Nick Baumann

Nick Baumann

Senior Editor

Nick is based in our DC bureau, where he covers national politics and civil liberties issues. Nick has also written for The Economist, The Atlantic, the Washington Monthly, and Commonweal. Email tips and insights to nbaumann [at] motherjones [dot] com. You can also follow him on Facebook.

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Key Senator's Health Care Reform Booster Shot

| Thu Jan. 28, 2010 6:01 PM EST

Democrats' efforts to pass health care reform depend on a filibuster-proof procedural maneuver called reconciliation. If Senate Democrats can use this process to pass a package of adjustments to their version of the health care bill, Speaker Nancy Pelosi says she can muster enough votes to approve the Senate legislation in the House. But for this to work, Sen. Kent Conrad has to be with the program. The centrist North Dakota Democrat chairs the Senate Budget Committee, which handles reconciliation measures. Other centrist Democrats, such as Missouri's Claire McCaskill, have  expressed qualms about the plan. But in a brief conversation with reporters on Thursday afternoon, Conrad slammed Republican obstructionism and vigorously defended the use of reconciliation to pass important legislation.

The Senate "was not designed to have everything require 60 votes," Conrad said. "It wasn't designed to prevent important action on the problems facing the country." If a supermajority is effectively necessary to pass any piece of legislation, he added, this "puts a great deal of pressure on going to more of a reconciliation process to deal with things."

Conrad argued that it's not possible to use reconciliation—which requires merely a straight majority vote—to win passage of an entire comprehensive health care bill, as some progressives have advocated. (There are assorted rules that prevent this.) But Conrad noted that he's open to using this legislative maneuver to make limited, though significant, changes to a measure the Senate has already passed—provided that certain procedural kinks could be ironed out.

Those procedural issues involve which body would take the opening step in this legislative dance—the House or the Senate. House Democrats want the Senate to pass its changes to its health care measure first. (Otherwise, they could end up voting for a Senate bill containing provisions they don't like and then get stuck with it, should reconciliation fizzle.) Senate Democrats, however, aren't sure they can approve through reconciliation changes to a bill that hasn't yet been approved by the House. "We are being asked to pass a piece of legislation that amends another piece of legislation which does not exist yet," a Senate aide told Greg Sargent yesterday. "We are having problems with the [Congressional Budget Office] and parliamentarian on that front." The Senate just wants the House to "back off," Sargent reported. Parliamentary experts for the Democratic leaders on each side of Capitol Hill are now trying to sort all this out.

Meanwhile, President Barack Obama in his State of the Union speech didn't provide any guidance on how congressional Democrats should proceed. One House Democratic leadership aide told Mother Jones that the top Democrats on the House side assume that Obama is hesitant to tell the "touchy" Senate how to do its job at such a critical juncture. The absence of any reference to reconciliation in Obama's speech, he insists, was no indication it is off the table.

Conrad, for one, didn't sound like a man with doubts about the idea. He said, "Frankly I think we have to reconsider the rules by which this body is governed," because the Senate "is in danger of becoming dysfunctional," and "there's going to be a building demand in the country to change the system."

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Can This Patient Be Saved?

| Wed Jan. 27, 2010 7:12 PM EST

Can health care reform be resuscitated? For weeks, it appeared that a stalemate over abortion politics could prevent the Democrats’ historic health care overhaul from becoming law. But according to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, while there are potential hurdles that could yet sink the effort, abortion’s not the big deal breaker that ought to worry supporters of reform.

The Democrats’ strategy, Pelosi told several columnists on Wednesday afternoon, hinges on getting the House to approve the Senate’s health care bill—while the Senate modifies its version through a procedure called reconciliation in order to address House Democrats' objections to certain provisions of the Senate bill. Pelosi said there is "very little support in the House" for passing the Senate’s measure untouched. But if the Senate makes changes via a a separate reconciliation measure—which would require only a majority and can’t be defeated by a filibuster—then, Pelosi said, she is confident "we can come up with something."

Reid Spokesman: Abortion Compromise a No-Go

| Wed Jan. 27, 2010 1:50 PM EST

The fate of health care reform depends on getting the House to pass the Senate's health care bill. But anti-abortion House Democrats have demanded changes to the abortion language in the Senate legislation in order to secure their votes. And altering those provisions could be impossible, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid's spokesman said Tuesday.

