Hooray that the Senate voted to start debate on the health care bill. But can someone please explain to me why it is a healthy thing in a democracy that we require a 60 percent supermajority for a procedural vote? The Constitution already provides for a bicameral legislature, for checks and balances and division of powers. And in allocating an equal number of senators to every state, the Constitution reduces the representation of those of us in populous states, such that a resident of Wyoming (pop. 532,668) have over 24 times more representation than I do as a resident of Illinois (pop. 12,901,563). Isn’t that enough? Why add on the need for 60 votes in the Senate?

For the record, I made this argument back when the Republicans controlled the Senate and wanted to “go nuclear” and approve judges with a simple majority. I was of the opinion then, as I am now, that if you want to influence the political process, you need to win elections. The Democrats won the last election. They are doing the work they were sent to do. Why the will of the people should be thwarted, by the invocation of supposed safeguards beyond what the Constitution already provides, is incomprehensible to me. Unless, of course, you want to say we don’t live in a democracy. Which we evidently don’t.

Winter vacation is when I finally get around to reading stacks of magazines that have piled up over the fall. In my perusal, I discovered this terrific article from the current issue of the New Republic (yes, at the top of the stack; I haven’t gotten very far) by Jonathan Cohn. Cohn traces the history of the UAW and the Big Three, and reminds us that the project the autoworkers attempted was to guarantee a middle class lifestyle for “average Joes” who did difficult physical labor. Led by Walter Reuther, the UAW paved the way for such novel ideas as grievance procedures, health care, and pensions. 

There were two problems, according to Cohn: First, as Japanese and German competitors built cars with better fuel efficiency, they also had dramatically lower health care costs because of universal coverage systems in their countries. As we’ve heard a lot in recent years, cars produced by the Big Three cost an additional couple thousand dollars out the door compared to their foreign counterparts, and this is because there’s no universal healthcare in the U.S. 

Second, the unions made a fatal mistake that Reuther worked hard to avoid: they got greedy and asked for too much. Not only did they get health benefits while working; they got them for retirees, and even for their surviving spouses after their deaths. Grievance procedures designed to protect good workers from arbitrary action by management were used to protect mediocre workers from legitimate action. Etc., etc.

Cohn’s article, combined with this piece by Jacob Hacker in the same issue, makes a strong case for the Obama administration to make fixing the health care system a top priority in the forthcoming stimulus spending. While the focus will inevitably be on the short term (it always is), now is precisely the time that long-term fixes that require major up-front expenditures (like a national health insurance system) should be undertaken. To quote Hillel, If not now, when. And to those who would call this socialism, that’s a red herring: the government just bought the banks, bailed out the auto industry, and runs agriculture in America. It’s time to get this right.