New article for Zahraničná politika. My other articles for them are here.
At the end of March, the United States Congress passed the long-debated health care reform legislation. Regardless of whether one supported or opposed the bill, everyone agreed that this was one of the most significant pieces of legislation to become law, on par with the Civil Rights Act of 1964 - which abolished racial discrimination and segregation - and the Social Security Act of 1965 - which created Medicare and Medicaid, the health programs for the elderly and poor families.
The new law far from guarantees health care for everyone - illegal immigrants, not a negligible group, will be excluded from participation, for example. The mandates for everyone to purchase health insurance, we are finding out, are not particularly easy to enforce, and therefore probably not as draconian as they might sound. It is also far from a "government takeover" of health care - a common criticism levied against the new plan by its opponents - because for the most part it relies on the currently existing market mechanisms to expand health coverage. Far from the earth shattering vehicle it was often painted as, the law is in essence a relatively centrist collection of incremental steps. And yet - considering the decades of trying and the number of failed attempts - this was a giant leap towards universal health care in America. Obama himself probably described it best during the signing ceremony when he said that the law is not "radical" but "major".
As one might expect after such a major event - following months of obsessive tracking of the issue aided by virtually non-stop media coverage - I went through several emotional stages in the aftermath of reform: first, there was immense joy. It seemed almost unbelievable that against all odds the Democratic leadership managed to pass reform. I have predicted the death of reform in this column multiple times precisely because it was so difficult to pass. And yet, at the 11th hour, due to a unique congruence of forces, it happened. After joy, came relief. Finally, we can move on to other things, I thought. Health care has been sucking the air out of every room in DC for the last year and now we can deal with other pressing issues. And after relief, came sadness and void. Whether you're for it or against it, health care reform became the lingua franca in US politics, the political equivalent of weather talk. As complex an issue as health care may be, over the year that it was on the forefront of political conversation it became intimately familiar to anyone who paid any attention at all. Politicians, newsmen, commentators, bloggers - many developed a level of fluency on the topic that elevated it to national urgency the same way I imagine the country once debated slavery or the war in Vietnam. It was sad to see that go. However, the bigger part of this void is also due to the nagging question: what next?
Don't get me wrong - there are plenty of issues for the Congress to take up. Take finance reform. In the aftermath of one of the greatest economic downturns in history, the great minds in DC are wondering what could be done to prevent the same kind of meltdown from happening again. Many blame the near collapse of the financial system on the deregulation of the banking industry and are thus seeking to impose new regulatory oversight; others blame it on the unrestricted growth and risks the banks took and thus want to impose certain statutory limits or taxes on the banks. The banks - surprise! - are lobbying heavily to water down any attempt at reform: "You don't understand our business", they say, "anything you do could threaten our ability to provide liquidity to the economy!" To some, the more that can be done to decrease the size and the profitability of the banking sector - and thereby its political power and ability to draw talent from the rest of the economy - the better. The House of Representatives already passed its version of financial reform in December, while the Senate is currently developing its own bill. However, if three unsuccessful efforts to start the debate of the bill of the floor of the Senate are any indication, it's going to be a long battle.
Then there is climate change. Another priority of the Obama administration is to pass energy and climate legislation that would set America on a path to reducing emissions, increasing the share of energy that comes from renewable sources and lessening the dependence on fossil fuels. While the House of Representatives has already passed a bill in June of last year, the Senate has not even considered the issue due to its preoccupation with health care and more recently with financial regulation. However, a language of the Senate bill - cosponsored by both Democrats and Republicans - could be announced soon. This would be great news for the bill - having a Republican co-sponsor would virtually guarantee passage in the Senate. Perhaps climate change could pass relatively painlessly?
Or .. not. Releasing a bipartisan proposal was indeed the plan - at least until an entirely different issue suddenly emerged out of nowhere and quite possibly derailed everything: immigration. One lovely April day, the state of Arizona passed a harsh law to deal with illegal immigrants, namely by authorizing the local police to verify citizenship of suspicious people and arresting and fining those failing to prove their legal status in the US. The resulting national outcry - combined with large Hispanic population in several key states - created an interesting opportunity for the Democrats. Why not take up immigration on the Federal level to court a key constituency? The seeds of such an idea must have been planted in some Democratic heads because the Senate leadership quickly made it clear that they are debating weather they should act on climate or immigration first. As a result, the key Republican co-sponsor of the climate legislation threaten to withdraw his support for the effort, which could kill the bill before it even hits the Senate floor. And as for immigration reform - the grave need for it is only eclipsed by its contentiousness. If the Senate really goes down that path, we are looking at another long battle.
Financial regulation, climate change, immigration - there is no shortage of critical domestic issues. So why do I still feel the void I described above? Simply because there is a decent chance that none of these issues will see any resolution in the foreseeable future. First, any vote in the Senate requires a lot of cross-party cooperation and deal making. Democrats do not have the votes to pass anything without at least a handful of Republicans. While deal making isn't impossible, it is not easy. If health reform showed anything, it was that despite rhetoric to the contrary, Republican cooperation simply cannot be relied upon. Perhaps, given the popular support for financial reform, they will tread more cautiously this time around. However, the early signs are not good: recently they voted three times in unison against starting debate of the bill in the Senate. The other takeaway from health reform is that a bipartisan process is extremely time consuming. And that is the second reason why none of these issues are likely to see resolution during this Congress: shortage of time. The mid-term election in the fall means that all legislation needs to be considered before the summer. Once we reach the August recess, there will be no appetite among lawmakers to pass legislation, both because they will want to focus on campaigning and because they will try to avoid any controversial votes. Which leaves them with roughly 3 months to do anything. In DC time, that's an eye-blink. As a reminder, it took 3 months for the Democrats in the House of Representatives to take a vote on the Senate version of the health care bill. Something that should have been an easy step but wasn't because nothing is easy and quick in the Congress.
Maybe with some combination of luck and Herculean efforts the Democrats can muster the energy and drive to act on one of these very important issues. I'd like to be positively surprised. However, the window to pass legislation on the Democratic agenda before the mid-term elections is closing rapidly. And the currently predicted losses in both the House and the Senate during those elections won't help the Democrats' ability to do anything thereafter. Thank God for the existence of the executive branch, of without it we would be looking at some pretty uneventful years ahead.