Unsafe at Any Speed

Another day, another White House health-care deadline.

The Wall Street Journal
September 25, 2009

Yeah, sure, history repeats itself the second time as farce—but what to call the White House’s latest imposition of a health-care deadline on Congress? Budget director Peter Orszag told Bloomberg News on Tuesday that now “the goal” is to wrap everything up “over the next six weeks or so, maybe sooner.” Farce is too kind for this one.

Recall that as late as July, President Obama was exhorting Democrats to hustle legislation through Congress before the August recess with minimal debate or public scrutiny. Back then, “the goal” was to prevent voters from thinking for too long over such minor details as the then 13-figure price tag, the farrago of new taxes, regulations and mandates that will drive up costs, and the consequences of converting all health decisions into political disputes.

All these questions have only grown more urgent, while Senate Democrats are still riven by internal schisms. The Finance Committee only started to mark up its bill this week and has so far processed only a fraction of the 564 proposed amendments. It spent an entire morning arguing over one provision that would have required the committee to wait 72 hours before voting. Perhaps pausing to breathe for a moment would have allowed the Senators to make a more thoughtful decision—or, more likely, not—but either way, the amendment was cashiered 12 to 11. “We’re doing this all on the fly here,” Chairman Max Baucus later noted, unironically. “Which is a little bit—makes me a little bit nervous.”

You don’t say. And it turns out that the Congressional Budget Office won’t even be able to provide a full cost estimate to the committee before it votes. Mr. Baucus admonished director Douglas Elmendorf for not hewing to his schedule, which was to finish the markup by today. “We are working almost literally around the clock,” Mr. Elmendorf responded, saying he would not compromise “the quality of the estimates that we present.” He added, “I think a crucial part of CBO’s relevance over time has been [our] reputation for doing our work carefully, as well as quickly. And we will continue to proceed at the maximum safe speed.”

With apologies to Ralph Nader, the new Orszag deadline is unsafe at any speed. The real White House goal is to sign any bill before Mr. Obama’s approval ratings further decline as people begin to understand the policies he supports. The six-week limit also happens to fall—conveniently—before the gubernatorial elections in Virginia and New Jersey, both of which the GOP has an even-to-better shot of winning. Democratic losses will terrify the Blue Dogs, who are already wavering in their support for an extreme health makeover.

In the end, the new deadline is a purely political exercise that is meant to preclude both the public and Congress from being too careful or prudent, which might upset Mr. Obama’s ambitions for the next Great Society or New Deal. Democrats figure they can deal with the costs and consequences of remaking one-sixth of the economy—later.

Printed in The Wall Street Journal, page A14

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