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Monday Morning Sausage Making

The Super Bowl gave us a welcome breather from the depressingly drawn out and seemingly dwindling health reform process. But as Washington continues to dig itself out from snowpocalypse (literally and metaphorically), maybe we should learn a lesson from the sports pages and do a little Monday morning reflecting on where we are, what we’ve learned so far, and where we should go.

And there is at least one good thing about the year in health reform: Many of us have learned more about civics than we have since fifth grade. We now know about the sneaky way of making laws through budget reconciliation. We know that, thanks to a filibuster, a majority isn’t merely greater than 50 percent. But there is also a distasteful part of this civics lesson that might have thrown the reform legislation down the garbage disposal. I refer to legislative sausage making.

In news report after news report after op-ed, Scott Brown’s win last month in Massachusetts’ special Senatorial election was cited as a populist revolt against Congressional sausage making, particularly of the health reform flavor. What this recipe entailed was an unpalatable sell-out to special interests, complete with backroom deals with Nebraska. As John McCain said about Brown’s victory: ”No more business as usual in Washington. Stop this unsavory sausage-making process.” And the take-home message for chastened Democrats has been, simmer down, mix well, and let the Republicans be more a part of the recipe.

Which got me to thinking – sausage is actually quite savory, and sausage making is entirely the wrong civics metaphor. What do we really know about it? The conventional wisdom is pretty much that we don’t want to know what goes into that ballpark frank – just that it’s delicious and we very much want to have one while watching the Yankees beat the Red Sox.

Similarly, when it comes to health reform, if the outcome were delicious – if most of the uninsured were covered, and if everyone paid their fair share, with subsidies for those who can’t afford to pay, and there were efforts to bring down costs (all of which sounds a little like the Senate sausage, as well as the Massachusetts sausage that Scott Brown voted for as a state senator and made Massachusetts a model for the nation) – well, just how we got there wouldn’t likely bother us very much.

Which brings me back to the Yankees and the Scott Browns, I mean the Red Sox, and those Monday morning sports pages. The take-home civics metaphor here is more about playing sports than what spectators eat. Each side is strategizing for their advantage – and the response to a big offensive play is not to give more ground. Allowing the political process to be cast as a distasteful mash, one barely worth a mention in the State of the Union, will never lead to a policy that the public finds palatable. In electing Brown, the GOP did a bold on-sides kick (to switch sports metaphors in honor of the Saints Super Bowl strategy). Instead of falling back and being apologetic, the Democrats need to gear up their offense.

Maybe it’s just because Super Bowl fever essentially requires politicians to embrace the gridiron spirit, but President Obama seemed to get this message. At a town hall meeting in New Hampshire last week he vowed to fight like a lineman for his wild card health reform legislation. According to The New York Times, the president said, “We had to go into overtime. But we are now in the red zone. That’s exactly right. We’re in the red zone. We’ve got to punch it through.”

The president needs to stay on his offensive game beyond the Super Bowl, and channel his inner LBJ (winner of the political equivalent of a Heisman trophy). He should use his power to bench obstructionists like Senators Ben Nelson and Joe Lieberman, go into the ring with the opposition party, and kick a rhetorical winning field goal. Now is Obama’s chance to say, “Scott Brown’s win of Teddy Kennedy’s seat tells me one thing—we have taken our eyes off the prize, which is coverage for all Americans, and been drawn into side battles. No more. I came into office a year ago with a mandate from a nation suffering from soaring health care costs and rising uninsurance, a nation clamoring for health reform, and that’s not changed in a year. A vote against my plan is a vote against your family, your neighbor, and your country. It’s also a vote against recovery, because rising health care costs are forcing companies to shed jobs.”

Scott Brown’s win is an opportunity. Keep the sausage on the sidelines and let’s play ball. Let’s punch it through.

Mary Crowley is the director of public affairs and communications at The Hastings Center. The views expressed here are her own.

Published on: February 8, 2010
Published in: Health Care Reform & Policy

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