Health Care: Monday Morning Quarterbacking

I.
American Papist has a good reaction to yesterday’s news that the healthcare bill passed. The bill passed 219-212, which was intentional: the Democrats wanted to make sure that every Democrat could claim that their vote wasn’t the one responsible for this albatross. The fact that they were able to engineer the precise vote like that suggests that they had a bit of wiggle-room: that other Democrats who were nays would have been ayes if (a) the leadership really needed it, and (b) the price were right. So even a number of the no votes on the Democratic side were simply given the ability to vote against as a luxury once 219 Democrats had fallen on their swords — if you watch the voting live, you can get a sense of who the backup vote are by seeing which people vote no only after the bill is passed or so obviously near passing that there’s no suspense.

The biggest news of the day, of course, was that Stupak and a few of his band of pro-life Democrats were willing to vote yes in exchange for an Executive Order from Obama on the issue. The USSCB had already considered, and rejected, the idea of an Executive Order for pretty simple legal reasons: an Executive Order can’t contradict the bill, so it’s vulnerable to court challenge; it’s only as good as the president’s willingness to enforce it (and we’ve got the most pro-abortion president in history in charge of this EO); it can be rescinded with a stroke of the president’s pen; and it’s not binding on the next president. In other words, it’s a very weak protection. That said, some EO’s have been extremely effective in the past, for better or for worse: Japanese internment was done via Executive Order 9066, for example.

The Executive Order itself isn’t great, but it’s better than what I’d expected in one regard. It prevents federal funds from paying for abortions except in cases of rape, incest, and life of the mother. While I’m obviously not a fan of the exceptions, they’re the same exceptions which the Hyde Amendment currently has, so we’re already paying for those abortions (In fairness to Hyde, the exceptions weren’t originally in there, but in 1977, they were added, which prevented the Hyde Amendment from being repealed entirely). So that section covers exactly what I’d imagined it would. What I was pleased with is the conscience protection which it also contains: “Under the Act, longstanding Federal laws to protect conscience (such as the Church Amendment, 42 U.S.C. §300a-7, and the Weldon Amendment, Pub. L. No. 111-8, §508(d)(1) (2009)) remain intact and new protections prohibit discrimination against health care facilities and health care providers because of an unwillingness to provide, pay for, provide coverage of, or refer for abortions.”

The major problem with all of this, as alluded to above, is that it’s a giant “Trust Me” from the president. Just as the House is trusting that the Senate will pass the reconciliation, Stupak decided to cast his lot with the president to provide for the Hyde Amendment protections. This same president, it should be noted, is against the Hyde Amendment, if his staffers can be trusted. So the fox is sort of in charge of protecting the hen house here.

II.
Yesterday, I got a chance to talk to Parker Griffith, the Democrat-turned-Republican from Alabama. I went to 11:30 Mass, and went out to a champagne brunch with some friends afterwards. The group was saturated with Southerners: two people from Texas, three from South Carolina, one from Louisiana. Being from Missouri, I was as north as it got. As a group, they’re full of Southern charm and hospitality (this will be important later). After brunch, we began to part ways, when Kelle, a perky Louisianan, asked if we wanted to do a rosary for the healthcare bill. We all agreed, and began walking towards St. Mary’s, when she then asks, “Why are we not at the Capitol?” Kevin and Stephanie, the Texans, offered to drive, and just like that, we found ourselves praying rosaries on our way to the Capitol.

Once there, it was a total fiasco. The first group on the way in to the Capitol grounds was for the bill, but as we approached the Capitol building, it switched to a large Tea Party demonstration. The differences between the groups were striking. Almost all of the pro-bill forces had professionally made signs which read “Catholics for healthcare reform” or “People of faith for healthcare reform.” None of the signs had anything of substance, just (a) I’m for this bill, and (b) I’m holding a sign which says I’m religious. Every sign was like that, with few exceptions. The anti-bill forces had no professionally made signs (at least that I saw), and as a result, were more colorful: a guy wearing boxers over his shorts, with a fake tail in the back, was carrying a sign which said, “Three Stooges,” with pictures of Pelosi, Reid, and Obama. Nearly all the signs were handwritten (some on the backs of unrelated signs, which was strange), and they were all unique. Only one anti-bill sign that I saw made a religious reference: “Under God, not Government.” I was immediately struck by the hypocricy: the pro-life forces are being accused of “pushing their religion” by refusing to pay for other people’s abortions, but the groups trying to force us to pay for other people’s abortions are using their religion as the only argument (at least in terms of signage). So it’s okay to say, “I’m Catholic, and therefore demand healthcare reform…” but not “… unless it results in murdering babies.” That last part is suddenly the inappropriate meddling of religion.

