Tuesday, January 12, 2010

India's Uneducated Villagers and the American Congress

By Dinesh Shah

As I look at US Congress voting on the Healthcare bill without reading what’s in it, I can’t help thinking of India’s uneducated villagers voting in India’s elections. Earlier this year, the House of Representatives voted on this bill. Most members voted without having first read it. Now the US Senate, too, has approved the bill without knowing what’s in it.

In India where I grew up, the Constitutional democracy was established in 1950. During the first couple of decades the Congress party (then officially known as the Indian National Congress), won the majority and hence the privilege to elect the PM. Most notable leaders of the Independence movement belonged to the party. So, riding the wave of post-independence patriotic passions, it would have been natural for the Congress party to win, as these leaders were well liked and looked up to.

But although they were well liked and respected, it was not enough to ensure victory at the ballot box. The majority of the population lived in rural areas, uneducated and unable to read even the candidates’ names on the ballot. So, there had to be a fail-proof way to translate the party’s popularity into votes, to ensure that villagers voted for the right candidate and right party.

The Congress Party’s symbol “Two Bullocks with Yoke” helped overcome that hurdle. To rural villagers, “Two Bullocks with Yoke” symbolized plowing/farming, and hence prosperity. Two-Bullocks occupied the top-rung position in voters’ minds in the days well before the positioning concept was popularized by Al Ries and Jack Trout.

Voters were constantly hammered with a message to just put their voting stamp on the “Two Bullocks” symbol. It didn’t matter who the candidates were. This made it convenient for politicians to campaign and easier for uneducated voters to remember what to do. A voting stamp? Yes, it meant not having hanging chad problems even in those early primitive days.

Today, the words “Health care” in the bill’ title is the American equivalent of the Two Bullocks symbol. Congress, not unlike India’s uneducated villagers, is hammered by the President, House and Senate leaders to just vote “Yes” – to put their stamp of approval on the bill – without having ever read it.

Indian villagers were uneducated and couldn’t read the ballot even if they wanted to. America’s Congress is mostly made up of highly educated lawyers. So, what is their excuse? In reality, how are these supposed erudite solons any different from those uneducated Indian villagers? These representatives are expected not only to read the documents, but to thoroughly understand all the pros and cons before casting their vote. They are predominantly lawyers who would fight in courts on behalf of their clients to nullify any contracts being signed before being fully read or understood. Yet, they blithely shirk such a basic responsibility.

In the private sector, executives and professionals are disciplined for misconduct, often by their respective professional organizations and sometimes by law. Shouldn’t members of Congress be subject to similar discipline? Has the American Bar Association stated its position on such misconduct by its members? Organizations that don’t take corrective actions end up destroying themselves, ruining lives and destroying investments. Think of Enron, Madoff, housing and the sub-prime lending industry, just to name a few. Can the American Congress and hence America survive?

What is the people’s recourse? The only solution bandied about so far is to wait until the next election cycle. Live with it until the next November and take chances with the unpredictable memory and mood of the fickle population?

Perhaps it’s time to revisit the Constitution for a little timely updating. Maybe it’s time for a “Read to Lead" Amendment. In short, those who won’t read can’t lead. I jest, of course. But, the truth is: since Congress sets its own rules of conduct, it should surely establish such baseline standards – even if it takes an occasional pop quiz to enforce them. Oh, how low the Republic has sunk!


Grassroots disappointment with Obamacare

Donny Seyfer, the manager of an auto repair shop here, had high hopes when President Obama and Congress tackled health care as their top priority early last year. “This is good,” Mr. Seyfer remembers thinking. He expected Congress to “find out what Americans wanted.” But, he said in an interview at his shop, the Congressional debate deteriorated into a partisan brawl, and Congress has virtually ignored his biggest concern: holding down health costs. “I am an automotive diagnostician,” Mr. Seyfer said. “We look for the root cause of problems. If we treat the symptoms, the problem always comes back. With health care, we are not treating the root cause: Why does it cost so much?”

Mr. Seyfer’s disappointment was echoed in dozens of interviews here and in Fort Collins, Colo. People from both sides of the political spectrum — and apolitical consumers — said they were deeply skeptical about the health care bill being put together by Congress and the White House.

The concern illustrates the challenge Mr. Obama and Democratic lawmakers face in trying to meld House and Senate bills in a way that can be sold to the public. All kinds of issues are still in play, from how to cover abortion to whether to tax high-cost health plans.

President Obama hopes to sign a bill that guarantees access to insurance, outlaws the denial of coverage for pre-existing conditions and subsidizes premiums for many low- and middle-income people. Heading into Congressional elections this fall, Democrats hope voters will reward them for a historic achievement.

