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Senators kept focus during health reform shenanigans

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By Hal Rhodes

One of the ways the constitutional framers arranged to limit the influence they feared “We the People” might wield in the chambers of our national government was to have members of the U.S. Senate appointed by the legislatures of the (then) 13 states.

That arrangement prevailed until the 17th Amendment to the Constitution in 1913, which provides for the election of senators by voters of their states. It was an attempt to democratize an inherently undemocratic institution wherein each state, irrespective of population, is guaranteed two senators.

Simply put, if democracy requires adherence to the principle of one-person, one-vote, we who live in sparsely populated New Mexico have far more votes per capita in the Senate than do folks in California.

Thus, senators representing the smaller states can – and frequently do – block the legislative objectives of senators from larger states.    

The fundamental democratic doctrine of majority rule has tough sledding in the nation’s upper house.

Worse, of its own volition, the Senate, which fancies itself a great deliberative body, has encumbered itself with some of the most archaic legislative practices this side of the English House of Lords.

Americans have now spent weeks observing the bedlam that can result from the Senate’s filibuster rule, whereby 41 obstinate senators can prevent 59 of their colleagues — a hefty majority, by any test — from even debating a legislative proposal.

So much for that “great deliberative body” pose, but that’s what the first big vote on Senate health insurance reforms was all about: Would members of the Senate be allowed to debate a piece of legislation?

Subsequently, two more votes requiring 60 senators were required before the measure could pass out of the Senate.

It’s lunacy, especially since Senate rules do not — I stress do not — actually require senators to filibuster, that is, stand before the Senate and filibuster — talk without end. They just have to threaten to do so.

Small wonder this oxymoronic filibuster fosters the worst kind of legislative shenanigans as Senate leaders scramble to muster the 60 votes needed to accomplish anything.

In the case of the health reform measure, the ever-supercilious Joe Lieberman single-handedly prevented Americans ages 55 to 65 from buying into Medicare – an idea he himself advocated as recently as three months ago. It was egoism as an end in itself, but it was the price he put on his vote.

Nebraska’s Ben Nelson held the measure hostage until he got a special Medicaid deal for his state.

Meanwhile, all 40 Senate Republicans ranted and snarled throughout the proceedings, without ever offering a plan of their own. They were the Party of No, negative to the end.

Which made the conduct of New Mexico’s Sens. Jeff Bingaman and Tom Udall, all the more admirable. Both men supported the so-called public option provision, as do a majority Americans, according to the polls.

Yet neither threatened to withhold their votes when that provision was dropped, because both knew much that is good remained in the legislation, including strictures prohibiting insurance companies from denying individuals coverage because of prior health conditions.

Nor will insurers any longer be able to cancel a person’s policy when he or she becomes ill.

No legislation is perfect. You do your best within the realm of what’s possible.

Bingaman and Udall recognize that reality and voted accordingly, leaving the game playing to some of their smarmier colleagues.

Said Bingaman, “As a state with one of the fastest rising premium rates and a very high percentage of uninsured residents, New Mexico has a lot to gain from passage of this bill.”

(c)  2009 NEW MEXICO NEWS SERVICES