Wednesday :: May 25, 2005

Wheelin' And Dealin'


by pessimist

Once upon a time, politicians had reputations that were so bad, only used-car salesmen were held in lower esteem. I'm not so sure that applies to the Democrats in Congress anymore - which should be a source of merriment for all purveyors of 'formerly-owned' vehicles.

It's almost too difficult to keep up with the furious flurry as agreements are being forged mostly out of the sight of the media: the fillibuster 'deal' and confirming John Bolton and Pricilla Owen ...

And now, via Kos, it looks like there is about to be a 'deal' on Social Security:

That's why insiders see a quiet consensus developing around Reform Lite. Republicans seem increasingly willing to abandon Bush-style accounts and their opposition to any tax increases. And Democrats have privately expressed a willingness to accept benefit cuts and hand Bush half a victory rather than be seen as blocking needed changes. "We are getting within striking distance of really constructive proposals," says a leading Democratic Social Security strategist.

House Social Security subcommittee Chairman Jim McCrery (R-La.) says: "I'm optimistic we're going to develop a plan."

This is the sort of talk we've heard just before every major capitulation by the Democrats. I'm beginning to wonder if they should change their name to the Munich Chamberlain Party! Just like Europe during the rise of Nazi Germany, the Democrats keep believing the promise that "This is the last time I'll ask for anything from you." and give in to the latest demand.

No wonder they're pregnant!

Kos continues:

Why any Democrat would want to give Bush "half a victory" rather than an anvil is beyond me, and completely and utterly unacceptable. Here's an issue we have used to drive Bush and his allies into the ground (helped by DeLay's ethical messes and some other side issues, as well). Here's an issue that we can ride to major electoral gains in 2006.

Liberal Oasis's Bill Sher has a good response:

In one fell swoop, Democrats should declare the following:

# The Social Security debate has ended, as the public has rejected partial privatization and is not demanding any hasty changes to the system.

# In turn, Democrats will no longer participate in congressional hearings on Social Security, and will not debate Social Security with Republicans in the media, at least until Republicans drop privatization.

# Instead, Democrats will begin addressing the real crisis of Medicare and skyrocketing health care costs, by putting on the table a few comprehensive reform plans, leading their own hearings to foster public debate and discussion about them, and culminating with a single plan for the party to run on in the 2006 congressional elections.

Why would this strategy work? Because it flows from what Democrats have already been saying.


Sher goes on to report what the Democrats have been saying in detail:

* Democrats have been arguing that "there is no crisis" in Social Security, a message that has resonated with the public.
A recent Gallup poll found that most people would rather see no Social Security plan passed this year than either a Republican plan or a Democratic one.

* Democrats also have been arguing that Medicare is the program actually in crisis.

Our government estimates that Medicare's trust fund will be exhausted in 2020, 21 years earlier than Social Security's.
This is not a partisan point. Even Social Security privatization advocates such as Republican Social Security and Medicare Trustee Thomas Saving and Independent gubernatorial candidate Tim Penny have said that Medicare is a far bigger problem than Social Security.
To join Bush in offering a Social Security proposal, while continuing to ignore Medicare, would undercut everything Democrats have been saying about the two programs.
But simple opposition is just running in place.

So, if Democrats have made the case that Medicare is in crisis and Social Security isn't, it only follows that Democrats would get to work on solving Medicare and the related problem of health care costs. The way for Democrats to keep moving forward is to declare victory on Social Security and face Medicare head on.

Democrats could hardly be accused of playing politics and lacking seriousness by proposing comprehensive health care reforms. By launching the first salvo, Democrats could frame the parameters of the Medicare debate. Going first allows Democrats to play offense on behalf of the public instead of defense.

In sum, to propose a Social Security plan would be an awkward and confusing change in course. Democrats would be taking a real political risk. But it would pay off in the respect they would earn from the mainstream media and the public.

The issue is a political minefield. To cry "crisis" and then do nothing sets the stage for Republicans to once again try to exploit a crisis dynamic, and pressure the country to accept proposals that would end government guarantees that allow all our eldest to retire with dignity. The same corporate interests and right-wing commentators that savaged President Bill Clinton's health care plans in 1994 would be back in full force.

However, none of this can work unless Democrats go cold turkey on debating and discussing Social Security with Republicans in any forum. Doing so simply kills the issue through 2006, ending all possibility of Congress passing a privatization plan. And the lack of engagement gives the media less to say about Social Security, helping turn their attention away from what isn't a crisis and on to what is (barring an outbreak of runaway brides).

Or whether Angelina really did piss off Jennifer by giving Brad a ring!

