So Much Happening in Washington and So Little to Show for It, So Far

PoliticsThe Senate Finance Committee is set to vote Tuesday on a healthcare bill that just got a seal of approval from the Congressional Budget Office and is very likely to garner the vote of Republican Senator Olympia Snowe — a twofer that gives the bill preeminence over four other healthcare bills that have emerged from House and Senate committees over these long months. Unlike those bills, though, the Senate Finance bill won’t have a public insurance option to compete with private insurers. Nor does it allow Medicare to use its bargaining power to negotiate lower drug prices, or adequately subsidize millions of middle-class families who will be required to buy health insurance that will be hard for them to afford. In short, it’s a great deal for private insurers and Big Pharma but not such a great deal for middle-class Americans.

Meanwhile, the House Banking Committee is quietly circulating a draft set of reforms of financial markets likely to become the basis for whatever legislation emerges to fix the Street. Barney Frank, who heads the Committee, is a thoughtful progressive. But the draft has gaping loopholes that will let most financial firms escape — such as one that exempts corporations that deal in financial derivatives from any requirements for capital, business conduct, record-keeping, and reporting if they use derivatives for the purpose of “risk management,” which is the very thing they all claim they’re doing. Neither the draft bill, nor the Committee, nor anyone on the Hill having anything to do with financial regulation, is raising what I consider to be the two key reforms necessary for avoiding another financial meltdown — resurrecting the Glass-Steagall Act that once separated commercial from investment banking, and applying antitrust laws to the remaining five biggest Wall Street banks so none is “too big to fail.”

At the same time, environmental legislation is now slinking its way through Congress. The Waxman-Markey climate bill was passed by the House in June; John Kerry and Barbara Boxer have now released a Senate version. All four legislators claim to be progressives concerned about the environment, but the bills are, frankly, far short of what’s needed. Waxman-Markey gives away 85 percent of pollution permits to the nation’s biggest polluters, and the “cap” it proposes on overall carbon emissions would cut greenhouse gas emissions only by an estimated 2 to 4 percent by 2020 compared to the UN reference year of 1990. (If America was to play its appropriate role in a global climate deal, the reduction would be more like 40 percent, and the U.S. would also provide financing and technology so developing countries could reduce their emissions by a comparable amount.) The Kerry-Boxer bill has a stronger cap on emissions but it’s still far short of what’s necessary — and it leaves out the hardest part, which is the actual cap-and-trade mechanism. Kerry and Boxer are leaving that to the Senate Finance Committee, of all places.

And what’s happening on the job’s front? Nothing except a blip of interest in tax credits to small businesses that create new jobs. That’s not a bad move (I suggested it myself), but it’s rather like bailing out the ocean with a teacup. If that’s all there is, we’re headed toward two years of double-digit unemployment. No one on the Hill or in the Administration is yet willing to say openly and clearly that the stimulus plan must be larger, and continued through 2010 and 2011.

My friends in the Administration and on the Hill repeatedly tell me “don’t make the perfect the enemy of the better,” or words to that effect. Politics is the art of the possible, blah blah blah. True. But in each of these areas — healthcare, financial regulation, environment, and jobs — the “better” is really not that much better. Forget perfect; anything that offered real reform would suffice for now. But in every case, what should be the centerpieces of reform are being left out.

Why? Congress is overwhelmed with corporate and Wall Street lobbyists (far too many of whom are former Democratic office holders). The White House is trying best it can to push and prod in the right direction but there’s too much going on, too many arenas where private interests are framing the debate and stifling major reform, and too many friends of friends and relations of relations who are making tons of money working for the other side.

robert_reich.jpgThe public doesn’t know what’s going on because the national media would rather report on the sexual escapades of famous people or social trends or high finance (a recent Pew study of economic reporting shows the vast majority of stories about the Great Recession have focused on Wall Street rather than Main Street). And progressives — that is, progressive organizations in our nation’s capital — have been remarkably and consistently outgunned, outmaneuvered, or just plain ineffectual. This is largely due to the fact that they’re sitting in Washington rather than organizing and mobilizing the rest of the country.

by Robert Reich

This article first appeared on Robert Reich’s Blog. Republished with permission

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