The path to enacting significant legislative measures in the Congress has become a war of words. Let’s be honest, the American people are at risk with political logjam. We are facing tough economic times and look to leaders to offer creative and results-oriented ideas to the electorate. We have needed a decisive march to the end goal of making government work for the people through a demonstrative series of compromises. After all, the political system establishes a majority and a minority so that parties will work together. This means that our legislators and the voters must be deeply engaged, responsive and understood.
The President’s health care summit at the Blair House in Washington sought to step aside the war of words, roadblocks and ideally break the barriers that have stalled comprehensive health care reform. We heard a lot from our officials in DC…repeated critical mantras outside the scope of the agenda, budgetary inaccuracies, a sense of urgency and hope, and a repeated attempt to deconstruct criticisms. While I was impressed with the smarts of the President and Senator Tom Coburn (R-OK), it was clear that Sens. Lamar Alexander (R-TN) or Mitch McConnell (R-KY), John Barrasso (R-WY), as well as Reps. John Boehner (R-OH) and Paul Ryan (R-WI) wanted to stage a political theater featuring a “broken government,” a “federal takeover” of health care, and ultimately a lack of urgency to reform health care.
As a former congressional staffer, I spent many late nights drumming up talking points, stump speeches and message pieces. I drafted them to advocate for key ideas and to be a supportive player with like-minded colleagues on the issues. I understood it as a tool to identify a position and stand by it. Now, I see it as a way to engage beyond emphasis, but a tool to propagandize important concepts that stall movement. The President asked for a conversation before the American people and got a lot of red-faced speakers using the technique of argumentum ad nauseam. With the cameras rolling, the invitees took their sides and used continuous repetition so that media outlets can replay it for the American people to accept as fact. Advocating for legislation has grown from mere emphasis of subtle concepts to flashing headlines, bold bylines, and ultimately a real fear spreading among concerned voters who are not deeply engaged in the dialogue.
The summit was widely known as a last-ditch effort by the President to place his leadership stamp on health care reform. Reform means change. Voters must understand what stake they have in the process and what is at issue for them. That is why a televised working summit was a smart idea. Let’s see what happened
The Republicans and the health care industry as a band of bad boy opponents have sought to trap the President in an impasse. In making opening remarks, Senator Alexander likened the health care bill to a “car that can’t be recalled and fixed and we ought to start over.” Kudos go to the legislative aide from Tennessee for selecting the car analogy. It sounds appropriate given the current problems with Toyota, but it does not add to the discussion one bit. In fact, I find it frustrating and am sure many others do too. The President duly offered that the Senator was entitled to his own opinions, but not to his own facts. The President was gracious to appreciate the Senator’s time and also smart to isolate the reality that there is really one set of facts regarding the health care issues. By doing so, this should have kept the momentum moving forward. However, more finger pointing opened the door to more criticisms. The President offered the only reasonable response possible that going “through a list of things they don’t like” won’t get much done. The notion of hammering the negative only sends a message of animosity and unwillingness to stand for any reform.
The President defended the transparency of talks by letting Senator John McCain (R-AZ) know that they are no longer campaigning and it’s time to stop stumping a straight talk speech at the summit. As the Republican rival in the 2008 presidential race, McCain told the President that the bill was flawed with “deal-making,” a stand against special interests. The Senator knows that compromise does not come with the wave of a magical legislative fairy’s wand. It requires sitting down and hashing out important differences and outlining ideas that they can agree on. The President let McCain know that “the election is over.” And McCain said “I’m reminded of that every day.” I wish McCain had articulated a positive proposal, a hint toward reform, or anything other than a total shutdown. McCain could have offered a serious exchange on the legislative ideas. Now that is the straight talk I want to hear.
I won’t rehash the whole set of various talking points from the summit for you. You can watch a feed on the White House’s website or even CNN without interruptions. If you have not, I encourage you, and then let me know what dialogue you expect from our leaders. The summit exposed the spectrum of dialogue—impassioned off-key talking points, speeches, and some real exchange of ideas to agree upon in a reform package. The President stated his intent to discuss an agenda of reform, to see what officials can agree on and where to move forward on those differing ideas. To me, that is deliberative good work. I learned a lot in the working session about the Congressional Budget Office scoring, proposed cost increases, and Medicare Advantage. I do not support “jamming (the bill) through on..a partisan vote” as Senator Alexander rejected in his opening statement. But, there have been many opportunities to make a stand for being a team player and real actor in reforming our flawed system of health care. That is why there will likely be no scrapping the measures backed by the President and the Majority to start over. This move would reward road-blockers, validate the effect of pesky sound bites that scare seniors, and wind the debate in a dead end once again.
I say it is time to take a giant leap toward the passing the bill in the annual reconciliation measure that requires a simple majority vote. Congress will have some work to secure that vote, but that is why the Majority earned its position and leadership. The President wanted to clarify for the American people what the debate is all about. Negative talking points get in the way. The gaps toward change were exposed to show that talking points for serious election-year politicking does not lead to common ground. An attempt was made to have a discussion actually a discussion and not just trading talking points. Now is the time that the legislators enact health care changes. I am ready to move past words and see some action!