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Our Democracy No Longer Works and the Problem Is Congress

At the center of our government lies a bankrupt institution: Congress. The US Congress has become the Fundraising Congress.

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Healthcare reform is a perfect example. The bill the Fundraising Congress has produced is miles from the reform that Obama promised ("Any plan I sign must include an insurance exchange...including a public option," July 19, 2009). Like the stimulus package, like the bank bailouts, it is larded with gifts to the most powerful fundraising interests--including a promise to drug companies to pay retail prices for wholesale purchases and a promise to the insurance companies to leave their effectively collusive (since exempt from anti-trust limitations) and extraordinarily inefficient system of insurance intact--and provides (relative to the promises) little to the supposed intended beneficiaries of the law: the uninsured. In this, it is the perfect complement to the only significant social legislation enacted by Bush, the prescription drug benefit: a small benefit to those who can't afford drugs, a big gift to those who make drugs and an astonishingly expensive price tag for the nation.

So how did Obama get to this sorry bill? The first step, we are told, was to sit down with representatives from the insurance and pharmaceutical industries to work out a deal. But why, the student of Obama's campaign might ask, were they the entities with whom to strike a deal? How many of the 69,498,516 votes received by Obama did they actually cast? "We have to change our politics," Obama said. Where is the change in this?

"," Obama told us in the campaign, "as every year, candidates offer up detailed healthcare plans with great fanfare and promise, only to see them crushed under the weight of Washington politics and drug and insurance industry lobbying once the campaign is over."

"This cannot," he said, "be one of those years."

It has been one of those years. And it will continue to be so long as presidents continue to give a free pass to the underlying corruption of our democracy: Congress.

There was a way Obama might have had this differently. It would have been risky, some might say audacious. And it would have required an imagination far beyond the conventional politics that now controls his administration.

No doubt, 2009 was going to be an extraordinarily difficult year. Our nation was a cancer patient hit by a bus on her way to begin chemotherapy. The first stages of reform thus had to be trauma care, at least to stabilize the patient until more fundamental treatment could begin.

But even then, there was an obvious way that Obama could have reserved the recognition of the need for this more fundamental reform by setting up the expectations of the nation forcefully and clearly. Building on the rhetoric at the core of his campaign, on January 20, 2009, Obama could have said:

America has spoken. It has demanded a fundamental change in how Washington works, and in the government America delivers. I commit to America to work with Congress to produce that change. But if we fail, if Congress blocks the change that America has demanded--or more precisely, if Congress allows the special interests that control it to block the change that America has demanded--then it will be time to remake Congress. Not by throwing out the Democrats, or by throwing out the Republicans. But by throwing out both, to the extent that both continue to want to work in the old way. If this Congress fails to deliver change, then we will change Congress.

Had he framed his administration in these terms, then when what has happened happened, Obama would be holding the means to bring about the obvious and critical transformation that our government requires: an end to the Fundraising Congress. The failure to deliver on the promises of the campaign would not be the failure of Obama to woo Republicans (the unwooable Victorians of our age). The failure would have been what America was already primed to believe: a failure of this corrupted institution to do its job. Once that failure was marked with a frame that Obama set, he would have been in the position to begin the extraordinarily difficult campaign to effect the real change that Congress needs.

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