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Marci A. Hamilton

The Health Care Bill: Opposition May Be Rude, But It Is Hardly "Un-American"


Thursday, August 20, 2009

There can be little question that virtually no one has read -- let alone digested -- every line of the 1000+-page House health care reform bill. As I discussed in my last column, those working to create a favorable climate for faith-healing parents to avoid treating their ill children succeeded in obtaining an exemption in the bill for such parents -- which ensures that they will not be required to pay the taxes otherwise imposed on those without health insurance and, therefore, will have additional incentive to avoid taking their ill children for medical care. And that is the least of the problems with the bill.

The country is still operating at the level of generalities and sound bites, but as citizens start to divine some of the bill's details, they are beginning to comprehend just how ambitious the House plan is. And recent polls indicate that many are fearful of the prospect of more government spending and a larger deficit. For the many Americans who now receive solid – and often excellent -- health care, there is also the fear of a decline in the quality and availability of care, as evidenced by the discussion and debate over decisions regarding the elderly.

President Obama, like any successful presidential candidate, ran on promises without details, but now that citizens are being educated about what "universal health care" entails and what a "public option" really is, promises have morphed into threats. So it should come as no surprise that a number of citizens are unhappy and vocal in their meetings with members of Congress. While the media have sensationalized such meetings by putting sights like citizens yelling at Sen. Arlen Specter on a perpetual loop, there is no question that many similar incidents have occurred and that those objecting were sincere in their complaints and questions.

It is noteworthy that these emotion-laden meetings have gotten under the skin of the House Democrats, with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Democratic Majority House Leader Steny Hoyer even recently declaring in USA Today that "Drowning out opposing views is simply un-American."

Hmmm. It may be rude, but that does not make it un-American.

Opposition Is Hardly Un-American, and Congresspersons Must Be Accountable

Indeed, for members of Congress to say that drowning out discourse over legislation is "un-American" is actually funny. Isn't that what successful interest groups do all the time? Like the Catholic Conference in New York State, which has been drowning out the voices of sex abuse victims with lies and more lies, as I discussed in a previous column.

The real problem for America is not that citizens are "drowning out" anyone – we all know that everyday Americans have no chance of speaking louder or more authoritatively than, say, the insurance industry – but rather that members are so uncomfortable being called to account in public. It is as though these vocal voters have violated a deep-seated taboo by embarrassing their elected representatives.

Members of Congress Ought to Welcome, Not Stifle, Debate

Instead, members of Congress posture as though they are royalty suffering an affront from the peasants. That is the un-American moment!

The richest irony, though, is that Pelosi and Hoyer would be bent out of shape by some disgruntled citizens getting cranky with their elected representatives -- when it is Pelosi and Hoyer themselves who are the primary agents of "drowning out" significant discourse about health care. The introduction of a 1000+-page health care "plan"(as opposed to offering meaningful, but modest incremental change) is pure hubris, combined with arrogance, and then mixed with contempt for the people. The greatest barrier to well-informed discourse and to the public's gaining an accurate understanding of the state of health care in the United States is the impenetrable bill itself. You can't help but be drowned in its depths.

What is needed is a means of making the bill more understandable. Thus, I have a modest proposal for the Democrats who are intent on health care reform, but stymied by citizen complaints that they claim are either trumped up or based on ignorance. How about educating the people through the most straightforward means possible? Here is how, and the method is very simple: Re-publish the entire bill and for every section, indicate what interest group(s) demanded it and/or drafted it. That information would surely be an eye-opener for the people who are trying to figure out how the bill affects them individually, and who are not aware that they are, in fact, secondary players in this huge financial chess game.

That's right – I am suggesting that Pelosi and Hoyer let the people themselves follow the money trail that is embedded in this bill. Once the people can figure out how the money is being diverted away from the status quo in the bill, and once they are cognizant of who stands to benefit the most from the bill's rearrangement of the system, they can make truly informed judgments regarding whether this bill is a foot in the door of socialism, the end of true competition, or, conversely, the start of real competition. They can start calculating cost-benefit ratios on the basis of the motivation behind particular provisions, rather than being forced by the bill's opacity and breadth to yell at their members out of a frustration that is born of ignorance and fear.

Marci Hamilton, a FindLaw columnist, is the Paul R. Verkuil Chair in Public Law at Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law and author of Justice Denied: What America Must Do to Protect Its Children (Cambridge 2008). A review of Justice Denied appeared on this site on June 25, 2008. Her previous book is God vs. the Gavel: Religion and the Rule of Law (Cambridge University Press 2005), now available in paperback.

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