September 25, 2009 | Commentary on Health Care
They still don't listen.
Citizens cried out this summer for Congress to "read the bills" and understand the consequences of healthcare legislation before deciding and voting.
But senators are refusing not only to read the details, but even to put them in writing before a committee vote. Leaders in Congress are trying to fast-track healthcare "reform" while slow-tracking the details. And the Obama administration is trying to silence those who dare to criticize and oppose its plans.
It's part of an unhealthy pattern of stealth tactics, made worse by the push to rush things faster than public awareness can catch up.
Those pushing must have seen the recent Washington Post poll showing 54 percent of Americans agree that, "The more I hear about the healthcare plan, the less I like it." The obvious conclusion is that backers fear an informed public, lest support will sink faster and farther.
Given the opportunity to inform the public about the fine print of Finance Committee deliberations, senators voted no. The committee rejected this transparency proposal from Sen. Jim Bunning, R-Ky.:
"That before the Finance Committee can vote on final passage of 'America's Healthy Future Act of 2009,' the legislative language and a final and complete cost analysis by the Congressional Budget Office must be publicly available on the Finance Committee's Web site for at least 72 hours."
All Republican senators plus Sen. Blanche Lincoln, D-Ark., supported Bunning's idea; all other Democrats voted against it.
So those who want to read the bill cannot -- because there is no bill. Instead, senators are working from a mere outline (if 200 pages can be called "mere") by Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., plus 564 "conceptual" amendments. Only after Baucus' committee approves it would staff be instructed to go back and write a bill that had already been approved! That could run to at least 1,500 pages.
It's a crafty solution to the problem described by Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich., "What good is reading the bill if it's a thousand pages and you don't have two days and two lawyers to find out what it means after you read the bill?"
Democrats such as Sen. Kent Conrad, D-N.D., claim that it's better to work from a "plain English" outline rather than the arcane language often found in complex legislation. But how would senators be certain that the ultimate gobbledygook is a correct translation if they don't review it before voting? In essence, senators are denying lay citizens and learned experts the ability to monitor the work, to help avoid unintended consequences and to blow the whistle on intended ones.
Told that it would take two weeks to comply with the Bunning amendment, Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, said, "If it takes two more weeks, it takes two more weeks. I don't understand, what is the rush?"
Yet Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., wants the bill on the floor by the start of October and says he's willing to cancel the Oct. 10 Columbus Day recess to move the bill. In the House, Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., is talking about similar quick action.
By controlling both the calendar and the available information, proponents try to control communication, public awareness, and the all-important political spin.
There's also the Obama administration's effort to silence critics. It goes beyond the president's claim that he would "call out" the opposition. The Department of Health and Human Services has sent a warning letter to Humana insurance, telling companies (who would take a huge hit from the legislation) to stop "misleading" and "confusing" mailings. The official letter said, "We are instructing you to immediately discontinue all such mailings and remove any related materials from your websites." They added a threat of "investigation," plus "enforcement actions."
Humana's crime? It had written customers in its Medicare Advantage Program that under healthcare reform, "millions of seniors and disabled individuals could lose many important benefits and services."
The HHS letter is a scary parallel to how leaders in the House tried to muzzle members of Congress who criticized the bill in mail sent to their constituents.
Those who oppose the plan are also put down as know-nothings. As HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius told angry citizens at Sen. Arlen Specter's town hall meeting, "The Senate bill isn't written so don't boo the senator for not reading a bill that isn't written." So why is her side now supporting phantom legislation?
Keeping the opposition in the dark while you move in fast is not the way to run our republic. Stealth is a tactic that should be reserved to America's military, for use against our enemies. It shouldn't be used by America's politicians against our own people.
Ernest Istook is recovering from serving 14 years in Congress and is now a distinguished fellow at The Heritage Foundation.
First Appeared in Newsmax