A Conversation With John Dingell Jr.
On Wednesday night, Barack Obama opened his speech by invoking Rep. John Dingell Sr., who served in Congress from 1933 to 1955 and fought a long battle to create a universal health-care system. His son, John Dingell Jr., now holds that congressional seat, and reintroduces his father's bill year after year. I spoke to Rep. Dingell this afternoon about his father, health-care reform, and whether Obama will really be the last president to confront this issue. An edited transcript of our conversation follows.
Last night, President Obama honored your father for drafting the first bill to establish a universal health-care system in this country. What got your father interested in the subject?
Dad got tuberculosis at 19. That was a death sentence. But he quite frankly surprised them. The doctor who examined dad later became my godfather. But before that, he told my father he had six months to live. Dad looked at him and said, "Doc, I'll piss on your grave." He lived out the next 42 years of his life with one lung. He got to understand why people died and how important health care was.
What would your father's bill have done?
It was a single-payer health insurance bill. It was financed by a payroll tax, as was the original Social Security Act. It covered everybody. An interesting thing about it was, way back, when I was new in Congress and going over it to bring it up to date, I found that much of it had been enacted into law. So I went through and excised those parts that had been enacted. Child and maternal health benefits. Major changes in what NIH does. Additional research into health concerns. That cut it almost in half.
It seems we're less ambitious now.
I wouldn't say that. I'd say we recognize the realities of the day. I still think dad's bill is the best bill we could get. It's rather like the British system. But this is not something that will be enacted into law in this Congress, or in this nation at this time, or under the leadership of this president. But the program the president has come forward with is a good one. . . . .
The president has made a lot of compromises to get this far. Has he been right to do so?
Yeah. Expectations have a curious and either fortunate or unfortunate way of becoming the reality in which you live. So when the country thinks this is about all that can be done, that becomes the reality.
The president used the sum $900 billion in his speech last night. but the House bill goes up to $1.1 trillion or so to ensure affordability. Will you feel bound by the president's price tag?
Well, let's look at it. First, it's over 10 years. So when you talk about the price tag, that price tag becomes one-tenth per year. CBO says the insurance portions are balanced, or rather, do not cause any deficits.
Republicans, though, say that the bill explodes the deficit after 10 years because the revenues don't keep pace with spending growth.
Well, I'll give you several answers. First, that's fully consonant with Republican practices. They did it all the time, and can speak with authority to the evil of it. But that doesn't mean it's so. I don't honestly believe that's the case [that deficits expand], and the work has not been concluded. But if this is as factual as some of the other things they've said about the bill, I wouldn't pay too much heed.
How has this process differed from 1994?
Clinton made a tremendous speech on health care. He did it in February. The bill didn't get up here until November. The process was extremely messy. It worked out with a pretty good bill, but a lot of people got alienated along the way. By the time the bill got up here, it had already lost, and the insurance lobby went out and killed it. We got to the point where we got within one vote to win. But we couldn't get it.
One vote in the Energy and Commerce Committee or in the House?
I think both. If we could've gotten it out of committee we could've gotten it through the House.
People frequently say it's harder for the two parties to get together than it's been in the past. Yet we're actually closer to success than we've ever been before. Do you think we're actually more polarized than we used to be? And if so, is that even a bad thing?
I would observe that the Republicans are making statements that are totally in error and totally false. They don't show any sign of wishing to hear the truth. I can't tell you what that means, but it impacts quite strongly on our ability to get agreement with our Republican colleagues. I would remind you they have spent years trying to overturn Social Security. There were only 13 of them that voted for Medicare in 1965. And Dole is still bragging about how the Republicans fought the good fight. Those are his words. So I have no hope that we're going to get any significant amount of Republican support for this.
Before this began, Henry Waxman challenged you for chairmanship of the Energy and Commerce Committee. How has that changed your role in the process?
I'm not sure I know what to say to that. I just want to get a bill. I want to get a good bill. I don't want to get a bad bill. I don't want to fail. I want to see us get a bill that will solve one of the greatest single problems the nation confronts. It's not just a moral problem but a political problem. And not just that, but an economic problem of enormous dimensions.
You've told Time Magazine that "I quit talking about the humanitarian [parts of health care], because nobody much seems to give a damn about that," and you've instead learned to focus on the economics of the issue. That does seem to be the consensus. Why do you think it is?
I wish I could give you an answer to that. I think after the president's remarks last night, I can tell you I'm beginning to sense there is a swing back to the concern about the moral and the humanitarian. But I've found that business does not respond to the humanitarian concerns, but they do respond to concerns about what it's doing to them and their bottom line.
Last night, the president said he wasn't the first to confront this issue, but he wanted to be the last. Will he be?
I thought that was a neat turn of phrase, didn't you?
I'm going to do everything I know how to make him the last. But I will tell you this: I think we can make him the last one to talk about how to create a national system. But we have congressional oversight and it is ongoing, as we try to understand how to make the laws work and account for changes in customs and tradition and the current needs of the people. That will continue.
Photo credit: AP/Manuel Balce Ceneta.
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