Thursday, July 30, 2009

Democrats of Sorts

As I follow this health care debate, I'm hearing a lot about "Blue Dog" Democrats, and realizing that there are labels within this vast party of Democrats with which we can further subdivide. So I studied myself a little Wikipedia, and I'd like to share what I've learned:

You know the general rule for Democrats (the whole party): blue states, symbolized by the donkey. Socially, they're all about programs that take tax money and use it to pay for things like welfare, medicare, social security, public schools, etc. This goes along with a fiscally liberal agenda of (supposedly) higher taxes and more spending.

Republicans, on the other hand, are (supposedly) more fiscally conservative, favoring lower taxes and less spending. Until recently, Republicans have been all about smaller government (which is really a Libertarian thing), and they're still about lowering taxes. But W went and started a couple wars, so now it seems as though Republicans are happy to spend money on the military, and they're not so interested in balancing the budget.

See, I've gotten a little side-tracked. Back to Democrats.

The Blue Dog Democrats are the conservative ones. It's actually a caucus in the House of Representatives. They're mostly southern Dems (though this caucus includes my former rep, Jane Harman, CA-36, and it formerly included Kirsten Gillibrand, now a NY senator), and they sometimes side with Republicans, especially when an issue calls for lots of spending (like health care reform). They're fiscally conservative, so they worry about balancing the budget and keeping taxes low. They might also be a little more socially conservative, but that differs from member to member.

The New Democrat Coalition is not a caucus (or maybe it is?), but a group of self-identified congresspeople (both Senators and Representatives) who are moderate and "pro-growth". This group overlaps quite a bit with the Blue Dogs. Bill Clinton is kind of the ultimate New Democrat, being quite centrist about spending, and with his welfare reform and middle-class tax cuts. Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, and Bill Richardson have also identified themselves as New Democrats. Also included are Jane Harman (CA-36), three of CT's five representatives (not the ones from New Haven or Bridgeport/Stamford), Joe Lieberman (CT), John Kerry (MA), Dianne Feinstein (CA), and John Edwards.

Then you've got the Congressional Progressive Caucus, which is more liberal. Their founding principles include non-discrimination and "the interests of all people, not just the wealthy and powerful." That translates to cuts in military spending, a progressive tax system (the more you make, the higher percentage you pay), more spending on social programs for middle and low incomes, and fair trade agreements. This caucus is supported by MoveOn.org, the ACLU, NAACP, and a bunch of other organizations that sound multicultural. Nancy Pelosi is one of these. Looking at the list of members, they're typically urban (Los Angeles, Inglewood, New Haven, Chicago, Oakland, Newark, Brooklyn, Manhattan, etc.), but also include environmentalists Earl Blumenauer (OR-3), who I know from his bike-to-work campaign, and Cynthia McKinney (formerly GA-4), who was the Green Party presidential nominee last year.

The Progressive Democrats of America is a non-caucus group within the Democratic party that overlaps the Congressional Progressive Caucus. It is based on the presidential campaigns of Howard Dean and Dennis Kucinich. They want to end the war in Iraq, enact single-payer health care, favor clean energy over fossil fuels, and promote fair trade and labor agreements. These are the greenest democrats you'll find. They're related to the New Left, which came out of the 1960's and 1970's anti-war, and that's why you might hear them called communists. (But they're not.)

The bill originally introduced in the House calls for taxes on the wealthy and also penalties for people who don't get insurance. This plan would include a mandate (everyone has to have health insurance), companies of a certain size have to offer insurance, and families with an annual income up to 4 times the national poverty level would get subsidies to help pay for it. There would be a minimum amount of coverage required. The bill includes a public insurance
option.

This is far from the universal health care for which Ted Kennedy has been working, but it's something. It's actually something more like the system in Massachusetts, where almost everyone has insurance, but they've run into problems getting people who had no insurance for a while back on track with primary care. It would probably be better than the current profit-driven insurance system, but it wouldn't take care of some of the underlying problems with the cost of health care.

So when the news talks about Blue Dog Democrats making a deal on health care, that means it's probably a deal about how much it's going to cost. They want to keep the price down. Since they're not negotiating a single-payer system, it's mostly how they'll pay for it. The bill outlined above, originally priced at $1.5 trillion over 10 years, is now down to $900 billion. The modified bill decreases the subsidies to low-income families and doesn't require companies to offer health insurance to their employees. There's also a tentative agreement to eliminate the public option. As you can imagine, the Progressives are pretty pissed off about that. They're threatening to reject the bill without the public option. It will likely come to a vote in September. They have all of August recess to play politics.

I've heard/read arguments that the current draft of the bill isn't so important. They just need to get something passed in the House, and something passed in the Senate, and then they will go into reconciliation (because those two bills are unlikely to be the same), and figure out the details there. But if the House bill is weak, and the Senate bill is weak, doesn't that just mean that the reconciled bill will also be weak?

From my perspective (and apparently most of the liberal news media), the Blue Dogs are the problem. If all the Democrats were Progressive, there would be no need for negotiation, as Democrats have the majority in both the House and the Senate. But because the Blue Dogs aren't on board with a complete overhaul, negotiations must be made.

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