Saturday, June 30, 2012

The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act

Every so often an issue comes along that involves all three branches of the federal government.  For the past three years that issue has been the Affordable Care Act (ACA).  President Obama made health care reform the central promise of his campaign in 2008 and followed through on that commitment in 2009 and 2010.  Congress considered and debated ways to provide health insurance to more Americans for the better part of a year beginning in March 2009 and culminating with the passage of the ACA in December of 2009 after an extremely contentious process in the Senate.  Things moved back to the House in March 2010 when the House agreed to the Senate bill, provided the Senate would adopt some 'fix' measures that House Democratic moderates insisted upon.  The President signed the ACA on March 23, 2010.  Using a process known as reconciliation both chambers then took up the 'fix' package and passed it in short order.  The president signed the changes into law on March 30, 2010.  Then the legal battles began.

For more than two years, observers waited for the ACA to make it's way to the U.S. Supreme Court.  Arguments centered around two key provisions:  1)  Could Congress mandate that all Americans obtain a minimum standard of health insurance coverage or pay a fine and; 2) Could the government withhold all Medicaid funds from states if they did not expand their Medicaid rolls to 133% of the Federal Poverty Level?  On Thursday, the Court ruled yes and no to the first question and no to the second question.  Huh?

As Inigo Montoya said to the Man in Black (Princess Bride), "le' me sum up."  On the first question a majority of the Court said that Congress could not use its power to regulate commerce to require Americans to buy health insurance.  This was a big win for conservatives, even if they fail to see it because of their hatred of Barack Obama and his signature initiative.  The ruling places further restrictions upon Congress use of the commerce clause, continuing a pattern of Court decisions that have been issued since Lopez v. United States (1995).  In that case, the Court struck down the Gun Free School Zones Act, which banned the possession of a gun within certain distances of a school.  Further limitations on Congress' commerce clause power came in Printz v. United States (1997), and a series of other cases.  In that sense, the ruling in the ACA case was perfectly consistent with a conservative understanding of the constitution.  At the same time, however, a majority of the Court agreed that Congress could impose a tax on consumers who fail to acquire minimally acceptable health insurance, thus upholding the ACA.

On the second question, the Court by a 7-2 majority ruled that the federal government may not punish a state by withholding all Medicaid funds if it fails to increase Medicaid coverage to all citizens within 133% of FPL.  This is yet another win for the conservatives and federalism.  Ultimately, coercion is the only power the federal government has over states in areas not involving civil rights and/or equal protection.  The government has long used this power of coercion to bring states into line with federal mandates.  It may not be able to do so any longer.  Practically, it remains to be seen what the impact of the ruling will be but it is conceivable that states may be able to lower the drinking age if they wish without fear of losing federal highway funds, ignore the provisions of No Child Left Behind without jeopardizing federal education assistance, and a plethora of other issues.  If this reading of the ruling pans out, conservatives may get what they want:  50 states with 50 separate sets of laws and a much weaker federal government.

In what may have been one of the most politically calculated decisions in the history of the Court, Chief Justice John Roberts, in the mold of the Great Chief Justice John Marshall, awarded victory to both liberals and conservatives in one case while deferring to the elected branches on the question of policy wisdom, and maintained the independent integrity of the U.S. Supreme Court.  To be sure, opponents of 'Obamacare' won't see it this way due to their partisan and ideological blinders.  But from an institutionalist's view, it was by all accounts a brilliant political maneuver.

Monday, June 18, 2012

Watergate 40th Anniversary

Here's a video clip from the Columbus, MS CBS affiliate with a story about Watergate 40 years later.  The reporter and camera crew showed up in my office moments before class began.   The Watergate story begins at the 3:25 mark and my comments follow the introduction.  A couple of my students are also featured in the interviews.

WCBI News at 6, June 18, 2012

Friday, June 1, 2012

The Beat Goes On

You're probably wondering what this video has to do with a blog about the presidency and Congress, right?  Well, Sonny Bono was a congressman after his entertainment career ended...though some might say what Congress does IS entertainment for the political class.  And that, dear reader, is entirely the point.  The beat does indeed go on.  Partisans on both sides of the aisle seek ways to make the other side look bad so as to gain an advantage for their own party.  A new blog out this week makes the case that what we're seeing in Congress is not so much ideological polarization as it is hyper-partisanship.  In a polarized system, individuals disagree ideologically about pretty much everything that's important.  In a hyper-partisan system, individuals may agree with each other but oppose each other anyway so as to avoid allowing the 'other side' to get any credit for successful accomplishments.  That's largely where we are now as we watch Republicans voting against things they've always supported (and will support again if they unify control of government).  I speak of things like the Simpson-Bowles deficit reduction plan.  It was, after all, a Republican idea.  But because a Democratic President empaneled the commission it had to die a miserable death so Republicans could claim the president wasn't serious about deficit reduction.  Of course, the president hasn't helped his cause either.  He should be barnstorming the country demanding that the Republicans (and the Democratic Senate) get serious about the problem now instead of playing partisan games to make each other look bad.  Both parties are acting like spoiled school children trying to impress the teacher by smearing mud on the other kid's face.  And the beat goes on....

Another example is yesterday's vote in the House on a bill that would prohibit abortion based on gender selection by imposing criminal penalties on both women and doctors who performed such abortions, knowingly or unknowingly.  The House rules committee rigged the vote so the bill would fail by requiring a 2/3 majority (290 votes when all seats are filled) to pass...knowing full well the bill would fall well short of that number.  Predictably, it failed by a 246-168, mostly along partisan lines, though some Republicans opposed and a few more Democrats voted in favor of the bill.  It is this kind of nonsense legislation that tunes Americans out to politics.  Nobody in their right mind supports abortion  based on the gender of the fetus.  In fact, most abortions take place before it is even possible to discern gender.  But, as GOP operatives admitted, it forced many Democrats to go on the record opposing the bill, which will then be spun as supporting 'gender-selection' abortions.  And the beat goes on.....