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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 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.