What Is Max Baucus Doing?
No one knows what Sen. Max Baucus is doing right now. Well, that's not quite true. Chuck Grassley probably knows. And Olympia Snowe probably knows. And Kent Conrad. And a few other senators and staff members. But that's about it. The Finance Committee, in recent months, has entered total lockdown -- even from itself. Sen. Jay Rockefeller, who chairs Finance's health subcommittee, has been totally shut out of the process. So too have a number of other Democrats on the Committee.
That's created a huge amount of uncertainty at the center of health-care reform. Baucus is the key senator on the key committee. And very few know what he's doing, or why it's taking this long, or what the sticking points are. House Democrats are terrified that they'll take a tough vote on an aggressive health-care reform bill only to see their legs cut out from underneath them when Baucus emerges with a tepid -- but bipartisan -- alternative. Senate Democrats are furious that Chuck Grassley and Olympia Snowe have had more of a role in the process than they have. And above all, everybody is confused.
My semi-informed guess is that if you want to see where Finance is going, look at what Doug Elmendorf, the director of the Congressional Budget Office, is doing. He is systematically, and fairly explicitly, closing off every door to control costs save for reforming the employer tax exclusion. He has dismissed any serious savings from the Independent Medicare Advisory Council proposal and the public plan and comparative effectiveness and general efficiencies. He has said that in the House bill, "the curve is being raised." This prompted Grassley to say that Finance is working to "overcome the shortcomings" of the House's effort.
Baucus and Grassley have long wanted to reform the employer tax exclusion. And they're right to do so: It's bad policy, and breaking it apart is in fact one of the best things we could do to resolve some of the system's inefficiencies. The problem is that no one else wants them to touch the employer tax exclusion. Not the Democrats in the Senate. It has no support from Democrats in the House. A few weeks ago, it looked completely dead. Now, it doesn't.
It's hard not to wonder whether Baucus is waiting on his bill while Elmendorf does some of his work for him. By holding his proposal back while the CBO trashes the House bill, he's letting people become more desperate for a bill that can be said to solve the cost problem. It may not be that Baucus can't reach a deal in his own committee -- or at least within the inner circle on his committee -- so much as he's waiting until the rest of the Senate is ready to embrace the deal he actually wants.
The question is what exactly he wants. Reforming the employer tax exclusion would be a good thing. Cutting subsidies and traveling further away from universal coverage would not be. And the problem, for now, is that no one knows what Baucus is doing, and he's cut out almost all the liberal voices on his own committee. That's made people understandably nervous. On the other hand, Orrin Hatch left Baucus's process last week. So whatever is going on in that room, it's not to the liking of conservative Republicans, either.
Photo credit: Melina Mara -- The Washington Post Photo .
July 27, 2009; 11:17 AM ET
Categories: Health Reform
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