Opinion Focus with Eugene Robinson

Jan 04, 2011

Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson discusses his recent columns and the latest news.

Read today's column A health-care fight Democrats should welcome in which Gene writes: "If the incoming Republican leadership in the House of Representatives is serious about trying to repeal health-care reform, there's only one appropriate Democratic response: 'Make my day.'"

Hello, everyone. Welcome to our first online chat of 2011. Much news in the wind today, with the new GOP House majority coming in and President Obama coming home. First on the agenda: health care! We haven't talked about the subject nearly enough over the past two years. The GOP now wants to reopen the argument, but on much less favorable terms -- the bill is now law, and it contains lots of stuff that people like. But the Republicans aren't likely to take my advice, so here we go again. Let's get started.

Gene, my health care premium has increased 40% since September, from $3,200/yr to $4,800 a year; and with worse benefits: (a) from $1750 deductible to $2,500, (b) from 20% copay to a maximum of $3,500 to now a 30% copay to a maximum of $7,500. My insurance carrier, Regence of Washington, will blame the cost of increased mandated benefits. I do reasonably well but this increase is devastating. How can a healthy individual afford coverage?

This is one of the questions that the health care reform package tried to answer, at least partially. Everybody's premiums have been rising, with shrinking coverage. According to independent analyses, the reform bill "bends the curve" of rising health costs. But it's just a start, I'm afraid.

Comment rather than a question: I don't think requiring that everyone buy health insurance is any different from requiring that they buy auto insurance in order to get a driver's license, or buy homeowner's insurance to be able to get a mortgage. Why does no one seem to point this out? Also, please point out how much we pay through our taxes for insuranceless people to use the emergency room. How does that compare with paying for health insurance?

Mary Morand Brighton, Michigan

I agree with you -- I don't see the difference. Some conservatives have argued that while the states may have the right to impose a health insurance mandate, the federal government doesn't.

Gene, I thought that the Republican mantra was, "jobs, jobs, jobs." Well, what does it mean for them politically if their first act, after reading the Constitution aloud like a elementary school class, is to repeal Health care reform and then propose spending cuts. Those don't sound like jobs programs to me.

It doesn't sound like a jobs program to me, either. The other thing the Republicans talk about incessantly is the deficit, but repealing health care reform -- not that this is going to happen -- would boost the deficit by hundreds of billions over the next decade or so. So the House leaders, to take their symbolic vote, are going to exempt themselves from their requirement that legislation not increase the debt. Great way to start!

If Congress can make us buy health insurance (even though "health care" is not mentioned in the Constitution), then is there any limit as to what else they can force us to do? What next, make us buy GM cars since the feds bailed out GM and thus that affects interstate commerce? Can they make us buy a house since that affects the economy and interstate commerce? I don't ever see you write anything about excesses of congressional power.

Excessive power in the hands of Congress and the federal government is not a problem that keeps me up at night. I grew up at a time and place where "states' rights" had a very specific, very sinister meaning -- and federal power saved the day. Hard to forget.

We've heard the GOP mantra, " repeal and replace," regarding the health care legislation, but this newly proposed bill seems to only "repeal." Why don't the Democrats point to this as another example that the Republicans have no plan for health care reform, just as they did during the original debate?

That's what Democrats are doing.

The first question doesn't prove anything. My family's plan doesn't cost any more this year than last, and benefits are nearly identical. I would be interested to see what the average increases are - and compare them to increases in costs over the last several years. For us, this is the first year there hasn't been a large increase in costs - that's certainly not a result of the reform bill, it has to do with the actual claims by plan members last year.

True, anecdotes aren't data. (Except, generally speaking, when they prove our points...)

The Republicans seem to be lumping people who don't like health care with those who don't think the law went far enough when citing opposition to the law. I really think they are misreading the tea leaves in terms of true opposition to health care.

There was a poll just yesterday showing that if you combined those who support the reform package and those who don't think it went far enough, you get to something like 56 percent. That still leaves a lot of people opposed -- but not the majority that the GOP seems to think it has.

Really liked your piece today. What do you suppose are the motivations of the House GOP in trying to repeal the law now? They won't be successful at repeal, so why would they want their constituents to see them as failing right out of the gate? They (unfortunately) are generally clever folks so they must see some upside. Thanks!

They made a promise to their base and believe they need to follow through. The brighter lights in the leadership seem to want to just have this symbolic vote, as quickly as possible, and then move on. Others, though, want to push ahead down this road to nowhere.

I'm actually very excited that the GOP is proposing Cut as Your Go instead of Pay as You Go. Since discretionary spending is minuscule, they will have to propose cutting Defense or entitlements. Let's pull up a lounge chair and enjoy the show!

The thing is, they've put defense and entitlements off limits. So they say they want to make $100 billion in cuts from the 20-percent slice of the budget that's not consumed by entitlements and defense. That's just crazy, and it will be interesting to watch them try to do it. But not particularly enjoyable, I'm afraid.

Do you think there'll be much blowback on Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia's pronouncement that the Constitution and its amendments don't protect women's rights?

I found this fascinating. The equal protection clause is incredibly expansive, seeming to cover every American. So Scalia believes in a literal reading of the Constitution -- unless it leads to a result he doesn't like? 

The GOP wants to cut $100 billion of discretionary, non-defense spending. Do the Dems have the guts to tell the GOP that if they really want to go down that road, farm subsidies will at the top of the list?

We'll see.

Do you think the Roberts/Scalia faction will rule it unconstitutional? I am afraid they will. Then what?

