The President's Tort Two-Step
On Wednesday the president told Congress "I will not stand by while the special interests use the same old tactics to keep things exactly the way they are." In fact, the administration is standing by to allow its most special, special interest to drive this debate. What the tort bar wants, the tort bar gets. Health insurers should be so lucky.
The legal question has become the starkest symbol of a broken health discussion, and offers insight into this presidency. For Republicans, legal reform has become a litmus test, proof that Democrats have no interest in a deal, and therefore a reason to step back. For many Americans, legal reform has become proof that President Obama is more interested in an ideological triumph than his stated goal of lowering health costs.
Tort reform is a policy no-brainer. Experts on left and right agree that defensive medicine—ordering tests and procedures solely to protect against Joe Lawyer—adds enormously to health costs. The estimated dollar benefits of reform range from a conservative $65 billion a year to perhaps $200 billion. In context, Mr. Obama's plan would cost about $100 billion annually. That the president won't embrace even modest change that would do so much, so quickly, to lower costs, has left Americans suspicious of his real ambitions.
It's also a political no-brainer. Americans are on board. Polls routinely show that between 70% and 80% of Americans believe the country suffers from excess litigation. The entire health community is on board. Republicans and swing-state Democrats are on board. State and local governments, which have struggled to clean up their own civil-justice systems, are on board. In a debate defined by flash points, this is a rare area of agreement.
The only folks not on board are a handful of powerful trial lawyers, and a handful of politicians who receive a generous cut of those lawyers' contingency fees. The legal industry was the top contributor to the Democratic Party in the 2008 cycle, stumping up $47 million. The bill is now due, and Democrats are dutifully making a health-care down payment.
During the markup of a bill in the Senate Health Committee, Republicans offered 11 tort amendments that varied in degree from mere pilot projects to measures to ensure more rural obstetricians. On a party line vote, Democrats killed every one. Rhode Island senator and lawyer Sheldon Whitehouse went so far as to speechify on the virtues of his tort friends. He did not, of course, mention the nearly $900,000 they have given him since 2005, including campaign contributions from national tort powerhouses like Baron & Budd and Motley Rice.
Comment: You cannot have true health care reform as long as blood-sucking trial lawyers are parasites on the system!