Why Bipartisanship Is Important

Time Karen Tumulty raises an interesting question in the magazine’s blog today.  With Al Franken’s election now giving Democrats 60 votes in the Senate, she writes, why are they “even bothering to keep negotiating with the minority party.  Why don’t they just pass healthcare reform on Democratic votes alone?”

Some of the outside groups engaged in the health reform debate, particularly those who are pressing for creation of a new government-run health insurance program, are urging Democrats to do just that.  The director of MoveOn.org is quoted in today’s Washington Post, saying “On healthcare and on energy…you have conservative Democrats saying we have to compromise.  That dynamic has just changed.  Really they don’t have to compromise.”

Nonetheless, Senate Finance Committee chairman Max Baucus (D-MT) continues to negotiate diligently with Republicans on his panel to develop centrist legislation.  And, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) met yesterday with four of the key GOP Senators involved in the health reform debate and assured them that he, too, wants a bipartisan bill.

So, who’s right?  Is bipartisanship essential to health reform.  I believe it’s essential, for at least three reasons:

1)  President Obama said earlier this year that health reform has to be sustainable.  He’s absolutely right.  Health reform must not only be economically sustainable, but also politically sustainable.  The pendulum of political power never stops swinging.  Republicans controlled Washington in the early part of this decade.  Democrats hold strong majorities today.  At some point in the future, the GOP will be back on top, and so on and so forth.  If we’re going to significantly transform the U.S. healthcare system, we should do so in a manner that won’t lead to more remakes whenever power shifts hands.

2)  Whatever is included in a final health reform package, the American people are going to have to be convinced that these changes are good and necessary.  This is not going to be an easy lift, particularly when a large majority of Americans are already satisfied with the healthcare they currently have.  Whether it’s the revenue that needs to be raised to pay for health reform or a new requirement that individuals must purchase health insurance, some discord is bound to emerge.  The implementation and public acceptance of health reform will be much more difficult if it’s accompanied by partisan bickering and the support of only one political party.

3)  The American people did indeed vote President Obama and strong Democratic congressional majorities into office, but that doesn’t mean there’s been an ideological shift in this country.  According to the most recent Gallup poll on the subject, 38 percent of Americans call themselves conservative, only 18 percent liberal and the rest inbetween.  Furthermore, a number of surveys have shown a public unsettled by growth in government and increased federal spending.  A bipartisan approach to health reform would mirror what appears to be the public’s desire for middle-of-the-road policymaking.

Senator Baucus is to be commended for his determination in working toward a health reform bill that can attract a broad base of bipartisan support.  Regardless of the clamor of outside interest groups, I hope and believe he will stay the course.