COLUMN: Congress could learn about health care debate from governors

Thursday, February 25, 2010 | 12:01 a.m. CST; updated 1:29 p.m. CST, Sunday, February 28, 2010

The National Governors Association’s Annual Winter Meeting held a televised forum on “Health Care and the Economy” setting an example for this Thursday’s Health Care Summit involving President Barack Obama and members of Congress.  My prediction is the American people will approve of the governors forum over the forthcoming Washington summit by a 2-1 margin.

Watching the National Governors Association and Congress illuminates why Sen. Evan Bayh of Indiana decided not to seek re-election. Bayh said he preferred his time as a governor over his two terms in the U.S. Senate.

Comparing the National Governors Association approach with the Washington approach illustrates what is wrong with Washington and why it, especially Congress, earns low public approval ratings. Watching them on TV is like comparing day and night, summer and winter, or more apt, interscholastic wresting with a street brawl.

For starters, meeting venue and decorum matter. The governors were seated side-by-side at a table shaped in a large U rather in a grand hall requiring shouting and microphones. Governors appeared to be seated in alphabetical order by state resulting in some Republicans sitting next to Democrats. The governors talked with other governors. Directly. They used their inside voices. Apparently they even listened to one another because they reacted, built on, and referred to comments made by one another. Several governors named governors of the other party with whom they had worked on actual health policy programs.

The National Governors Association forum seemed real. While some governors appeared to have notes on the table in front of them, no one read a canned speech. Each governor was well-informed. They each appeared to want to solve the health care problems faced in their state. It was abundantly clear that health care, not the stimulus nor previous decisions, was the issue. They focused on problem solving, not the personalities of their predecessors or other governors.

Compare this with televised U.S. House and Senate floor speeches where members appear to try to transform themselves into a fiery Daniel Webster or Henry Clay, or how they imagine them to be, reading speeches sometimes given to them by interns, lobbyists or left over from last week’s speech on a totally unrelated topic. A well-known secret is that representatives and senators are almost always talking to empty chambers and want to “get on the record” for future campaign use.

Congressional observers generally dismiss those criticisms by saying, “Congress on the floor is Congress on show; Congress in committees is Congress at work.” They have a point, but House and Senate committees have a level of discussion that is not much higher — members are sitting down and tend to interact more directly. Congressmen and senators usually drop by the committee meeting when their five minutes of questioning is scheduled, read their staff-prepared questions to get face time, and then excuse themselves to “meet another commitment.”  

I can recite the standard political science analysis about Senate folkways, legislative organization, the multiple roles of Congress, etc., etc. but the end result of the Congressional way of policy 'debates' is that they resemble high school debating contests where the participants are quick-talking using references about which they know little.

Governors discuss substantive health care topics such as cost controls and promoting healthy living. Congress fixates on the legislative process such as taking topics off the table and reconciliation.

Perhaps the governors have the advantage of not needing to defend their colleagues or to seek retribution for previous maltreatment by the other side. Governors need to balance their budgets in the face of competing worthwhile demands; Congress members evidently feel they need to gain a public relations point with a cute distraction from solving problems.

As the retiring Bayh and dozens of former Senators before him suggest, there are reasonable Congressional reforms that could increase civility, policy discussion and the institutions approval rating, but these goals viewed as a zero sum game where it is more politically advantageous to go it alone.

It seems unlikely that Congressional reforms will be adopted without a large external crisis. Another former senator, Lincoln Chaffee, proposes an Independent Party to shake up the system. That’s promising. A group of about 10 senators caucusing by themselves to keep Congress focused on policy problem solving and civility might be more likely. It isn’t, however, in the American tradition of two parities.     

Several governors suggested they should send a tape of the National Governors Association forum to all members of Congress. Regardless of the outcome of the Washington summit, the governors should do more than that. The governors should propose their own comprehensive health care reform package and invite the president and members of Congress come to their next meeting and watch a purposive, informed discussion of health care reform.     

David Webber is an associate professor of political science at MU. This article is presented courtesy of The Missouri Record, which carries Webber’s column each Tuesday.

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