Where Did We Go Wrong?

The following contribution of humor to Catharsis Week (which formally ends today) is a guest post by Jim Hufford, a lawyer in Atlanta and the author of the blog Organon.

Why did everything fall apart? Was it the wasted months negotiating in the Finance Committee? Was it the August recess? Was it Martha Coakley’s colossal choke? Lieberman’s double-cross? Olympia Snowe’s snow job? Nelson’s Medicaid deal? Was it too much inside game? Too little party discipline? Was it Stupak? The recession? The excise tax? Cannibalism? Panic? Death panels? Jobs? Mammograms? Pirates?

Tempting, but no. None of these explanations can capture the truly historical dimensions of the force that now has health reform throttled in its clutches. That force finds its expression in the burgeoning activism and civil disobedience of the tea party movement. The anger of these largely libertarian conservatives began to surface in June and was clearly noticed in August. But one day in December, their movement grabbed hold of the public imagination and assumed a new prominence on the American political landscape. It was on that day that things really started going south for health reform in the 111th Congress. That day was December 16, 1773.

Let me explain. The greatest obstacles to passage of health reform legislation have been institutional and ideological forces traceable to the colonial rebellion. The original tea party, fittingly, took place in Massachusetts—a fact which adds a sort of literary depth to the otherwise meaningless and politically suicidal depression liberals are now experiencing in the wake of the Bay State’s stunning disavowal of (or obliviousness to) the centerpiece of Teddy Kennedy’s life’s work. Consider how the folklore and doctrinal innovations of the revolutionary era have shaped the healthcare debate:

First, there is our anti-tax zealotry, steeped in an ideal of heroic patriotism. The Boston Tea Party was of course an act of political vandalism in protest of a tax. It happened to be a tax on tea, but colonial agitators—like many of their latter-day namesakes—denied the constitutional authority of the government to impose any tax levied for the purpose of raising revenue without the colonists’ consent. And now members of the modern day tea party movement from Waco to Wasilla think they’re Samuel freakin’ Adams incarnate when they protest all (non-military) government expenditures—because, you see, every dollar spent is a dollar raised by taxation.

Second is our distrust of “big government” and irrational preference for state and local government, no matter how corrupt, over geographically distant, “central” government, no matter how effective.

Third is the structural bias toward small states in the Senate and electoral college. The framers’ exaltation of the arbitrary geography of statehood was one of their most profound and insidious innovations. As James Fallows recently observed, citizens of smaller states are vastly over-represented in the Senate—putting 532,668 Wyomingites on equal footing with 36,756,666 Californians. That means that individual Wyomingites have 69 times more influence in the U.S. Senate than individual Californians. (Sort of.)

Next there is a whole series of crackpot notions that took hold during the time of anti-tea hysteria: separation of powers, federalism, bicameralism, and so forth. Let me just say that, in combination if not individually, these half-baked doctrines have really screwed us. I mean, it is actually the point—not a regrettable side effect, but the point—of bicameralism to impede the legislative process and make it difficult to enact popular measures.

And then there’s the filibuster—which you can read about here, here, there, here, and, well, just about anywhere else. Now, the filibuster is not a direct product of the revolutionary era, but I would note two things: it is made possible by the constitutional architecture of bicameralism and separation of powers, and its emergence is a predictable result of bicameralism’s motivating principle of ambition counteracting ambition. (See Federalist No. 51.) Oh, and did you know that ‘filibuster‘ basically means pirate?! Arrrrggghh!

Last, but indeed not least, is the matter of the tea itself. Centuries of unease with this versatile and healthful beverage have plagued Americans as a result of the symbolism of the harbor incident. Instead we have turned to coffee and carbonated “soft” drinks. The latter’s Orwellian moniker (the stuff is basically high-fructose rust remover) has cleverly disguised the degree to which these misbegotten concoctions are contributing to an epidemic of obesity, rotting our teeth, and burning holes in our GI tracts. Conversely in Britain, as Ray Davies once observed, they have:

Tea in the morning, tea in the evening, tea at supper time. You get tea when it’s raining, tea when it’s snowing, tea when the weather’s fine. You get tea as a mid-day stimulant. You get tea with your afternoon tea. For any old ailment or disease, for Christ’s sake have a cuppa tea. [Video here.]

Nobody likes taxation without representation. Okay. But in retrospect, I think the weight of the evidence is that we totally overreacted on that one. Look what it’s gotten us: malrepresentation, an accountability crisis, holds, senators, bicameralysis, a pesky written constitution, and the procedural bizarro-world of the filibuster that lets the minority decide if the majority’s proposals get voted on. And look what we’re missing in Great Britain: tea and its aforementioned benefits, PM’s Questions, majoritarian legislative procedure, knighthood, cool accents, and…I’m forgetting something…oh yes: universal healthcare.

Therefore, it is seriously time we consider undeclaring our independence from Britain. Or we could just pass the sodding bill, already.

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