Can't live with 'em. Can't live without 'em.
That's the thicket in which leaders of the Oklahoma Legislature's Republican majority find themselves with only 10 weeks left in the session.
The tension between conservatives and uber-conservatives -- aka social conservatives, Tea Partiers, Birthers, Birchers, Tenth Amendment types, Christian Dominionists, xenophobes and assorted other wingnuts -- is palpable.
In the House, especially, few measures slip quietly and quickly through the procedural maze these days. What in the past might have taken five minutes -- tops -- now routinely takes half an hour or 45 minutes, if not longer.
All to make this point: The ultra-right may not have enough members to dictate the agenda, but it's plenty big enough to gum up the Capitol machinery and wheedle concessions out of the Powers-That-Be.
No one can say with certainty how many uber-conservatives -- some call them Theo-Cons (theological conservatives) -- lurk in the House and Senate chambers. The number is ever evolving, depending on the issue.
But this much is certain: While they number less than one-third in each house, they wield outsize influence in the Republican caucus.
Why? Because they are not alone. These lawmakers are reflective of a small, but intensely engaged (in the political process) group of Oklahomans living in an alternate reality. And they vote -- scaring the bejesus out of elected officials that live in fear of the next election.
While others are obsessing with American Idol or March Madness, Theo-cons are obsessing about re-making Oklahoma in their divine imaginations: Religion always trumps science. Educated people are snobs. And America was founded as a Christian Nation, by gawd.
Thomas Jefferson must be spinning ...
I've written about this rabid bunch before -- and will again -- because they are so potent a force that they can stampede normally rational Republicans into embracing the most irrational public policy choices (think Personhood).
If the real silent majority would shed its narcissism only briefly, and demand sanity and common sense from its Legislature and statewide officeholders, we could put an end to the legislating-by-crackpot.
The latest example of such foolhardiness is the decision by state lawmakers to punt on the creation of a state health insurance exchange.
You'll recall that not long after being sworn into office last year, Gov. Mary Fallin announced the state would accept a $54 million federal grant to set up a health insurance exchange -- a mandate of the dreaded (in Theo-con circles) ObamaCare.
House Speaker Kris Steele, R-Shawnee, and Senate President Pro Tem Brian Bingman, R-Sapulpa, were in accord... until Bingman suddenly yanked the rug from under Fallin and Steele.
Why not let a federal grant pay for the exchange? After all, it was tax dollars already sent by Oklahomans to Washington.
Bingman discovered too many senators were paralyzed at the thought uber-conservatives would bludgeon them in future GOP primaries if they were seen as accepting a handout from Uncle Sugar.
So Fallin and Co. performed a political about-face with a precision that would have impressed Texas A&M's military marching band.
Ignoring the fact they were effectively cutting off their noses (or at least the Oklahoma taxpayers') to spite their faces, the governor, speaker and Senate poo-bah bravely harrumphed that our fair state would rather set up the exchange and pay for it ourselves.
That'll teach damned fed'ral gummint!
But of course, when it came crunch time this session, our brave leaders misplaced their cajones'. Faced with the politically unappetizing prospect of diverting millions of tax dollars from vital state services to pay for a health insurance exchange they could have had at no cost to the state budget, they simply threw in the towel.
Their new strategy: wait until the U.S. Supreme Court rules (likely later this year) on the constitutionality of the federal health care mandate.
Game, set, match: uber-conservatives?
"We were told time and again by these legislators that there was no option other than to implement health exchanges here in Oklahoma," David Tackett, executive director of Oklahomans for Liberty, said in a written statement. "In fact, Rep. (Glen) Mulready (R-Tulsa) had even said he was going to do what he thought was best for the people, despite their wishes to the contrary.
"These legislators are beholden to the people who they are sworn to represent, not the lobbyists hired by Blue Cross Blue Shield and the State Chamber. So that's why we went to the people to help us convince the other legislators to oppose any implementation of ObamaCare here in Oklahoma."
On the surface, it's a huge gamble for the state's political leaders: If the high court tosses ObamaCare, it's outright victory -- no exchange, no problem.
But if the federal mandate is upheld (and lots of legal experts think it will be), Oklahoma would be at the mercy of federal dictates.
Why? The Affordable Care Act requires each state have in place by year's end a health insurance exchange that complies with federal regulations. Further, each state must begin enrolling people by Oct. 1, 2013 and their health insurance exchanges must be fully operational by Jan. 1, 2014.
(Fourteen other states, incidentally, also are waiting until after the Supreme Court rules to take action. Eleven states already have created their exchanges.)
Of course, it's entirely possible Steele, Bingman and Fallin concluded that by waiting, they can't lose politically -- no matter how the Supreme Court rules.
Here's why: If the court overturns ObamaCare, state leaders can crow they helped beat back the president's attempt at socialized medicine.
And if the court upholds the Affordable Care Act, state leaders can feign outrage, shed crocodile tears, stomp their feet and blame it all on activist federal judges (notwithstanding the fact this is the most conservative Supreme Court in generations).
The sad part is, amid all the political calculus, the most important elements are forgotten: what's best for a million-plus Oklahomans -- including 600,000 children -- without health insurance. And what's best for the taxpayers and the insured forced to pick up the tab for unreimbursed care.
Doesn't Oklahoma deserve better leadership? What strange birds.
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