As our nation contemplates the potential impact of the most important health care legislation ever to grace the chambers of Capitol Hill, many can’t help but wonder what’s taking so long.
As with all major legislative action, the struggle for health insurance reform has generated controversy as it progresses through each stage of consideration. The proposed reform would affect the entire health care sector and the lives of millions of Americans, so it’s important that the legislation come to fruition through healthy, vigorous debate.
And while the debate has been vigorous, the tactics of Republican senators have been anything but healthy. For the past several months, they have schemed ways to lock down the Senate with procedural technicalities rather than address the legislation based on its merits.
Take, for instance, the treatment of hard quorum calls. Senate rules require a majority of senators to be present on the floor before business can proceed. This rule is often waived by unanimous consent, but if a single member objects, then the presiding officer must check attendance by reading off all 100 names of the senatorial body. Since the assembly routinely goes into adjournment, Republican senators can use this tool to postpone discussion several times per day.
In addition, Sen. Orrin Hatch (R–Utah) has threatened to force Senate clerks to read aloud the reform bill in its entirety to what will surely be an empty chamber.
One of the most abused procedures thus far in the health care debate has been the amendment process. Senators can call for each proposal to be divided up into independent debates and votes, which unnecessarily increases the amount of time for each section to pass on the floor. Sen. Judd Gregg (R–NH) explicitly encourages his fellow Republicans to propose “an unlimited number of amendments — germane or non-germane — on any subject” that would force the Senate to debate and then vote on a series of irrelevant alterations that are protected from compromise by the rules of unanimous consent. This is known as a filibuster by amendment because it has the potential to lengthen debate indefinitely with no discernible benefit.
And after months of squabbling over frivolous amendments, points of order and issues of Senate procedure, the Senate rules allow the Republican leadership to invoke the procedural filibuster and saddle Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D–NV) with the responsibility to find a three-fifths majority (60 votes) in favor of the bill.
In short, Senate Republicans have geared up to do anything and everything in their power to prevent health insurance reform from coming to an up-or-down vote. When the challenge at hand is designing a piece of legislation that will provide improved health insurance coverage for millions of uninsured Americans, you would think that our Republican senators would take a more proactive role in the debate.
For all their talk about defending the middle class, it is puzzling that the Republicans have chosen to impede health insurance reform and ignore the millions of Americans who are suffering under the broken health care system. Since 2000, the cost of health insurance has doubled, and medical problems remain a leading cause of personal bankruptcy. These issues will not simply disappear. Health insurance reform is needed to ensure that hard-working Americans no longer have to decide between maintaining financial security or seeking medical care.
We are in favor of a vigorous public debate both on and off the Senate floor. Reform is critical to the long-term fiscal stability of our country and must be crafted thoughtfully. Nonconstructive obstruction, however, should not be part of the process. It is our sincere hope that the Senate is able to overcome these procedural challenges and pass comprehensive health insurance reform for the American people.
This viewpoint was written by Robert Bowen and Devin Parsons on behalf of the University’s chapter of the College Democrats.