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Saying the Hard Thing on the Public Option

Harold Pollack is the Helen Ross Professor of Social Service Administration at the University of Chicago and a Special Correspondent for The Treatment.

A famous political science article describes the legislative battle over a 1956 House bill, HR7535. The bill would have provided federal aid to the states to build schools. Democrats sponsored the bill, which was popular ten years into the baby boom. For familiar pre-election reasons, Republicans wanted HR7535 to die. They got lucky when Harlem Congressman Adam Clayton Powell dropped a hand grenade into the process by proposed an amendment mandating that grants could only be used by states with schools "open to all children without regard to race in conformity with the requirements of the United States Supreme Court decisions."

Urban liberals could hardly oppose this amendment. Yet its inclusion would doom the final bill by driving away critical southern Democratic votes. Democratic leaders understood this perfectly well. A letter signed by former President Truman noted:

I have no doubt that [the Powell amendment] was put forward in good faith to protect the rights of our citizens. However, it has been seized upon by the House Republican leadership, which has always been opposed to Federal aid to education, as a means of defeating Federal aid and gaining political advantage at the same time. I think it would be most unfortunate if the Congress should fall into the trap which the Republican leadership has thus set…. The result would be that no Federal aid legislation would be passed at all, and the losers would be our children of every race and creed in every State in the Union.

Republican leadership happily supported the Powell Amendment. African-American politicians and many liberals voted with them. The amendment passed, with precisely the anticipated result.

Only African-American Congressman, veteran Chicago Representative William Dawson, voted against the Powell Amendment. One interpretation is that Dawson, "the dean of the black delegation," had unique personal standing to make, and explain, this tough vote to pass an important bill.

As with many parables, the article's historical accuracy is debatable. For present purposes, I'll just say that the parable might have been true. Sometimes, you need political leaders with real standing to stand up and explain what needs to be done and why. Something like that happened yesterday, and deserves notice.

I've been even more frustrated than Ezra Klein with the White House's prolonged calculated ambiguity on the public option, which I support. For months, it has been obvious that Barack Obama would be happy to see this pass, but that his administration wasn't going to expend political capital or take many political risks to make this happen. Maybe this was the right call. If the Senate votes aren't there, they aren't there. If the only feasible public option is a weak and symbolic measure involving a few million people, I would still want it, but I would not put comprehensive health reform at risk to shoot for this outcome.

Now here we are at the 11th hour. Democratic leaders in both houses are assembling a gigantic jigsaw puzzle to make things work. Holding together 50 Senate votes and securing crucial House blue dogs and progressives will be a real challenge. If the day is to be won, a succession of daunting political and legislative obstacles must be quickly overcome.

The public option is a complex venture in every political and substantive way. (Ironically, its ideologically moderate versions are more complicated and organizationally radical than a straightforward Medicare buy-in, which I believe is best). I just don't see this happening in a quick reconciliation bill. When I read between the lines at the Democrats' game-plan for this Thursday's summit, I don’t think Democratic leaders see this, either. I don't see groundwork being laid down to present the public option in a way likely to command the necessary public or insider support.

Senator Rockefeller, perhaps the leading public option supporter in the United States Senate, stepped up to the plate and said what needed to be said. It's time to lock the President's plan down, and not to put health reform at risk by trying to pass the public option at this moment in this way.

I'm not sure who was right in that 1956 debate. I can't criticize Adam Clayton Powell's amendment, even if it killed that school construction bill. Whatever liberals of that time were thinking, blocking or delaying federal education money seems a small price to pay in return for pushing, every day in every way, the civil rights cause.

Many of my friends believe the same about the public option. I strongly support the public option myself. We should return to it next year. I just think that comprehensive health reform is too important, its fate too precarious, to put everything at risk by trying to insert the public option into this moment's crucial reconciliation bill. Much of the Obama presidency hangs in the balance. So does health insurance coverage for more than 30 million people. Someone with impeccable progressive health credentials needed to step up and say that. We can't have any hand grenades explode right now. We are so close to a historic final bill.

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