Thursday, September 5, 2013

The Need For Honest Debate

It's that time again, it's time for a rant. But, I hope that it will be instructional as well. I'm going to talk about our need for honest debate in our legislative process. And, because this is a blog that, at least in theory, deals with benefits and compensation, I'll use benefits and compensation issues to illustrate my point.

For those who are wondering, the antagonists here are the large part of the 535 (that's the usual number) elected officials who in combination are the voting members of Congress. The protagonists, if there are any are the other 315 million or so of us who get to live by what the 535 come up with.

Let's start with nearly everyone's favorite whipping boy, the Affordable Care Act (PPACA, ACA, or ObamaCare). We all know what happened. President Obama really wanted to reform the US health care system. At various times, he indicated that he wanted to move toward a single payer system. Many of his fellow Democrats among the 535 also wanted a single payer system, but knowing that was unlikely to get enough support to become law, they settled for a bill that eventually became PPACA. The Republicans banded together to vote against it, unanimously. My distinct impression is that most didn't care what was in it. It was to be a landmark piece of Democrat-sponsored legislation and Republicans were voting against it. My distinct impression was also that most Democrats didn't care what was in it either. It was going to be a win against Republicans, so Democrats voted for it. As Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) famously said (and I am going to include the whole quote so that it is not taken out of context):
You've heard about the controversies within the bill, the process about the bill, one or the other. But I don't know if you have heard that it is legislation for the future, not just about health care for America, but about a healthier America, where preventive care is not something you have to pay a deductible for or out of pocket. Prevention, prevention, prevention -- it's about diet, not diabetes. It's going to be very, very exciting. But we have to pass the bill so that you can find out what is in it, away from the fog of the controversy.
Did Ms. Pelosi know what was in the bill when she voted for it? She probably had a general idea, but didn't know the specifics. How about the other 534? I'd wager that most of them had neither read more than a page or two, at most, of the legislation and had not been briefed on it by anyone who had read it.

Where was the debate? Where was the opportunity for individual members of Congress to discuss the good parts and the bad? Even among the most ardent Republicans who voted against the bill, I suspect it would be difficult to find many who think that mandatory preventive coverage and coverage of kids up to age 26 are bad things. On the other hand, the medical device tax that was inserted deep in the bill's bowels as a revenue raiser would probably not get support today from more than a few Democrats who voted for the bill.

Suppose the bill had truly been debated. Suppose the good parts had been picked out as the foundation for a bill that might have gotten some bipartisan support. Suppose the parts that virtually all of us can agree don't make sense had been left out. What would debate have taught us? It would have confirmed that our health care system needed some reform. It would have confirmed that providing health care coverage to millions of uninsured costs money. It's not budget neutral. It's certainly not helpful to the budget. But, we didn't have good, honest debate and we eventually have learned what was in the bill.

Dodd-Frank was another bill that was passed without a whole lot of what I might refer to as crossover voting. That is, a few Republicans voted in favor and a few Democrats voted against. But, to call it bipartisan is a bit of a stretch. The bill was massive. Many who voted for or against had a pet little provision in there that triggered their votes.

The bill was supposed to clean up Wall Street and protect consumers. I know this to be true because of the full name: The Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act. Names of laws don't lie, do they? Say it ain't so.

Somehow, it became important to get Title IX in there -- the part on executive compensation. And, Senator Robert Melendez (D-NJ) managed to sneak in what regular readers know to be my personal favorite, the pay ratio provisions in Section 953(b).

I've communicated with a few people who follow Capitol Hill closely, Congressional reporters. None of them are sure how this provision actually got into the bill. They all agree that it was not debated. What happened?

Implementation of Section 953(b) will require some simple mathematics, or arithmetic if you prefer. Senator Menendez, the purported author of the section was a political science major before attending law school He was also a member of a Latin fraternity. He first entered politics at the ripe old age of 20.

I looked hard. I cannot find any evidence of Senator Menendez' mathematical prowess or of his knowledge of executive compensation. Perhaps that is why Section 953(b) is so incredibly messed up -- bad enough that I have written about it enough times to finally learn how to type the word ratio without placing an n at the end of it even though my fingers seem to prefer to type ration.

To the credit of the 535, Dodd-Frank was debated ... as a bill. But, it's tough when you have a bill that, at least in one printing, contains about 3200 pages to debate every provision. Section 953(b) escaped debate. It became part of the law.

It is bad law. Despite what the AFL-CIO says, Section 953(b) is bad law. There, I said it. Perhaps it should have been debated. Perhaps Ms. Pelosi should have said that [we] have to debate the bill so that we can put useful provisions in it. Perhaps I am dreaming.

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