensus. (Only Snowe, a regular renegade from the Republican camp, sided with the Democrats on the committee.) In other words, it was a waste of time.
3. He produced a bill that satisfies no one and should infuriate everyone.
Even Snowe, in announcing she would vote for the measure, said: "Is this bill all that I would want? Far from it..."
The ranking Republican on the committee, Iowa Senator Chuck Grassley, said that "What this mark up has shown is that there is a clear and significant philosophical difference between the two sides."
Grassley's right, up to a point.
The point that the Iowan misses is that neither side - Republicans who oppose real reform and Democrats who favor it - look kindly on the Baucus bill. There's been every bit as much criticism of it from the Congressional Progressive Caucus members as from Grassley's "party of no" colleagues.
Even some key members of the Finance Committee -- such as West Virginia Democrat Jay Rockefeller -- did so over their own strong objections to the absence of a public option.
The problems with the Finance Committee's proposal extend far beyond the fact that it fails to establish a government-run alternative to compete with the private insurers that will be ridiculously enriched by it.
But the lack of a "public option" should make the Baucus bill a nonstarter. As insurance-industry insider turned whistleblower Wendell Potter explained in an advertisement produced by MoveOn.org, the Baucus bill would, if enacted effectively, "kill health reform."
"Take it from me," argues Potter, "the Senate Finance bill is a dream come true of the health insurance industry. If there is no public option insurance companies aren't going to change. The choice of a public health insurance option is the only way to keep insurance companies honest."
And a lot of senators know that he is right.
That's why 30 senators have signed a letter declaring their steadfast support for a robust public option. Many senators who did not sign the letter have indicated that they will back the public option that Baucus has sought to block.
There is even broader support for a public option in the House.
Perhaps that is why the other four congressional committees that produced health-care reform bills - three in the House and the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee -- have included far more robust language with regard to alternatives to for-profit insurance companies.
HELP Committee chair Harkin has not gotten as much attention as Baucus.
But Harkin got his homework done on time - his committee got its work done in July and earned compliments from the late Senator Ted Kennedy, who said: "I could not be prouder of our committee. We have done the hard work that the American people sent us here to do."
It is Harkin, not Baucus, who is the serious health-care reformer in the Senate.
It is Harkin, not Baucus, who has consistently promoted the public option and who continues to argue that it can and will be a part of any final legislation. "Look," says Harkin, "five committees have reported a bill out on healthcare. Four of them have a public option. One doesn't. So you would think the weight would be on the side of having a public option in the bill - and that's where it is."
And it is Harkin, the chairman who gets his work done on time and right, that we should be paying attention to now that Baucus has finally finished his silly sideshow.