EDITORIAL: The Fight Goes On

Written by Jim CULLEN, The Progressive Populist

The ink was still drying on the new Affordable Care Act when insurance executives were claiming that they could not comply with the requirement that they offer coverage to children regardless of pre-existing conditions.

Some insurance executives floated the idea that the law does not actually require insurers to cover all child applicants this year. The US Department of Health and Human Services replied that it will issue regulations clarifying that yes, indeed, insurance companies cannot deny coverage to a child because of a pre-existing condition. But insurance plans may be able to charge higher rates for children with pre-existing illnesses, at least until 2014, when insurers no longer can use health status in setting premiums.

However, President Obama and Congressional Democrats should make it clear that insurance companies are on probation for the next three years. If they can’t clean up their acts, or if they claim they need to increase their premiums to comply, that will show us they cannot do the job. In that case, Congress should exercise the option to expand Medicare to cover everybody.

Many progressives are still disappointed that we didn’t get a public option — much less expansion of Medicare to cover everybody — in the health insurance reform bill. We shouldn’t get hung up on that when we consider the long odds that had to be overcome to get any health reform passed. Remember that the Democrats started 2009 with 58 senators, including two independents who caucused with the Dems, and Republicans were determined to use the filibuster rule to block every Obama initiative that didn’t have 60 votes. Democrats got help in April 2009 when Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) realized he could no longer win a Republican primary for re-election, so he switched to the Democratic side. But the Dems still had to wait until the Minnesota Supreme Court on June 30 finally ruled Al Franken had won his Senate race to reach the 60-vote threshold.

After that, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) faced a constant juggling task in keeping the corporatist Democrats as well as Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) in line. President Obama and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi were justly praised for advancing the bill, but Reid had the most difficult job in keeping 60 Senate egos in line with no room for error. He got the bill passed in December, then held the caucus together through the reconciliation process.

If progressives want to improve the law they need to elect better Democrats. They have a chance in Arkansas, where populist Lt. Gov. Bill Halter threatens to take down corporatist Sen. Blanche Lincoln in the Democratic primary May 18. In Pennsylvania, Rep. Joe Sestak, a strong public option supporter, is challenging Specter, who initially opposed the public option but ended up a solid center-left vote, possibly feeling the pressure from Sestak in the May 18 Democratic primary.

Democrats are expected to contest open seats now held by Republicans in Kentucky, Missouri, New Hampshire and Ohio, but they also have their work cut out in holding onto Democratic seats in Arkansas, Colorado, Delaware, Illinois, Indiana and Nevada and they likely will lose retiring Sen. Byron Dorgan’s seat in North Dakota.

Expose GOP on Finance Reform

The next fight is over financial reforms. Sen. Christopher Dodd (D-Conn.) wasted months watering down the bill in search of a compromise with Republicans. Then, in a replay of the health insurance reform process, Dodd kept the compromises in the bill even after Republicans refused to sign onto it.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell on April 13 said Republicans couldn’t support the financial reform bill because it “institutionalizes” future taxpayer bailouts of Wall Street firms. Republicans have tried to co-opt populist resentment of last year’s bailouts, but McConnell’s statement came a few days after he and Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), head of the fundraising National Republican Senatorial Committee, hit up Wall Street hedge fund managers and other financiers, seeking financial support to keep “least market-friendly aspects from becoming law,” Fox Business Network reported April 12. (This was a few weeks after House Minority Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio, at an American Bankers Association government relations meeting March 17 denounced efforts to bring more oversight to the financial industry and advised the bankers to “stand up for yourselves.”)

A group of populist Democrats — including Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) — is pushing to strengthen the bill. They should dare Republicans to vote against them. “Given that [large financial firms] steered this country into the ditch, it’s going to be very hard to stand up on the floor and say don’t do financial reform or do it without teeth,” Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.) told Politico.com (April 12).

The populists want to strengthen the consumer watchdog agency, which Dodd would put in the Federal Reserve. “We need an independent, strong agency to represent consumers — not one housed at the Fed,” Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) told Politico.com. Others involved in the effort, according to Politico.com, include Sens. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), Al Franken (D-Minn.) and Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.).

Promoting populist financial reforms and making Republicans defend the bankers should be a political no-brainer for Democrats. A poll released by Consumer Federation of America April 12 found that 62% supported creation of a “new federal agency to protect consumers who purchase banking and other financial services.” An aide to a Democratic senator told Politico.com, “If they pass something and it’s relatively strong, it’s seen as a big victory for consumers, and if they get a strong Republican pushback, electorally Democrats think they would benefit from it.”

Progressive Dems also are interested in strengthening the duties of brokers, new regulations on derivatives and a stronger version of the so-called Volcker rule, which restores some of the old Glass-Steagall Act and would prohibit commercial banks from trading or making investments in hedge funds and private equity funds.

Dodd’s bill leaves much of the implementation of the new rule to a Financial Stability Oversight Council after the completion of a study by the interagency task force. In other words, death by study commission.

Sanders also plans to introduce amendments that would cap interest rates on credit cards and improve the transparency of the Federal Reserve and other populist amendments are likely.

The White House has indicated it wants a stronger bill and House Banking Chairman Barney Frank (D-Mass.) has said he would fight for more consumer protections when the bill comes back from the Senate. He could use an assist from progressive Democrats in the Senate.

Protect the Court’s Left Flank

When John Paul Stevens was appointed to the Supreme Court by President Gerald Ford in 1975, Stevens was a Republican in the middle of the ideological spectrum. Since then, the court has moved so far to the right that Stevens is considered on the left wing — though he still considers himself a conservative. When it comes to replacing Stevens, Obama’s first rule should be “Don’t move the court any further to the right.”

Republican senators have suggested that they will filibuster any nominee who is “outside the mainstream,” by which they mean left of center. But if Republicans filibuster a qualified progressive nominee this year, that should be the final abuse of that procedure that enables the tyranny of the minority. If the Republicans ever regain the Senate majority, you can bet their first item of business will be to eliminate the filibuster that they have used to such great effect to block the Senate’s business. If Democrats keep their Senate majority, they should beat the Republicans to the punch.