But Republicans are already using the bill as ammunition against Democrats who voted for it, like Senator Michael Bennet of Colorado. About 800,000 Colorado residents, representing one-sixth of the state’s population, are uninsured. The state’s politics are mixed and somewhat unpredictable. Colorado has a sizable contingent of people who want a single-payer government-financed health care system, as well as libertarians and Tea Party protesters opposed to big government.

Few of those interviewed here expect to see direct benefits from the legislation. Many complained of sweetheart deals done to win votes in the Senate. Liberals and conservatives alike said Congress was too influenced by special interests.

Tamara L. Kirch, who is uninsured and stands to benefit from the legislation, bristled at the proposed requirement to buy insurance. “We have a frontier mentality,” Ms. Kirch said. “I don’t want the government telling me what to do.” (She feels the same way about abortion: “The government should not tell a woman what to do with her womb.”)

Democrats, Republicans and independents each account for about one-third of registered voters in Colorado. Mr. Obama carried the state with 54 percent of the vote in 2008. But Gov. Bill Ritter Jr., a Democrat who was facing a tough fight for re-election, pulled out of the race last week.

Representative Diana DeGette, a Democrat from Denver, is a champion of the bill passed by the House in November. But Representative Betsy Markey, a freshman Democrat from the district that includes Fort Collins, voted against it, saying the bill did not do enough to cut costs.

Ron Vaughn, who provides health insurance to his 60 employees at Argonaut Wine and Liquor near the state Capitol, said: “I’m a middle-of-the-road kind of guy. I want the Democrats out of my pocket and Republicans out of my bedroom. The one word I would use for what’s going on in Washington is embarrassing. I am embarrassed for Republicans and for Democrats. They started out on the right foot, but it’s degenerated. “Republicans misled people and tried to scare seniors by putting out misinformation about death panels,” Mr. Vaughn said. “Then to pass a bill in the Senate, Democrats stooped to bartering for votes. It demeans the whole process.”

James W. Noon, who runs a packaging supply business here, said he was irked to see Senate leaders secure votes by promising extra Medicaid money to Nebraska and Louisiana. “Don’t they realize how dumb that looks?” said Mr. Noon, a Republican.

Michael R. Stone, a private investigator who describes himself as a political independent, was bothered by those deals, too. “President Obama campaigned on a promise to change the way things are done in Washington,” Mr. Stone said. “But it seems like business as usual to me.”

Richard F. Barkey, a former chairman of the Jefferson County Democratic Party and a leader of the advocacy group Health Care for All Colorado, said: “We had huge expectations for President Obama and the Democrats in Congress. But they could not build a dam big enough to stop the flood of money from corporate interests that have influenced the health care debate.” Eliza Carney, a member of the same group, said, “Obama and his administration have really — I won’t say betrayed, but — disappointed us.”

More here

Even in Massachusetts, weak support for Dem health care bill

The race to replace the late Sen. Ted Kennedy in Massachusetts is shaping up as a referendum on health care reform. If you look inside the numbers of the Boston Globe poll -- the one that has Democrat Martha Coakley leading Republican Scott Brown by 15 percentage points -- you'll see that more voters name health care reform as the election's top important issue than name jobs and the economy. That's a striking reversal of opinion among the American public overall. And just 43 percent of Massachusetts voters support the Democratic national health care plan now making its way through Congress, versus 36 percent who oppose. In one of the bluest states in the country -- and one with up-close experience with a state health care regime that resembles the plan under consideration for the nation as a whole -- that is strikingly weak support. And that support is pretty much limited to Democrats; independents and Republicans are opposed.

Breaking down opinion by party, 65 percent of Democrats support reform, while 11 percent say they oppose it and 20 percent say they don't know. Among independents, 33 percent favor reform, while 43 percent oppose it and 23 percent say they don't know. And among Republicans, five percent favor reform, while 82 percent oppose it and 10 percent say they don't know.

Looking a little more closely at the numbers, it's clear that opponents of reform are far, far more intense in their feelings than supporters. Among Republicans, 65 percent say they strongly oppose reform, while 17 percent say they somewhat oppose it (making for that total of 82 percent opposed). Among Democrats, just 28 percent say they strongly support reform, while 37 percent say they somewhat favor it (making for the 65 percent total figure). Among independents, 29 percent strongly oppose it, while just 13 percent strongly support it.

That intensity of opposition likely accounts for the poll's finding that Massachusetts voters believe health care reform, and not the economy, is the most important issue in the race. Among all voters, 31 percent name health care reform as the most important issue, while 27 percent say jobs and the economy. Thirty-five percent of Republican voters name health care reform as the most important issue, versus 20 percent who say jobs and the economy. Among independents, 29 percent name health care reform, versus 23 percent who say jobs and the economy. Among Democrats, 29 percent say health care reform, versus 32 percent who say jobs and the economy.

