Power from the People

by Blair Sullivan | 1/24/10 11:00pm

The surprising election of Scott Brown, R-Mass., to the Senate seat vacated by Ted Kennedy, D-Mass., will have significant implications regarding health care policy. Because Senate Democrats no longer have the 60 votes needed to quell a filibuster, the shaken party must reassess its approach. Thoughts about how to proceed have been mixed. While some Democrats have rightly acknowledged that their plans must change, others have refused to accept this fact.

Since the election, President Barack Obama announced that he is more open to compromise and bipartisan cooperation, even if it will result in a scaled-back bill. He suggested that lawmakers from both parties work together so that at least the less contentious elements of the bill can be passed. Congressman Anthony Weiner, D-N.Y., discussed the health care situation in an interview on MSNBC prior to the election. If Brown were elected, Weiner said that Democrats should "take a step back and say, we get the message,'" rather than attempt to push through an unpopular bill.

There are some Democrats, however, who are not ready to change course. Before the Massachusetts election, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., indicated that Democrats would proceed with their health care bill, regardless of the election's outcome. "Let's remove all doubt, we will have health care one way or another," she declared. Some Democrats are currently considering utilizing a maneuver known as reconciliation, which would tie parts of the bill to a budget measure, which requires only a simple majority for passage.

Democrats may find a way to force passage of the health care bill in its current form, but they ought not do so, given the opposition of the electorate. While one can attribute last fall's gubernatorial Republican upsets in Virginia and New Jersey to state-related issues, it's difficult to deny that the election of Brown speaks directly to health care. Brown did, after all, campaign on the notion that he would kill the contentious bill. Polls are also telling. According to a recent Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll, 55 percent of Americans disapprove of President Obama's handling of health care, while only 38 percent approve. It would be unwise for Democrats to proceed in spite of this clear opposition.

The difference in opinion among Democrats relates to the fundamental question about the appropriate role of elected officials. Ought they act more as delegates, or as trustees? One school of thought is that, because they are elected, our President and representatives should take direction from their constituents, and heed the people's opinions as reflected in polls. Referring to the contentious health care bill, Senator Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, declared, "You can't drive a policy that doesn't have the support of the American people."

On the other hand, one may argue that elected officials ought to act in the way that they think is best for the country, despite the opinions of the electorate. In 2008, then Vice President Dick Cheney supported this notion. While discussing the Iraq war in an interview, Cheney declared that the United States had made tremendous progress, and that the surge had been a major success. When the interviewer pointed out that two-thirds of the American people believed that the war was not worth fighting, Cheney bluntly responded, "So?" The shocked interviewer questioned Cheney, "So? You don't care what the American people think?" Cheney responded, "No. I think you cannot be blown off course by the fluctuations in the public opinion polls."

Elected officials must strike a careful balance between these two roles. Prior to elections, candidates should present themselves fairly and accurately, providing a clear indication of their policy goals. Once elected, politicians should act in a way that they deem proper, as long as it complies generally with their campaign promises. In some situations, it may be more appropriate for elected officials to use their own judgment, rather than defer to their constituents. On the issue of health care, however, for which spending already comprises 18 percent of the U.S.'s economic output, our elected officials should take a careful approach. Without broad, bipartisan support, it is neither wise nor appropriate to implement such drastic changes. Given the message that the electorate has sent, President Obama and Congress should instead work to create a more modest and less controversial policy.