That's because Democrats are considering modifying the Senate bill via reconciliation—a procedural maneuver that only needs a simple majority and thus can't be killed by a filibuster. But reconciliation rules forbid the inclusion of any provisions that have no effect on the budget. When the abortion language in the Senate bill was added as a last-minute compromise, the Congressional Budget Office actually certified that it had no budgetary effect. (Otherwise, the whole bill would have to be rescored.) That will make it very hard, if not impossible, to argue that the abortion provisions can be changed using the reconciliation process.

When I asked Reid's spokesman, Jim Manley, whether the Majority Leader's office understood the rules as preventing the Senate from altering the bill's abortion language, he emailed back immediately. "I believe that is correct," he wrote.

If Reid's office stands by that stance, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi is in a real bind. Rep. Bart Stupak (D-Mich.), who pushed for the House bill's strict limits on abortion coverage, has warned that he has 10 to 12 Democrats (including himself) who voted for the House bill but are committed to opposing the Senate bill's abortion language. And without Stupak's 10 to 12 lawmakers, getting the votes to pass the Senate bill in the House—even if other fixes are made using reconciliation—will be very, very hard. The original House bill only passed 220-215. Of the yes votes, Rep. Robert Wexler (D-Fla.) has since retired, and Rep. Joseph Cao (R-La.), will probably vote against the final bill. Some progressives, like Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio), voted against the House bill but might be convinced to support a final compromise. And some Blue Dogs who opposed the House bill might have a change of heart. But are there 10 to 12 Democrats who will switch their votes? Unless Stupak is bluffing about the number of votes he has in his corner, health care reform is in serious trouble.

Health Care Reform's Bleak Prognosis

| Wed Jan. 27, 2010 10:33 AM EST

After a meeting on Tuesday evening, House Democrats finally seem to be settling on a plan to move forward on health care reform. But there are some major roadblocks standing in the way of their preferred solution—including squeamish senators, uncompromising anti-abortion congressmen, the Democrats' own president, and, of course, the Republicans.

Here's the strategy that House Dems are coalescing around: First, pass the Senate bill. Then, attempt to address some of their members' concerns with that legislation through the reconciliation process—which would allow the Senate to pass adjusted legislation with a simple majority without the risk of a GOP filibuster.

The first big problem with this idea is President Barack Obama, who has so far refused to specifically endorse using reconciliation to move forward on health care. In fact, he has conspicuously refrained from pushing publicly for any particular strategy. All the administration has said is that passing some sort of reform is crucial. That leaves congressional Democrats wondering why they should stick their necks out for a gambit their own president won't endorse. And Robert Gibbs, the White House press secretary, refused to answer pointed questions on Tuesday about whether Obama would use his State of the Union address scheduled for Wednesday night to endorse any specific strategies for passing health care.

Corporate Political Speech

| Wed Jan. 27, 2010 7:15 AM EST

On Monday, I explained why the Supreme Court's recent decision legalizing unlimited corporate spending (or "speech") in elections based on the premise that corporations are legal "persons" deserving free-speech rights doesn't make sense:

Corporations can never take political action premised on genuine support for a politician's ideas or values. Corporate spending on elections must be predicated on corporate self-interest, because corporations are legally required to maximize profit for their shareholders. They will never be able to participate in elections in a "politically motivated" way. They can only participate in service of their own bottom lines. If a corporation acted against its own interests because their management thought it would serve the greater good (for example, by bankrolling an ad campaign supporting a clean-air law that would cripple the company), that would be literally illegal. 

Justin Fox, the new editor of the Harvard Business Review, agrees:

The "one and only social responsibility of business," economist Milton Friedman wrote back in 1970 in a New York Times Magazine essay that launched a thousand arguments, is "to use its resources and engage in activities designed to increase its profits so long as it stays within the rules of the game ..." Friedman contrasted this with the multiple responsibilities that an individual — such as a corporate executive — might have "to his family, his conscience, his feelings of charity, his church, his clubs, his city, his country."

[...]

The individuals who make up the electorate in the United States are, as Friedman described, beings of many facets — their actions and their views shaped by pecuniary self interest but also by values, beliefs, and loyalties that might conflict with that self interest. The ideal for-profit corporation, on the other hand, is out to do nothing but make as much money as it can "within the rules of the game." It is supposed to behave in a fashion that for an individual would probably be described as psychopathic. And if corporations are allowed to play a decisive role in shaping the "rules of the game," we have effectively put the inmates in control of the asylum.

[...]

If corporations are persons, they are — if they behave as Milton Friedman wanted them to — persons with mental and emotional impairments so severe that any decent judge would feel entirely justified in declaring them incompetent.

Great stuff. Fox and Reuters' Felix Salmon have more.

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