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Time For Constructive Political Change

Do we want a world in which only the most powerful party wins?

Copyright © 2002 Dorian Scott Cole

This commentary is about political ineffectiveness and a possible remedy, outlandish medical care costs, and the possible end of life connected to a pharmaceutical company through a money-for-medicine exchange tube.

If the abuse of power is the goal of a political system, then the two party structure has made it a science. Notice that I did not call our US political system a two party "system," as it is often mistakenly called. We have a multiple party system, but the dominant power parties have shaped the structure to the point that the candidates organize around two dominant power structures, which effectively renders our system into a "single party in power," with an alternate party standing in the wings. When both have equal power, the system is deadlocked so that little happens. When one gains power, abuse often happens. Neither party ever seems to be happy with the result, and the American people are the big losers.

The current US political system invites power plays and games at the expense of effective legislation. After self-organizing into two political parties, members then become locked in battles that are either propelled by extremist views or by power. For those who don't want to be a part of the old political clubs and strategies, it is, "Either join us or get ignored." The cooperative get groomed, and placed on powerful committees. The uncooperative get defanged through isolation. When Congress votes, it is only the most powerful party that wins - we are effectively a single party nation.

The naive believe that political votes have something to do with a fair hearing of the issues. I appreciate sincere debate and believe the interests of all factions should be taken into account. This is the way that it really should work. But the current system often responds to the powerful, not the best case. Additionally, special interest groups make certain that their case is very well presented and widely heard. But special interest groups represent their own point of view, and certainly not others.

My feeling is that we need to make this "dual in appearance," but actually "single party structure" work the way it was intended.

Once in a while there is a glimmer of hope. The last election had significantly less mud-slinging, and even during the prolonged wait for Presidential election results, comments were somewhat tempered, bringing some respect back to politics. For Congress, President George W. Bush provided a more cooperative atmosphere during his first days, and the 9/11 events resulted in opponents working together - a ray of hope. But the old bipartisan voting patterns are returning.

I'm not against politics, politicians, or political parties. It is a healthy system, the participants just needs shaken out of their ruts once in a while. To their credit, the Republicans have done a good job in the last twenty years of safeguarding business, reducing government size and spending, and reforming our welfare system which simply perpetuated dependence on handouts. To their credit, the Democrats have done well in looking after the individual and pursuing services that make everyone's life easier. To their credit, both helped the economy, and the world economy - both parties have done significant good. At the moment, neither Congress nor the news media is focused on destroying anyone's reputation. Unfortunately this, too, may change when significant battles like terrorism fade from the limelight.

For a very short while after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Congress acted effectively. This ended when the economic stimulus bill took focus. I'm not at all certain that an "economic stimulus" bill is needed, but this is the problem around which various other problems have been drawn. This frames all problems that are addressed in the bill as a need for "economic stimulus." But some problems addressed in this bill remain are real outside of the aura of economic stimulus, and are critical.

The bill would have done the following: Extended unemployment benefits by 13 weeks for those laid off since March 15; provided a 60 percent tax credit to unemployed people so they could purchase medical insurance; allowed businesses to write off 30 percent of new investment in each of the next three years; and given corporations $13 billion in relief over 10 years from the alternative minimum tax. It is a good bill, although it probably does too much.

Democrats opposed the bill because of its medical insurance provisions for the unemployed, fearing that a tax credit to help unemployed people buy insurance would erode the traditional employer-sponsored medical insurance system. Add to this pressure, "special interests," whoever these pernicious spooks are, who reportedly insisted on derailing any deal that wasn't exactly to their liking. So the House passed this legislative package, and the Republicans called it a charade done for political purposes, knowing that it had no chance of clearing the Senate.

Politics. What do most Democrats really want? They want an expansion of the joint state-federal Medicaid program, which pays for medical care for low-income people. This might work if you don't mind higher taxes. What do the Republicans think of this? State governments can't afford to pay the required 25 percent of the cost. The Republicans have a good point. So what do the Republicans propose? They propose a tax credit that would cover about 60 percent of the cost of insurance for unemployed workers. This might work, if you have any money at all when you are unemployed. Realistically, many people don't.

What do the Democrats think of using tax credits for this? Besides eroding employer-based medical insurance, this would force jobless people to go shopping in the insurance marketplace, where they could be denied coverage for pre-existing conditions or forced to pay high premiums. There is a lot of truth in the Democrats' point. So they counter-propose a subsidy to help laid-off workers afford COBRA insurance policies. COBRA is a law that allows laid-off workers to continue to pay for employer-provided insurance. The only problem with this is that if a company goes out of business, its workers are not eligible for COBRA. Problems appear at every turn.

