Monday, March 15, 2010

Thank You Dennis Kucinich

Let’s face it, politicians can be exasperating. Politicians who run for President get a level of exposure that would make most of us run for cover.

But Dennis Kucinich is taking a drubbing for doing what more progressives should be doing: standing up for a public option as part of the health reform bill, and demanding an ERISA amendment.

This is not a simple matter of getting the health reform bill passed. Passing a health reform bill is a bare minimum requirement for the U.S. to make progress towards an acceptable level of social justice and it should be done. Today’s “Hill” reports that the votes in play are - well, most of them. There are presently 114 Democrats declaring hesitation about the bill:

Firm No, Leaning No, Likely No (36)
Firm Yes (2)
Leaning Yes (5)
Undecided (71)

We’ll come back to this.

Last November, 219 Democrats voted to pass a health reform bill, 39 voted No. The bill included a public option, and also included odious provisions limiting access to abortions. Now the speaker needs 216 “yes” votes to pass a scaled back version of the bill, with fixes in the form of a budget reconciliation bill. That means she can lose 37 Democrats.

Some history
Congressman Kucinich voted for the House bill when it went through the Education and Labor Committee. That bill included a public option and an amendment he proposed to the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA), to permit states to implement single payer systems without facing a court challenge by employers.

Employers like ERISA, they like ERISA’s provisions that preempt state legislation on employment-related health care benefits, and they would be just as happy not to see any changes to it. Passing the amendment through the Committee was not an easy task, and it came about because Republican members of Congress joined some progressives to vote yes, doubtless alert to the fact this provision alone could swell Republican political contributions, and possibly sink the bill if it came before the full House. Nevertheless, the majority of the Committee voted to accept the amendment. Under normal circumstances, that would indicate it would show up in the bill that went to the House for a vote.

You didn’t see that amendment in HR 3692. That’s because in the interim the Chamber of Congress wrote to the House leadership and pledged to oppose the entire bill if it included the ERISA amendment. The House leadership crafted a bill they thought would pass, and that did not include any changes to ERISA. This was before the recent Supreme Court decision giving corporations expansive rights to influence politics. Mr. Kucinich voted “No” on the final bill.

Getting to the Public Option

Now Mr. Kucinich says he would like to discuss changing his vote to a Yes. He wants 2 things in the House bill: A public option. And the ERISA amendment.

Turns out the majority of Americans agree with him. The most popular part of the bill is the public option, and with good reason. Skeptical as we are of the government, allergic as we are to wonkitude, we have no doubt whatsoever about what lies in store for us if we have to start forking over our premiums to the private insurance industry without the option to vote with our feet. We’ll agree to pay up to get close to universal coverage. But we want a safe, affordable haven. The public option offers that, or at least the structural hope of something like that. Despite all that, we hear no end of excuses and proclamations from our elected leaders about why we can’t have it. Last week, a local health advocacy group picketed Kucinich in his district for threatening to vote No on a bill without the P.O.

Kucinich isn’t holding out for a boondoggle, or a minority vendetta. He’s staking a claim for a policy most people want. There are 114 votes in play. One of them belongs to a progressive. Let’s see about moving the other 113. Then we can come back and thank Dennis for voting Yes on a bill we actually helped to shape.

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