American Presidents, Campaign Finance, Dallek, Election of 1944, Health Care, Obama

Dallek on Obama

dallekHealth Care Reform: A Lasting Legacy or Not

Robert Dallek, biographer of Kennedy and LBJ and skilled analyst of White House leadership, is, I believe, the best of the “presidential historians.” Dallek is evenhanded, accomplished and always engaging in making the historical connections between, say Barack Obama’s push this year for health care reform and Franklin Roosevelt’s advocacy of Social Security in the 1930’s.

Dallek’s op-ed piece this week in the Wall Street Journal is a fitting wrap-up of this year in presidential politics and a must read.

Here is a key section: “If the reform works as intended by expanding health insurance to an additional 30 million Americans and reducing the national debt, the Democrats will pillory the Republicans for the indefinite future. The GOP’s uniform opposition—only one congressman and no Republican senators supported the bill—will make it vulnerable to charges of wrong-minded thinking about the suffering of fellow citizens on a scale with Herbert Hoover’s failed response to the Great Depression. That cost his party five presidential elections.

“Should the bill fall short of promised gains, it will reinforce national prejudices against big government and facilitate another round of conservative Republican dominance of national politics.”

That pretty well sums it up.

Watch for Bob Dallek’s new book in the new year: The Lost Peace – Leadership in a Time of Horror and Hope. HarperCollins is the publisher.

Basques, Campaign Finance, Cold War, Health Care

Good News for Thanksgiving

basque wineLeave it to the Basques…

Been wondering if there is any good news in the world? Wonder no more.

Just in time for the Thanksgiving dinner comes new evidence – from the Basque region of Spain – that alcohol, wine, beer, whatever, in moderate daily amounts is good for the heart.

As the Independent reported: “The results showed that those who drank a little – a glass of wine or a bottle of beer every other day – had a 35 per cent lower risk of a heart attack than those who never drank. Moderate drinkers, consuming up to a couple of glasses of wine a day or a couple of pints of ordinary bitter, had a 54 per cent lower risk.”

As anyone knows who has traveled in the Basque region straddling the Spanish and French border along the Pyrenees, the Basques are great cooks and informed imbibers. The hospitality is legendary.

British scientists, of course, discounted the study, but what do they know. A glass of good red wine and a few tasty tapas in a bar in San Sebastian or Bilbao may just be one of the most civilized and stress reducing activities I can think of. Talk about good for the heart.

Toast the Basques. They know how to live. I personally think the study is brilliant.

Happy Thanksgiving.

Campaign Finance, Health Care

Health Care Reform

hospitalStates May Still Call the Shots

Here is the opening graph of a Washington Post piece that ran on November 1st:

“The debate over whether to let states opt out of any government-run health insurance plan overlooks a key facet of the health-care measures being assembled in Congress: When Washington is done, the shape of any new health-care system is likely to be finalized in Lansing and Boise and Baton Rouge.”

The full Post story is here.

Will states be up to the challenge? Indianapolis may be an example of what local initiative can accomplish. Emergency responders in the Indiana capitol city now have wireless access to medical records.

According to the publication, Federal Computer Week, “The goal is to help the medics provide more effective emergency care to patients by having real-time access to a digital record of the patients’ pre-existing medical conditions, previous treatments, allergies, current medications and other information.”

Like almost all big changes in American public policy, much of the detail and implementation in health care and insurance reform- regardless of the overheated rhetoric out of Washington, D.C. – will take place under the eyes of part-time, citizen legislators. Depending upon your point of view, that could be a very good thing or not. We will find out, piece by piece, state by state.

Baucus, Campaign Finance, Health Care, U.S. Senate

A Montanan at the Gates of Reform – Again

WheelerMBaucusax Baucus and B.K. Wheeler

Max Baucus (right), the current chairman of the powerful Senate Finance Committee, is on the verge of making history by writing (and perhaps passing) a sweeping reform of the nation’s health care system.

The Montana Senator – he was elected to the Senate in 1978 – is walking a path that one of his progressive Montana political forefathers – Burton K. Wheeler (on the left, above) -blazed nearly 75 years ago.

Baucus has been catching some grief in Montana – the Great Falls Tribune rounded up some of the opposition – and from those farther to the left on the political spectrum for not pushing harder for the so called “public option” provision in his health care bill. Baucus says, with some political logic, that he is trying to produce a bill that will actually pass the Senate.

 

Reforming Utility Law in 1935

 

Wheeler, a New Deal-era Senator, faced some of the same criticism in 1935 when he was attempting to push a sweeping piece of regulatory reform legislation – the Public Utilities Holding Company Act – through the Senate. The legislation was designed to address a variety of abuses by the handful of major utility holding companies that dominated the industry at the time.

