LAWMAKING: THE AMERICAN WAY
For Obama it was an important victory, as he addressed the nation after the passage of the bill at the East end of the magnificent White House. It has to be stated here that the East side of the White House is seldom used. And when it is used, it is for an unusual important national or global event, like the historic passage of the Healthcare Bill by 219 in favour and 212 against. Indeed, it was a close call and left memories that would be difficult to forget too soon.
It has to be recalled that the Healthcare Bill generated (and has continued to generate) intense controversy among different interest groups, especially between the pro-life and abortion protagonists. In fact, the House of Representatives was particularly polarized along this curious line, prompting even some Democrats - as many as 23 - to vote against the bill on the floor of the House that day.
The masterstroke that gave the Democrats the upper-hand and saved Obama from political somersault and disgrace came on Friday, March 19, 2010, when the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) analysts revealed that the Healthcare Bill would cost $940bn but rein in the US deficit by $140bn in the first 10 years and another whopping $1,000bn in the next. This announcement drove the nail into the coffin of the Republicans, who had fuelled the misconception that the United States lacked the capacity to afford a healthcare reform.
In truth, the bill, which was assented to by the President last Monday, in a colourful ceremony, would make healthcare available to millions of Americans (over 32 million) who have lived in the past 40 years awaiting this relief. It will also give the Democrats - smarting from the loss of Massachusetts to the Republicans - some fillip to worm themselves back to the hearts of the voters who felt before now that the Democrats were taking too much unnecessary risk gambling with the healthcare bill, especially now that mid-term elections into Congress are seven months away.
It will also boost the rating (which has fallen below the 50 per cent mark in recent times) of President Obama whose administration has been facing hard times with Americans who see him as not doing much to deliver on his election campaign promises.
The position of the Republicans is premised on two planks: Replace massive tax hikes and promote medicare cuts and mandates.
Interestingly, no matter the opposition to the bill, it will benefit almost every American. Those opposed to the bill only tried to capitalize on the difficult times the United States is passing through to create disaffection against the democrats as a way of discrediting them before the voters. But, in my estimation, the whole hullabaloo has only profited the Democrats who waited at the right time to strike. And they did it so decisively on that Sunday.
The main point I want to emphasize in this article is the maturity and patriotism exhibited by the United States' lawmakers and the active involvement of the masses in the raging debate. Apart from allowing each member the leverage and liberty to air his views, the American system created congenial atmosphere for inter-party fixes to occur, thereby eliminating undue rancour and haughtiness. Even in victory each party still reasserts its pride for having fought and won or lost gallantly.
The central focus of the months of intense rancour was the welfare of Americans - no more, no less - even though each party approached this patriotic vision the way it deemed appropriate. This was demonstrated generously on the floor of the House that eventful Sunday as the losers and winners carried themselves with decorum knowing full well that they are in the House to make laws for the general well-being of Americans.
There were many things that intrigued me that Sunday. The first was the huge personal sacrifices the members of the House made by abandoning their Sunday rest to legislate on a law they saw as significant to the future of America. What this means is that the members had to take the bull by the horns to move America forward. Second, I was pleased with the mature way members conducted themselves even when the situation heated up to a point of uncontrollability. But each member -irrespective of party affiliation, subjected himself to the authority of the sit-in-Speaker, as the Substantive Speaker, Nancy Pelosi, decided to stand down to allow for non-partisan, fair session.
The third thing worth mentioning was the transparent manner the whole exercise was conducted. They used the electronic voting system, which allowed for just 15 minutes for voting. In each of the three voting sessions no member was left out, as each voted within the time allowed. The fourth thing that aroused my consciousness was the alertness of the members: none blinked throughout the time the session lasted despite the fact that the voting dragged into the early hours of Monday morning. Fifth was the mastery of legislative politics demonstrated by the Republicans!
After the first voting ended in favour of the Democrats, who needed just 216 votes to pass the bill, the Republicans attempted killing the bill by pushing for voting on recommitting the bill to the Committee on Healthcare. What this means is that if the plan had sailed through, it would have marked the death of the bill. But the Democrats outsmarted the Republicans by winning more votes than they did in the first voting. Even the third round of voting to pass the bill drew bigger votes in favour of the bill.
The Republicans are not done yet, as they still threaten fire and brimstone and trying as hard as they could to create disenchantment by the large American population against the bill. They have even threatened to repeal the bill if they succeeded in securing the majority in the national legislature in the forthcoming congress elections. They are basking in the euphoria of their victory in Massachusetts' Senate seat in February this year. Massachusetts was originally a Democratic stronghold. For this reason, they are absurdly hopeful that the congress elections coming up will spring the control of the legislature back to them. But in my own estimation, this optimism is weird – knowing the psyche of the American voters. It is possible that whatever opposition against the bill now may not be sustained, as other contemporary issues will likely overtake it very soon.
For whatever their reason, I wonder why the Republicans are so bitter about the bill even to the point of threatening to repeal it, in case they regain control of the legislature? In the American traditional style I had expected them to pipe low and concede defeat in sportsmanlike manner. Nevertheless, they are entitled to their own opinion and they are carrying on with all the relish they can muster, which is the beauty of their democracy.
