Sunday, April 4, 2010

Be Careful What You Ask For

What do the census, medical marijuana, Obama’s presidential campaign, and Republican court challenges to improved health insurance have in common? They are all examples of the old adage “Be careful what you ask for, you just might get it.

The constitution requires Congress to enumerate the population every 10 years in order to establish congressional districts. By 1880 the US population had grown so large that it took 7 years to complete the census. Realizing that the 1890 census might not be completed before 1900, the Census Department invested in technology to speed the “enumeration”, which lead directly to the punched card reader, mechanical tabulation machines, and, eventually, computers. By the 1980’s another problem arose. It was clear that the census was missing a large number of citizens, particularly minorities in the inner cities. This meant that the cities were losing representation and dollars for Federal programs. By then reliable statistical techniques had been developed that would enable the census to get as accurate a count as they desired without actually counting every person. Hopwever, Republicans strongly opposed every effort to use statistical techniques, insisting that the wording in the constitution meant that only people actually counted could be included in the census. They made Obama’s nominee for the head of the Census Bureau promise not to use statistical techniques in 2010.

Fast forward to 2010. A large, emotion based, reactionary movement within the Republican ranks are resisting returning census forms. Return rates in Texas, for example, are running about 30% below the national average. If this trend continues Republicans could actually lose congressional representation. The undercount could easily be modeled and corrected statistically, but the Republicans have ruled out such techniques. Be careful what you ask for.

The Democrats fielded two strong candidates for the presidential nomination in 2008. It was a long and hard fought campaign that wasn’t settled until just before the convention. Many expected the financial strain and factional divisions of this hard fought battle to weaken the winner and divide the party, making it easier for Republicans to win in November. Some pundits on the right suggested people should change registration to vote in the Democratic primaries in order to extend the fight and weaken the party.

Obama understood that the Democrats failed to win in 2004 because they blamed their loss in 2000 on Republican tricks rather than understanding their own failures and mistakes. Therefore his campaign focused on honest analysis of their failures in order to correct their mistakes. For example, the Obama campaign thought they had an excellent get-out-the-vote plan for the NY primary, but Clinton won. Analysis showed that too many Obama supporters had not made it to the polls. This lead to improved methods for getting voters to the polls. In many such ways the long primary struggle actually strengthened Obama’s campaign. In November he received a record number of votes and won by the widest margin in decades. Be careful what you ask for.

In 1996 California legalized medical marijuana. Several other states followed. The Bush administration, despite its alleged concern for state’s rights, refused to acknowledge the right of states to set their own standards for medical care. They prosecuted individuals for medical marijuana use and successfully defended their policy in the Supreme Court (Gonzales v. Raich et al). The majority of the court, all Republican nominated judges, ruled “The Supremacy Clause unambiguously provides that if there is any conflict between federal and state law, federal law shall prevail…[N]o form of state activity can constitutionally thwart the regulatory power granted by the commerce clause to Congress.” The court held that this applies even if Congress is factually wrong about the classification of marijuana.

In 2010 Democrats passed sweeping reforms to improve health insurance coverage. The Republicans had stated that defeating this reform would be “Obama’s Waterloo” and made a pitched battle to derail this initiative, rather than guide and improve it, because defeating Obama, rather than governing, was their primary focus. Despite their effort the initiative received 60 votes in the Senate to end debate and was passed by a majority in both chambers in accordance with all rules and laws. Due to strong resistance from the right a single payer insurance system was never included in any of the proposals. Instead of imposing a universal system paid through payroll deductions Congress mandated Americans choose a private insurance plan.

The Republicans immediately initiated legal challenges alleging that the bill violates the commerce clause of the constitution. As we have seen, the Republican packed Court has already strongly upheld the right of congress to regulate commerce. The Republicans argue that by imposing penalties on individuals for not purchasing insurance this act exceeds the authority the court has allowed. If this argument prevails, then Congress could simply pass a single payer plan much like mandatory Social Security, which has already passed court challenges. Be careful what you ask for.

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