Monday, January 04, 2010

Washington's white Christmas with half-measured victories

Washington, D.C., received record snow last weekend. It's rare for Washington to have a white Christmas, snow covering the ground, like in so many classic holiday movies.

According to the weather reports, it was the biggest snow storm of the last 70 years, and it brought about 40-45 cm of snow to the city. As the last weekend before Christmas, while the ornaments and the trees are out there with blinking lights, this white holiday season seemed like a fairy tale to Washingtonians as they wished Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to each other.

One does not want to wake up from this holiday numbness as one can predict the coming year, 2010, will not be less difficult than 2009 for fellow Americans. In the New Year, America has to primarily deal with Iran in foreign affairs, in addition to the two wars that are going on, and the worse job market and many more domestic issues that have to be addressed urgently.

However, in the last days of this holiday season, the U.S. Senate was able to pass the sweeping health care reform, a debate that the Americans have been going to bed and waking up with since last May.

In the face of this systemic change, which affects one-sixth of the American economy, the question is, should President Barack Obama be viewed as a reformer or a politician who knows well how the system works and simply bows to it, as many in the liberal wing of the Democratic Party like to suggest.

While analyzing the bill, Carl Bernstein, a veteran American journalist, argued that the bad news about the health care legislation process is that it showed us the systemic break-down of the American Congress, one of the three branches of the American government. The good news is that Obama understands this systemic failure and tries to govern accordingly.

And until this systemic failure is repaired, Bernstein argues, both the presidency and America will be undermined. Bernstein, in a televised interview, suggested that there is systemic corruption in the American Congress, especially in the Senate. The members of the Congress are not responsive to national or public interests, they are only responsive to the ideological and money interests to stay in the Congress.

The next step for health care legislation now is for the two Houses of the Congress to hammer out the differences in their versions of the bill and find a compromise. In comparison to the past, however, the compromise will not be sought between the Democrats and Republicans this time; it will be between the liberal and the conservative wings of the Democratic Party.

It will not be an easy step; nevertheless, the Democrats now are too close to a historic threshold to claim a victory and they should be able to bring a compromised health care bill to U.S. President Barack Obama's desk before his State of the Union address, which will take place Jan. 20.

Passing the health care package in the Senate is already being presented as a historic move by Obama. However, amid back-door deals, insurance companies' influence and special deals to the individual states, like the ones handed out to Nebraska and Louisiana, this reform process has so far proven right Bernstein's corruption arguments about the Congress rather than Obama's upbeat assessment of the bill.

According to a report in The Chicago Tribune, "at least 166 former aides from the nine congressional leadership offices and five committees were involved in shaping the current health overhaul legislation – along with at least 13 former lawmakers registered to represent at least 338 health care clients since the beginning of last year. Their health care clients spent $635 million on lobbying over the past two years."

The same report concludes that the total of insider lobbyists jumps to 278 when non-health-care firms that reported lobbying on health issues are included. "There's always a worry that [congressional aides or members] may be thinking about their future employment opportunities when dealing with these issues, particularly with health care, because the stakes are so high and the breadth of the issues is so wide – pharmacies, hospitals, doctors," said Emory University political scientist Alan Abramowitz.

With all the shortcomings, apparent corruption in Washington and of the reform package, Obama is about to sign historic legislation to bring the most significant change to the American system since 1965, when the Medicare bill was passed, which created America's state-run health scheme for the elderly.

According to the Daily Beast, this bill will give access to health coverage to 31 million more Americans in addition to the 23 million who already have such care.

And The Economist notes that insurance companies will lose the right to refuse coverage to applicants on the basis of past or present ill-heath while price discrimination against older people will be sharply scaled back.

People who favor the package enthusiastically argue that the bill, although not perfect, is something that can be built on in the future, referring to the public option that seems to have been excluded from the grand compromise period, can be added in later years.

It is still not known whether the American people or the insurance companies gained the most from this sweeping overhaul. On Dec. 18, the health care insurance companies hit the highest mark in the stock market this year.

While the public option, the government-run insurance scheme, is out of the picture, the bill still mandates every American buy insurance coverage; hence, the insurance companies' stocks went through the roof in the market, for they are set to access a record number of clients in the coming years, thanks to the lobbyists, who have proved themselves the most creative and useful workers of the year!

Obama, as Bernstein said, recognized the flaws in the legislation process and instead of working to change it or race against it, opted to work for/with it.

And he got an important half-victory in the last days of 2009. From the last curtain of the play called "the year of 2009," it can be safely argued that the Obama doctrine so far can be defined as a sum total of half measures, from dealing with China to the compromise that was reached in the Copenhagen Climate Summit, from deciding on the Afghan strategy to passing the health care bill.

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