As we were leaving, Ryan (out of charity, not spite) held up his rosary and told some of the “Catholic” pro-bill supporters to read the bill and go to confession. While Ryan and one of the bill’s supporters finished talking, Rep. Parker Griffith came out, and gave a fascinating interview in which he demonstrated a very clear and thorough knowledge of the bill and its shortcomings, while making it clear he supports healthcare reform in principle — just not this bill, and for specific reasons he was able to give. At one point, he said, “as a doctor for forty years…” referring to his experience as an oncologist. Hearing this part, Kelly mistook him for a doctor giving testimony to Congress, and chased him down after the interview (literally running after him). We caught up with them, only to find Parker and Kelly engaged in a pretty substantive conversation (here’s where I’m convinced Southern charm played a major role, and since Parker’s got a house in New Orleans, they struck up a conversation immediately). We joined it, and even though it was clear that none of us were his constituents, Rep. Griffith talked with us at some length. At this point, Stupak had just announced his support for the bill, contingent upon the Executive Order, and was about to hold his press conference on the same, so naturally, we asked him about it. His response was, “Here’s the thing about eleventh-hour deals. If we’re negotating at the last minute, chances are whatever I’m promising you, I’m lying, and whatever you’re telling me, you’re lying.” He then gave a quick explanation why he thought that the Executive Order “wasn’t worth the paper it’s written on,” and that Stupak was smart enough to know this. Griffith’s colleagues seemed to agree, with one of them calling Stupak “Baby Killer.” I hope, for Stupak’s sake and our own, that Parker Griffith was wrong on both counts.

The conversation was generally fascinating – he talked about the Congressional Republican’s own complicity in a lot of the problems they now find themselves facing. They were for the nuclear option to get around the filibuster; now they face reconciliation (a pretty similar tactical manuever). They used deem-and-pass (the “Slaughter Solution” which the Democrats considered, before discarding in the face of a wall of public outrage), and were content to push through bills on party-line votes. In short, they used scorched-earth tactics when they had a bare majority to accomplish a short-term legislative agenda, and were surprised when they ended up the minority party with that being done to them. Hearing this from a former-Democratic, currently-Republican Congressman was heartening. My sincere hope is that when Republicans again take the majority, they govern with prudence and humility, instead of no-holds-barred aggression. Parker’s words gave me at least an ounce of hope for the future.

5 Comments

  1. Joe,

    Sad day, indeed. The weather here in DC is fitting.

    As much as many may criticize Stupak–and as much as I would like to criticize ANYONE who voted for the health care bill, my hat’s off to him. For about a year, he has faced withering criticism from every powerful constituency within the Democratic party and from the Democratic party’s leadership, but he stood his ground. Did he capitulate? Yes, he did, but only because he realized that in the next 10 or so months, the Democratic party leadership would be able to pick off members of his block one-by-one, just as they had already done. My take is that he held out for as long as he could and took the Executive Order as consolation–he realized it was the best he was going to get. My hat’s off to him because he showed courage that few of his peers were willing to show. I hope that those Republicans who criticized him in public at least have the decency to apologize in private.

