The Star-Ledger

A Small Business State Of The Union

The Star-Ledger — Friday, February 5, 2010

By J. Kelly Conklin / Guest Blogger
NJ Voices, Star-Ledger’s Opinion Web Site

Last week, I received a once in a lifetime invitation. My congressman, Bill Pascrell, invited me to attend the State of the Union address. After picking myself up off the floor, I bought a train ticket, dusted off my Sunday best, and got ready for my own version of "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington."

In the House Chamber gallery, I sat next to a Lieutenant Colonel in the Marine Reserve, about ten rows away from the First Lady. It was a night to remember . . . and not just because of the aerobic 300 back-to-back standing ovations workout. For me, a cabinet maker from Bloomfield, it was an opportunity to attend a historic event.

As a small business owner, I wanted to hear what President Obama would say about health care. He said what I thought needed to be said: that this is no time to walk away from health care reform when inaction will mean costs continue to skyrocket and more small businesses will be forced to drop coverage, lay off employees or close up for good.

The speech was inspiring, but the most sensible talk I heard in my whirlwind tour of DC came from a different quarter: the three talkative cab drivers who shuttled me across the city.

All three cabbies listened to the speech. We all agreed — a cabinet maker from New Jersey and a trio of Washington cabbies, all three immigrants, now naturalized citizens — that we're in this together as Americans. What we couldn't understand was why this is so hard for some in Congress to embrace.

Outside the distortion of "beltway" politics, real people see a clear path: Pass health care reform, then move on to jobs and finance (especially mortgage reform) to help people regain their sense of security. We joked that if we were running things, these problems would be behind us.

Some will think it politically naive, that outsiders don't understand the realities of the U.S. Senate — that they're held hostage by the filibuster threat. There's just one problem with that analysis: It's not true.

As a cabinetmaker, I use a wide range of tools. Want to cut lumber straight and square? For that, use a table saw. Need to cut a groove? For that, a router would be the right choice. Different situations call for different tools.

Similarly, the changed political landscape in Washington after Massachusetts (where they already have near universal health care, by the way) means the right tool two weeks ago may no longer get the job done. But that doesn't mean you walk away. You get hold of the appropriate tool and go back to work. In this case that tool is reconciliation.

The reconciliation process has been used repeatedly over the years, to pass things like tax cuts and welfare reform and the ever popular Children's Health Insurance Program. It's a tool that allows the simple will of the majority to prevail in the U.S. Senate once in a while, sort of like the will of the majority prevails in almost every voting body in the land from your local school board all the way up to the Supreme Court.

We cannot allow the well being of millions of Americans to be held hostage by a hostile ideological minority. If the majority of Senators cave in to this hostile bloc on health care, how will any other issue — jobs, Wall Street reform, mortgage relief or the deficit — even see the light of day? There is too much at stake here. Somehow the political tables have to be turned.

Using reconciliation to pass a real health care bill is the place to start. Passing a reconciliation package with critical improvements to the Senate bill will achieve many of the important goals of comprehensive health reform and send a clear message that leadership is about more than obstruction, it's about getting the job done for the American people.

Reconciliation is the right tool. All Congress needs to do is pick it up and get to work.

J. Kelly Conklin is president of Foley-Waite Associates in Bloomfield.

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