There’s a feeling in the media of late that those of us focusing on the public option have a limited view of what’s important. The argument goes something like: “Health care policy is big and complex, complicated and nuanced and to say one part of it is a deal-breaker ignores all the good that the rest of the bill will do.” It’s not that this position is wrong so much as I think they’re the ones who are thinking too small. Health care policy isn’t al that’s at stake here.
The debate around health care in the past few weeks has centered on the senate finance committee because that’s the only committee that hasn’t yet agreed on a bill. The rest of the committees stuck to schedule and got a bill done so the process could move forward over the summer. Finance Chairman Max Baucus (D-MT) has decided that instead of working with the whole committee – which includes 13 dems and 10 repubs – he would form his own ad-hoc committee of six including himself, Jeff Bingaman (D-NM), Kent Conrad (D-ND), Chuck Grassley (R-IA), Mike Enzi (R-WY) and Olympia Snowe (R-ME). These are the facts as they stand. Keep in mind that the Baucus Gang does not reflect the partisan makeup of the senate or the finance committee and excludes anyone to the left of Max Baucus. Ron Wyden (D-OR) has been working on health care policy for years, as has John Kerry (D-MA). Both are on the finance committee, neither is participating in these negotiations. If Baucus doesn’t have to do this and it’s not working, then why is it happening?
As Deep Throat said, follow the money. In the last five years, Chariman Max has recieved $552,075 from the insurance industry, $507,313 from the pharmaceutical industry and $497,641 from health professionals. That makes Three out of his top five industry contributors. All of these groups have something to gain and something to lose from health reform and have given Baucus around 1.5 million reasons to listen up. In fact, Baucus’s whole gang has contributors in common. Enzi gets $486,999 from these three groups, making them his 1st, 2nd and 4th biggest industry contributors. Grassley: $552,554 from his top three industry contributors plus another $137,337 from hospitals. Snowe gets $338,159 from health pros (her 2nd biggest industry contributor) and the insurance lobby (3rd). Bingaman gets $207,563 from health pros (3rd biggest industry contributor). Conrad gets $453,658 from health pros and insurance (3rd and 4th respectively). That makes over $3,733,299 in contributions to these six-decision makers from the health-care industry since 2005. No wonder the bill is stuck in the finance committee. (Thanks to the Center for Responsive Politics whose (claim to fame!) executive director Shelia Krumholz is totally my gchat friend).
The truth is an individual mandate is good, people should have to have health insurance. But without a public option, the biggest winner is the current health care industry. They would get not only no downward pressure from government competition, but a law that says everyone has to buy their products. Not bad for $4 million. Judging by the amount the health-care industry can afford to donate to political causes (and on both sides of the aisle, what civic spirit!), they don’t need the help. In fact, they need to take a hit. The ultimate goal of the entire industry is to profit off of sick people, their incentives should be different than our politicians’ who should be interested in making sure sick people can get medicine and care. But sick people didn’t donate millions to Max Baucus and his buddies.
The message the White House and democrats are sending by indicating they’re willing to drop the public option is that legislative priorities are for sale. If the main beneficiaries of health-care reform are the same people benefiting under the current system then the reform is a failure on an important level.

If you haven’t seen this graph from Emmanuel Saez peep it now. That’s not wealth overall that’s shooting up, it’s share of wealth. Wealth overall isn’t a zero-sum game, but share is. Imagine the complimentary graph of the share of the other 99.99% of Americans. The rich are getting richer and everyone else is getting a smaller and smaller share. And now they want to use supposedly progressive legislation to further the same program. Excuse me while I don’t rush to the president’s side.
The rhetoric of taking on big business is important because it’s an acknowledgment that their interests are not only different from, but contrary to the interests of most Americans. We heard it during the campaign but when push comes to shove we hear a lot more about a solution that works for everyone. I don’t want a solution that works for the top .01% because they are the problem. They’re the problem in health care and they’re the problem in our political system when they can buy a major piece of legislation. The public option isn’t a symbol, it’s a much larger stand.