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Commentary: Dems head for health care crackup?

  • Story Highlights
  • John Feehery: In 1989, Democratic congressman felt wrath of angry senior citizens
  • He says their protest at a health reform law helped lead to its quick repeal
  • He says this year's health reform could backfire on the Democrats
By John Feehery
Special to CNN
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Editor's note: John Feehery worked for former House Speaker Dennis Hastert and other Republicans in Congress. He is president of Feehery Group, a Washington-based advocacy firm that has represented clients that include News Corp., Ford Motor Co. and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. He formerly was a government relations executive vice president for the Motion Picture Association of America.

John Feehery says Democrats could face a backlash from voters upset by the health reform plan.

John Feehery says Democrats could face a backlash from voters upset by the health reform plan.

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- I started on Capitol Hill in the fall of 1989 as an intern for House Minority Leader Bob Michel. Republicans had just elected a firebrand named Newt Gingrich to be their whip. Democrats had just replaced their speaker, Jim Wright, with Tom Foley. And George H. W. Bush was settling in to his first year as president.

It was that year when the chairman of the Ways and Means Committee, Dan Rostenkowski, became more widely known -- not for his work on tax reform and not for the corruption scandal that would later land him in jail.

He became famous for being accosted by a pack of angry senior citizens furious with the Illinois congressman for his role in passing catastrophic health care reform into law. It was legislation that sought to protect senior citizens from the financial impact of catastrophic illness, but it also increased taxes on Medicare recipients.

Interestingly, the group that staged the protest against Rostenkowski was organized by Jan Schakowsky, who would later become a prominent liberal representative and is now of one of the principal proponents of the Obama health care plan.

This was in the days before YouTube and before the rise of the ubiquitous and rival cable networks Fox News and MSNBC. Still, the footage of Rostenkowski being hunted down by rabid octogenarians and fleeing in his big Cadillac while almost running them down left an indelible impression in the minds of the congressional leadership.

In November of 1989, the Congress did what it rarely does. It repealed a law it had passed just a year before. It was as if the law never existed. It was annulled.

There are many similarities between that catastrophic health care bill and the health care reform the Democrats are attempting to put together in Congress this year.

Like the catastrophic bill, the Democrats' health care bill is well-intentioned. It attempts to deal with a problem that needs solving. Long-term health care costs are a problem. A family shouldn't have to go broke taking care of elderly parents or grandparents. Similarly, we must do something about the high costs of insurance and the health care in general.

But like the catastrophic bill, the Democrats' health care bill is overly complex and not well-understood by most Americans. Polls showed that in the aftermath of the catastrophic law repeal, most senior citizens didn't understand how it was supposed to work. That, of course, has been President Obama's biggest challenge in selling his plan. He hasn't been able to communicate well enough to make sense of the complexity.

Also like the catastrophic bill, the Democrats' health care bill frontloads the pain and backloads the gain. To help pay for the benefits and to fit into the budget parameters as laid out by the president, most of the bills that have passed the Congress start increasing taxes and cutting Medicare benefits almost immediately, while the health insurance programs don't really get up to speed for another four years or so.

When senior citizens saw in 1988 and 1989 that they would have to pay more taxes immediately but not get any benefits until far in the future, they hit the streets (and attempted to hit Rostenkowski).

And like the catastrophic bill, the Democrats' health care bill is a direct money transfer from those middle class Americans who have health insurance to those who don't. But polls show that most Americans not only have insurance, they are satisfied with it and fear that the Democratic plans could make it either more expensive or less effective.

The same dynamic happened with the catastrophic bill debate. Most seniors felt that they didn't need the bill, and they certainly didn't want to pay more for the privilege. I predict that making Americans pay more for their insurance (through higher premiums or taxes) or giving them fewer benefits (such as cutting the Medicare Advantage program), will cause a firestorm with middle class voters.

What happened in 1988 and 1989 was different in one crucial way. The catastrophic law that was enacted and then repealed was bipartisan. President Reagan proposed it, Democrats in Congress passed it and President Reagan signed it. The repeal was similarly bipartisan. Democrats passed the repeal and President George H. W. Bush signed it.

That limited the political damage suffered by Democrats, as Republicans had to share the blame for the controversial legislation. But the health care bill that is coming out of the Congress now has not an ounce of bipartisanship attached to it (not counting Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine).

The Democrats completely own this puppy, and should it prove to be as unpopular as the catastrophic health reform on the 1980s, it could turn out to be a political catastrophe for the Democrats.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of John Feehery.

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