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Thursday, October 29, 2009

How about an interim public option?

One of the objections insurance companies lob against the Public Option idea for health care reform is that it would be unfair for them to have to compete with a government-run program that would, theoretically, be able to operate at a loss.

At the same time, one of the objections they have against the "mandate," the requirement for most people to buy insurance, is that the penalties for refusing to do so aren't enough to prevent young and healthy people from simply paying the penalty unless/until they get sick, and then choosing to buy insurance, on the understanding that the penalty, as currently included in the legislation, would be lower than the price of premiums.

I have a suggestion that is meant to address both concerns: an "interim" public option.
  1. Under this plan, insurance companies would still be forbidden from denying coverage for pre-existing conditions and from dropping coverage.
  2. However, the insurance company may make a determination that a pre-existing condition exists in someone who applies for insurance and who has not had insurance for a given period of time, say, a year.
  3. If the insurance company makes such a determination, it could refer that person to an "interim" public plan.
  4. Under this interim plan, the applicant for insurance will pay premiums to the insurance company he/she (the applicant) applies for, for a period of, say, 6 months or a year, but all medical coverage during that time will be provided under a government run plan.
  5. After the term is up, the insurance company will have to cover the applicant
  6. The government-run plan would be funded chiefly by payments from the penalties that are charged for not buying insurance.
  7. The public option, in this case, would exist only for those in this interim period.
The advantages to this plan:
  1. It answers the insurance companies' objection to the "free-rider" problem of people not buying insurance when they are healthy. (Their objection is based on the notion that healthy people do not need as many services, and they therefore fund the services required by the less healthy people.)
  2. It lets the insurance companies get some advanced payments in the forms of premiums that are paid while the insured is covered under the interim plan.
  3. It creates an incentive for the government to match its penalties with the cost of caring for people during this interim period.
Disadvantages and possible objections to this plan:
  1. It is, in effect, a huge subsidy to the insurance industry. In the best of worlds, I would prefer some sort of modified single payer system, although I'm sure others would agree. But as it is, it's necessary to deal with the powers that be.
  2. It must be balanced out by effective and enforceable regulations of insurance companies.
  3. By itself, the plan, at least as I have outlined it, has no provision to help those who can afford no insurance. (Hopefully, the expansion of Medicaid, as provided by the Baucus Bill, would help this.)
  4. It doesn't answer a possible objection to this entire plan (and a further objection along the lines of #3), an objection I have not heard others raise but that nags at me: would doctors be required to accept certain insurance or interim public option payments? If so, how would that be enforced? As I understand, for example, very few doctors accept Medicaid: would this problem continue for an interim plan?

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Possible objections to my plan to reform the Senate

Here are some possible objections one might lodge to my plan(s) to reform the Senate (See here and here):
  • Why not keep the present system of checks and balances? The Senate's current role in legislation prevents many improvident laws from passing.
My answer is really a non-answer. I am not arguing for reforming the Senate along putatively more "democratic" lines. But I am offering a way to reform it if one begins with the assumption that the Senate needs to be reformed. In other words, I have no answer. But I am stating how to do it if certain assumptions are accepted.
  • The proposal to grant the Senate the power to approve or disapprove the commitment of military forces abroad wreaks havoc with the doctrine that the whole Congress ought to have the power to declare war, and therefore gives unprecedented power to the President.
My answer: as a practical matter, the President already has this power anyway. Despite the War Powers Act--which, if I.N.S. v. Chadha applies, would not be upheld by the Courts and would be otherwise unenforceable--the President can pretty much commit troops wherever and the Congress would not (probably) vote to discontinue funding, because doing so would be dangerous to American soldiers. Under this plan, with the retroactive approval/disapproval mechanism, the President would have to face severe consequences for committing soldiers, even though the operation might continue. This is an imperfect solution, as it does not address the notion of a "declared" war--which the US has not had since World War II--and a declared peace.
  • Why even have a suspensatory veto?
Two reasons. First, it's a bone to throw to the Senate. Any constitutional amendment to reform the Senate would have to appeal to the Senators' institutional desire to safeguard their power. Unless an amendment is proposed by the "convention" method, 2/3 of the Senators would have to approve it. They could not propose legislation, but they could, perhaps, set up a committee to consult with the House on a measure that they would accept.

