From John Maynard Keynes's Open Letter to President Roosevelt
"You are engaged on a double task, Recovery and Reform;--recovery from the slump and the passage of those business and social reforms which are long overdue. For the first, speed and quick results are essential. The second may be urgent too; but haste will be injurious, and wisdom of long-range purpose is more necessary than immediate achievement. It will be through raising high the prestige of your administration by success in short-range Recovery, that you will have the driving force to accomplish long-range Reform. On the other hand, even wise and necessary Reform may, in some respects, impede and complicate Recovery. For it will upset the confidence of the business world and weaken their existing motives to action, before you have had time to put other motives in their place. It may over-task your bureaucratic machine, which the traditional individualism of the United States and the old "spoils system" have left none too strong. And it will confuse the thought and aim of yourself and your administration by giving you too much to think about all at once."
Health Reform and the Reconciliation Process
Washington was buzzing Friday with news that health care reform would likely be pushed through the Senate this Fall during the reconciliation process, making it immune to the risk of filibuster. Normally, the famously "collegial" Senate has sensibilities that are far too delicate to countenance interrupting a given Senator when he or she is speaking. To close debate on a bill, 60 out of 100 Senators must vote for cloture. The end result of this procedural rule is that any given bill actually needs 60 votes to pass, not 51, so long as some Senator cares enough to filibuster it*. Filibustering is good insofar as it requires Senators to produce a more bipartisan bill. However, it opens the possibility that the minority will be able to dictate to the majority in a variety of occasions. The House does not have this rule.
However, budget bills can be submitted as "reconciliation bills", which cannot be filibustered. A reconciliation budget will specify certain legislative committees that need to bring certain pieces of legislation into alignment with the budget bill. So for example, this year's budget bill may say "we will spend X amount of money on health care", and specify that the committee that deals with health care bring the law in line with the spending requirements. These changes in health care law will then be passed without the risk of filibuster as well. This means that health care reform may be passed this year with 51 votes (which the Democrats easily have), rather than 60 (which they can't count on). It may come as a surprise to most Americans that this is even a major piece of news - isn't the majority always supposed to rule? Yes... except in the United States Senate.
Republicans are predictably suggesting that this is heavy handed and inappropriate. Why is this response predictable? Because it's exactly how the Democrats responded when the Republicans used the reconciliation process to push through the Bush tax cuts.... and most of Clinton's budgets... and most of Reagan's budgets. The false outrage over the reconciliation process is old hat in Washington. I personally have no problem with the Democrats using the reconciliation process - I wouldn't mind seeing filibusters eliminated from the Senate entirely. They have some moderating benefits, but they are inherently undemocratic. Republicans shouldn't be ashamed for using them to pass tax cuts under Bush, and they shouldn't be outraged that Democrats are using them now. But let's get past all this... why do I start by quoting a note of caution that Keynes offered to Roosevelt in the 1930s?
Reform and Recovery
The reconciliation process essentially guarantees that we will see some sort of health care reform this year. It may be a monumental overhaul, or it may be a first step towards a monumental overhaul. Right now we don't know. Health care reform is desperately needed in this country, no matter what side of the aisle you're on. We pay far more for the care we receive than any other country, and tens of millions of Americans don't have any health insurance. Higher costs and lower coverage are an explosive combination. These rising health care costs are also a burden on U.S. businesses who provide most of the coverage in the U.S.. Whatever the failings of the health care systems of our peer nations, they have been more successful at keeping costs down, which means that their businesses can operate that much more efficiently than ours can. Health care reform is unambiguously an imperative right now.
But another imperative is recovery from the current recession. Despite the upbeat talk of President Obama and Fed Chair Bernanke recently, most analysts think that we have not bottomed out yet, and when we do the recovery will be drawn out, rather than rapid. The ubiquitous Depression analogies aren't made to scare people, but they are made for a reason - this downturn will end up being substantial, and like the Depression there is no real prospect that the recovery will be swift. Those who write off double digit unemployment are fooling themselves. The "real economy" hasn't even bottomed out yet, and unemployment won't stop rising until well after the "real economy" has reached it's trough and started climbing again for at least a couple quarters.
