Members of Congress have one simple responsibility: to make laws. All the other stuff—cutting ribbons at new train stations, getting their pictures taken with Little League teams—provides a nice ego boost, but is superfluous at best. Thus it is a bit mystifying why, six months after President Obama’s inauguration and a decade-and-a-half after the Clinton administration’s effort, congressmen are looking to the White House for more guidance and more time on healthcare reform.
As of now, I believe there are only two committees—one in each chamber—that have yet to finalize a bill. The main sticking points are how to fund both an expansion of healthcare to the currently uninsured (deficit-neutral) and how to decrease costs over the long run (bending the curve). House Democrats are concerned about a tax on the wealthy, which some have pointed out as being unfair to small business owners, who apparently have to report their income with their revenue. The “small business” defense always arises every time the issue of raising the marginal tax rate comes up, so why can’t Congress simply fix the tax code to prevent these people from being snagged by the system, rather than forgoing a legitimate and necessary source of revenue?
Having said that, I don’t think that only the wealthy should pay for healthcare reform. Since we are creating a new public good, everyone has to pitch in. And if that means taxing health benefits for union members and other workers, then that should be part of the solution. The important part is to just do something—anything. During the Bush administration, Congress’s will to do stuff atrophied a little, as signing statements, evasions of subpoenas, and blatant disregard for regulation rebuffed the legislature’s role as a check on the executive branch. Now that Obama has given them free reign, legislators have splintered into 535 different interest groups, each with a Napoleon complex and access to partisan cable talk shows.
Being in Congress might be the only field of work in which generous deadlines can be ignored and no one is penalized. At first, a bipartisan compromise seemed like the ethical as well as the most equitable form of deal making. But now, with the Democrats feuding among themselves and the GOP determined to kill the still-ambiguous reform plan, it is useless to try talking to all but a handful of Republicans.
Where Obama can come in handy is in urging Congress not to abandon several decades worth of reform planning. To do otherwise would be letting him down, letting their country down, and letting themselves down. But as influential as Obama is, he is not going to be vote number sixty in the Senate or number 218 in the House; Democratic leaders need to instill some discipline in their ranks.
Virginia Democratic senators Jim Webb and Mark Warner are no conservatives. Webb, a former Marine, and Warner, a former business executive, are results-oriented pragmatists who happen to lie left of the ideological center. That’s why it was strange and disheartening for both men to vote in favor of Sen. John Thune’s (S.D.) amendment to a defense bill that would have irresponsibly allowed concealed firearms to be carried across state lines.
Warner’s vote in particular is disappointing because he should recognize, being a former governor, the struggles that accompany administration of the criminal justice system in any state, even without external complications such as this one. Furthermore, the amendment would have given preference to states with the loosest laws regarding firearm possession, in effect depriving state law enforcement of the ability to enforce the regulations which have been dutifully debated, voted on, and signed into existence across the country.
I’m very comfortable with ensuring protections for gun owners, but it concerns me when our senators are so afraid of getting slapped on the wrist by the NRA that they forget that the Second Amendment still has a long way to go in court before the John Thunes of the world can carry as many guns as they want wherever they want and for any purpose.