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Kennedy, a federal government employee, published his well-received children's book in 2006.

Kennedy, a federal government employee, published his well-received children's book in 2006.

            Noted children’s book author Edward M. “Ted” Kennedy died on Tuesday night at the age of 77.  Kennedy, who worked in the District of Columbia, was best known for his 2006 book My Senator and Me: A Dog’s-Eye View of Washington, D.C.  The story is narrated by a Portuguese water dog named Splash, who takes the reader on a journey through the city and explores the functions of the federal government.

            The 56-page fiction book, published by Scholastic Press, cemented Kennedy’s reputation as one of the most-admired contemporary children’s writers.  In a press release, Scholastic praised how Kennedy “rose from relative obscurity to pen a unique and touching story that is also an educational lesson” for young Americans.

            Kennedy’s writing style was both humorous and earnest, with the main character telling readers that, “If you want a friend in Washington, get a dog.”  Kennedy’s collaborator, Caldecott Medal-winning illustrator David Small, said that “If he is only known for one accomplishment, I’m glad that it is this.”

            While best recognized for My Senator and Me, Kennedy lived quietly, working for the federal government for many years.

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            President Obama has always been very clear on what he wants to see in healthcare reform: 1.) ensure that all Americans have insurance that will provide them with the care they need. 2.) Make reform deficit neutral.  And 3.) bring down the costs of healthcare expenditures for families, businesses, and the government in the long term.  Being a pragmatist, Obama has remained open to different methods of accomplishing these goals.  If the answer lay in a single payer system, he would probably support that; if the answer required as little government intervention as possible, that would be acceptable to him also.

            However, there came a point at which universal healthcare has turned into “incremental” healthcare—out of concern for fiscally conservative Democrats and Republicans.  But now, each passing week that the Senate Finance Committee cannot come up with an outline for a new system is time in which town hall protestors, Fox News commentators, and the general dynamics of next year’s midterm elections may prevent reform from occurring at all.

            Obama has given the Finance Committee negotiators until September 15 to come up with a bipartisan bill, at which point he presumably will press for action without the Republicans.  While I worry that imposing such a deadline may alienate any GOP senators who are thinking of supporting reform, there comes a point at which thoughtful deliberation turns into purposeful obstruction.  There is no point in watering down reform in order to meet Republicans at some imaginary middle point where they will say, “Okay, that’s good enough for us.”

            That point probably lies somewhere to the right of insurance cooperatives—a proposal that the small-state senators in charge of the negotiations have proposed in lieu of a public option.  Critics on the left say that co-ops will be too small to be effective competition and will have to negotiate rates with healthcare provides like private insurers.  Critics on the right, like Sen. Jon Kyl (Ariz.) are calling co-ops a “Trojan horse” that are just disguising a planned government takeover of healthcare.

            If GOP senators feel that even a concept as weak as a cooperative is too much government intervention, then I think that it is time to pull the plug on bipartisanship and return to the public option commitment.  The public plan is a compromise that liberals made after a single payer system was taken off the table.  What exactly have conservatives compromised?  The fact that they seem not to be willing to support anything other than the status quo is hardly a commitment to improving the healthcare system.

            To be fair, some Republicans are taking the reform effort seriously.  Sen. Olympia Snowe (Maine) was the only Republican on the Finance Committee not to draw a line in the sand in opposing a public option.  Like the president, she remains open-minded on the means to the overall end of accomplishing the three key goals.  Sens. Susan Collins of Maine and George Voinovich of Ohio may also be open to the Democrats’ plan.

            Realistically, the Democrats have 60 senators; they do not have 60 votes, however—meaning support from GOP moderates is key.  But in looking at the record of the current Congress, the most important votes were taken with almost solid Republican opposition: the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act in January, the stimulus package in February, and Sonia Sotomayor’s confirmation in August.  Although I don’t believe in the helpfulness of drawing strict lines, President Obama should seriously enforce the September 15 deadline.  Otherwise, he may not have another opportunity to build momentum to pass this crucial legislation.

            Some fundamental questions about the nature of the democratic process have revealed themselves over the course of the healthcare debate.  For example, how does one reform the system, as President Obama wishes to do, while still telling people that they can maintain the medical and insurance networks that they have now?  Or, why are lawmakers holding town hall meetings now to receive either affirmation or criticism from the public—after the key decisions have already been made?

            Or, why is a group of senators that represents 3 percent of the population crafting 20 percent of the healthcare bill?  That is the question The Washington Post addressed last week in looking at the Gang of Six on the Senate Finance Committee—Max Baucus (Mont.), Charles Grassley (Iowa), Kent Conrad (N.D.), Olympia Snowe (Maine), Jeff Bingaman (N.M.), and Mike Enzi (Wyo.)—who are tasked with finding a way to pay for the new system.  The potential problem is that these folks—while attempting to inject moderation between coastal liberals who yearn for a single-payer system and southern conservatives who seem perfectly satisfied with the status quo—really have the interests of a totally unrepresentative sample of the American public in mind.

         Is this fair?

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         Let’s have a little history lesson here.  James Madison, who drafted the Virginia Plan prior to the Constitutional Convention as a broad outline of an effective national government, wanted to limit the influence of states on the types of responsibilities that would fall to the federal government in three ways: 1). He wanted the House of Representatives to elect senators (a “dilution” to pick the wise and stable men who would act as a check on the tumultuous lower chamber).  This was scrapped relatively early and relatively unanimously by people who thought that—our republic representing both the people and the states—the state legislatures should be the most appropriate electors of senators.

         2.) He wanted a federal veto on state laws that, by either being bad or volatile or just plain improper, would be overridden by the national government.  He more or less got this, though not explicitly, in the form of the supremacy clause and the fact that federal courts can declare state laws as violating federal statutes.

         3.) Madison wanted proportional representation in both houses of Congress.  This was crucial, and it took him several weeks of vocal opposition to come to terms with the fact that this would not happen.  Small states threatened to walk out and one delegate from Delaware took Madison aside to tell him that if small states could not have their interests represented equally in at least one chamber, they would have to find comfort in foreign hands.  A counter-proposal by the small states called the New Jersey Plan was never seriously considered (even small states recognized that the national government needed to be stronger; consequently the only real difference between the two plans was a unicameral vs. bicameral legislature), but it was leverage the smaller states used to make their concerns heard.

            It’s not that Madison did not respect the concern about a “tyranny of the majority.” He just felt that small states’ fears were misplaced.  He asked, what could Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, and Virginia possibly have in common that would cause them to ally against the smaller states?  In his mind, divisions would be regional—North v. South.  That was where differences in economy, lifestyle, ethnicity, and, of course, slavery would arise.  Naturally, he was correct.

          Fast forwarding one hundred years or so, we can thank the composition of the Senate, for better or for worse, for the shape the nation began to take.  As Manifest Destiny took hold in the 19th century, our continent was still inhabited by the French, Spanish, and British.  What was to keep American settlers loyal as they headed west, far from the seat of the federal government—or any government for that matter?  It was the incentive that they would receive outsize influence in the Senate should they decide to apply for statehood once the population reached a sufficient size.

         The bottom line is that the way the Senate is structured is the same double-edged sword that the Founders anticipated.  Is it fair now?  No.  Was it fair then? No.  Has the Senate augmented its own importance and magnified its own dysfunctions since 1789?  Absolutely.  Is there a fix?  Only if small state senators use their disproportionate power for the greater good—that is to say, they realize that they are the beneficiaries of a two hundred year old compromise and cannot fairly impose the beliefs of a small minority on the majority.