Wednesday, October 9, 2013

The Myth of Congressional Gridlock

On the major issues of our time, Democrats and Republicans march in lockstep.

I joked with friends recently that, with the government currently shutdown, we should kidnap all the members of Congress, tie them up and lock them in a storage unit somewhere, and replace them all with Greens. Well, I was mostly joking...

The government shutdown, which has left 800,000 "non-essential" government employees furloughed, and others forced to continue working without pay, offers another opportunity to dispel some popular myths about so-called congressional gridlock.

Conventional wisdom (i.e. "objective" corporate news-reporting) defines 21st century politics by a Congress in perpetual "gridlock" wherein "neither party" can agree on anything. Both the Republicans and Democrats, we are constantly told, have become so polarized that the U.S. government is locked in constant stalemate on pressing issues from immigration, and the economy to gun control and health care. "Both parties" the elite corporate talking-heads assure us, have been hijacked by the more "extremist" elements of the far right and far left.

This is actually true for one party: The Republicans.

Indeed, I think it is fair to say we have never witnessed a more radical incarnation of the GOP--a party that, it is worth recalling, began as a third-party. Today's Republicans are so bat-shit crazy it is easy to see how so-called "centrists" like Maine's Susan Collins and recently retired Olympia Snowe look moderate in comparison.

And make no doubt about it: Blame for the government shutdown lies solely with them. Regardless of what we may personally think about it, "Obamacare" is, for better or worse, the law of the land. It has been upheld by the Supreme Court. House Republicans need to accept this fact and quit wasting legislative time passing pointless measures to repeal it.

Yet, claims of a comparable extremist shift in the Democratic Party are ludicrously empty. While the Republicans embrace their more radical members, effectively allowing them to become the face of the party, the Democrats do just the opposite--they suppress  and undermine them. (Cases in point: Bernie Sanders, Dennis Kucinich, Russ Feingold and Jesse Jackson.)

This is why, strategically speaking, I do not believe it is possible for progressives to "take back" the Democratic Party, their primary focus for the last decade. True progressive members like Feingold and Kucinich have been trying to "take back" their party for years now, and the fact that both have been booted out of office speaks to how effective their efforts have been.

At the end of the day, both parties agree on far more than they disagree. When it comes to broad, overarching issues of war and peace, the primacy of the free-market, Wall Street bailouts, the surveillance state, tax-cuts for the wealthy and overall servitude to corporate power, the Democrats and Republicans march in unyielding lockstep.

Or, as Noam Chomsky explains, "In the U.S. there is basically one party--the Business Party. It has two factions called Democrats and Republicans which are somewhat different, but carry out variations on the same policies."

As the Socialist Worker notes in a recent editorial ("Washington's Warring Brothers," 10/01/2013), the media coverage of the shutdown, "obscures how far to the right both [parties] have traveled together over the years."

The editors write:

They agree on imposing sweeping cuts in most government programs, though not the Pentagon; they differ on how deep the cuts should be. They agree on a health care system where the medical-pharmaceutical-insurance complex calls the shots; they differ about parts of a law designed to preserve the industry's profits and power. They agree on a system where Corporate America piles up record profits by driving down the living standards of working-class people; they disagree only on the details of how that system should operate.
The problem is not that Congress is "broken." The federal government works just fine. It is just not working for you and me. It is working for Wall Street, the one percent and the military-industrial complex.

There is, perhaps, no better example of the two parties' homogeneity than the health care "reform" law--The Affordable Care Act, aka "Obamacare"--at the center of the shutdown. Whether the ACA--which amounts to little more than an unnecessary bailout for the corporate health insurance industry--is "better than nothing," or a "step in the right direction" is beside the point. Claiming the ACA is "better than nothing," is a bit like arguing the proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) is "better than" NAFTA. Either way, rapacious multinational corporations benefit at the expense of working-class people.

The ACA, and more specifically, the concept of the individual mandate, was born in the chambers of that bastion of conservative lobbying, The Heritage Foundation in the late 1980s. The first politician to successfully implement the law at the state level was then Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney in 2006. In fact, during Bill Clinton's attempts at health care reform in the 1990s, then-House Speaker Newt Gingrich touted the individual mandate plan as the Republican alternative.

Call it what you will--"Obamacare," "Romneycare," "socialism"--but the law, with its Friedmanesque emphasis on "consumer choice," was originally cooked up by free-market conservatives.

In other words, if Republicans truly hate Obamacare as much as they claim to, they only have themselves to blame for it. Indeed, there was something almost absurdly Orwellian about watching Romney campaign against Obama last year by attacking his signature health reform success.

The law forces Americans to buy the private health insurance companies' defective coverage. It does little to control premium and co-pay costs. And, due to the ever increasing cost of private insurance, it will leave out some 3,000 low-income Americans who simply cannot afford to buy in. Those Americans will face penalty of a hefty government fine--essentially criminalizing them for being poor.

Additionally, a number of states led by Republican governors (including Maine) have opted out of the ACA's Medicaid expansion provision, which, in Maine alone, would have benefited 37,000 uninsured residents. Originally a mandatory component of the law, the Supreme Court ruled last year the Medicaid expansion could only be considered constitutional if presented as an optional feature.

The New York Times, in a recent editorial ("A Population Betrayed," 10/03/2013), lambasted the 26 Republican state governors, calling their decision to forgo Medicaid expansion "outrageous." The editors further criticize, "These 26 states would rather turn down incredibly generous federal funds that would finance 100 percent of the expansion costs for three years and at least 90 percent thereafter than offer a helping hand to their most vulnerable residents."

Paul LePage should consider himself fortunate the Maine constitution offers no provision for recalling state officials. Just saying...

I know, I know--This law was the "best the Democrats could do." Single-payer health care simply is not "politically feasible." We should just shut up and be thankful for what we have.


The Democrats passed the ACA with solid majorities in both the Senate and the House. Throughout the health care debate (such as it was, with single-payer activists getting arrested and all), they controlled both chambers of Congress and the White House. They were actually on the right path with their original plan for a public-option--already a compromise from single-payer, but still a closer step in that direction than the ACA is. But, in typical fashion, the Dems promptly compromised away the compromise. The bill they ended up passing was not Plan B, but Plan C. If holding an honest, up-or-down vote on single-payer when your party holds a Congressional majority and the presidency is "impossible," it is only because the Democrats have no desire to ever hold such a vote.

In the end, like the Republicans, they prefer to maintain a for-profit, corporate health system that incentives death and disease. Can't afford health insurance? Then you'd best heed Florida Rep. Alan Grayson's sardonic advice: Die quickly.

So ignore the media's "blame-game." Both parties are beholden to corporate paymasters first and foremost. Any crumbs of reform they happen to toss our way are incidental and, ultimately, too little to make a serious difference.

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