Many people see the problem as steering deftly between the Scylla of a broken health care system and the Charybdis of a once (more likely twice) in a lifetime economic downturn. I think this understanding of the situation is incorrect. Health care is obviously a problem in this country - but is it a problem that throws millions out of work in a matter of months? Is it a problem that destroys a third of a family's savings? Is it a problem that will grow exponentially worse if it is allowed to fester for another year or two or three? No. If we are still at the bottom of this hole in 2011 or 2012, history will remember this as the Second Great Depression, and the future prospects of capitalism will truly be in jeopardy. If we maintain the current health care system through 2011 or 2012, how will history remember us? Perhaps as lazy. Perhaps that we missed an opportunity. Perhaps even that we are uncaring and primitive. It will probably look at us the same way that we look back to the sluggish adoption of Social Security and unemployment insurance in this country; unnecessarily slow, but since the change was inevitable, the delay is ultimately just remembered as an artifact of history. We have had somewhere around 40 to 50 million uninsured for years. It is a burden and it is a crisis, but that crisis clearly lacks the immediacy or urgency of the economic crisis.
We did elect Obama for a double task: reform and recovery. But his mandate for reform and recovery doesn't mean that both need to be done within ten months of taking office.
What is to be done?
I, like the vast majority of Americans, am suspicious of what's called a "single payer", public health insurance system. Thankfully, Barack Obama and the United States Congress also seem to be wary of such a course. We know that the market is too efficient to completely abandon. But there are problems that public policy can help to address. While Americans shouldn't be required to purchase government health care, we can think about making some sort of subsidized public insurance available to the 50 million people who are uninsured. The externalities of public health may justify mandating health insurance coverage, either from a public or private source - much like many states already do with car insurance. We can think about eliminating the tax privileges currently afforded to employer provided health benefits, which encourage sub-optimal over-consumption of health care and hide the true costs of care. We can imagine the benefits of a system of electronic health records, and we can conceive a potential role for government in jump-starting this process. There is a lot we can potentially do, but there are no silver bullets. I think this suggests that we act, but also that we discuss and deliberate. The "experts" have discussed our options for years - at least since the aborted attempt at health care reform spearheaded by the current Secretary of State in 1993. But our elected representatives have not had a real debate on the finer points of health reform, probably since that debate on the Clinton plan fifteen years ago.
If we don't act immediately to address the economic crisis, we could easily slip into a cycle of deflation, rising debt burdens, rising unemployment, and further deflation. A moment of hesitation could make this recession much worse. Can we say the same for health reform? Of course not? A moment's hesitation - even a year's hesitation, or two year's hesitation will probably find us about where we are today: with a health care system that could be vastly improved on a number of measures, but that generally keeps Americans healthy. What would a rush to reform health care risk? It risks leaving us with an equally poorly conceived system that we're likely to be stuck with for years or even decades to come.
I will note, this is not meant to suggest that there is no risk associated with rushing a program of economic recovery. Hindsight will certainly show us that there were major problems with TARP, TALF, ARRA, and every other "rescue" that's been rolled out since the summer of 2008. We will pay a price for these problems. But I would argue that these problems are far outweighed by the problems that would have emerged if we had waited longer to do something. I think the risks are flipped when it comes to reforms in general, and health care reforms in particular. Prudence and careful consideration will pay off. Obama should not rush into this (nor should he rush into education reform, finance regulatory reform, etc. etc.).
*The Washington buzz of Tuesday, the 28th (which absolutely swamps the events of last Friday in overal buzziness) largely negates the buzz on reconciliation of Friday, the 24th. Republican Senator Arlen Specter announced that he is changing his affiliation to Democratic, virtually assuring that by the Fall (when Al Franken will in all likelihood be seated), the Democrats will have a filibuster-proof majority anyway.