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The Lieberman Problem

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The Lieberman Problem

“I don’t think we need it now,” a prominent U.S. senator said in a statement yesterday regarding a public health care option, and it wasn’t a Republican. Once again, “Democrat” Joe Lieberman has gone rogue. Shortly after the 2008 election, I posited a scenario under which Lieberman, who failed at almost every turn to use his chairmanship on the Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs to hold the Bush administration accountable, would become a thorn in the side of the Obama administration. Democrats, led by the new president, refused to strip Lieberman of his title or his seat in the Democratic caucus after the Connecticut senator not only campaigned against his own party during the presidential election, but did so rather unscrupulously.

Senate majority leader Harry Reid said then that he trusted Lieberman, but this new development in the seesawing life of the so-called public option should come as no surprise: Lieberman went on record as being against a filibuster-proof majority months ago, and he’s fought against his own party on key issues for years. Until now, it’s been his position on foreign policy that has been most troubling (it’s disturbing, if not downright dangerous, to have a politician who pals around with a hatemonger like John Hagee simply because—even though Hagee’s position on Israel is based on his belief that the preservation of the Jews is integral to the coming Rapture—he supports his Zionist agenda to chair a national security congressional committee), but Lieberman’s maverick-y impulses are now poised to kill what could potentially be a transformative piece of domestic legislation. According to Firedoglake, if Lieberman votes against cloture, the process by which Democrats can prevent a filibuster by Republicans, it will be the first time in American history that a member of a super-majority has joined the opposition to filibuster a bill.

So if not now, Joe, when? According to the National Coalition on Health Care, employer-based health insurance premiums have risen 131 percent over the last decade and are projected to double in the next 10 years, and the industry essentially advertised its intent to increase rates via a recent “study” of the Senate Finance Committee’s reform bill, which was, in part, written by those very special interests in the first place. With or without government intervention, the insurance industry has no intention of lowering rates, making a robust public option even more essential.

But here’s the rub: The public option as it’s currently being proposed in the Senate, the one Lieberman is so adamantly against that he would deviate from his party in such an unprecedented way, would not only allow states to opt out (a hurdle overcome by simple shaming; see the stimulus bill), but it would be limited solely to those who are uninsured, rendering it practically impotent for the millions currently paying exorbitant premiums and getting little in return. The watering down of government programs like this is the next best thing to right-wing lobbyist and anti-tax crusader Grover Norquist’s dream of cutting government down to a size where it can be drowned in a bathtub. A public option so limited in scope will surely fail to create fundamental change in the system, thereby allowing Norquist and his ilk to declare that government is indeed a failure. So perhaps Lieberman will be doing the country a favor by preventing such a weak bill from passing in the first place. Joe Lieberman, hero of progressives?

This blog entry was originally published on Slant Magazine on the date above.