When standing on principle means defending the status quo

I was talking to a politically active friend about a month ago, as the Senate was about to pass their version of health care reform legislation, and I told him I was nervous that the Democrats in Congress, being Democrats in Congress, would find some way to fumble the ball one yard from the end zone. My friend tried to reassure me that the hard part was over, and now it was just a matter of hammering out some compromise between the Senate and House versions of the bill, and finalizing passage of the negotiated bill for President Obama to sign.

Of course I had no inkling at the time about the cruel twist of fate that would cause such a fumble—the fact that it is Ted Kennedy’s Senate seat which is endangering the passage of any kind of health care reform is horrifying, given that the expansion of health care to the poor and uninsured was Kennedy’s life’s work. So what should be done now that the possibility of getting any compromise bill past another Republican filibuster attempt in the Senate is gone? I’m no expert in health care legislation, and I won’t pretend to understand the details of the legislation the Senate passed, but I trust people who do understand the details, like Jonathan Cohn of the New Republic, or Paul Krugman of the New York Times, or Dean Baker and Jacob Hacker and others who are urging Democrats in the House of Representatives to pass the Senate Bill as it is, so that it could go straight to President Obama for his signature without having to pass through the Senate gauntlet again.

In an ideal world, I would personally favor a much more socialized health care system, but we don’t live in an ideal world, or an ideal country—we live in a country where Scott Brown can be elected to the Senate in Massachusetts, and Sarah Palin can be the Vice Presidential candidate of one of the two major parties. If there is any time to set idealism aside and take an incremental step in the right direction, then this seems like it—tens of millions of Americans lack health insurance, resulting in untreated preventable illnesses, medical bankruptcies, and tens of thousands of preventable deaths every year. (If terrorism resulted in the deaths of tens of thousands of Americans every year, both parties in Congress would be falling over each other in their rush to do something about it; when our inadequate health care system results in the deaths of tens of thousands of Americans every year, one party dithers and squabbles, while the other party just obstructs every effort at reform.)

I wrote to Congresswoman Barbara Lee via her house.gov web page today (letter reprinted below), and called her office as well. The aide I spoke to on the phone told me that Lee had not made a decision on whether she would be willing to support the flawed Senate bill, but said that they were getting a lot of feedback from constituents. I told him that this seemed likely to be the only real opportunity to pass any kind of significant health care reform for the foreseeable future, and that I urge Lee to help make sure that Democrats in the House of Representatives do not miss this chance. I encourage other people to contact Congresswoman Lee (or whoever your representative is) and tell her staff that this is not the time to hold out for a better bill, or to shelve health care reform until some other year—if it was this difficult to get inadequate legislation through the Senate with a filibuster-proof supermajority, then “progressive” Democrats are crazy if they think that they will be able to get something better passed in the near future. Barbara Lee may not have to worry about her own re-election, but opposing the Senate bill because it is inadequate is not standing on principle—it is supporting the status quo.

The phone number of Lee’s Washington office is (202) 225-2661, and her staff eagerly await your calls.

Here is a copy of the email I sent through Lee’s website, typos and all. I should have crafted it offline instead of trying to compose it on the fly inside the form on her website, but I pretty much managed to say what I wanted to say:

Dear Congresswoman Lee,

I am concerned that if Congress does not enact the health care reforms currently on the table, then significant health care legislation with not be passed for years and probably decades. I know that the Senate bill is very imperfect, but the status quo is simply unacceptable: tens of millions of Americans have no insurance, resulting in unnecessary deaths, expensive emergency-room visits, and medical-related bankruptcies. This is a disaster! I am appalled that Democratic members of congress are on the verge of letting this unique opportunity to enact real reform pass by.

Democratic majorities in the Senate and the House are unlikely to be this large in coming years, so the notion that it is better to wait and try to pass better legislation in coming months or years strikes me as wishful thinking. This may be the only chance to take a significant step in the right direction on health care reform, and if this opportunity passes, then Democrats in Congress will share responsibility for all the unnecessary deaths and bankruptcies that we see in the future.

Please do not let the perfect be the enemy of the good. I urge you to do everything in your power to pass the Senate health care reform bill and get it on President Obama’s desk. Please let me know where you stand on this once-in-a-generation chance to finally do something about our awful current health care system.


16 Responses to “When standing on principle means defending the status quo”

  1. Janet says:

    Over the past 3 days I have called Barbara Lee’s Washington office twice and emailed also. As you point out, there are no longer any alternatives – either you are for health care reform, and vote “yes”, or you are against it and vote “no”. There’s no “better bill” over the horizon anyplace.

    I have also emailed Nancy Pelosi, in her capacity as Speaker of the House, and asked her to bring the bill to a vote. I said that even if she does not have the votes to pass it, I want to see who actually votes “no”. If it is my representative – or someone who might someday run for a CA Senate seat, or even for President, I want to know where they stood at this time.

    In my second conversation with Ms. Lee’s staffer today I expressed my very real anger at this situation, and said that I had been a Democrat all my life (being now 53) and was now wondering why.

    I mean really – if they can’t band together as a party and pass what is supposed to be their “signature” issue, which we have been struggling for since Truman’s days – what is the purpose of their going to Washington at all? Just to get a steady paycheck? – oh and health benefits and a pension…

  2. ruth gutmann says:

    I just wrote you a letter, commending what you wrote to your congresswoman, and agreeing with Janet’s comments. I was unable to send the letter though because of some malfunction in the system (“Can’t find server”) I’ll try again.

