For decades, I’ve told anybody who wanted to influence Congress to just call the Capitol switchboard at 202.224.3121, and ask to be connected to their representative or senators. As the health reform debate raged into its dramatic 15th month, getting through via the switchboard—or even directly to members’ offices—had become virtually impossible.
It is painful to sit in the reception areas of offices and listen to the poor interns getting lit up by constituents angry over ObamaCare.
Mind you, I share the sentiments of many of those mad-as-hell constituents. Out of frustration, I’ve thrown some gasoline on the fires of Council member executives who believe that the health reform effort is the wrong prescription for the country, and will undermine the employer-provided group health insurance marketplace. I was doing much more damage than good and utterly failing to “bend the cost curve.”
I’m angry over the demagoguery against health plans employed by the administration and congressional leaders. But beyond the reorganization of a sixth of the economy, I worry that the health debate reflects a trend-line of nastiness that will pervade everything we care about on Capitol Hill.
Amid this historic enmity, Republicans are surely set to gain seats this November. That’s fine by me on many of those races, but what’s happening is that Washington is starting to look more and more like Sacramento—left-wing Ds and right-wing Rs, and nothing in the middle. Most of the most vulnerable Democrats are those in districts that John McCain won in 2008, and they tend to be more moderate. The elections could leave us with a Congress that is even more polarized and dysfunctional than it is today.
Certainly, malevolence in American politics is not a new phenomenon. Take the 1800 contest between John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, a race that makes modern journalism look like the model of civility and nonpartisanship. Federalist writers accused Jefferson of being an atheist, pro-slavery, a coward who avoided military service during the Revolutionary War and a “romantic airhead” who would recklessly entangle the young U.S. with revolutionary France. Later they circulated the (true) story that he had had sex (and children) with his slave. For their part, Republican newspapers, which were pro-Jefferson, accused Adams of being mentally unbalanced and a closet monarchist. They also circulated the rumor that he was having prostitutes shipped over from Britain. If you thought today’s campaigns were bad, look no further than to the Founding Fathers.
But for each of the 27 years I’ve worked on and around Capitol Hill, I’ve heard increasing refrains of wistfulness about the “good old days” when members of Congress got along. I came to town to work for an incoming member of the Reaganite Republican House minority in 1983. Notwithstanding the stellar conservative voting record of my boss, every time he had a political fundraiser, it was attended by the liberal Democratic chairman of the Public Works and Transportation Committee, on which my congressman was a member. I go to a couple hundred political fundraisers a year now, and I never see such a thing. Never. The last time I recall such a gesture of bipartisanship, Rep. Mike Oxley, R-Ohio, then-chairman of the Financial Services Committee attended an event for freshman Democratic Rep. David Scott. (That was likely because Oxley was a baseball fanatic, and Scott’s brother-in-law is Hank Aaron, but I digress.)
The health reform debate has been analyzed up, down and sideways. I’ll not belabor it. Perhaps I’m philosophically wrong, and the legislation winds up having been the right thing for the country. But it was President Obama who said that he’d “rather have 80% of what I want with 70 votes in the Senate, than 100% of what I want with a straight Democratic vote.”
Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus, D-Mont., said throughout 2009 that health reform had to be bipartisan, because anything else was unsustainable over the long haul. Senate Budget Committee Chairman Kent Conrad, D-N.D., warned against the use of reconciliation on the same grounds. The decision to seek victory with only democrat votes—justified or not—poisoned the well.
After the raucous town meetings of last summer, Democrats decided to pivot and demonize the insurance industry to push their bill through. Among the many comments of Speaker Nancy Pelosi was this doozy: “Of course, they (health plans) have been immoral all along. They are the villains in this. They have been part of the problem in a major way.”
The blue-faced rage against insurers pervaded the dialogue and characterized the growing chasm between the parties.
A New York Times piece in February summed up the situation: “As they try to govern with President Obama, democrats recognize in minority republicans the same obstructionism they practiced at the expense of President George W. Bush and his party. ‘To be negative is easy, I know that,’ Speaker Pelosi told columnists recently in describing Republican tactics. ‘That’s how we won the House.’”
Many would argue that gridlock and polarization aren’t necessarily a bad thing, and there’s some truth in that. Partisanship has reached perfect pitch; Congressional Quarterly estimates that House members and senators sided with their parties roughly 90% of the time last year. Ugliness, though, is another matter. As a lobbyist for health insurance brokers, I think a lot of the nasty environment flows from the vitriol of Democratic leaders who squandered opportunities for bipartisan health reform.
The worst of it came with the two words shouted from the floor of Congress: “You lie!”
Whoops, that was my team. My bad.