Historic health reform can't hide Congress's black eye
While terrorist bombs were blowing up in the Moscow subway, Washington was enjoying a week of unusual peace and quiet. Congress was in recess, and the tumult and shouting were blessedly muted.
Newspapers that pursued various members of the House and Senate through their town hall meetings found an oddly mixed reaction, with the accolades and brickbats coming from predictably partisan corners and no consensus about the accomplishments or outrages of this historic session.
It is hard to remember now in the spring of 2010 that less than two years ago, when the country faced the task of electing a president, the finalists were all members of the U.S. Senate. Barack Obama, Hillary Rodham Clinton and John McCain outdistanced their rivals, setting the stage for Obama and Joe Biden to become the first all-Senate tandem to win since John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson. In 2008, no credential worked better for the ultimate position in national leadership than being a member of Congress.
Today, most opinion polls agree that fewer than 20 percent of voters approve of the job Congress is doing. Despite passage of a health-reform bill that will surely win a place in the history books along with economic stimulus and education aid measures that are large by any measurement, the prestige of the legislative branch has sunk to a historic low.
Why the failing grades? Part of it stems from the broad public reaction to the spectacle the lawmakers have made of themselves these past 15 months.
Most Republicans I have talked with say they are convinced their outnumbered legislators have done the right thing by denying virtually all their votes to Obama and using every device possible to slow down or derail his agenda.
Most of the Democrats I interviewed are just as certain that the folks in the White House and the House speaker's office were justified in pushing the health-care bill to final passage in the face of polls showing that most voters were opposed.
But the partisanship on both sides was a turnoff to independents. They were the people who had taken Obama seriously when he said he wanted to move Washington beyond the recriminations of the George W. Bush years. Regardless of their views on health care -- or the economy or education or anything else -- they are turned off by the inability of both parties to overcome their parochial concerns and agree on steps to curb the joblessness and debt that are consuming the country.
The other thing that strikes me about the conversations I've had recently in Florida and Texas, the anchors of the Sun Belt, is how the health-care legislation is perceived by those on opposite sides of the debate.
Despite Obama's best efforts to convince his listeners that, broadly speaking, they will benefit personally as the legislation goes into effect, most of those I've encountered believe it is being done for someone else. The president and his Democratic allies argue that, for the first time, youths will be able to be covered on their parents' policies until age 26 and that no one will be barred from coverage by a preexisting health condition.
But for the millions who already are insured -- to some extent -- by policies issued through their workplace and who worry mainly about the costs, it still sounds like someone else is being helped. And those 31 million uninsured who for the first time will have protection? They are definitely someone else.
This is not a selfish country, and when Medicare was expanded in 2003 to cover seniors' prescription costs, there was no backlash -- even though it was not paid for.
But the country was not in a deep recession then, and the sensitivity to borrowing and the national debt was not what it is now.
This is a country that is feeling the pinch. It has little or no tolerance for politics as usual. And it is skeptical of anyone claiming to offer good deeds. That's why Congress is in trouble.