The bottom line: In a state where support for the Democratic national health care plan should be strongest, the current bills making their way through Congress cannot muster majority support. If Coakley is elected, she will cast the 60th and decisive vote in the Senate to pass a plan that not even half the people in her home state support.


Big Labor to Obama: Don’t tax us for health “reform” scam we supported

Underscoring a rift in the Democratic political coalition, national labor leaders met with President Obama on Monday and raised objections to a proposed tax they said would harm union members and cause a backlash in the 2010 mid-term elections. Obama has come out in favor of the so-called "Cadillac tax" that is part of the healthcare bill passed by the Senate. The tax, meant to help finance the healthcare overhaul, would apply to the most expensive insurance plans.

The House has come up with an alternative approach: a new surtax on single taxpayers making more than $500,000 a year and couples earning more than $1 million. The two bodies are working out a compromise behind closed doors.

The dozen labor leaders who spent two hours with Obama and White House officials in the Roosevelt Room said they preferred the surtax on wealthy Americans, according to a person familiar with the meeting. They also told Obama that the healthcare "exchanges" envisioned in the bill, intended to help many Americans buy insurance policies, should be national in scope--not state-based--so as to provide more competition to the insurance industry, the person said.

The White House arranged the meeting last week. Participants included including James P. Hoffa of the Teamsters, Richard Trumka of AFL-CIO and Gerald McEntee of American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees. The White House gave no details on the meeting except to call it "productive." A spokesman for one of the labor leaders in attendance said the White House asked the unions not to discuss the meeting with the press. As a candidate in 2008, Obama promised that healthcare negotiations would take place amid unprecedented transparency. He said he would invite C-SPAN cameras to broadcast the discussions. That hasn't happened.

Labor leaders warn that the Senate tax, if left intact, would amount to a middle-class tax increase--something Obama had promised to avoid. They contend the tax would hit everyday workers who are covered by expensive insurance plans and who in many cases gave up wage increases to get the health plans in hard-fought negotiations.

Appearing at the National Press Club on Monday, before his meeting with Obama, Trumka told reporters that organized labor--which was crucial to the Democrats' election victories in 2008--might stay home in the mid-term elections next fall if the healthcare bill is not to their liking. "I think there's that chance" that union members will boycott the elections, Trumka said.

In his speech at the press club, Trumka said: "The tax on benefits in the Senate bill pits working Americans who need health care for their families against working Americans struggling to keep health care for their families. This is a policy designed to benefit elites--in this case, insurers, hospitals, pharmaceutical companies and irresponsible employers--at the expense of the broader public."

Many healthcare economists believe that such a tax will help restrain healthcare spending by discouraging overutilization of healthcare services by people who have to pay very little for the care they receive.

A compromise may be in the offing. Democratic negotiators are exploring a possibility that would not eliminate the tax entirely, but rather raise the threshold at which it applies in order to ensure that more middle-income Americans are spared. To make up the lost revenue, Democrats might boost the Medicare payroll tax on high-income Americans.

The Joint Committee on Taxation estimated last month that the "Cadillac tax" would generate nearly $149 billion over the next decade. Much of that would come from income taxes paid by workers, under the assumption that businesses would trim back health plans to avoid the new tax, then raise wages to make up the difference to their employees. House Democrats rejected the tax amid pressure from labor and other interest groups.


In Virginia: Bolling and Mims Oppose Government Health Care

Virginia Lieutenant Governor Bill Bolling (R-VA) wrote to Attorney General Bill Mims (R-VA) about the constitutionality of several provisions in the Senate Health Care Bill. The opinion from Mims on the matter is informative.

Mims, in response to a letter from Bolling, had the following to say: “you inquire about the constitutional validity of two provisions. One provision would, after a period of several years, exempt Nebraska in perpetuity from increased costs associated with the expansion of Medicaid. No other state, including Virginia, is afforded similar treatment. The other provision would require every citizen of the United States to obtain health insurance or face significant penalties. I share your concerns about the constitutionality of both provisions.”

Interestingly, Mims points out that the General Welfare Clause of the Constitution may be proven meaningless if this bill is signed into law. Mims wrote, “In my view, carving out an exception for a specific state, unrelated to any policy objective other than to secure the vote of a particular senator, would exceed the bounds of what Congress may do under the Spending Clause,” wrote Mims. “Where the taxing and spending is intended to effectuate a benefit for a single state, solely to garner the vote of a particular senator from that state rather than for the general welfare, the spending at issue is unconstitutional. To conclude otherwise, would mean that the General Welfare Clause is meaningless.”

I'm waiting for more states to get involved in what may be the largest constitutional battle of all time. Mims, who did not appear on the ballot this past November, will be leaving office next week for incoming Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli. Bill Bolling will be sworn in to a second term as Lieutenant Governor this Saturday.


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