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The Nation

Baucus Committee OKs a Health Bill, But Not Reform

John Nichols

U.S. Senator Tom Harkin (D-IA.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." (REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst)

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

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

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.


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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, 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."

Potter's right.

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.

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