Health care reform passage marks victory over fear and falsehoods

March 23, 2010|By Thomas F. Schaller

Although I suspect President Barack Obama and congressional Democrats will receive a boost in their poll numbers for their advocacy of health care, they will probably suffer net losses this November. Call passage of health care reform a good deed soon to be punished.

The $940 billion legislation is imperfect, but it's a good start. Millions without insurance will be able to get it. So will those who might otherwise be denied or lose coverage because of pre-existing conditions. And by keeping skyrocketing premiums in check, the legislation will save the federal government money in the long run, according to the Congressional Budget Office.

Will reform solve all of America's health problems? No. We are still a very unhealthy nation that will continue to spend billions in the very late stages of life and overpay for prescription medications with artificially high prices courtesy of the self-interested, politically powerful pharmaceutical industry.

And there's one malady this reform cannot cure: The unhealthy state of our deliberative democracy. Politically, America is sick. We suffer from the political equivalent of renal failure, which occurs when the kidneys cease to filter and remove dangerous waste from the human body.

Over the past nine months, opponents of reform introduced a variety of toxins into the political system. It started last summer with sometimes ugly town hall meetings, followed by uglier Washington protests this autumn, and ended last weekend with some of the ugliest behavior imaginable.

Americans should pipe up to express their opinions, of course: Deliberation and debate are the calisthenics of democracy. But some of the "deliberation" was anything but healthy.

There was the convenient conflation of process with policy by opponents reform. Yes, deals like the so-called "Cornhusker Kickback" and " Louisiana Purchase" were unpleasant and, as it turned out, unnecessary. (As this goes to press, the Senate can opt to pass reform without either deal, if it chooses.) But opponents with short memories act as if no piece of legislation has ever passed Congress through vote-trading, which is absurdist revisionism.

Bogus scare tactics were also employed: The fate of the elderly will be decided by "death panels"! The bill will create government-run health care like the British system! The legislation will gut Medicare!

Opponents spread misinformation and expressed phony outrage over the use of legislative rules. Republicans have used the filibuster more often since they became the minority -- and used the reconciliation process more often when they still held a majority. And ask yourself this: Where were these procedural purists back in 2004, when the GOP held open for three hours a 15-minute vote in the middle of the night for the Medicare prescription drug bill that is costing the federal treasury more annually than the health care overhaul ever will?

As passage drew near, rabid tea partiers -- as ever, in numbers far smaller than the national media has portrayed -- descended upon Washington. In finest form, they cast racial epithets at civil rights icon John Lewis, and called openly gay Rep. Barney Frank a "faggot." One protester spat upon Rep. Emanuel Cleaver of Missouri.

Lest such behavior be dismissed as the byproduct of ragtag rabble-rousers, during the House debate late Sunday, Texas Republican Randy Neugebauer shouted "baby killer" at anti-abortion Democratic Bart Stupak, the congressman who almost single-handedly held up the Democratic majority for weeks in defense of his pro-life principles.

"We followed the most radical voices in the party and the movement, and they led us to abject and irreversible defeat," George W. Bush speechwriter David Frum wrote in an essay Sunday night. "There were [Republican] leaders who knew better, who would have liked to deal. But they were trapped. Conservative talkers on Fox and talk radio had whipped the Republican voting base into such a frenzy that deal-making was rendered impossible. How do you negotiate with somebody who wants to murder your grandmother?"

You don't, of course. You call them the n-word and spit on them.

Many of the effects of this landmark health care reform legislation will take a few years to be felt. But long term, Americans and the federal treasury will be healthier. One can only wish as much for the body politic.

Thomas F. Schaller teaches political science at UMBC. His column appears regularly in The Baltimore Sun. His e-mail is schaller67@gmail.com.

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