Max Baucus Throws Joe Wilson a Lifeline
Rep. Joe Wilson did an excellent job of discrediting himself and his cause at Wednesday night's speech. But for reasons I won't pretend to understand, Max Baucus and Kent Conrad seem intent on throwing him a lifeline, while at the same time making their bill worse and more cumbersome.
The controversy over Republican Rep. Joe Wilson's shouting out "You Lie!" at the president over his claim that illegal immigrants wouldn't benefit from health-care reform apparently sparked some reconsideration of the relevant language. "We really thought we'd resolved this question of people who are here illegally, but as we reflected on the president's speech last night, we wanted to go back and drill down again," said Senator Kent Conrad, one of the Democrats in the talks after a meeting Thursday morning. Baucus later that afternoon said the group would put in a proof of citizenship requirement to participate in the new health exchange — a move likely to inflame the left.
For comparison's sake, here's what Baucus's framework currently says on page four. "No illegal immigrants will benefit from the health care tax credits." It's not exactly ambiguous. And it wouldn't be considered ambiguous except that Baucus now appears to be going back and saying it was, in fact, ambiguous. The end result here is that his bill will be worse and his opponents will not be mollified in the least. It's really hard to decide what's worse about this move: the politics, which helps out Glenn Beck and the forces of hysteria, or the policy.
The policy being proposed will demand documentation not simply to get premiums, but to participate in the insurance markets. That's a very bad idea. It's a very bad idea because the people you most need to reach — low-income folks, and the unemployed, and legal immigrants — are the least likely to have easy access to documentation and the most likely to get scared off by a lot of paperwork requirements. Any illegal immigrant interested in defrauding the government can get some forged papers and participate, just as happens now. But plenty of the people we actually want to participate will be barred because they haven't updated their ID recently, and they lost their Social Security card years ago.
And as Matt Yglesias says, what we're doing here isn't stopping illegal immigrants from getting subsidies. We're stopping them from purchasing health insurance with their own money. But there's a reason Best Buy doesn't have a citizenship requirement and Safeway doesn't ask for papers. It's cumbersome and inefficient and, at the end of the day, we want people to spend money on things anyway.
Update: Conrad has clarified his remarks and says the proof of citizenship would be used to just to bar illegal immigrants from subsidies, not from purchasing health insurance. That's a bit better. But it's still hard to imagine many illegal immigrants going to their neighborhood insurance exchange and admitting their status, secure in the knowledge that there will be no reprisal. Which means this bill will actually make it much harder for illegal immigrants to get health insurance than it is now, or much more important for illegal immigrants to have good forged documents, or both.
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