By now everyone knows that right-wing organizations such as "FreedomWorks," "Americans for Prosperity," and "Conservatives for Patients Rights," have organized a campaign to send hecklers to town hall meetings held by any member of Congress who might possibly vote in favor of a health care reform bill. This campaign has been boosted by right-wing media personalities like Rush Limbaugh and Lou Dobbs, who have encouraged their followers to show up at town hall meetings to shout down lawmakers.
The anti-reform protesters, whose main goal seems to be shutting down any public discussion on the topic of reform, have even admitted in some cases that they are not constituents of the lawmakers they are heckling. In other cases, those town hall protesters who claim to be merely “just a mom from a few blocks away” and “not affiliated with any political party” have turned out to be Republican party officials.
Conservatives at Town Halls, Conservatives in Congress: Same Goals, Different Methods
Now, one cannot simply assume that conservative members of Congress are just as crazed and extreme as the anti-government ideologues showing up at these town hall meetings with the intent to shut them down. Members of Congress, after all, have an image of sobriety to maintain (which is hard to do when you're hanging your opponents in effigy or making death threats against them).
So conservatives in Congress have taken a different approach to accomplish the same goal (killing reform). Instead of shutting down the discussion, conservative lawmakers want the discussion to continue... forever.
Many members of Congress have given up on the willingness of Republicans to truly change how the health insurance industry operates, but one exception is the chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, Max Baucus (D-MT). His negotiations with two other Democrats and three Republicans (the so-called "gang of six") have moved very, very slowly.
While Baucus has said he wants a bill to at least be made public by September 15, his ranking member, Charles Grassley (R-IA) has said he doesn't see the rush (after he already refused to agree to anything before the August recess).
The Rush to Compromise
Some Senate Democrats continue the rush to compromise away key elements of health care reform, even though there is little indication that this will win over their Republican colleagues. Particularly alarming are statements from certain Democratic Senators that a Senate health care reform bill will have no new taxes on individuals at all. Revenue will come from savings (which makes sense to the extent that it's possible) and from charging an excise tax on insurance companies for plans that exceed a certain cost level.
The idea that any revenue-raiser is going to be embraced by conservative members of the Senate seems a little naive to say the least. And one has to worry about the logic being employed. If the only "politically viable" taxes are those enjoying unanimous support and affection, then it's difficult to see how Congress can do anything that costs money.
So-Called Centrists Don't Seem Promising
To gauge the chances that the bipartisan approach will be successful, let's consider the three Republicans who are part of the "gang of six."
We have Senator Grassley of Iowa. He recently held up a chart on the Senate floor with a children's book drawing of a dragon to illustrate the "Debt and Deficit Dragon," and then held up another chart illustrating a character he called "Sur Taxalot." He then rambled on about how "the surtax is a large, heavy, painful weapon, and lethal to America's job engine, the goose that laid the golden egg," and said that Sur Taxalot "does nothing to slow the dragon's exponential growth."
It's hard to decide what's more objectionable: conflating numerous bedtime stories, fables and metaphors into a couple sentences, or regurgitating myths about the effects of the House's proposed surcharge on small business -- myths that have already been discredited.
Then we have Senator Mike Enzi (R-WY). In addition to being a member of the Finance Committee, he's also the ranking member of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee (you know, the Senate committee that actually approved a health care bill). During the HELP debate, Enzi offered countless amendments that essentially contradicted the most fundamental goals of reform. It's perhaps unfortunate that no Republicans could bring themselves to vote for the bill that the HELP committee eventually approved, but it would be far more unfortunate if the committee had approved no bill at all.
Then there is Olympia Snowe of Maine, who is something of an enigma. She is thought of as the quintessential centrist in the Senate. She voted against one of the key components of the Bush tax cuts, the 2003 law that slashed taxes on capital gains and dividends. But she has supported plenty of regressive tax cuts (like the proposed repeal of the estate tax) and managed to get a failing grade on CTJ's Congressional Tax Report Card covering the years of Republican control. (Grassley and Enzi each received scores of zero percent.)
Compromise with Those Who Oppose Reform?
The bottom line is that the conservatives in the Senate are likely to be about as helpful as the conservatives rushing to lawmakers' town hall meetings to shout and harass. The former hope to stretch the health care debate into infinity while the latter hope to prevent the discussion from happening, but the goal -- stopping health care reform -- seems to be the same.
Some of the so-called centrists are fundamentally opposed to progressive taxation just as they are fundamentally opposed to health care reform. Compromising on either the tax provisions or the health reform provisions may therefore prove pointless.