News Journal: Get ready for a tumultuous 60 days on health care

When I joined 59 other senators to vote for the Affordable Care Act in 2009, I did so believing it would greatly improve the current health care system but was hardly perfect. You don’t often get to vote for perfect in Congress.

I knew that what would become known as Obamacare was controversial, and I respected the views of many who opposed it. I fully expected, and in fact welcomed, the idea that during its first few years it would be subject to necessary changes and amendments.

I never expected what is going on in Washington today.

Norm Ornstein is a resident scholar at the right-of-center American Enterprise Institute. He often teams up with Tom Mann of the left-of-center Brookings Institute to write about Congress. They are generally recognized as among the most respected observers of that institution and its history. Because he is held in such bipartisan regard, the article Ornstein wrote last week in The Atlantic instantly became a must-read sensation in political circles (Google Atlantic/Ornstein).

I’m quoting it at length here because Ornstein is dead-on when he describes what Congress has always done and what is happening now:

“When a law is enacted, representatives who opposed it have some choices (which are not mutually exclusive). They can try to repeal it, which is perfectly acceptable –unless it becomes an effort at grandstanding so overdone that it detracts from other basic responsibilities of governing. They can try to amend it to make it work better –not just perfectly acceptable but desirable, if the goal is to improve a cumbersome law to work better for the betterment of the society and its people. They can strive to make sure that the law does the most for Americans it is intended to serve, including their own constituents, while doing the least damage to the society and the economy. Or they can step aside and leave the burden of implementation to those who supported the law and got it enacted in the first place.

“But to do everything possible to undercut and destroy its implementation –which in this case means finding ways to deny coverage to many who lack any health insurance; to keep millions who might be able to get better and cheaper coverage in the dark about their new options; to create disruption for the health providers who are trying to implement the law, including insurers, hospitals, and physicians; to threaten the even greater disruption via a government shutdown or breach of the debt limit in order to blackmail the president into abandoning the law; and to hope to benefit politically from all the resulting turmoil –is simply unacceptable, even contemptible.”

“Contemptible” is strong language from anyone. Coming from someone with Ornstein’s credentials it is jaw-dropping.

In the history of Congress, very few major bills have passed that have not been amended, changed, fixed or reformed in the years following. Medicare was just as controversial when it became law in 1965 as the Affordable Care Act was in 2009.

In 1967, Congress passed a bill that made some significant changes in how it was being implemented. They reformed and amended it again in 1972.

Social Security

was also controversial in its time and has been changed many times over the years.There was a fierce battle over Medicare Part D in Congress before a House Republican majority passed it in 2003. There were a lot of problems involved in implementing the bill, and Democrats called for hearings on how to fix it.

The operative word is “fix,” not destroy.

“That is how it should be,” Ezra Klein recently wrote in the Washington Post. “Laws are written on paper, not in stone. They can easily be changed.”

The House has now voted to repeal the Affordable Care Act 39 times. That may fit Ornstein’s definition of “grandstanding so overdone that it detracts from other basic responsibilities of governing.”

Far more dangerous is the ongoing threat of some conservative Republicans in Congress to shut down the government on Sept. 30 unless the President defunds the Affordable Care Act.

The fact that a very conservative Republican, Sen. Richard Burr of North Carolina, called this “the dumbest idea I’ve ever heard” gives me some hope reason will prevail. Many other Republicans have also rejected it.

But the idea has some prominent supporters, including Senators Rubio, Cruz, and Paul –all potential presidential candidates in 2016. Will they “benefit politically from all the resulting turmoil?”

I hope not, but there is no question we are in for a tumultuous 60 days in Washington.

Ted Kaufman is a former U.S. Senator from Delaware.