The fears of each of the parties are legitimate, but the news media plays it for all it is worth, like a soap opera. It draws a crowd, and maybe it actually gets people interested. Who knows? I'm not above the fray. What isn't legitimate is that the members of the Senate failed to reach an agreement, leaving a tremendous number of unemployed people without health insurance and many of them facing the loss of unemployment benefits. Perhaps the members of Congress need to face having no money and then medical bills pop up unexpectedly that start at about $10,000.00 and go up from there, with no way to afford medical attention. Anyway, by the end of January 2002, after Congress returns to debate the issues, those people nationwide whose employment was affected by the 9/11 tragedy will still have medical insurance, if they can afford it (often they can't), and only those whose employers have closed will be totally without insurance. If the economy is improving, Congress can turn a deaf ear to these needs.

What this points to is the inability of Congress to wrestle with a larger issue and come to any sensible resolution - or even any resolution. Congress is focused on outdated ideology, and doesn't have the background on citizen's reality (or sometimes the backbone), to make difficult decisions. The situation is, people who are unemployed simply cannot afford medical care or insurance. COBRA is made available to them, unless the business closes, but the $1000.00 per month maximum unemployment benefit is only enough to cover food and utilities. Many don't even get the maximum unemployment benefit - they survive on next to nothing. Few working families have much savings, and often the second person in the family who is employed has no benefits. So when people become unemployed, usually through no fault of their own, they no longer are able to afford medical expenses. We live in a nation where employment is not only not guaranteed and there is little loyalty to employees, layoffs due to business cycles are frequent, and people are often without jobs for long periods. Every passing day the likelihood of having a consistent income becomes less for all of us. As a nation, and as politicians, we are not coming to grips with the effects of this issue.

Why does the political process not work with two parties?

First, I should reveal my own bias? I have always considered myself an independent who votes for candidates who demonstrate a long-range view that will be beneficial to the country, tempered by effective short-range plans that will be immediately helpful to those who need it. This bias results in a voting mix for me, and party labels make little difference.

The Democratic party traditionally has represented organized labor, minorities, and progressive reformers - noble ideals which we all basically support. Democrats are often accused of creating a proliferation of social benefits which result in higher taxes.

My first experience with the Democratic party was when I was forced to be a union member. The union voted strictly Democrat regardless of the strengths, weaknesses, and intentions of candidates, hovering around elections like some 19th. Century anti-industrialist noxious cloud. When a Republican was in power the unions suffered because they were on the wrong side. In the last half of the 20th. Century, the Democrats held power only 44% of the time, and during the other 66% of the time Congress was often deadlocked because of partisanship so there was no pro-union legislation. This voting bias by the unions made no sense to me, even if Democrats were supposedly for labor. In fact, even electing a Democrat was harmful to their perceived needs. President Clinton's support of international trade agreements was generally opposed by organized labor.

The Democratic party has long been shifting toward a more conservative approach, including restraining the growth of government, especially spending on social programs. The Democrats, reflecting their constituents, are almost Republicans, but partisanship continues to dominate Congress. Perhaps fighting an imaginary opponent looks good to the constituents of both parties.

The Republican Party traditionally stands for limited government and limited taxes - noble ideals which we all basically support. Republicans are often accused of dragging their feet on legislation that would benefit the nation's workers, poor, and the economy, while favoring corporations and the wealthy. Republicans don't favor redistribution of wealth, which some extreme Democrats would, so any appearance of lowering high tax rates for the "rich" and corporations is open to attack from the Democratic extreme.

There is some truth to these party postures, although there is a rich mix of positions held by candidates in both parties. But even if these caricatures were correct, this isn't really how politics works. The way it works is, whoever has the most seats wins the voting on legislation, in either division of Congress, House or Senate. The party with the most seats pressures its members to tow its line on issues up for voting. The result is the usual "partisan" vote. The only real party influence is the party in power justifying its partisan vote by disparaging the other party's ideology.

What hope does the minority party have? Members can work the press to poison public opinion, or filibuster (talk legislation to death), or they can make deals to piggyback legislation that they believe is important through on larger bills that are likely to be approved by the party in power. They can also try to sway votes in the other party, but this strategy has little chance of winning. The result is simply a single party stranglehold on power and legislation, which prevents the other party from having any influence. The slight majority, which the majority party typically distorts as a "mandate from the people," is usually taken as an excuse to ride roughshod over the interests of the other party, as any tyrannical ruler would. With a gleam in their eye, the rulers then present themselves to their constituents, telling them that they have fulfilled the mandate overwhelmingly appointed to them, and they have soundly defeated their opponents who would have destroyed the nation. What a pack of lies. The only hope the other party has is that fate will throw the balance their way so that they can make a quick grab for what they want before the power shifts again through the serendipitous patterns of national elections.

