A record of post-passage progress

A RECORD OF POST-PASSAGE PROGRESS…. Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio) has received a fair amount of pressure lately, following his stated intention to join right-wing Republicans in killing health care reform, because, as he sees it, the Democratic plan is too conservative.

The liberal Ohioan talked to Benjy Sarlin yesterday about his position, and repeatedly cited the work of Jacob Hacker, the Yale professor who was largely responsible for crafting the idea of a public option. That’s an odd rhetorical choice — Hacker has repeatedly said he wants Congress to pass the Democratic proposal. Kucinich is citing a scholar, while ignoring the scholar’s judgment. Perhaps he doesn’t know about Hacker’s conclusion?

But this observation, related to the public option, was even more striking.

Kucinich says he doesn’t buy Obama’s latest argument to progressives that there will be other opportunities to improve upon the legislation once they help him pass this bill.

“Fix it later, are you kidding?” he said. “If you don’t get it in the bill up front, it’s not going to happen.”

Now, the president really has told progressive lawmakers that Congress can return to the public option later, and incorporate the idea into this reform framework. The notion that improvements like the public option are gone forever if they don’t pass immediately is foolish.

But just as importantly, it’s a belief that’s belied by history. Kucinich’s entire approach has repeatedly been proven false.

On all of the major progressive breakthroughs from recent generations, it’s not even a close call.

When Medicaid passed, for example, it did very little for low-income adults, which is now seen as the point of the program. There were no doubt progressive advocates who, at the time of its passage, feared that it wasn’t ambitious enough, and that if they didn’t get improvements in the bill up front, they wouldn’t happen. With the benefit of hindsight, we know those fears were incorrect.

When Medicare passed, it all but ignored people with disabilities, didn’t cover prescription drugs, and made no allowances for home health services. It was, at best, a limited program at its inception. There may have been liberal Dems who thought that if they didn’t get improvements in the bill up front, they wouldn’t happen. With the benefit of hindsight, we know those fears were incorrect.

When Social Security passed, the benefits were negligible, and the program excluded agricultural workers, domestic workers, the self-employed, railroad employees, government employees, clergy, and those who worked for non-profits. The original Social Security bill offered no benefits for dependents or survivors, and included no cost-of-living increases. There were plenty of liberals at the time who thought Dems had watered down the plan to the point where its value had all but disappeared, and that if they didn’t get improvements in the bill up front, they wouldn’t happen. With the benefit of hindsight, we know those fears were incorrect.

Even the Civil Rights Act, in order to secure passage, needed to drop its voting rights provision. It wasn’t there up front, but it happened soon after.

Notice a pattern here? FDR and LBJ had huge electoral mandates and gigantic Democratic majorities in Congress (bigger than the congressional majorities Obama currently enjoys), but they still couldn’t get everything they wanted.

There were likely liberal champions of the day who perceived the New Deal, the Great Society, FDR, LBJ, and their congressional Democratic majorities as disappointing and incompetent sell-outs who failed to take advantage of the opportunities before them, producing legislation worthy of rejection. Had Kucinich been there, he likely would have sided with conservatives then, too.

But the programs passed, and once they were in place, they improved, expanded, and became integral to the American experience. It took years and perseverance, but progress happened after the initial programs became law. We now consider their policy achievements bedrocks of American society.

“If you don’t get it in the bill up front, it’s not going to happen.” It’s hard to overstate how terribly misguided this is.