Opinion

Bigger danger of healthcare bill: the arrogance of Congress

Health care supporters in Congress clearly defied the will of voters. Will we hold them accountable?

By

We may never fully know the damage that will be done by the massive health care bill Congress passed on Sunday, but one thing is certain: It will lead to lower-quality care at higher costs.

Dozens of new health boards will come on line in the next few years, as bureaucrats gradually take control of our health care system. Who knows how many bright college students will decide to avoid medical careers because they don’t want to follow orders from these bureaucrats?

As alarming as some of the bill’s provisions are, what’s more dangerous is the arrogance this Congress demonstrated.

The House of Representatives used to represent; now it rules.

This health care reform was widely debated for a year, and it became less popular by the month. A weekend poll by Rasmussen Reports showed the depth of that unpopularity, with only 26 percent strongly supporting the reform and 45 percent strongly opposing it.

How can elected representatives defy the considered will of the people?

Because defiance becomes an easy habit when you know that there is almost no chance you will lose your next election. The loss of accountability enables public servants to indulge their own lust for power. As Lord Acton wrote, “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

If we do not address the problem of a permanent class of rulers in Congress, we will watch Congress bankrupt the country and destroy the republic.

Most members of the House represent specially drawn districts where one party dominates. As a result, these members face no primary election challengers and only nominal competition in the general election.

Congressional entrenchment is not a product of popularity; Congress has routinely been unpopular the past 30 years. A February survey by Rasmussen Reports showed approval of Congress at a historic low, with only 10 percent rating their performance as good or excellent. Rasmussen also found 63 percent favor replacing the entire Congress.

Unfortunately, that will not happen. Even during this year’s extreme political turmoil, you can be confident that over 80 percent of House incumbents will win yet again in November. In most modern US elections, more than 95 percent of House incumbents are reelected.

The reason is a century of entrenchment by incumbents looking out for themselves. They have large staffs and budgets to run a permanent campaign; they have pork and patronage to distribute at taxpayer expense; and they enacted campaign restrictions to hobble challengers.

With mostly one-party districts, incumbents own their seats unless they face serious primary challenges. But party organizations controlled by incumbents work to discourage primary challenges, regardless of the performance of the incumbent. In fact, only eight incumbents have lost their primary races in the past three elections combined – that’s a renomination rate of over 99 percent.

To regain congressional accountability, we must work outside the political parties to set the standard of acceptable behavior, and to enforce it in primary elections.

In 2006 and 2008, Democrats won the close House races and took control of Congress because voters were tired of big-spending Republicans. In 2010 voters will defeat Democrats in close elections, and the House is likely to return to Republican control. But what will those Republicans do? Should we trust them to behave this time?

I would say no. Congress will not behave on its own because the political parties now exist to serve the politicians, not the taxpayers.

That’s why the development of the tea party movement has been so forceful and swift. Tea party leaders stepped up because both parties had failed us. Yet they understand that you don’t solve the problem of two unaccountable parties by creating a third. What we really need is a way to hold politicians of any party accountable, and that begins with independent organizations demanding accountability, and backing primary challengers to representatives of both political parties who fail to live up to their job title: Representative.

In 2010, tossing out some big-spending Democrats may be all that voters can accomplish. But if we don’t solve the bigger problem of creating the organizations to systematically hold politicians accountable, we will only get another round of broken promises on the road to ruin. The fate of the republic depends on building an independent system to hold Congress accountable to the taxpayers.

Eric O’Keefe is chairman of Sam Adams Alliance, a Chicago-based nonprofit focused on communicating free-market principles.

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