President Teddy Roosevelt pushed it. So did President Harry Truman, Sen. Ted Kennedy and First Lady Hillary Clinton.
The struggle over national healthcare reform isn’t a recent phenomenon, according to John Hilley, a former Lehigh business professor who served as senior adviser and director of legislative affairs for the White House under President Bill Clinton.
"They’ve all come and gone trying to do something about healthcare reform, and none of them succeeded in a substantial way," said Hilley.
"It’s complex. There are both money and policy issues. And the interests are well funded. They are plugged in, they are powerful, and they come with all the media and research capabilities anyone could ever want."
Hilley spoke about the nation’s contentious healthcare debate and other divisive political issues during a public address Oct. 20. His talk, titled "Deficits, Deadlock, and Deadbeats—the Politics of Dysfunction," gave an insider’s account of the highly-charged political environment that has infected Washington, D.C., and the national discourse.
"Although it can be painful, mistake-prone, messy, infuriating, and all those other things, our system of political competition, writ long-and-large, has served this country very, very well," he said. But that has changed.
"We now have a political dysfunction, which is really a virulent form of political competition," Hilley said. "Basically, the two sides are saying, ‘the key to my success is for you to melt down.’"
Hilley offers that perspective from a career that has spanned both New York City and the nation’s capital. A former executive vice president for strategic development at the Nasdaq Stock Market, Hilley was also chief of staff to former Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell (D-Maine) and staff director of the Senate Budget Committee in the early 1990s.
In addition to his look at healthcare reform, Hilley discussed the behind-the-scenes efforts that led to the passage of the Balanced Budget Act of 1997. The bill, which he helped pull together, was the result of bipartisan efforts between President Clinton, a Democrat, and the Republican-controlled Congress.
The United States has had a long history of not paying its bills, Hilley said, but President George H.W. Bush made significant progress in countering that trend when he offered the country’s largest-ever deficit reduction package. A hallmark of the Clinton Administration just five years later was the bipartisan balanced budget.
Adroit political leadership
"We were able to rely on the very adroit leadership of our elected leaders to pull off a package that was actually able to balance the budget," he said. "Thanks to the work of President [George H.W.] Bush and President Clinton and also to a very robust economy that was filling the Treasury with revenue, it was possible to balance the budget and not have to raise taxes."
The nation’s surplus hopes were dashed, however, when President George W. Bush and the GOP- led House and Senate cut taxes and redistributed them back to the people—a "fair policy choice," but one that Hilley argues was too aggressive.
The result? After four years of growing surpluses, the nation’s deficit increased substantially. Paying for the Iraq war by way of $800 billion in "Emergency Declaration" funds contributed to the problem, he said.
Over the past ten years, the political environment has changed and left little recourse for moderates in the two major political parties.
"What’s happened is that we’ve had something I like to call a ‘perfection of partisanship,’ which is that all of our management tools, all of our best media tools, all of our best research tools have been put into service by professionals in the service of partisanship," Hilley explains.
"In other words, there is not an elected leader who can utter a single statement, vote for a single amendment in committee or on the floor, or hold a press conference, or make a public utterance to a constituent, without that being fully monitored, fully filtered, and disseminated to public interest groups. There always a litmus test."
Hilley’s visit was sponsored by the Martindale Center for the Study of Private Enterprise together with the College of Business and Economics.