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Blue Dogs, health care and the devil

By Peter Morici
web posted August 24, 2009

If Daniel Webster were alive, the Blue Dogs in the House of Representatives would do well to seek his counsel. On health care, these conservative-leaning lawmakers are caught between the public trust and the devil.

Most Americans believe the U.S. health care system needs reform but don't like the reforms the President Obama and the House leadership want to serve up.

The plan on the table would require everyone to obtain health insurance, subsidize those that can't afford the full price, impose an 8 percent payroll tax on businesses that do not provide health insurance, and offer a government run plan to those without employer-paid insurance.

According to the most recent NBC poll, 47 percent of voters oppose a government run health insurance option, whereas 43 percent support one. Importantly, only 24 percent believe the plan emerging would improve the quality of health care.

Most voters understand it would be cheaper for many private employers to drop their health plans, pay the 8 percent tax, and push their employees into the government run program. As tiresome and inflexible as private insurance claims departments may be, most voters simply don't want their health insurance run by the Post Office and disputes adjudicated by the IRS.

The Democratic leadership notwithstanding, the distribution of votes in the House of Representatives reflects these sentiments. Democrats hold 256 of 435 seats but the 52 conservative-leaning Blue Dog Democrats generally don't support a public plan.

Left free to vote their conscience and the sentiments of their constituents, it is fair to say about 200 members of Congress would vote for a public plan, whereas the remaining 235 -- mostly Republicans and Blue Dogs -- would vote against it.

Democratic leaders in both chambers view those that oppose their health care plan not merely wrong but “evil mongers,” to repeat the words of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid.

Convinced the voters are not competent to know what is good for them, Congressional leaders will pressure Blue Dogs to vote for a bill that pushes many Americans into a government run health care program.

Blue Dogs should just say no, but Pelosi and her lieutenants have levers.

Liberal Democrats in the House won't vote for a bill without a public option, and if the Blue Dogs don't go along, no health care bill may pass this Congress. Then congressional Democrats will appear inept and to have failed to address the public desire for genuine reform. Democrats would take losses in the mid-term elections, many Blue Dogs could lose their seats, and they would be blamed for pulling down the party.

The Democratic leadership can lavish generous campaign support on helpful Blue Dogs, and campaign money is such a temptation.

Although Blue Dogs tend to represent conservative-leaning constituencies, a public plan would not harm most voters until after November 2010. Blue Dogs can make their deal with the devil and burnish their conservative credentials, later, on other issues.

Ultimately, the Blue Dogs are caught between voting their conscience and supporting a Democratic leadership that holds the judgment of most voters in contempt. ESR

Peter Morici is a professor at the Smith School of Business, University of Maryland School, and the former Chief Economist at the U.S. International Trade Commission.


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