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Harvard scholar delivers Shoen lecture

January 25, 2010

In the past 100 years, comprehensive health care reform has been initiated by American politicians in every decade with the exception of the 1920s and the 1950s, and all have failed, according to a Harvard University scholar who holds little hope for this latest attempt in Congress.

Theda Skocpol, still reeling from the election in her home state in which Scott Brown, a Republican who opposes health care reform, won the late Ted Kennedy's U.S. Senate seat, delivered the Second Annual Edward J. Shoen Leading Scholars Lecture on Thursday, Jan. 21, at the Sandra Day O'Connor College of Law. The title of the lecture was "Obama and the struggle to transform U.S. public policy: The case of health care reform redux."

"It's an odd moment for someone to arrive from Massachusetts," Skocpol told an overflow audience in the Great Hall. "It is hard for me to smile, given where I stand."

In introducing Skocpol, the Victor S. Thomas Professor of Government and Sociology at Harvard, Dean Paul Schiff Berman of the College of Law said "her analysis of the American political system is better than just almost anybody's. She is eminently qualified to communicate on topics of U.S. public policy, generally, and how it changes or does not change through the generations and, specifically, on the topic of health care reform."

Skocpol gave a history of reform efforts, outlined the reasons for President Obama's dedication to the effort, and compared President Roosevelt's New Deal era with Obama's presidency, dubbed 14 months ago "The New New Deal" by Time magazine. Roosevelt had a blank slate for creating plans to promote economic well-being during the desperate, Great Depression, a luxury Obama, who entered office at the beginning of a recession, does not have, she said.

"We've had a half century of pervasive regulatory and fiscal interventions into society, and Democrats and Republicans alike have supported increases in tax subsidies and social spending," Skocpol said. "When a president arrives to redirect in some big way the scale and shape of these interventions, it's not starting from scratch.

"That means people who already know what they have and are worried about what they might lose are quick to mobilize and stop redistribution," she said. "That has bedeviled the Obama administration."

The mobilized parties have been very vocal, too, appearing non-stop on 24-hour news networks, another problem Roosevelt did not have, Skocpol said.

The U.S. has "the kind of (health care) system that no one would create from scratch," she said, because it gives tax subsidies to private employers for insuring their workers, transfers huge emergency room costs to employers and the public system, and has a complex maze of reimbursement procedures for physicians.

"The task looked impossible from the beginning," Skocpol said. "Nevertheless, Obama set off on this journey."

In their attempt to fix the system, Congressional Democrats faced enormous public skepticism that 46 million uninsured Americans could be insured at a cost savings. They also were up against special interests that "already think they have health insurance or have profits in the system that they want to protect."

And they were stonewalled in the Senate by obstructionist Republicans watching out for their own interests, said Skocpol, pointing out a recent headline, "Scott Brown Wins Mass. Race, Giving GOP 41-59 Majority in the Senate."

"The founders never foresaw one of the major houses of Congress would have to have a super majority to do anything at all, and I don't think they would have liked it," she said.

Skocpol also shared part of a newspaper editorial that "Washington's polarizing ways, and public anxiety about change, have again left Americans with the most expensive, least reliable health care system in the developed world."

She agreed, saying, "If the Democrats don't wake up and pass the Senate bill to the House, the only route they have right now, they will turn, I confidently predict, like their Republican counterparts over the next 10 months (until the midterm elections) to a whole series of purely symbolic gestures designed to arouse the partisanship on both sides," she said.

"And what will be lost is the sense that government can work through problems," Skocpol said. "The guilty ones are the Republicans, through pure obstruction, and the Democratic liberals who dithered over improvements (to the bill) they were never going to get."

The Shoen lecture is named in honor of Edward J. "Joe" Shoen, Chairman and CEO of AMERCO, the parent company of the U-Haul system, and a 1981 alumnus of the College of Law. The event allows the College to bring to campus some of the leading minds in the legal academy to present major new works and set those scholars in dialogue with others.

Janie Magruder,
(480) 727-9052
Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law