Second, the suspensatory veto could prevent improvident legislation from passing, especially if the period of suspension takes any legislation close to an election cycle. The members of the House would, in theory, have the opportunity to hear from their constituents before any bill would pass. While not perfect, this plan would work to avoid the (alleged) practice of Congress passing legislation in non-election years that would make them vulnerable during election years.
  • Would the "veto" over executive orders be cumbersome?
Potentially. But that is the point, to encourage the President to consult with the Senate before making changes. I wouldn't necessarily oppose a supermajority for such a veto, say, a 3/5 or 2/3 vote. My goal is to indirectly, through the Senate, to place a check on executive power and yet at the same time allow considerable flexibility to the President to do his or her job. I am, in a sense, taking aim at the "unitary executive" doctrine espoused, among others, by Samuel Alito.
  • The provision about curbing the power of the Vice President doesn't make sense.
This is a good objection. I guess I wanted a way to curb his or her power. The problem with the purported power of the Vice President is that much of it is non-Constitutional. Outside of his role to preside over the Senate, break tie votes, and succeed the President in an emergency, there's isn't much, constitutionally, for him to do. I'm not one of those who say we don't need a Vice President, but at the same time I'm disturbed by the fact that under my plan, it would be (slightly) easier to remove the President, only to have him replaced by his Vice President, a person who, in most cases, would probably be of a similar persuasion in regard to policy. I'd be willing to compromise on the Vice Presidency portion of the amendment, especially since I'm not sure I'd want to have it.

Update 10-27-09: I have clarified some of the language and added material.

More on reforming the senate

In an earlier post, I offered a plan to reform the U.S. Senate. I would like to modify and elaborate on that plan:
  1. On second thought, I would not like the Senate to be able to offer amendments to bills.
  2. The "suspensatory" veto would have to be "proactively" imposed by the Senate. (I normally dislike the word "proactive," but here it seems to fit.) The idea is, the bill would be presented to the President for his signature or veto ten days after the House of Representatives passes it. The Senate could expedite the process by approving it before the ten day period. Otherwise, it would have ten days to impose its suspensatory veto. After a period of time--say, 90 days, or 180 days--the House would be able to re-vote on the exact same bill, an up or down vote by a simple majority. If the bill then passes, it would be immediately presented to the president.
  3. I would like to expand the Senate's executive authority. In my original post, I suggested the Senate ought to have a right to vote "no confidence" in a cabinet member. Maybe it should have the power to vote "no confidence" against its president (i.e., the US vice president). Such a vote would not remove the vice president from office, but would forbid him or her from presiding over the senate and taking away his or her power to cast a deciding vote, in case of a tie, a vote which would nevertheless be less important now that the Senate would have only the power to "suspend" legislation.
  4. Maybe the Senate should have the right to veto executive orders. Under this plan, all executive orders would be presumed valid unless the Senate vetoes them.
  5. Whenever the President wants to commit the military to any overseas, combat action, he will have to get the approval of the Senate. If it is an emergency, or the president's commitment of military force requires secrecy (which militates against requiring prior approval), the President must make his case to the Senate within 90 days that he was justified in using military force, and the Senate must approve or disapprove the action. If the Senate disapproves the action, the House of Representatives may (but would not be required to) draft articles of impeachment, and the Senate would then "try" the impeachment, convicting by the requisite 2/3 vote standard. Under this scheme, unless the President has committed any other "high crime or misdemeanor," the President would not be able to be prosecuted in criminal court simply for committing troops improvidently.
  6. Senators could be recalled upon a petition signed by voters in a state. The petition would have to have a reasonably high number of signers to prevent spurious recall, say, 10% of the number of people who voted in the last Senatorial election. The goal here is to provide an additional check on the Senate and, indirectly, on the Presidency through the checks the Senate exercises on the President.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Why I like E. M. Forster

I have read a few of E. M. Forster's novels and sometimes have a mixed reaction to them. His writing is sometimes a bit "forced" to my taste, by which I mean that he inserts his own observations into his narrative where I think things might be better expressed by his characters through dialogue, internal monologue, or action. I think such "faults"--if they are faults--are more present in Room with a View and Where Angels Fear to Tread, and less so in the other three novels of his I've read: Maurice, Passage to India, and Howard's End.

Still, he more than makes up for it. One review of his work that I read over at noted that one of his novels--I think it was Where Angels Fear to Tread, but I forget--seemed really simple, even simplistic, but upon a re-reading showed much more complexity. At least that is my view of this particular novel.

