As the House of Representatives moves toward a determination of the current health care debate, this nation, 234 years old, faces another moment of truth. Will the health care reform legislation bring about the transformational change by intruding into the most personal aspect of our lives? That remains to be seen. Both the Speaker of the House and the President say that we will find out what is in the bill once it is passed. What???? It is not the content of the bill before the House of Representatives that concerns me nearly as much as the method by which this landmark piece of legislation has been able to get to the brink of passage. Never in the history of this nation has such a significant piece of legislation or defining moment been so partisan in nature and corrupt in practice.
In the heady days of late June and early July, 1776, fifty-eight men assembled to decide the fate of this new nation. The Committee of Five submitted the document to be known as the Declaration of Independence, written by Thomas Jefferson of Virginia. The original document was modified, edited, and finally passed over the objections of some of the delegates who were still not sure that the break from Britain was an absolute necessity. The Northern colonies had their agenda, as did those in the Mid-Atlantic region and those of the South. The account of the battle to produce a document that would satisfy all factions and protect the interests and agendas of this confederation of colonies, soon to be states is well-documented. It was the issue of slavery that almost brought the march to independence to a halt. It was only after a tremendous amount of compromise and in some cases going against all that one held dear that a resolution was achieved for what was the ultimate goal: American Independence . It almost did not happen, but because of the tenacity of these patriots and their desire to create a new nation conceived in freedom and under the premise that all men are created equal, that the United States was born. Was John Adams promised a special taxation reprieve for the Massachusetts Bay Colony? Did Ben Franklin get a Pennsylvania Payoff? Not really. It was a process by which the sum of each one became the equal of the whole.
Fast forward to the 1960s, and President Lyndon Johnson has made the Civil Rights Act of 1964 priority one of his domestic agenda. Southern Democrats wanted nothing to do with this legislation. With the Civil War 100 years in the past, there were remaining scars on those deep wounds inflicted by the Reconstructionists who flooded the South after the Civil War. In response to what was perceived as a punishment for secession, Southern states passed Jim Crow laws, prohibited blacks from attending public schools with white children and riding in certain sections of public transportation. Laws restricted blacks from eating at public restaurants, using public restrooms and drinking fountains, and then to control their ability to take part in the democratic process by imposing a poll tax. Poor blacks in the Deep South were in many cases worse off than their slave ancestors. This was definitely not one of the prouder chapters in American history. So as the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was introduced in the Congress to correct the over 100 years of wrongs, President Johnson turned away from his own Democratic Party, and instead went to the Republicans in Congress. Congressional Republicans from the Northeast and Midwest were the ones who helped get this game-changing and monumental legislation passed. Bipartisan support brought about one of the most significant pieces of legislation in the history of the American republic. Were deals made? Of course, Lyndon Johnson was a master legislator. He understood the legislative process, mastered the art of compromise, and got it done his way; but in a way that everyone left the table with a feeling that they had contributed and took something of significance away.
That is sadly lacking in the current process. The art of compromise is dead, replaced by a scorched earth policy. The talk of the past few days of actually passing this legislation without an actual up or down vote, but rather through a procedural vote known as “Deem and Pass” is particularly troubling. The fact that the bill before House is not the final bill, but one that can be “fixed’ by a reconciliation bill from the Senate makes no sense. But then, this is a Congress that has seen a dearth of those without common sense. Where are the John McCormicks and Gerald Fords? Will there ever be another Henry Clay or Daniel Webster? How much do we miss Everett Dirksen and Hubert Humphrey? Even Tip O’Neill and Ronald Reagan, Irish kindred spirits, but politically worlds apart, could come to a point of compromise when the overall good of the nation was as stake.
But those who risked life and fortunes to give birth to this nation, those who nurtured it through its adolescence during the War Between the States, and brought it to maturity in the 20th century would have never expected that legislation so broad in scope, yet mysterious in content would come down to a straight party line vote, and that one of the last few votes needed to drag it across the finish line would be garnered by a ride on the Presidential jet. Sure hope that Dennis Kucinich got a commemorative mug or hat out of that deal.
No matter what the outcome of this health care reform initiative, the American political and legislative process has been poisoned. Only time will tell whether the venom will be deadly, but the antidote needs to be found quickly. These are truly times that try men’s souls.