Wheeler’s major decision was whether to include in the bill – also know as the Wheeler-Rayburn Act (future House Speaker Sam Rayburn was the House sponsor) – a so called “death sentence” provision that would mandate the dissolution of most of the nation’s powerful utility holding companies. Wheeler chaired what was then called the Senate Interstate Commerce Committee.

No doubt, like Max Baucus dealing with health care, Wheeler received thousands of letters, hundreds from Montana, opposed to his utility legislation. Montana Power Co. organized a letter writing campaign among its shareholders to press the case that Wheeler’s proposed legislation would “destroy” utility company investors.

At the height of the debate, Wheeler went on nationwide radio to defend the legislation and attack the lobbying effort. He began his half hour talk by saying that as the Senate sponsor of the holding company legislation he had received more mail from Philadelphia in the last month than he had received from Montana in the last two years.

“Nice chummy letters, too,” Wheeler said. “They call me everything from such high-class terms as ‘rogue’ and ‘rascal’ on down the scale. Most of them show the fine hand of the United Gas Improvement Company. The best of them must have come from Gertrude Stein. It consists of this: ‘It makes me sick to think how sick I get when I think about you.'”

Like Barack Obama’s support for health care reform, Wheeler knew that Franklin Roosevelt supported the broad sweep of utility reform, but on the core issue of the “death sentence” (or in Baucus’ case, the “public option”) no one knew for sure how far the president would go to fight for the provision.

Wheeler eventually succeeding a getting a letter from FDR voicing his support for the “death sentence” provision and the Montanan waited for exactly the right moment to make the letter public.

The president wrote that “while clarifying or minor amendments to section 11 [the death sentence] cannot be objected to nevertheless any amendment which goes to the heart of major objective of section 11 would strike at the bill itself and is wholly contrary” to what he would support.

To wavering Senate Democrats, the President’s message was blunt: Burt Wheeler is doing the White House’s bidding in pushing hard for the “death sentence.” A vote against the provision would be vote against Roosevelt. Wheeler added his own reminder that the real advocates of deleting the death sentence from the holding company legislation where the holding companies themselves, who had fought so hard from the beginning to weaken his bill.

“When they vote for this amendment [to eliminate the ‘death sentence’] they vote to kill the bill,” Wheeler said. “When they vote for this amendment they are voting as the lobbyist up in the galleries; representing the Power Trust, want them to vote, because the lobbyists want them to vote to kill the bill.”

The amendment to strike the “death sentence” from the Public Utilities Holding Company Act failed – by a single vote. For a moment it looked as though the vote would end in a 44-44 tie, but then Senator Peter Norbeck, a once-in-a-while progressive Republican from South Dakota, broke the tie and voted with Wheeler to keep the “death sentence” in the bill.

Wheeler had won, but the bitter fight highlighted the deep fractures among Senate Democrats. The holding company legislation passed the House – “death sentence” in place – and was signed into law by Roosevelt. In different times and under different circumstances, the Congress in 2005 repealed the remaining elements of the law that Wheeler (and FDR) fought to put in place nearly 75 years ago, but in the 1940’s and beyond the Public Utilities Holding Company Act remade an American industry.

 

Legislative Parallels – and Now

 

The historic parallels in these two reform efforts are numerous. Beyond the fact that Baucus and Wheeler share some obvious political history – Montanans, self styled independent Democrats, not infrequently at odds with their national party leadership – the two pieces of legislation have interesting similarities.

In 1935, Wheeler, like Baucus today, was dealing with a president who wanted legislation passed, but until pretty late in the game declined to be completely engaged or say exactly what he would settle for. Democrats in both cases were divided with conservative to moderate Democrats being slow to embrace reform. In 1935, presidential action pushed enough of the wavering Democrats to get a sweeping bill passed.

The charges and counter-charges flew then as now. Proponents were accused – you guessed it – of wanting to usher in socialism. The utilities were labeled as greedy, with no regard for the little guy. The lobbying – then as now – was fierce. (The 1935 lobbying practices actually prompted a congressional inquiry chaired by Alabama Senator – later Supreme Court Justice – Hugo Black.)

One thing that was very different in Wheeler’s day. Several progressive Senate Republicans – Norbeck, George Norris of Nebraska and William Borah of Idaho, among others – supported the utility reforms. Baucus, by contrast, appears to have a chance to get Maine Senator Olympia Snowe’s support for a Senate bill, but additional GOP votes appear mighty hard to come by.

Reforming utility practices in the 1930’s was a huge undertaking that reshaped a major piece of the American economy. A tough Montanan pulled it off. Another Senator from Big Sky County, three-quarters of a century later, is knocking at the gate of health care reform.

Stay tuned. If the utility regulation battle of 1935 is any historic guide, we will see many more twists and turns before any health care legislation is on the president’s desk. Then as now, a Montana Senator is calling many of the plays.