I have recently finished reading Passage to India for the first time. In this novel, Forster indulges in the author-inserts-his-observations-too-forcedly technique that I tend not to like (although, as I claim above, he does not do so as much as in his earlier novels). After the first part of the novel--it's divided into three parts, I was disappointed, as I had heard this was Forster's "masterpiece" and yet I found it less provocative than his other works.

Yet in part two, there was a scene that was truly awe-inspiring. The protagonists embark on an excursion to the Marabar caves, and one of them, Mrs. Moore, is overwhelmed by her experience there. In a sense, she encounters the "truth" of Hinduism, as Forster appears to understand it (disclosure: I know too little about Hinduism to comment on the truth or verisimilitude of this account). Mrs. Moore is in one of the caves and notices, and is overcome by, the deadening, all-encompassing echo*:
The echo in a Marabar cave is...entirely devoid of distinction. Whatever is said, the same monotonous noise replies, and quivers up and down the walls until it is absorbed into the roof. "Boum" is the sound as far as the human alphabet can express it, or "bou-oum," or "ou-boum,"--utterly dull. Hope, politeness, the blowing of a nose, the squeak of a boot, all produce, "boom." Even the striking of a match starts a little worm coiling, which is too small to compete a scircle but is eternally watchful. And if seveal people talk at once, an overlapping howling noise begins, echoes generate echoes, and the cave is stuffed with a snake composed of small snakes, which writhe independently. [p. 163]
And later, after Mrs. Moore exited the caves:
No, she [Mrs. Moore] did not wish to repeat that experience. The more she thought over it, the more disagreeable and frightening it became. She minded it much more now than at the time. The crush [of the crowd of people who had accompanied her] and the smells she could forget, but the echo began in some indescribable way to undermine her hold on life. Coming at a moment when she chanced to be fatigued, it had managed to murmur, "Pathos, piety, courage--they exist, but are identical, and so is filth. Everything exists, nothing has value." If one had spoken vileness in that place, or quoted lofty poetry, the comment would have been the same--"ou-boum." If one had spoken with the tongues of angels and pleaded for all the unhappiness and misunderstanding in the world, past, present, and to come, for all the misery men must undergo whatever their opinion and position, and however much they dodge or bluff--it would amount to the same, the serpent would descend and return to the ceiling. Devils are of the North, and poems can be written about them, but no one could romanticize the Marabar because it robbed infinity and eternity of their vastness, the only quality that accommodates them to mankind. [p. 165]
*E. M. Forster. A Passage to India. San Diego: Harcourt Brace & Company, 1984. (Originally written in 1924)

Thursday, October 15, 2009

James R. Jordan, R.I.P.

I just found out that last summer, James R. Jordan passed away.

Mr. Jordan was one of my first professors at Colorado State University. I had him in my freshman year for Ancient Greek Language. He was one of the nicest professors I had there, and his good humor shone through every day of class. He was also very patient with my constant questions about the language. All of his students, at least the ones in the class I took from him, liked him a lot.

A collage in his memory has been posted here.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

A Practical Plan to Reform the Senate

A common complaint against the US Senate is that it is undemocratic, that it stymies legislation needed and desired by "the people." For example, Wyoming, with its c.500,000 people, gets as much representation as California with its c. 20 million (?) people. Another example: the filibuster: a 3/5 majority is needed for "cloture," or to close off debate for most measures in the Senate, which means that 41% of the senators can prevent passage of a bill desired by 59% of the Senators.

I'm not one to overly praise "democracy," in part because as a term, it elusive. Also, I'm a bit enamored of putting some check on "majoritarianism," the doctrine that just because a majority believes something is desirable, then it ought to be put in practice, or (more extreme) that just because a majority believes something is desirable, then it is right. (To be fair, few people, to my knowledge, really believe this in practice: no one save extremists, for example, would think it would be right to re-implement Jim Crow even if 90% of the population desired it.)

But of late, I've become more sensitive to the charge that the Senate needs to be reformed. In particular, my desire for the "public option" in the health care bill, which is likely to pass the House of Representatives but which might not pass the Senate, drives home for me why I'd like the senate to be reformed.

