Since the Clinton push for health care reform in the 90s, Rep. Jim Cooper has largely been regarded as a) an intractable stick in the mud, or b) the punji stick that skewered the Clintons' bill.
Of course, it was more complicated than all that, and failure had many a disowning father. The same will be true should House Dems fail to come up with something this go-round, no matter how they go about getting it. And they seem to have embraced that part: Whatever it takes. Hence the prevailing attitude favoring "deem and pass," a way to approve the Senate bill without directly voting on it. Sidecar legislation with House fixes to the Senate bill would follow. It's looking like the most likely route to a reform that, while imperfect, might constitute a few baby steps in the right direction.
For whatever reason -- be it a potentially well-grounded concern that such methods could leave the piece of legislation vulnerable to a federal judge on questions of constitutionality, or simply that the president wouldn't "know whom to invite to the signing ceremony," Cooper said in a statement to Pelosi -- Cooper stood shoulder to shoulder with Republicans Thursday in a failed attempt to force an up-or-down vote on the Senate bill.
To be sure, the GOP is already carping about developing the legal foundation for lawsuits seeking to void health care reform. Cooper seems to be arguing that we shouldn't give them fodder by relying on what he admits is an oft-utilized parliamentary tool for such sweeping reform. At the same time, Cooper knows better than anyone the consequences of inaction. We spent more than $7,000 on health care per person in this country in 2007. We have the most expensive health care system in the world. It's expensive because it's inefficient. In fact, a good portion of the $7,000 is spent on administrative costs.
It's also expensive because millions of people in this country are uninsured. When a treatable medical condition balloons into a life-threatening disease requiring hospitalization because going to the doctor is too expensive without insurance, it becomes a taxpayer problem.
Despite the fact that we're first in the world for health care spending, we're way behind when it comes to infant mortality and adult mortality. All that money and we're really not better for it. If reform isn't realized this time -- no matter how it's done -- how long will it be before another president takes up the mantle? Another 15 years? Never? By then health care spending would have swelled by trillions of dollars per year, and the budget deficit would only grow.
If health care reform fails this time, Cooper won't be remembered as being the father of its undoing. But his constituents might not forget if he fails to stand up for reform he knows is right because he's uncomfortable with parliamentary procedure.
For the record, Cooper's entire statement:
"Madam Speaker, I will vote against the Previous Question Motion today because I think the American people deserve a clear, up-or-down vote on health reform. They deserve to know how their elected representative voted, without any parliamentary confusion or obfuscation. In addition to being a transparency and fairness issue, this may also be a constitutional issue because of the consensus that the House and Senate must pass identical bills before they can be sent to the President for signature.
"With all the publicity surrounding the so-called 'self-executing' rule, this procedure will not fool anyone back home, nor should it. It is, however, apparently designed to fool enough members of the House into believing that they did not support the Senate bill, even though, if they support the health reform package, they voted for it as the major component of the health reform.
"Unless we return to regular House procedure, we will never know how members would have voted on the Senate bill, by itself, and/or the reconciliation amendment, by itself. Since the President is apparently planning on signing the Senate bill before the Senate can take up the reconciliation amendment (as the Senate parliamentarian insists), no one will know who in the House of Representatives, in fact, supported the Senate bill. In simplistic terms, the White House will not know whom to invite to the signing ceremony.
"All this might be a parliamentary dispute if the possibility did not exist that a constitutional challenge would be brought against health care reform legislation. All it would take is one or two federal judges to void this fundamental reform because of a procedural failing. Supporters of reform will then regret taking this procedural shortcut, while opponents will welcome the opportunity to overturn the law and reopen the debate.
"I realize that both political parties have used self-executing rules dozens, even hundreds, of times. But, to my knowledge, these rules have never been used on an issue larger than banning smoking on airplanes, a $40 billion deficit-reduction measure, or raising the debt ceiling of the United States. None of these issues compares with the scope of health care reform. To my knowledge, no serious constitutional challenge has been mounted against these lesser uses of the rules, but one is certain to be lodged against the passage of health reform.
"Voting is the most important part of our job. We must vote honestly and openly on the separate issues that come before us."