For those of us who aren't so deeply involved with People, Sher's advice rings true for these reasons:

* Medicare costs from the Bu$h changes are beginning to become evident. Easy-to-understand examples of typical health care costs are being offered to those who are generally Republican supporters. They are also more likely to be vocal and pressure their representatives for relief. This is an advantage the Democrats would be wise to exploit.

* Conservative-leaning media are looking at this health care cost issue:

The president would like us to believe that Social Security represents the worst financial catastrophe on the horizon.Meanwhile, the real nightmare that's coming true right now still hasn't been ranked as Priority No. 1. I refer, of course, to the health insurance crisis.

There are more than 45 million uninsured Americans, including 6.6 million uninsured Californians. Close to a million of the state's uninsured are children. The average price of a health insurance policy for a family of four is $10,000 a year. That doesn't take into account the companies that are changing health-care benefits for employees as costs continue to spiral. Maybe you've noticed that your co-payments have doubled or even tripled.

As defined by the Office of Management and Budget and updated for inflation using the Consumer Price Index, the average poverty threshold for a family of four in 2003 was $18,810.

If you have a chronic health problem, can you still easily afford your prescription drugs? If a tumor is discovered after your next mammogram, will your company continue to cover your health insurance when you have to miss work for many months while undergoing rounds of chemotherapy or surgery? For an increasing number of people, the answer is no.

A study released this month by the California Health Care Foundation comparing health-insurance premiums and out-of-pocket expenses to hourly wages and household spending showed that health insurance costs are unmanageable not only for low-wage workers. People at the middle-income level may also be unable to afford health care, even if they have an insurance plan at work.

Certainly, these demographic groups are other areas the Democrats could mine for support, even in the Red States.

In addition to showing the need, respectful coverage of this 'radical' health-care cost proposal is being offered:

[CA] State Sen. Sheila Kuehl, D-Los Angeles, has reintroduced a bill, SB 840, for a state-sponsored 'single payer' universal health insurance plan that has been gradually gaining support. But she said too many people still don't understand how much money we are wasting in the current system for care that's nowhere near as wonderful as we think it is. "Americans need to overcome their own mythology about how good our health care outcomes are," she said. "Check the statistics. It's not great."

In a 2000 report, the World Health Organization ranked the United States 37th out of 191 countries in terms of health-care performance -- though the country spends a higher portion of its gross domestic product on health care than any other nation.

The Mercury News goes on to present the problems causing opposition:

There has been a sea change over the past two years, with even members of the business community admitting privately that some kind of universal health care is inevitable. Yet we can't seem to get there.

There has been a lack of political will to embrace the necessary sweeping reforms despite several bills in the California Legislature that are aimed at overhauling the system. When some parts of the business community who are trying to protect their own interests start shrieking about the perils of 'state-sponsored medicine,' politicians decide it's better to stick with the broken status quo.

Never mind that we can't imagine life without Medicare, the mother of all government-run health-care programs.

This is an excellent point to be presented at the state level, especially since the states themselves are often stuck with much of the increased Medicare costs. They are, in turn, forced to pass along these higher costs to the people, and the people - already squeezed by lower income and higher expenses - have no where else to turn for redress than the government.

The following article presents one such attempt by another demographic group - retirees - to protect their own health care interests at a meeting of a local government:


Town Meeting rejects retiree health freeze

A proposal to freeze Weston's contribution to retiree health plans failed Monday night after lengthy debate during Town Meeting's third and final session.

Article 42 asked for a special act of the state Legislature that would hold the town to paying 80 percent of the premiums for Medicare supplemental plans and HMOs for employees who retired before July 1, 2009. Employees retiring after that would be entitled to maintain whatever percentage the town contributed at the time of their retirement for the first three years of their retirement.

The town began requiring eligible retirees to switch to Medicare and Medicare supplemental coverage in 2004.

Resident Nancy 'Sue' McFarland spoke in favor of the article, which she said was about giving the town's former teachers, firefighters, and police officers 'a fair shake'. "I'm very glad I'm not a retired teacher from Weston," McFarland said.

Retirees who had been paying 10 percent of their annual HMO premiums say they suddenly saw their share go up to 50 percent and their out-of-pocket costs more than double in some cases.
Lee Marsh, president of the Association of Weston Active and Retired Employees or AWARE, said the group proposed the article to ensure a written policy ... of maintaining the same contribution rates that retirees had as active employees, and prevent the town from suddenly reducing their share of the coverage.

But it was that very intention that drew fire from critics.