I have to eat crow a bit. I seem to remember opposing the efforts of Republicans to do the "nuclear option," forcing through judicial confirmations by a simple majority. Now that there's a policy I'd like to be passed, I support doing away with minority dominance in the Senate. Still, motivations aren't everything, and anyone who wants the Senate reformed along more putatively "democratic" lines might listen to my ideas and agree with them, or not, regardless of what is for me a convenient change of heart.

I propose a constitutional amendment that would change the senate in the following way:
  1. The Senate would continue to have its Senate-specific functions, such as approving cabinet-level and other federal level appointments and ratifying treaties.
  2. The Senate could not initiate legislation, but it could amend legislation.
  3. The Senate would be able to exercise a "suspensatory veto" over the final draft of any legislation. If after the House debates all amendments proposed by the Senate and the Senate declines to approve the bill, the House may reenact the law 60 days after the Senate acts on the bill. If the Senate refuses to act on the bill, the bill would become law 60 days after it is referred to the Senate. There would be some check in the amendment to prevent the Senate from repeatedly adding amendments to the legislation to extend indefinitely a bill proposed to it.
  4. The Senate would be given added executive powers. It would be able to vote "no confidence" in any cabinet-level officer (either by a simple majority or a supermajority....I'm inclined to say 3/5 majority, but I'm as yet undecided.)
Such an amendment would have the following virtues:
  1. It would retain some of the Senate's power to check the excesses of the House of Representatives, even if only temporarily.
  2. It would put a much-needed check on presidential power and make the presidency more responsible to elected legislators.
  3. It addresses one practical objection to reforming the Senate, namely, that 2/3 of the Senate would never vote to refer an amendment to reduce their power. This amendment would actually grant more power, in some areas, to the Senators even while restricting the legislative power.
  4. It removes another obstacle to reform of the Senate. The Constitution provides that no amendment may deprive any state of its equal represenation in the Senate. Abolishing the Senate could, under that provision, be constued as an attempt to deprive states of their equal representation.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Trotsky & me

A couple years ago, I was invited to a friend's house for some celebration (I forget for what). The friend who invited me is a committed Trotskyite. That is, he adheres to the ideals prescribed by Leon Trotsky, the communist Russian revolutionary. More broadly, my friend embraces much of the violent communist prescriptions: that there must in all likelihood be a violent revolution for the eventual good of all and the relief of the working classes.

My friend knows that he's right. And to paraphrase Joseph Heller: my friend has courage, and he is not afraid to volunteer the lives of others for justice (at least rhetorically....I have never personally known him to hurt anyone and his lifestyle is, as he himself forthrightly admits, "bourgeois.")

Anyway, we were at this party and someone was there who, I assume, shares my friend's Trotskyite sympathies. This "someone" commented on the death of Jerry Falwell, which had happened just a few days before. For those who don't remember, Falwell was one of the leaders of the "New Right" conservative movement that helped propel the Republican ascendancy of the late 1970s and early 1980s. Whatever else Falwell was or was not, he was not a friend to the cause of Trotskyism.

This someone, at the party, raised his glass of wine or bottle of beer or whatever he was drinking and declared a toast to celebrate the death of Jerry Falwell.

Now, I could stop here and expiate on the immorality of those who fight for "social justice." And maybe I'd be right. But I'm writing to note that I, too, raised my glass (or maybe it was a beer bottle).

I suppose I could try to excuse my action by saying I was under peer pressure, or by noting that I didn't want to come off as a prissy moralist by declining the invitation to toast the death of someone else. But I need not have come off as prissy had I simply and politely decided not to join in. And even if I had so come off, would that have been bad? Maybe looking like a prig is sometimes the price one has to pay for doing the right thing.

(For what it's worth, I think it's morally problematic, at best, to toast the death of anyone, no matter how bad I think that person to have been or how much I disagreed with that person. There is, of course, the hypothetical instance of the death of an oppressive dictator against whom a world war has been waged. But Falwell, whatever his other faults, was not in that league.)

I have at times done bad things. I have, occasionally, for example, gossiped about others. Sometimes, my friends have corrected me, have called me out on some of the bad things I have said, and corrected me. I felt shamed but, after the fact, grateful that I was set aright. At this party, I had the chance to do the same for someone else, to remind him that certain excesses go over the line. Whether he would have heeded that admonition or gotten defensive, I don't know. But the thing is, I didn't stand up for what I thought was right.

I hope I do so next time.