POTUS and the Politics of Timelines

by Joshua H. Liberatore

A slow week at the Office of the Federal Register gives me the opportunity to work through our considerable backlog of Bush-era speeches and documents in review for forthcoming editions of the Public Papers. As our current POTUS is busy working town halls and closed-door sessions to promote health care reform, I find myself simultaneously ensconced in the issues of July 2008 and July 2009. And as Congress approaches its August recess (in both settings), a rare confluence of partisan frenzy emerges. Just recall for a moment the hot topic of July 2008. Have you forgotten? Gas prices were climbing north of $4.50 for most Americans (somehow states like Indiana always manage to beat the competition), and our then POTUS was working the bully pulpit in a serious way.

I know Democratic leaders have opposed some of these policies in the past. Now that their opposition has helped drive gas prices to record levels, I ask them to reconsider their positions. If congressional leaders leave for the Fourth of July recess without taking action, they will need to explain why $4 a gallon gasoline is not enough incentive for them to act. (June 21, 2009)

Our sitting POTUS is also facing a tight timeline of his own creation, and rising prices are again the persuasive thrust of the rhetoric.

Whenever I hear people say that it’s happening too soon, I think that’s a little odd. We’ve been talking about health care reform since the days of Harry Truman. [Laughter] How could it be too soon? I don’t think it’s too soon for the families who’ve seen their premiums rise faster than wages year after year. It’s not too soon for the businesses forced to drop coverage or shed workers because of mounting health care expenses. It’s not too soon for taxpayers asked to close widening deficits that stem from rising health care costs, costs that threaten to leave our children with a mountain of debt. Reform may be coming too soon for some in Washington, but it’s not soon enough for the American people. We can get this done. We don’t shirk from a challenge. We can get this done. (July 23, 2009)

In Washington, of course, a time crunch is a ripe occasion for political point-scoring. It was only a year ago that expanded domestic drilling became not only an ugly campaign slogan but also a regular refrain in POTUS’s weekly radio addresses and South Lawn statements (and don’t miss the subtle figurative language):

Last month, I asked Congress to lift this legislative ban and allow the exploration and development of offshore oil resources. I committed to lift an executive prohibition on this exploration if Congress did so, tailoring my executive action to match what Congress passed. It’s been almost a month since I urged Congress to act, and they’ve done nothing; they’ve not moved any legislation. And as the Democratically controlled Congress has sat idle, gas prices have continued to increase. (July 14, 2008)

Our present POTUS has tried his best to keep the health care reform debate lofty and principled, above politics. But the partisan landscape, believe it or not, is often more complicated when the White House and Congress are controlled by the same party. Any hint of controversy becomes a forum for factions within both parties to distinguish themselves and make individual sallies designed to further more particular or regional interests. And POTUS gets it. Legislative deadlines, meanwhile, do not wait.

I want the bill to get out of the committees, and then I want that bill to go to the floor, and then I want that bill to be reconciled between the House and the Senate, and then I want to sign a bill. And I want it done by the end of this year. I want it done by the fall. . . . My attitude is, I want to get it right, but I also want to get it done promptly. And so as long as I see folks working diligently and consistently, then I am comfortable with moving a process forward that builds as much consensus as possible. What I don’t want is what I referred to in my speech: delay for the sake of delay. Delay because people are worried about making tough decisions or casting tough votes, that’s what I don’t want to see. (July 23, 2009)

In simpler times, the people’s POTUS had an easier target for blame: those lazy, self-serving Washington elites, long immune to the concerns of everyday Americans:

Experts believe that these areas of the OCS [Outer Continental Shelf] could eventually produce nearly 10 years worth of America’s current annual oil production. So on Monday, I lifted an executive branch prohibition on exploration in these areas. Unfortunately, a full month has passed since I called on Congress to lift a similar legislative ban, and Congress has done nothing. This means that the only thing now standing between the American people and the vast oil resources of the OCS is action from the United States Congress. (July 19, 2008)

That executive ban on offshore drilling, it’s worth mentioning, had been in place for nearly 30 years, surviving administrations from both parties without interference. Suddenly, though, it was Congress who was stalling responsible energy policy. The politics of timelines, as always, demanded a pariah. POTUS had now given them at least three weeks to get their act together. Overhauling a generation’s worth of regulatory inertia takes time, however. In deference to a similar difficulty, our new time-pressed POTUS fancies historical precedent, rather than the vagaries of current bickering, as a source of hope.