In a sane world, if the Court ruled the mandate unconstitutional it would be restructured as a tax (perhaps to be called a "user fee" or something). One way or another, you can't outlaw discrimination for preexisting conditions if you don't have some way to get young, healthy people into the system -- otherwise, rates will skyrocket. I'm not convinced that even this court will rule the mandate out, however. The fact is that the uninsured do use health services, and the rest of us do pay for it. 

Gene, You and other Obamacare supporters consistently state that the bill will decrease the deficit, and usually point to the CBO analyses report as evidence. How do you respond to the following: The CBO must perform its analyses as dictated by Congress (e.g. if congress says they must assume 2+2=5, then that's what the CBO must do). However, many independent analyses have shown that the assumptions provided by Congress are not realistic,  and even the CBO has included caveats in the qualifications section of the report that Congress painted a too-rosey scenario in developing the analysis criteria (e.g. an unrealistic decline in the jobless rate, and unrealistic increase in economic expansion, etc.). Thanks for taking my question

My answer is that you can't have it both ways. The CBO is cited by both sides as the gold standard -- when doing suits their purposes. It's supposed to be independent and authoritative. If we believe in the CBO when its analysis supports our position, then we have to believe in the CBO when its analysis says we're smoking wacky weed.

"So Scalia believes in a literal reading of the Constitution -- unless it leads to a result he doesn't like?" Scalia believes in original intent, which looks at plain text as well as historical factors. You might not like it, but I think it's a reasonable way to approach interpretation of the Constitution. You are right that the 14th Amendment was drafted broadly (and not entirely clearly, either). But if you want to interpret it literally as far as it can go, you'll also have to strike down all laws regarding age restrictions (alcohol, driving, voting, etc.). Is that the path you want to go down?

That's not where my path leads, it's where Scalia's path leads. I believe the Constitution is a living document whose words have to be seen in light of the times. So yes, there can be age restrictions. And yes, we now consider women to be people, too, and beneficiaries of Constitutional guarantees that once might have been thought of as applying only to men.

The was driven home to me recently when I was buttonholed by a global warming denier who pointed out how cold it was recently. A friend pointed me to the temperatures at National Airport, and I learned that the average DCA temperature had increased by 2 degrees over last year. True it was colder during the winter, but it was also 6 degrees hotter in the summer (which no one notices because it's so hot), and 3 summer months trump 1 winter month.

Every winter -- when, reliably, it gets cold -- the climate change deniers say, "See, we told you, it's cold, and all this climate change stuff is a crock." They pretend not to understand that the picture is quite different if you look at temperatures over the whole year. And they ignore the fact -- or are not aware -- that the Earth is a really big globe, I mean really enormous, and so the weather here at a given moment is not the weather elsewhere. In South America, for example, they've been having a historic and punishing heat wave. 

Well, indoor toilets aren't mentioned in the Constitution, either. Geez!

And I've been looking for the Article on net neutrality but can't find it.

I have been paying nearly $360 per month to cover my 19-year-old son as an individual under my company's COBRA plan, while the annual cost for the rest of my family is only about $2000 per year. I, for one, am thankful that I can roll my son back under my family coverage, even it the cost increases by some percentage.

I think that was the idea.

I know you know a lot of the pundits on cable tv. Just between you and me, do some of the folks on the far right believe what they are saying, or are they just in it to get famous?

Most of the cable pundits I know really believe what they say. Most of it, at least -- one does get carried away at times. I have run into yakkers, on both the left and the right, who seem more interested in getting famous than adding wisdom to the political debate. You know who you are.

I'm as liberal as they come, but the mandatory insurance coverage requirement makes my skin crawl. It is NOT like requiring mortgage or car insurance: buying a house and driving a car are optional activities that you can opt out of. Opting out of living is not a choice most people are willing to make.

I'd argue that driving a car isn't all that optional in this society, but yes, some people choose not to drive. What about growing old? We collect a payroll tax so that money will be available for Americans when they grow old and retire. (And the program has collected something like $3 trillion more than it has paid out, since its inception. but that's another argument.)

It's wonderful this was part of the health care bill and I'm grateful I can add my son to my insurance. When I worked with at the Smithsonian some years ago, an intern there contracted an ear infection. She didn't have health insurance (may not have been a paid intern), so she tried to treat herself, and it worsened. She finally went to the ER, was given a mild antibiotic, the infection became meningitis and she died.

What an awful story! I am happy that I get to keep my 20-year-old son on my policy for a few more years.

When will you learn to call the Health Care Reform Law a Law and not a bill as you did repeatedly on Morning Joe today? Kindly instruct Joe and Mika to do the same. A bill is a bill only until the President signs it into law. Thereafter it is a law.

Did I really? Not enough coffee. 


Folks, my time is up for today. Thanks so much for a lively session. I wish you all a safe, prosperous and HEALTHY new year! See you next week.

In This Chat
Eugene Robinson
Eugene Robinson is an Associate Editor and twice-weekly columnist for The Washington Post. His column appears on Tuesdays and Fridays. In a 25-year career at The Post, Robinson has been city hall reporter, city editor, foreign correspondent in Buenos Aires and London, foreign editor, and assistant managing editor in charge of the paper's award-winning Style section. In 2005, he started writing a column for the Op-Ed page. He is the author of "Coal to Cream: A Black Man's Journey Beyond Color to an Affirmation of Race" (1999) and "Last Dance in Havana" (2004). Robinson is a member of the National Association of Black Journalists and has received numerous journalism awards.
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