Good Policy Vs. Bipartisanship In Health Care Reform

harkinThe Hill’s J. Taylor Rushing quotes Sen. Tom Harkin (D-IA) as rejecting the notion that bipartisanship always leads to better policy. If we believe that a public health care plan will reduce health care costs, then we should include it in health reform, whether the Republicans like it or not:

If we have a few people who just want to block it, but we have a majority of the Senate that wants this bill, we can do it,” Harkin said. “We just can’t have a majority of the Senate, and a substantial number of Republicans, support something that one or two people want to stop.” Harkin said Republicans are simply pushing the “government-run” phrase on the advice of pollsters, suggesting that the party cares more about politics than policy. “But the polls really show the American people want a public plan, overwhelmingly,” Harkin said Monday while promoting draft legislation that the committee began circulating earlier this month that includes the public option.

Indeed, just yesterday, the Republican senators of the Senate Finance Committee — save Olympia Snowe (R-ME) — penned a letter rejecting a public health insurance option. “Washington-run programs undermine market-based completion through their ability to impose price controls and shift costs to other purchases,” the senators wrote. “Forcing free market plans to compete with these government-run programs would create an unlevel playing field and inevitably doom true competition.”

As the first legislative language trickles out of Congress, Republicans are drawing lines in the sand, appearing on cable news stations and penning op-eds misrepresenting the public option as a Trojan horse for single payer health care. There is very little truth to these sentiments. In fact, if anything, Obama’s hybrid approach — he builds up existing system of private coverage, while also expanding public programs — represents a compromise, not an ideological push.

But if some Republicans are more interested in dividing the debate with ideological buzzwords rather than reaching consensus or even debating policy that could improve the health care system, then why bend-over backwards to consult them? Since the election, they’ve been screaming about the threats of a ‘government takeover’ and applying that rhetoric to any and all Democratic proposals. As GOP word-smith guru Frank Luntz admitted, Republicans will label Obama’s reform effort a “government takeover” of health care, regardless of the actual proposal. Here is Rep. John Boehner (R-OH), the Republican leader in the House, characterizing the Democratic proposal as a “government take-over” and defining the Republican alternative as the antithesis of “government” health care:

With more and more details becoming available, it is evident that the forthcoming plan from Democratic leaders will make health care more expensive, limit treatments and ration care, and put bureaucrats in charge of medical decisions rather than patients and doctors. More than 100 million Americans could be forced out of their current health care plan and onto the government rolls. It amounts to a government takeover of health care, and the middle class will get a raw deal once again. Our alternative will expand access to affordable, quality care regardless of pre-existing conditions. It will protect Americans from being forced into a government-run plan, making certain that medical decisions are made by patients and their doctors, not Washington bureaucrats.

Rather than engaging in the substance of the actual policy — that is, designing a public option in such a way that it would reduce health care costs while protecting the coverage Americans currently have — Republicans, as Harkin correctly points out, are recycling poll-tested talking points.

Policy makers have a choice between passing a ‘bipartisan bill’ and passing a good bill. In some cases the two aren’t mutually exclusive, but given the Republicans’ resistance to engage in a health policy debate, Democratic lawmakers would be smart to do the latter.