Citing the steep rise in health-care costs, they said the town had the right to break with past practices if fiscally necessary. "We believe that this article would, through the Legislature, tie selectmen's hands in a restrictive manner," and not allow them to make changes when needed, Finance Committee cochair Jill McCarthy said, asking voters not to approve the article.

Ann Leibowitz, who was sworn in as a selectwoman at the end of the meeting, said that as a former Polaroid employee who lost her own health benefits when the company changed hands, she could sympathize with the burden the increased rates put on the retirees. But she called Article 42 'the wrong process and the wrong result'. "It is unfair and unwise for the town to bind itself by law as Article 42 proposes," said Leibowitz. "This isn't the way for the town to commit itself for the future. . . . There are measures we can take to ensure that no retiree faces devastating costs."

Such as being a little more circumspect about what the town spends money on?

The argument that the town couldn't afford such a proposal sounded hollow to some retired town employees, who had watched previous sessions of Town Meeting appropriate $1.3 million worth of articles for tree preservation, renovation of the historic Fiske Law Office, purchases of open space, and computer and Internet upgrades. "We've heard about preserving law offices, preserving trees, and preserving farms. I'm talking about preserving retirees," said Marsh.

The article failed, with 141 votes against and 108 votes in favor.

After the measure was defeated, a clearly disappointed Marsh said AWARE would not give up. "The Finance Committee and selectmen cannot ignore this issue. They're going to have to deal with this, and they're going to have to deal with us. The lawsuit will continue," Marsh said after the meeting.

The group filed a lawsuit last year alleging that the benefits offered under the Medicare and supplemental plans are not equal to those offered by the HMO, even though retirees pay more out of pocket for the former. It has sought a temporary injunction that would bar Weston from requiring any more employees to shift to Medicare.

This is only one small example from one small American town. This is going on all over the nation, and government at every level - except the national - is forced to address the issue of increased medical care costs from all sources, including Medicare, and the results aren't satisfying to anyone.

When the times get tough, who else is there to deal with the problem but the representation of all of us?

Gar Alperovicz points out that the nation has had to do this before - and now it's time to do it again:

A nation in great pain turned to the New Deal — which, when the right moment arose, translated important state and local precedents into federal policies that ultimately transformed the nation.

Over the next two years, there will be a series of potentially dramatic theme-setting races for mayor in key cities (like the recent mayoral race in Los Angeles) and for governor in states like New York, Ohio, New Jersey and Iowa. A bold progressive ownership strategy could give new meaning to a very different conception of economic justice rooted in the notion that we are all in it together—and that our strategies need to, and can, reflect this larger vision of the good society. It might also nurture the kind of on-the-ground experience which can ultimately become the basis of the next national progressive vision. That, in fact, is precisely what happened in the boldest era of American development.

George Bush has proclaimed an “ownership society.” Do progressives have an alternative? “You can’t beat somebody with nobody”—and until progressives come up with their own strategy, what you see is what you’re going to get for a very long time indeed.

Our current “ownership society” allocates just under 50 percent of the nation’s business wealth to the top 1 percent of people. The most recent data (1999) showed that an even smaller group — a mere two-tenths of 1 percent at the very topmade more money on the sale of stocks and bonds than all other taxpayers taken together.
Moreover, the Bush ownership proposals—especially his Social Security privatization scheme and tax-reducing strategies for savings and health care—are designed to further benefit upper income groups, thereby exacerbating the present patterns. These are truly medieval patterns.

New policies may be largely blocked by conservative control at the national level, but there are reasons to believe a new approach can build power at the state and local level. This is where the rubber hits the road—and where the pain of Bush era fiscal problems, spending cut-backs and job dislocations are felt directly.

The Democrats have a huge opportunity to make gains in support if they just take a stand similar to that proposed by Bill Sher. All they have to do is lead.

Governmental figures like to claim the mantle of leader, yet they lead from the rear. They wait for the polls to tell them that it's safe to take a stand on an issue while ignoring the very real information available to a part-time unpaid volunteer blogger like me. Their own self-interests are their weakness, exploited by the ambitious through paid-trips to Pacific Isles or golfing excursions to Scotland while the people suffer. The desire to continue receiving these perquisites in trade for a few harmless votes in support of special interest legislation leads to more of the same, and the freedom to exercise one's conscience becomes severely constrained.

In this the Democrats are as complicit as the Republicans, and it may be that they are in need of a revelation that this is the wrong way to go. Maybe they will see the light if another used-car political deal breaks down on the road to Damascus. Maybe they will then see that the way to improving their chances is to improve the lot of the masses. 'Help me!' they cry, but 'Trust me!' isn't going to work with those who reply 'Show me!'

The opportunity is knocking. Democrats, open the door - before it gets locked. Or sold.


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