Columns » Ernest Dumas

Time is right for reform

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They rushed in droves in the Congress Saturday to prove H. L. Mencken's maxim that for every vexing human problem there is always one explanation that is neat, simple and wrong.

For health-care reform, the explanation was that it could not be undertaken now because the country was in an economic crisis with high unemployment and massive federal budget deficits.

One after another all day Republicans marched to the microphone to declare that the government could not undertake a mammoth effort when the deficit was exploding and unemployment was at 10 percent. The House passed the bill but by such a slim margin — two votes — that it dimmed the prospects for a comprehensive law that would put nearly everyone under the umbrella of health insurance. The Senate is a harder place still and the House dangerously close to losing the shaky consensus if the issue manages to reach a conference.

The Republicans were not alone. A handful of the Blue Dog Democrats, principally Southerners, proclaimed that they couldn't support health-care reform, or at least the bills being considered, because the mandates, costs and taxes in such a huge undertaking would be ruinous to the economy. Explaining why he voted no, Congressman Mike Ross, Arkansas's quintessential Blue Dog, said: “We must stop the out-of-control spending in Washington and begin reducing our skyrocketing national debt.” The country should be focusing on putting people back to work, not raising taxes and mandating them to get health insurance, he said.

Forget for the moment that Ross voted for every major act that produced the $1.2 trillion deficit except two, the Medicare prescription drug program and the third round of George W. Bush tax cuts in 2003. That includes the 2001 tax cut for the well off, the Iraq and Afghanistan wars and their appropriations, the bank and auto bailouts and, finally, the fiscal stimulus bill — Obama's only contribution to the deficit, incidentally, unless you count his continuation of Bush's war and tax programs and the second round of auto loans. Over on the Senate side, Sen. Blanche Lincoln, who also worries about undertaking big things when we have a big deficit, voted for every major deficit undertaking except the second Bush tax cut.

The Republican doomsayers voted for all of them except the Obama stimulus program, which accounts for only 7 percent of the recorded 2009 deficit.

But the deficit-unemployment excuse was the best argument anyone raised. The rest were distortions or lies, but the economic crisis had the advantage of sounding plausible. The United States next month will indeed enter the third year of a recession, which is apt to be the longest and deepest in 70 years, and while unemployment went down last month the Labor Department's regular seasonal adjustment raised it past 10 percent.

The rank idiocy of the excuse is the idea that hard times are the wrong time to address deep-seated national problems. They are precisely the moment to do it, and that has been historically so.

Should Franklin Roosevelt and Congress have waited until high times to enact Social Security and unemployment insurance with their fresh taxes and heavy federal obligations? Republicans thought so at the time and warned of ruin. Unemployment stood at 20.1 percent in 1935 when Congress passed Social Security, the Banking Act and a host of other federal initiatives.

The Labor Department's announcement that unemployment in October was the highest since March 1983 became a refrain in the health debate. March 1983 — wasn't that Ronald Reagan's heydey? So, it's fair to ask what would Reagan do? Better, what did Reagan do?

In the bleak days of 1982 and 1983 when the jobless rate ranged from 10 to 11 percent, Reagan got Congress to pass two of the biggest peacetime tax increases in history and a third smaller tax on motor fuel. One raised payroll and employer taxes to stabilize Social Security and mask the ballooning federal deficit. The payroll tax is the largest tax increase on working people since World War II. The taxes in the health bills will not come close to matching the taxes levied in the deep recession year of '82-'83.

On March 10, 1983, Reagan praised the bipartisan spirit of the House of Representatives in passing the massive Social Security plan with its taxes and new federal obligations — “an achievement we can all take heart from.” A month later when he signed the bill he declared it “a clear and dramatic demonstration that our system can still work when men and women of good will join together to make it work.”

Today's Republicans, and Mike Ross, would have caviled. Times are bad, deficit too high, can't do it, they would have said. The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office, by the way, calculates that the health bill would reduce the deficits by $125 billion over 10 years.

You have to wonder, could there ever be a time that is ripe for real health reform? On April 25, 2001, a young Mike Ross in one of his maiden forays into the Congressional Record decried the hardship imposed on a huge part of his congressional district because they could not get health insurance. He had visited a charitable clinic that treated poor people who didn't qualify for Medicaid and had low-paying jobs with no health benefits. Nine years later, nearly a fourth of the adults under 65 in his district are uninsured.

“Mr. Speaker,” he declared back then, “I relish the opportunity to fight against the unfair inequities that have created an enormous uninsured population ... ”

But when the time is exactly right, of course.

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