When Congress Comes Marching Home Again

By Kennedy Maize

When Congress comes back to D.C. after Labor Day, it will face important strategic decisions, as will the Obama administration and the Democratic leadership. In particular, they will face the decision whether to focus on health care legislation or energy policy.

I’m betting heavily on health care. I suspect that the administration’s plan for a cap-and-trade bill to take to the December Copenhagen global warming contentious and cantankerous climate confab will have vanished. Passed the House and now passe.

On so many issues — chief among them energy and health care — the administration has deferred to the Congress to craft the details. In the House, this has given House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), one of the most liberal and least likely to compromise Democratic leaders, the reins in driving legislation. That’s probably been a mistake.

The deference to Pelosi has led to Obama legislative successes that may undermine his future legislative agenda, particularly on energy. Pelosi (and her House Energy and Commerce Committee chairman Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) colleague) were able to bend arms and promise so many future goodies so that the House narrowly passed — 219-212 — a totally incoherent bill. Even the greenest of greens (NASA’s Jim Hansen) acknowledge the House bill won’t work.

In the meantime, the Senate has given no indications of where it will go on energy legislation, despite the dominating position of Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) as chairman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee. Boxer, a green ditz of the California persuasion, has a problem: coal interests are far more formidable in the Senate than the in House.

Senate coal interests, which are bipartisan and regional, are likely to tie the Senate into political knots in September, as the Obama administration loses interest in its cap-and-trade program in order to focus on rescuing its health care initiatives. Republicans — specifically Sen. Jim DeMint of South Carolina — have proclaimed health care Obama’s signature battle.

DeMint calls it Obama’s “Waterloo,” a reference to the 1815 battle between Napolean Bonaparte’s French forces and the British military, in Belgium. The result ended the reign of the Emperor Bonaparte. DeMint clearly wants to end the reign of Obama, to be accomplished in a partisan battle on the ground of public opinion.

It’s clear that the Congressional Republican have staked out health care legislation as their bulwark. Is that wise? I don’t know.  I suspect it is an error, as most Americans seem to believe that their health care is deficient. Polling shows that some 70% of Americans favor a single-payer health care plan, although I doubt they know, and I don’t, what that means exactly.

On the other hand, the Democrats appear to have missed the best way to advocate their health care cause. They have concentrated on the folks who do not have access to health insurance — a clearly worthy minority — instead of the vast majority of citizens who have health insurance and are seeing their costs go up year-after-year with no understandable improvements in care.

But that’s not my area of expertise (I’m covered by Medicare. I have my socialized medicine, and like it, so I don’t have a health-care dog in this policy hunt).

But I suspect that what this means is that when Congress returns in September to wrap up is work prior to adjourning until 2010, the focus will be on health care legislation, not the 1,400-word House-passed energy bill.

Arguably, the Obama administration bit off far too much policy meat that it can chew in the first few months in Washington. That’s understandable. The conventional political wisdom is that new administrations need to move quickly, before their alleged mandate expires. That appears to be what has driven the Obama administration.

But it’s possible to be too ambitious. That may hasve happened to the Obama White House. They pushed enormous economic bailout programs — surely needed — through Congress. They advanced big-ticket and pork-laded energy legislation in the House — driven by Speaker Pelosi and unconnected to true national needs. Then they unveiled a top-to-bottom overhaul of U.S. health financing policy, which probably should have gone ahead of their incoherent energy plan.

As best I can tell, talking off-the-record to Obama officials and advisers, they will put their political capital behind health care when Congress returns in September. “Energy legislation is a sideshow,” one said. “This administration could rise or fall on health care. That’s the existential fight.”