Thursday, March 18, 2010

From "Deem and Pass" to Citizens United

The debate over health care reform is now in its final stage. The Democratic House leadership is considering use of a self-executing rule known as the "deem and pass," which Republicans criticize as ultimately unconstitutional.

This is the latest example of everything that is wrong with American politics.

It also exemplifies why campaign finance in general, and Citizens United in particular, troubles me as much as it does.

Go back to the last time Republicans held a majority in Congress, from 2005 to 2006. During that time, the Republican leadership used the same self-executing rules they now deride no less than 35 times, and even defended them in court. Needless to say, Democrats criticized them then, yet defend them now.

Similarly, yesterday's Washington Post published an editorial by Tom Scully, former administrator of the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services from 2001 to 2004, that criticized the price tag on Obama's health care plan:
If we want health coverage for all Americans, it has to be paid for. The tough choices needed to reduce this massive gap: Cut spending and/or raise taxes. Raise the Medicare retirement age as we did with Social Security. This year's $1.6 trillion deficit is approaching 11 percent of GDP. That's unsustainable. We can't expand health subsidies until we get the deficit under control.

In case the reader missed it, this is the same Tom Scully who, according to Bruce Bartlett, former Deputy Assistant Secretary for economic policy at the U.S. Treasury Department, "was responsible for one of the most reprehensible episodes in recent American political history." This was the passage of the "totally unfunded Medicare Part D program that will cost taxpayers roughly $1 trillion over the next decade--that's $1 trillion more than Obama's plan, which is fully paid for according to the Congressional Budget Office." According to Bartlett, Scully was critical to the passage of Medicare D, "because he personally hid from Congress critical details about its cost that would have torpedoed the legislation had those facts been known prior to the congressional vote in 2003."

Taken together, these episodes led Andrew Leonard to write that "healthcare reform hypocrisy goes supernova." Norm Ornstein similarly asks, "is there no shame anymore?"

Note the problem: politicians can say whatever they want, whenever they want to say it, yet voters rarely hold them accountable for it. How could the same practice be used by congressional leaders one term yet criticized by the same leadership in subsequent years? One view clearly points to the hypocrisy that inheres to the politics of the day. Fair enough. But a view just as strong points to the American voter and how little interest s/he pays to what happens in the world of politics. The voter does not care, a fact that politicians of all stripes know full well.

The implications are dire. The argument for competitive elections, for example, hinges on a view of voters as political animals, engaged in the politics of the day and aware of the debates around them. To have a choice, in other words, demands a reasoned choice, a rational choice among competing alternatives.

This is why the campaign finance debate should give us pause. A view of the First Amendment as expressed by the majority in Citizens United places heavy demands on the citizenry. To say that the cure for speech must be more speech implies that the listener can discern fact from fiction, right from wrong. At the very least, it implies that there is somebody at the other end of the speech paying attention.

But the health care debate teaches us exactly the opposite. The public is hardly paying attention, and sophistry is the order of the day.

This is depressing indeed.