Curiously, nobody in the opposition has been muzzled or harassed or intimidated. If it were in Nigeria, I am sure some persons must have been threatened one way or another.
It is remarkable to point out here that money did not play any role in getting the bill passed. This is a lesson for our people. Using money to railroad the legislature to pass bills is an ill-wind that does nobody any good. Look at what happened during the botched tenure extension project of former President Olusegun Obasanjo. Billions of naira of taxpayers' money was wasted on one's morbid desire to succeed self in office. I am sure, if it were in Nigeria, the healthcare bill would still have been in its second reading if not already quarantined to the dustbin of history.
My intention here is not to take our legislators to task. The message I want to promote here is the need for our people to sit up and do what is right for the benefit of Nigerians. A situation where a political party carries itself as if it is the owner of Nigeria is an insult on the sensibility of all of us. The Democrats are in power in the United States but that does not make the Republicans not to contribute robustly to debates in Capitol Hill. In Nigeria, the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) feels its own agenda must be promoted in the legislature. They hardly condone opposing views. Again, the opposition in the United States is alive and active. And this serves as checks and balances on the executive.
President Obama demonstrated rare leadership quality by cancelling his scheduled foreign trips to sit back and campaign for the passage of the bill. He toured 12 states selling his message to the people about the need to pass the Healthcare bill into law. Before he embarked on the tour of key states with his message on Healthcare, he had tried out, though unsuccessfully, a reconciliation strategy. The die-hard stance of the Republicans prompted him to move to the streets to try to convince the American people, which eventually worked. His message achieved the desired result with what had happened.
The lesson here is that the opinion of the people counts, as the major driver of any democratic system. Despotism and authoritarianism have no place in America's political system. And this is responsible for the giant stride it has made in global politics.
What can be said about the awareness the bill created and the active participation of the people? This made the outcome wholesomely acceptable to both the Republicans and the Democrats, in spite of the persistent opposition against it.
It has to be observed though that the benefits of the Healthcare Bill may not come immediately. It will take up to four years for Americans to begin to witness its visible impact. But in the interim, the sharp practices of the insurance companies that had been the major beneficiaries of the non-passage of the bill in the past will be curtailed. In fact, they mounted severe opposition to the bill in addition to the opposition by pro-life promoters. Again, mothers will be greatly relieved as their children's insurance cover will run until they clock 26 years of age.
Latest report has it that the bill will still revert to the House of Representatives after the Senate has concluded work on it. This is fall-out of the continued plot by the Republicans to kill the bill. Whatever happens, it is expected that the bill will receive the nod of the House, so long as the Democrats hold a convincing majority.
Let me ask: Can't Nigeria design a similar bill to take care of millions of indigent Nigerians who cannot afford healthcare? The National Health Insurance Scheme, I am sure, was designed to achieve exactly that purpose. But why has it failed abysmally to accomplish this task? I am pained that millions of our people, especially mothers and infants, die annually due to lack of proper healthcare. There is no doubt that there are some Nigerians who may not be able to afford even a packet of aspirin let alone pay for a surgery. Healthcare delivery in Nigeria has become so expensive that only the rich can pay for it. Even at that, the quality of healthcare in our country is so poor that many, who can pay for it, seek medical treatment abroad.
It has been globally acknowledged that Nigerian doctors are among the best in the world. Why then have we not been able to harness their potentialities for the common good instead of allowing them to migrate abroad in search of greener pasture? There are many Nigerians making waves in diverse fields abroad; yet back home there is a dearth of manpower, especially in the health sector.
I do not find it amusing that work on the constitution review begun several years ago is yet to be concluded. It took the U.S. legislators less than one year to conclude work on the healthcare reform bill. They attained the goal of quick passage of the bill because they were committed and focused. The Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) was forced by prevailing circumstances to announce two time-tables for the 2010 elections because the National Assembly was not ready with the reviewed constitution. As they foot-drag on the bill, I urge them to bear in mind the huge responsibility the nation has placed on them. They should divest clannish, parochial and other primordial sentiments and pass the amendments, so that we can have credible elections next year. The survival of our democracy is undoubtedly hinged on constitution amendment, although I have argued in the past that the problem of Nigeria's democracy does not lie in the constitution, but in the indiscretion of the political class.
Let me, nonetheless, commend the Senate for the prompt passage of the constitution amendment bill and advise the House of Representatives to toe the same path.
I learned that the governors have assured of their commitment to mobilize their state Houses of Assembly to play their own part promptly. The Nigerian masses, I am convinced, are also anxious to see a new constitution emerge. We cannot afford any election next year that will undermine the collective will of the people. Anybody who tries to subvert the wishes of the people will be questioning the unity of this great nation.
Agreed, we made mistakes in the past. But it will be suicidal to allow such mistakes to recur when other nations have taken steps to consolidate their democracies.
At 50, Nigeria should be in the vanguard of the defence of democracy and good governance instead of the present ignoble things that happen that impugn our integrity and honour as a nation. There is no other way to rewrite the chequered history of Nigeria than ensuring that the 2010 elections produce the right calibre of leaders that will take our nation to the next level of development.
As we work to achieve this noble cause, I wish to use this forum again to congratulate President Obama, the US legislature, the people of America and other interest groups (including those in opposition) that were a part of the history made in America two weeks ago.