Why the Gang of Six is Deciding Health Care for Three Hundred Million of Us

Senate Finance "Gang of Six," clockwise from upper left: Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa; Kent Conrad, D-North Dakota;Mike Enzi, R-Wyoming., Chairman Max Baucus, D-Montana, Jeff Bingaman, D-New Mexico; and Olympia Snowe R-Maine.

Senate Finance "Gang of Six," clockwise from upper left: Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa; Kent Conrad, D-North Dakota;Mike Enzi, R-Wyoming., Chairman Max Baucus, D-Montana, Jeff Bingaman, D-New Mexico; and Olympia Snowe R-Maine.

Thursday night, the so-called “gang of six” — three Republican and three Democratic senators on the Senate Finance Committee — met by conference call and, according to Senator Max Baucus, the committee’s chair, reaffirmed their commitment “toward a bipartisan health-care reform bill” (read: less coverage and no public insurance option). The Washington Post reports that the senators shared tales from their home states, where some have been besieged by protesters angry about a potential government takeover of the nation’s health care system.

It’s come down to these six senators. The House has reported a bill as has another Senate committee, but all eyes are fixed on Senate Finance — and on these three Dems and three Republicans, in particular. But who, exactly, anointed these six to decide the fate of the nation’s health care?

I don’t get it. Of the three Republicans in the gang, the senior senator is Charles Grassley. In recent weeks Grassley has refused to debunk the rumor that the House’s health-care bill will spawn “death panels,” empowered to decide whether the sick and old get to live or die. At an Iowa town meeting last Tuesday Grassley called the President and Speaker Nancy Pelosi “intellectually dishonest” for claiming the opposite. On Thursday Grassley told the Washington Post that Congress should scale back its efforts to overhaul health care in the wake of intense anger at town hall meetings. But — wait — the anger is largely about distortions such as the “death panels” that Grassley refuses to debunk.

This week on Fox News Grassley termed the House bill “the Pelosi Bill,” and called it “a government takeover of heath care, exploding the deficit because it’s not paid for and it’s got high taxes in it.”

I really don’t get it. We have a Democratic president in the White House. Democrats control sixty votes in the Senate, enough to overcome a filibuster. It is possible to pass health care legislation through the Senate with 51 votes (that’s what George W. Bush did with his tax cut plan). Democrats control the House. The Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi, is a tough lady. She has said there will be no health care reform bill without a public option.

So why does the fate of health care rest in Grassley’s hands?

robert_reich.jpgIt’s not even as if the gang represents America. The three Dems on the gang are from Montana, New Mexico, and North Dakota — states that together account for just over 1 percent of Americans. The three Republicans are from Maine, Wyoming, and Iowa, which together account for 1.6 percent of the American population.

So, I repeat: Why has it come down to these six? Who anointed them? Apparently, the White House. At least that’s what I’m repeatedly being told by sources both on the Hill and in the Administration. “The Finance Committee is where the action is. They’ll tee-up the final bill,” says someone who should know.

by Robert Reich

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

Published by the LA Progressive on August 22, 2009
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About Robert Reich

Robert B. Reich is Professor of Public Policy at the Goldman School of Public Policy at the University of California at Berkeley. He has served in three national administrations, most recently as secretary of labor under President Bill Clinton. He has written eleven books, including The Work of Nations, which has been translated into 22 languages; the best-sellers The Future of Success and Locked in the Cabinet, and his most recent book, Supercapitalism. His articles have appeared in the New Yorker, Atlantic Monthly, New York Times, Washington Post, and Wall Street Journal. Mr. Reich is co-founding editor of The American Prospect magazine.

Reich has been a member of the faculties of Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government and of Brandeis University. He received his B.A. from Dartmouth College, his M.A. from Oxford University, where he was a Rhodes Scholar, and his J.D. from Yale Law School.