This should really piss you off. From the WSJ:
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.
Even Senate Finance Chair Max Baucus, of bipartisan bent, has bowed to legal powers. The past two years, Mr. Baucus has teamed up with Wyoming Republican Mike Enzi to offer legislation for modest health-care tort reform in states. That Enzi-Baucus proposal had been part of the bipartisan health-care talks. When Mr. Baucus released his draft health legislation this weekend, he'd stripped out his own legal reforms. The Montanan is already in the doghouse with party liberals, and decided not to further irk leadership's Dick Durbin ($3.6 million in lawyer contributions), the Senate's patron saint of the trial bar.
Over in the House the discussion isn't about tort reform, but about tort opportunities. During the House Ways & Means markup of a health bill, Texas Democrat Lloyd Doggett ($1.5 million from lawyers) introduced language to allow freelance lawyers to sue any outfit (say, McDonald's) that might contribute to Medicare costs. Only after Blue Dogs freaked out did the idea get dropped, though the trial bar has standing orders that Democrats make another run at it in any House-Senate conference.
It says everything that Mr. Obama wouldn't plump for reform as part of legislation. The president knows the Senate would never have passed it in any event. Yet even proposing it was too much for the White House's legal lobby. Mr. Obama is instead directing his secretary of health and human services to move forward on test projects. That would be Kathleen Sebelius, who spent eight years as the head of the Kansas Trial Lawyers Association.
The issue has assumed such importance that even some Democrats acknowledge the harm. With bracing honesty, former DNC chair Howard Dean recently acknowledged his party "did not want to take on the trial lawyers." Former Democratic Sen. Bill Bradley, in a New York Times piece, suggested a "grand bipartisan compromise" in which Democrats got universal coverage in return for offering legal reform. The White House yawned, and moved on.
It isn't clear if Republicans would or should take that deal, but we won't know since it won't be offered. The tort-reform issue has instead clarified this presidency. Namely, that the bipartisan president is in fact very partisan, that the new-politics president still takes orders from the old Democratic lobby.