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John Dingell: 'This is as good as can be done now'


There is no politician alive today who has worked as long, or as hard, on health-care reform as Rep. John Dingell Jr. Sometimes called the "Dean of the House," the 83-year-old Dingell occupies the seat his father once held. It was in that seat that his father introduced the first national health-care bill ever considered by the United States Congress. The bill failed, but Dingell has continued his father's work. I spoke to Dingell earlier today.

Three committees have now passed health-care reform bills in the House, and the leadership has emerged with a single bill to send to the floor. What does this mean?

This is the furthest I can recall health-care reform ever going, including in my days, and my dad's days. A bill moving in the House. A bill moving in the Senate. Strong support in the admin. Strong popular support for the bill. A carefully crafted piece of legislation. A willingness of everybody to work together to work together towards what is a widely shared common goal.

Which pieces of the bill are the most significant?

First, it covers 96 percent of the people. Second, it creates an open and transparent process for people to buy and hold insurance. It sees to it that the abuses that exist in the insurance market, like pre-existing conditions, and rescissions are eliminated. It addresses a lot of Medicare problems while protecting Medicare. It closes the donut hole. It sees to it that people who do not have health insurance will get it almost immediately upon passing. It sets up an exchange that will afford us reasonable levels of competition and information inside the insurance industry. It gives us honest competition through the public insurance option.

And which pieces have the furthest yet to go?

Look my friend, I'm too smart to criticize a bill that has taken this much time, effort, and suffering to get to where it is. I will only say this: You know me, and you know I have always stood for a single-payer plan. In the process of compromise and legislating, I believe this is as good as can be done now. This is a plan that gives choice to our people and is peculiarly suited to the United States and the system of medicine we now have.

The House and Senate bills have radically different ways of financing themselves. The Senate bill taxes high-value health-care benefits. The House bill taxes high incomes. Why is the House's way better?

The House tax is only on individuals who make $500,000, and families that make $1,000,000. Those folks have done pretty well on taxes as of late. I suspect they can pay a bit more taxes without overmuch irk.

I think to tax health insurance benefits is of doubtful benefit, difficult to do fairly, ignores the fact that labor has been giving up benefits for years to get these benefits, and last of all, I challenge anybody to define what is an exorbitant policy.

What about affordability? Are the subsidies in the House bill enough? In the Senate bill?

I suspect that it probably will be a bone of contention between the House and the Senate. The House proposal, on this matter, has many more endearing qualities than the Senate. And I suspect that the House will stand firm.

What happens now for this bill?

The Republicans are going to give us a fierce time. The insurance companies will hate it like the devil hates holy water. The speaker will put the bill on the floor sometime around the 7th, 8th, 9th of November and make it move just as fast as she knows how. The next step is to see what the House has done, wait for the Senate to conduct its business, then begin appointing conferees and getting the staff work done to figure out what we need to do in conference.

When does the president sign a bill?

Before the end of the year. And I think significantly before Christmas. But you got to understand, conference committees are strange, difficult events.

Photo credit: AP Photo/Evan Vucci

By Ezra Klein  |  October 29, 2009; 2:23 PM ET
Categories:  Health Reform , Interviews  
Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   StumbleUpon   Technorati   Google Buzz   Previous: Chat transcript
Next: Communism is rice, but dictatorship is caviar


Rep. Dingle is uncommon in his candor and plain talk. How refreshing!

Posted by: billkarwin | October 29, 2009 4:15 PM | Report abuse

How can you not like a guy who wants single payer? If Obama had been willing to talk this frankly to the public, we would have a robust public option.

I will be disappointed if the millionaire's tax gets stripped out in favor of the tax on hard-won employer benefits. My suggestion would be both revenue sources stay in the bill. There are egregious budget gimmicks--such as moving >$200 billion to a separate bill, including the CLASS act, and reducing payments to primary care docs after 2015--that will never happen. The smartest thing in the bill is Medicare drug price negotiation, which Obama's backroom wheeler-dealers will dutifully strip out in conference.

Posted by: bmull | October 29, 2009 4:29 PM | Report abuse

Great work Ezra! I love these short interviews you're doing with legislators as the reform bill inches along.

This continues to be one of the great civics lessons of my life, as it also teaches me about how Congress does its work, as well as healthcare reform in general. If only my high school civics teacher could have been as engaging as your blog.

It also tickles me to see the access you're getting to legislators now that you're with the Washington Post. It's great for us, your readers. Thanks.

Posted by: friscokid | October 29, 2009 4:29 PM | Report abuse

Dingell looks like an absolute death's head in this picture. wow. Great image for what is to come of this bill, but was Axelrod out of the office when this shot was allowed to be circulated?

Posted by: truck1 | October 30, 2009 9:22 AM | Report abuse

If the gavel were taken out of his hand and a scythe put in its place, he would look like the grim reaper.

Posted by: truck1 | October 31, 2009 9:43 PM | Report abuse

This is a great piece, Ezra. I love Dingell's line "[t]he insurance companies will hate it like the devil hates holy water." A glimpse of the blindingly obvious, true, but very well put.

I second billkarwin's comment "Rep. Dingle is uncommon in his candor and plain talk. How refreshing!" and friscokid's "[t]his continues to be one of the great civics lessons of my life . . ."

Poor Dingell. He could have been forgiven had he shot the photographer!

(Does Dingell have any children hankering for office? If so, please move to my congressional district in Texas so I can vote for you!)

Posted by: MekhongKurt1 | November 4, 2009 9:17 PM | Report abuse

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