If this isn't the type of political activity that we want, then a fundamental change has to occur. We have to get away from the extremist political philosophies held by the powerful whom are in control so that they can't dictate to their party's legislators how they will vote. We have to change it so that special interest groups can't get to a few powerful political leaders and force what they want on the country without exposure and debate.

Politicians need to back away from partisan ideologies. They are in office to serve a nation of people, not to serve partisan ideology. Their ideology needs to be "good government," and they need to focus on how an organization for people makes good things happen for people. As President Lincoln said, "Government of the people, by the people, and for the people." I don't think that any of our great leaders has ever spouted "Government by partisan ideology." Instead of framing issues as "reducing government and taxes" or "increasing social services," politicians should frame issues as "Fiscal responsibility, protection for the young and elderly, services that can't reasonably be provided another way."

We can't reshape Congress by creating more parties - that would only force more alignments with the power structure. To wrench power away from the extremists, what has to occur is that the Democrats and Republicans, the two major parties, must hold less than a third each of the seats in Congress, so that they cannot in any circumstances prevent a two-thirds majority vote from happening simply by the strength of party allegiance. This means that two-thirds of the seats in the House and Senate must be held by independents.

This change would have several benefits:

  1. Parties could not ram through legislation that only they favor. If a party has a legitimate case, they have the opportunity to make their case in debate.
  2. Parties could not prevent legislation from being introduced or passing that others favor.
  3. Parties could not control legislative agendas (prevent legislation from being introduced for a vote). (Actually I think that a citizen oversight committee should be responsible for determining which legislation Congress works on.)
  4. People would be appointed to seats on committees, and appointed committee leadership, based on contributions and respect, not party alliance and seniority. This is no less than we are asking of our nation's teachers.
  5. The need for Senate filibusters would be reduced (although these can be defeated through around the clock sessions).
  6. Political action groups (special interest groups) would have to see many more candidates in order to make their case, instead of having the ear of the party elite. This would help bring them under control.
  7. The need for bills packed with miscellaneous legislation would be reduced, as would be the need for a line-item veto that allows the President to mark out legislation from legislative packages.
  8. Partisan-influenced sniping by legislators and candidates would be reduced during legislative debate and during elections.

If the make-up of Congress can be substantially changed in the next few years, the power of partisan politics can be substantially dampened, allowing a much more sweeping change to occur during the next twelve years (six elections) that might achieve a one-third limit on parties. However, the parties in power would never do anything to make this happen, and would probably block it anytime they could. The good news is, the American voters have "thrown the rascals out" before to upset the old political ties, leaving senior Congressmen in the 1980s shaking their heads and retiring to escape. It takes a grassroots effort.

So, to accomplish this, many incumbents and new candidates would need to declare themselves independent. People need to support these independent candidates, realizing that true political power comes not from party alignment, which only ties their hands, but comes in the freedom to vote their chosen agenda. Similarly, unions need to realize that they can have more consistent power and true representation, instead of party representation in which they have no influence at all for over 66% of the time.

Am I crying "Wolf," creating an issue where one is not? Didn't the President and Congress respond very quickly and effectively to terrorism, and won't they continue to do so on important issues? The Congress responded only after a heinous crime had been committed, that none of us will ever forget. Things that should have been done years ago were not done. For example, a Gore committee reportedly failed to push for any of the recommendations they were given by industry experts regarding airline safety, leaving everything up to the airlines, which have strongly vested interests in never doing anything that might conceivably inconvenience a single passenger. Additionally, security agencies had observed years of escalating terrorist action against the US by Al Qaeda - the pattern was there. (Casting blame is not intended here - no one can say if any terrorist attack is preventable.) They had also received information on people like Zacarias Moussaoui, which through agency coordination - that didn't occur - should have led them to stricter security precautions. Warnings were there, but people in charge responded to the wrong pressures. We have a government that responds to "political pressure," and the idea of being effective is in second place.

Issues abound that are no less important than terrorism. We face many problems that the simplistic and limited approaches of partisan power politics and power special interests will not resolve. One example is the precarious condition of healthcare and the general non-availability of healthcare to a large number of people. The pattern of warning is there if we are looking for it. We have healthcare that is so expensive that individuals can't afford to purchase insurance, and employers are often forced to curtail insurance benefits. Where is the money going? Not to hospital employees - nurses are quitting in droves because their pay is too low, creating a serious shortage. Where is the money going?