  2. I’d like to second Robert’s charitable assessment of Rep. Stupak. It is dismaying to me that faithful Catholics would bash someone who did so much to leverage a minority position into positive improvements. (Does anyone REALLY believe that the Casey amendments to the Senate bill would have even been considered in that chamber but for the Stupak amendments to the House bill?) The reality of the situation was that the Democrats always had the votes to pass health reform, and is was going to happen. Stupak played a game of chicken with his leadership, and the Massachusetts vote put his position close enough in play that they had to give something. He played it as well as he could have played it, given the numbers. The Casey amendments were improvements. The Executive Order is an improvement. The Church throughout her history has negotiated concordats that fell far short of Christian ideal but avoided greater calamity. This is what happened here. Bart Stupak is already a pariah in his own caucus, and now he’s abandoned by those who profess the cause he tried to advance. Is that right? (BTW, I’m putting a marker down right here that Obama observes his deal with Stupak. Why? Because if he reneges in something this high profile, it’s political suicide – JMOO.)

  3. Rob and Michael,

    I agree with the majority of what both of you are saying. I’m nagged by a couple lingering factual questions, though:

    (1) Would the health-care bill have passed without Stupak and his group? I know you’re inclined to think that the leadership would have picked them off, one-by-one, Rob, and that may well be true. I can certainly see how Stupak, as leader of the group, was growing disheartened in the resolve of the pro-life gang.

    But it’s worth noting that had Stupak and co. stayed strong the first time around, the bill never would have left the House (of course, they trusted that the Dems would leave the pro-life language in, since how else would it pass both houses, they figured); the second time, had they stayed tough, the bill may have gone down in flames on Sunday. I can’t, in fact, figure out which Democrats would have replaced them as the swing votes. The math just wasn’t there.

    (2) Were they persuaded simply on the abortion issue? What I mean here is that if Stupak and co. realistically assessed the scene and thought, “we can either accept the Executive Order, or hold out and get nothing,” then they almost certainly made the morally prudent choice. But if they were simply giving in to the pressure – if they liked the idea of getting airports in their home districts, of getting DNC funds for re-election, of getting chairman positions, etc., more than the liked the idea of being political pariahs for their pro-life views – then they sold out.

    These are questions we may never get to the bottom of: we don’t know what went on in the secret negotiations, or in the secret parts of the hearts of pro-life Congressional Democrats. Quite frankly, it’s impossible to tell if Stupak buckled, or upheld his principles perfectly.

    As for the president upholding the EO, I don’t think it’ll be reversed, at least in this administration. On the other hand, I think even with it on the books, I’m not going to be shocked to see it not being enforced, leaving pro-lifers trying desperately to get the media to notice. That *wouldn’t* be political suicide. Just fail to enforce an EO with no written enforcement mechanism or clear guidelines, and argue that whatever is being decried isn’t “really” federal funding for abortion. That’s been the administration’s tactic for months.

  4. Joe, the “inside” stuff I’m getting (which is worth the paper it’s not printed on, i suppose) is that there were 3-4 representatives who were begging the White House to have the political cover of a “no” vote, but would have switched to “yes” if the choice was defeat of the bill. The only objective evidence of this was the electronic voting pattern, where a late bloc of Democrat “no” votes hit roughly the same time.

    In any event, my theology demands charity in the lack of contrary proof, and that’s the way I’ll view Bart Stupak.

    As for the enforcement of the EO, it’s up to all of us to keep the heat on the White House.

  5. Michael,

    I think that this (http://mirrorofjustice.blogs.com/mirrorofjustice/2010/03/two-cheers-for-bart-stupak.html) is a pretty fair assessment of my feelings on the whole Stupak thing. I can objectively say that (1) the compromise he came to will be much worse, in effect, than had he stood his ground and let the Senate bill fail; (2) that the compromise looks shaky from a legal standpoint, but is still probably better than the Senate bill with no compromise at all; and (3) that we’ll probably really never know whether Stupak & co. had the ability to kill the bill, and how pure the motivations were which lead to that decision.

    If you’re right that there were a few “pro-life symbolic political coverage” votes, the betrayal of our principles is very much on their heads, not Stupak’s. I’m inclined to suspect that this is the case. Stupak, after all, was the one brave enough to come forward and take the heat, while the others chose to remain anonymous and many of them gave wishy-washy statements about their willingness to support the bill. So given his “pro-life” colleagues, it may well be that Stupak did the principled thing here. However, not knowing what happened or why, it’s hard for me to get on either the pro- or anti- Stupak bandwagon. Certainly, in the interests of charity, I’m not ready to cast the first stone.

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