Why Isn't the Public Option an Option?

On Monday, Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-WV) announced that although he strongly supports the so-called public option, he wouldn't vote to add it to the health care bill by way of the reconciliation process. Many senators say that passing the public option by way of reconciliation—a procedure which bypasses the threat of a filibuster so that the Senate can pass the bill with a simple majority—would come across as being too partisan. Now White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs says there aren't enough votes to include a public option, even using reconciliation.

The reason to include a provision for a government-run health care plan is simple. As Glenn Greenwald says, if you're going to force people to buy health insurance, you should probably give them an alternative to the private plans they don't use as it is. Allowing people to buy into a government-run health care program ensures that everyone has access to a minimally-acceptable standard plan. Giving people the option to use a public plan would hardly amount to a government takeover of the health care system. If people didn't like the plan, they wouldn't have to use it.


For all the angry rhetoric about socialized medicine, the public option is actually quite popular. Reuters found in December that almost 60% of Americans—including almost 60% of independent voters—would like a public option provision in the final health care bill. It even appears to be popular—more popular than the health care bill itself—in the states of key senators who are on the fence. Liberal activist site FireDogLake compiled a list of 51 senators who seem to have expressed support for a public option. And 24 Democratic senators—including six committee chairs—have signed a letter asking that the public option to brought to a vote under reconciliation rules, saying it could reduce health care costs by billions of dollars.

Although reconciliation smacks of back-room dealings, it's hardly undemocratic. By bypassing the filibuster—which actually has no basis in the Constitution, but is itself simply a customary procedural rule—it would put the public option to be put to a simple majority vote, rather than allowing a minority of senators to prevent it from passing. The argument against reconciliation is, in essence, that it would be inappropriate to pass major legislation without getting the Republicans to buy in. But the Republicans have made it clear that they intend to block whatever plan the Democrats propose anyway. And using the reconciliation process to pass a major piece of legislation is hardly unprecedented. As Timothy Noah points out, reconciliation was used to pass welfare reform, COBRA, and the Children's Health Insurance Program. And, as Ezra Klein says, it's been used more by Republicans than by Democrats. "It's done almost every Congress," Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid says, "and they're the ones that used it more than anyone else."

Even so there may not be 50 votes in the Senate for the public option. Many senators are reluctant to use the reconciliation process to pass something as polarizing as the public option. And there may never have been 51 votes for the public option in any case. As Glenn Greenwald says, many Democrats were, like Jay Rockefeller, happy to express support for the public option in theory when they believed it would never come to a vote. But that doesn't mean that when it comes down to it that they are willing to give it their vote. An August whip count found only 43 firm votes for the public option, and one of those was the late Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-MA). The White House might be able to drum up the rest of the necessary votes. But it's not all that clear President Obama was ever all that serious about the public option. And, as Nate Silver argues, President Obama may be right to feel that the appearance of bipartisanship—even if there is no chance of winning any Republican votes—is more important than the public option. But if, as Ezra Klein says, the key to holding on to Congress is mobilizing the Democratic base, then passing the public option "may be the party's last, best hope to give its passionate supporters the win that would reinvigorate them for 2010."

​There are two kinds of failure – but only one is honorable

Malcolm Gladwell teaches "Get over yourself and get to work" for Big Think Edge.

Big Think Edge
  • Learn to recognize failure and know the big difference between panicking and choking.
  • At Big Think Edge, Malcolm Gladwell teaches how to check your inner critic and get clear on what failure is.
  • Subscribe to Big Think Edge before we launch on March 30 to get 20% off monthly and annual memberships.
Keep reading Show less

Saying no is hard. These communication tips make it easy.

You can say 'no' to things, and you should. Do it like this.

Videos
  • Give yourself permission to say "no" to things. Saying yes to everything is a fast way to burn out.
  • Learn to say no in a way that keeps the door of opportunity open: No should never be a one-word answer. Say "No, but I could do this instead," or, "No, but let me connect you to someone who can help."
  • If you really want to say yes but can't manage another commitment, try qualifiers like "yes, if," or "yes, after."
Keep reading Show less

Scientists reactivate cells from 28,000-year-old woolly mammoth

"I was so moved when I saw the cells stir," said 90-year-old study co-author Akira Iritani. "I'd been hoping for this for 20 years."

Yamagata et al.
Surprising Science
  • The team managed to stimulate nucleus-like structures to perform some biological processes, but not cell division.
  • Unless better technology and DNA samples emerge in the future, it's unlikely that scientists will be able to clone a woolly mammoth.
  • Still, studying the DNA of woolly mammoths provides valuable insights into the genetic adaptations that allowed them to survive in unique environments.
Keep reading Show less

Why is 18 the age of adulthood if the brain can take 30 years to mature?

Neuroscience research suggests it might be time to rethink our ideas about when exactly a child becomes an adult.

Mind & Brain
  • Research suggests that most human brains take about 25 years to develop, though these rates can vary among men and women, and among individuals.
  • Although the human brain matures in size during adolescence, important developments within the prefrontal cortex and other regions still take pace well into one's 20s.
  • The findings raise complex ethical questions about the way our criminal justice systems punishes criminals in their late teens and early 20s.
Keep reading Show less