I know it’s not easy. I know there are folks who will oppose any kind of reform because they profit from the way the system is right now. They’ll run all sorts of ads that will make people scared. This is nothing that we haven’t heard before. Back when President Kennedy and then President Johnson were trying to pass Medicare, opponents claimed it was “socialized medicine.” They said it was too much government involvement in health care, that it would cost too much, that it would undermine health care as we know it. But the American people and Members of Congress understood better. They ultimately did the right thing. And more than four decades later, Medicare is still giving our senior citizens the care and security they need and deserve. (July 28, 2009)

In pickles of this ilk, the formulaic appeal is to commonsense. 2008: High gas prices result from increasing demand pressures outstripping world supplies. More oil relieves the pressure. Hence, Drill, baby, drill. 2009: Medicare is slowly but surely breaking the Federal bank. Medical bills are a leading cause of personal bankruptcy. The employer-based health coverage model is straining the budgets of countless businesses, small and large. Commonsense, like its stepbrother the holy pocketbook, is the ultimate bipartisan platform. Only the particulars change. Compare:

The time for action is now. This is a difficult period for millions of American families. Every extra dollar they have to spend because of high gas prices is one less dollar they can use to put food on the table, or to pay the rent, or meet their mortgages. The American people are rightly frustrated by the failure of Democratic leaders in Congress to enact commonsense solutions, like the development of the oil resources on the Outer Continental Shelf. (July 30, 2008)

I want everybody to understand this: If we do nothing, I can almost guarantee you your premiums will double over the next 10 years, because that’s what they did over the last 10 years. It will go up three times faster than your wages, so a bigger and bigger chunk of your paycheck will be going into health insurance. It will eat into the possibility of you getting a raise on your job, because your employer is going to be looking and saying, “I can’t afford to give you a raise because my health care costs just went up 10, 20, 30 percent.” And Medicare, which seniors rely on, is going to become more and more vulnerable. On current projections, Medicare will be in the red in less than 10 years. (July 29, 2009)

A year, almost to the day. Meanwhile, for this civil servant with 13 days of annual vacation, the whole idea of an August recess sounds really dreamy and vaguely European, a little like the health care provisions enjoyed by the rest of civilized world. I could be wrong, but the inner child in all of us probably waxes nostalgic just to hear the word recess bandied about, although chafing a bit to hear it uttered with such indignation and panic. I’m not angry at Congress, I’m jealous. But POTUS has to keep his eye on the ball.

We’ve been debating this for 40 years now. So some of the folks . . . sincerely want to get it right, and we want to give them enough time to get it right. We don’t want to just do it quickly; we want to do it right. But some folks who specifically said on the other side, the more we can delay, the better chance we have of killing the bill, because what happens in Washington is the longer it takes, the more the special interests can start getting in there and trying to knock it down. When we come back in September, I will be available to answer any question that Members of Congress have. If they want to come over to the White House and go over line by line what’s going on, I will be happy to do that. We are not trying to hide the ball here. We’re trying to get this done. But the American people can’t wait any longer. They want action this year. I want action this year. (July 29, 2009)

POTUS is still waiting for action, and so are we. Luckily, our national memory tends to be short, not least for the perennial skirmishes on Capitol Hill and Pennsylvania Avenue. The lobbyists and consultants of K Street, key players always, are another matter. In their efforts to protect powerful industries – whether oil companies or insurance conglomerates – they work efficiently and aggressively behind the scenes, with a cunning and guile that often escape our attention, and most importantly, they labor without recess.

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