Chasing the Norm

Australian academic and blogger on politics, international relations, and culture

Tag: Health Care

Veto players

Over the last few weeks I’ve surprised a few australian readers by saying that Obama will get his healthcare bills through. Right now that still looks the case, but it’s taken a big wobbly in the last 48 hours with Independent senator (and former Democratic VP nominee) Joe Lieberman saying he will filibuster any bill with a public option included (that is prevent it being voted on). It’s pretty unlikely that Lieberman will be coaxed back from this threat (he isn’t a democrat anymore, and even after supprting McCain over Obama, was allowed to keep his chairmanships of key committees), so now seems likely the Public Option will be sacrificed to the gods of the double demons of Debt and Taxes (despite the fact a public option won’t need tax increases and will decrease the debt)

King George III (1760-1820) still causing americans grief after all these years

King George III (1760-1820) still causing Americans grief after all these years

Either way, healthcare once again proves a very good example of Fareed Zakaria’s argument that the biggest challenge facing the US isn’t economic or cultural, but political. It desperately needs to reform its political system if it is to compete in the 21st century. The US founding fathers were geniuses for their time, but they were fleeing the power of a single individual who ruled the state. So in response they created a system with as many blocks and hold ups to passing legislation as possible. Those who occupy such positions are known as veto players. Of course the President is one, as are the Supreme Court, but given the quirks of the US legislators, majority and house leaders, and the committees, there are many many such players in the American system, any one of which can damage or subvert important legislation. This is unlike Westminster systems in the UK/Aus where there are usually only 2 (PM & GG/Queen/rare actual balance of power holding indpendents)

Today the Democrats hold the White House, Congress and the Senate, with strong public support for their legislation. Yet they can’t enact a bill that will lower the debt, free US businesses of crushing health premiums and give coverage to the millions of uninsured Americans, because of a handful of individuals. Because of changes in practice, every bill now needs a super-majority of 60/100 to pass the US senate. These suddenly powerful individuals have all (unlike the President/without the legal guide of the Courts) been elected by a tiny segment of the population, and know the power of name recognition, regional contacts and money can guarantee their re-election however they vote.

The US system is suffering under the weight of its own history. I certainly don’t think Obama has all the right ideas, or that opponents should just shut up and get out of the way. There are many other good alternative models to seek, or even a return to historic uses of veto’s (such as keeping filibusters rare) would be a strong development. But in a globalised world, where challenges like the GFC can strike with frightening speed, governments need to be nimble enough to respond quickly. The US system, because of the historical era it was built in response to is proving unworkable in the modern era. During the last 100 years parliamentary systems have generally proven vastly superior in raining in the scope of the President to dominate the legislature, now they are proving better in responding quickly to the challenges of the day. Quick policy* is not necessarily bad policy, and we need legislative systems capable of making timely, informed decisions in order to respond.

* Progressive in the US have been trying to push through universal health care since FDR in the 1930’s and utterly failed to get anywhere under Clinton. The US under Obama has been debating health care almost exclusively since March. Nothing about this is quick. Which is kind of my point.