This is a major danger sign that our medical system is in the same degree of trouble that terrorism posed, and will bite us just like terrorism if we continue to ignore it. The old formula of "employers providing health insurance" doesn't work in a nation where job security is only a haunting memory. Most businesses in this country are small to medium size, and most employees are in these small to medium size businesses. Most employees are not in grand corporations with gigantic benefits plans. And even large corporations now lay off regularly and indiscriminately. There is no such thing as job security with medical benefits, and someone needs to raise the curtain on this secret for the Democrats (and probably the unions). Similarly, someone needs to tell the Republicans that when people lose their jobs, they usually don't have wads of money stuffed in their pockets with which to purchase benefits. Partisan politicians have debated health coverage for years, and, locked into the ideologies of their great-great grandfather's day, they have no response except to veto anything that looks even remotely like health care improvement and run to the press screaming "Social Security is under attack," poisoning the public, especially the vulnerable.

We need to have a hard look at the effects of competition in the healthcare industry. Most insurance companies, because of competition, have steadily mutated the idea of insurance into a form of protection that is only for non-risk clients. Insurance companies don't like competition, and they especially don't like risk, the very thing they were invented for. They don't want to take the risk of having to pay death benefits or health care expenses, they only want to collect premiums from those who are unlikely to need benefits. They either won't insure those with preexisting conditions and those at risk, or they make the premiums exorbitantly high so insurance is out of reach for those who need it. Partisan politicians turn a deaf ear to this.

A similar thing is happening with pharmaceuticals. No one doubts the efficacy and benefit of most medicines. But competition (and other factors) has driven the pharmaceutical companies to advertise directly to consumers about medicines that require a great deal of medical sophistication and testing in order to prescribe. There are benefits to some patients, and advertising is effective, but is this the most cost-effective method for informing consumers? Advertising drives the consumer's price for some medicines to double, so that senior citizens and those with low incomes can't afford them. This is on top of skyrocketing medical costs that seniors can't afford. And the Baby-boom generation is rapidly over-inflating the roles of this group so that the problem is taking on enormous proportions. Partisan politicians hold hearings on pharmaceutical costs, but the problem and solutions don't fit into their ideology. Where is that cradle to grave corporate health plan again?

Attempts to deal with rising medical costs have nearly been exhausted by the public and medical peripheral companies. Insurance company and managed care pressure has helped shorten hospital stays and eliminated unnecessary costs and procedures, but it is becoming widely recognized that managed care has reached the limit of its effectiveness. Pushing further in the managed care area leads to absurd results in care that reflect badly on a collective venture that already suffers from customer dissatisfaction over patient rights and care. And Medicare won't pay for pharmaceuticals, the price of which often matches the retired person's income, and Medicaid eligibility formulas also rule retired people out because they make "too much income." Only the legislature could write such a formula. The elderly often live to shuffle money from their limited income sources to the pharmaceutical companies. It is a bit of a different story ending than Soluent Green, but is being connected to a pharmaceutical company through a money-for-medicine exchange tube a better ending? (For those unfamiliar with the story Soluent Green, the dead were processed and fed as processed food bars to the unwitting living.)

Is there an end in site to rising medical costs? Not really. While similar high tech fields like electronics peaked in the 1980s after about twenty years of development, leading to fewer innovations and stabilization of costs, not so with medicine. We can't afford medicine now, and innovations in medicine will not peak for at least another twenty years. I have nothing against pharmaceutical, and other high tech medical companies, and expect that costly miracle technology after costly technology will continue to be researched and brought our way... but at what price?

Every year, each of us will have available to us improved medical care in the form of more medications, more biotech modifications, more testing, and more healthcare, but will we be able to afford any of it? We are soon approaching the choice of spending all of our resources on healthcare - and this still not being enough - or just dying at age 40 when our bodies start to deteriorate, or at any age when we need medical care that is beyond our reach. That choice is already here for many people, including the retired, the poor, the under-unemployed and the unemployed. This, by the way, while VA hospital facilities are empty from lack of demand and being shut down, and nurses can't make enough money to afford to stay in nursing, even if they love it.

Are we creating in our medical field a utopia for the select, where only a few wealthy, low-risk people can afford insurance and medical care? What is our philosophy... if you can't get a high paying job, then you are too useless to get medical care, so just die? Or alternately, owe your soul to the company store? Aging costs too much, so just die? If the medical industry, the people, and the news media can't bring about change, then the politicians must. But can politicians stop serving partisan ideologies? We should ask ourselves, "What kind of world are we creating for ourselves?"

- Scott

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