The "debate" in the House
When you watch C-SPAN, there's a little chryon across the bottom of the screen that say's "Today's Debate." You hear that word a lot when it comes to Congress. "Debate." The rules today allowed for four hours of "debate." The Senate is expected to have a couple weeks for "debate." But spend the day watching the various legislators speechify for a few seconds each and it comes pretty clear that the proceedings have nothing to do with debate, as traditionally understood. These are statements. The longer Congress has, the more statements you get. Moments ago, Pete Hoekstra (R-MI) stood up to add his contribution to the debate. "I will vote no," he explained, "because that's the vote that says 'I love my country.'" Cicero would be proud.
The reality is that the debate that led to this bill did not really take place across congressional committees and floor speeches. It took place in think tanks and campaigns. In policy forums and among experts. The basic shape of the House's bill is virtually identical to the bills we saw during the campaign, and they were all expressions of the ideas being developed and refined in think tanks and policy shops and advocacy groups ever since Clinton's effort failed.
And good thing, too. Most members of Congress know virtually nothing about health care. Even the relevant committees only have a handful of knowledgeable legislators. Congress doesn't debate the legislation so much as debate its politics. Watching Congress consider this bill is like watching campaign ads being recorded. It's not like watching people talk about hard issues in a serious way. It's sad, actually.
But it's why, if you take a few steps back, so little has really changed in the basic bill. There's a trope in Washington that Congress should be more deliberative, that it should take more time to "debate" these big issues. But more time spent arguing over the precise contours of the public plan, or the exact language governing abortion coverage, or whether a bureaucrat will pull the plug on grandma, serves neither to enlighten the citizenry nor improve the legislation. Congress hasn't debated health-care reform. It's debated a narrow subject called "the politics of health-care reform."
The bill, however, has been debated, and at length. It has been debated in thousands of op-eds and blog posts. It has been talked through on countless news programs and radio shows. It has been the subject of endless expert panels and summary briefs. It has been estimated, analyzed, and modeled. Graphed and tabled and plugged into spreadsheets. And it has survived intact. It has the support of the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities, and AARP, AFL-CIO and Families USA, SEIU and the American Medical Association. Yesterday, eleven eminent economists released a letter (pdf) calling for passage of the bill.
Few of the debaters think the bill perfect, but most think it a step forward. That, however, is where their influence stops. They are the debaters, not the doers. And they have done their job. Now it is time for Congress to do its job.
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