    I have the feeling we here are not the only ones dumbstruck by what has happened in the last few days. That says nothing yet about yesterday’s outrageous Supreme Court ruling about the use of campaign funds by corporations.

    I think I am going to write a letter to Pres. Obama tomorrow, perhaps via the White House Website, or some other way. They must pass this bill and not listen to those who like David Brooks who say that would be a criminal folly — or something to that effect.

  3. wordnerd says:

    YES! THe House passes the Senate Bill, Obama signs it, and then let the senate republicans filibuster attempts to improve it–if they dare.

  4. ng says:

    Hear! Hear! I’ve written Barney Frank, who changed his mind quickly, and his constituents are thankful. Now I’m going to try to write some others.

  5. unique distance from isolation says:

    I wrote my Congressman on Friday. Maybe I’ll call him tomorrow.

  6. Carol says:

    My Congressperson is Nancy Pelosi. I wriite her about once a week. Usually, I say “Go, Nancy, go”! I say the same to Barbara Boxer, about once a month. She is dissed for not having any big pieces of legislation with her name on them, but she has sponsored to success many small, incremental bills that help veterans, the environment, and children. Even when you have the best representation has to offer these days, you need to let them know you’re watching.

    The other thing to watch coming up is the Senate’s response to the 5-4 free corporate speech decision by SCOTUS. Senators don’t like to be told to stuff it, especially by folks who beat them out for Law Review.

  7. Carol says:

    If you’d only rented that apartment from me, Dave, Nancy could be your Congressperson, too. And there’s a bike lane right beside my house down to City Hall.

  8. unique distance from isolation says:

    I can’t believe it actually happened! Probably the best congressional moment of my lifetime. Yesterday I wrote my congressman (who had wavered but finally voted YES) to thank him. As Carol pointed out, it’s good to cheer them on when they do the right thing.

  9. dc says:

    “Probably the best congressional moment of my lifetime.”

    Better even than the impeachment of President Clinton? That’s hard to believe!

    When it came down to it, I don’t think Barbara Lee’s vote was ever in serious doubt, even though she’d obviously prefer less half-assed reform. Obama’s passivity on this issue for much of the last year was really disappointing, but I’m glad that when push finally came to shove, he listened to Pelosi and fought hard for this victory, instead of listening to people like Rahm Emanuel who was (if news accounts are accurate) urging a switch to a piecemeal, even more incrementalist approach. It’s hard to see how any further delay or change in strategy would have ended in anything except failure.

  10. wordnerd says:

    Victory (partial only of course) from the jaws of defeat! Now on to a little regulation of Wall Street!

  11. ng says:

    I too felt really good about the government, probably for the first time since the 2008 election, and let the Democrats know.

  12. eric says:

    “Now on to a little regulation of Wall Street!”

    Is there some way we can pique Nancy Pelosi’s interest in this issue?

    I think HCR will help the democrats in the next elections, but if they’re going to let unemployment stay at 10%, they’d better at least get some heads rolling…

  13. dc says:

    Don’t some of you have Barney Frank’s ear? Financial reform is his bailiwick, so he’s the logical place to start if you want Pelosi and co. to get more serious about Wall Street reform. (Meanwhile Carol can keep encouraging Pelosi from this end of the country.)

    Speaking of Wall Street, I noticed that the Republicans had no comment about the fact that the stock markets continued rising in the first two days after the HCR bill passed in the House. If the stock market had fallen instead, you can be sure that the GOP would have cited it as proof that HCR is the death of the dynamism of the American economy etc. etc. etc.

  14. ruth gutmann says:

    I recommend David Leonhardt’s “Heading off the Next Financial Crisis”; I usually read him on Wednesdays, but found this much longer piece on the NYT website today (3/26). He understands the intricacies of his subjects — he was equally good during the run up on health care reform — and makes clear just how complicated Wall Street regulation is and why. I greatly prefer him to the ubiquitous Simon Johnson of MIT, or, for that matter, to Gretchen Morgenson. He is not an advocate for any particular aspect of what can be done and the usefulness of it, and that inspires trust in his explanations. (This evening, Gretchen was jammering as if were all a done deal on Bill Moyers’ program, who was jammering about government not being allowed to pay for abortions).

    We had quite a laugh this evening when David Brooks attributed Nancy Pelosi’s strength and smarts — praised by Mark Shields — to her learning from her father and brother.

  15. wordnerd says:

    Barney is asking for money–more signs of nervousness from the Mass. Democrats. But surely he’s not nervous about reining in Wall Street? I’ll write him.

  16. eric says:

    Ruth: Without the incessant advocacy of people like Simon Johnson, it’s unlikely the Leonhardt piece would have been as good. Leonhardt is a smart guy and a very clear writer, but he is essentially a reporter, not an analyst, so his weakness is that he is only as good as the conventional thinking or the public debate allows. Because the conventional wisdom completely failed both to notice the housing bubble and to foresee the Great Recession, Leonhardt’s pre-crash pieces were pretty weak. He has gotten better since the crash mainly because the crash broke the complacency of the debate and allowed a wider variety of opinion to be heard. He’s still too nice to Geithner et al.

    Re Barney Frank: he has already passed a bill; what’s needed now is a push from higher up.

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