At a moment when we need to tone down the discourse in our politics, why have a purely symbolic debate over health care repeal in the U.S. House of Representatives? The debate may take us back to the worst days of the health care discussion, when swastikas were commonplace at anti-reform rallies, and some talk radio and TV turned into hate radio and TV. Will opponents talk about "death panels," or "killing grandma?" Will people carry signs that say "bury Obamacare with Kennedy" or wear t-shirts that say, "We came unarmed (this time)" when they rally outside the Capitol? Representative Chellie Pingree of Maine has already suggested that the Republicans retitle their bill, which is now named "Repealing the Job-Killing Health Care Act." According to Steven Pearlstein of the Washington Post the phrase "job-killing" is part of the official message of the repeal movement, as reflected in the dramatic and consistent increase in its use lately.
Catholics United, the organization I direct, saw firsthand just how the tenor of the health care debate led to political violence when we chose to stand by members of Congress who voted for reform. Two of these members, Tom Perriello (VA-5) and Steve Driehaus (OH-1), made national headlines when extreme rhetoric and violent actions were used against them. Following the health care vote, then-Minority Leader John Boehner called Driehaus "a dead man," and promised that "Catholics will run him out of town." The congressman was subsequently the target of death threats. Things were worse in Virginia, where Tea Party activists published Perriello's brother's home address on the web (they mistakenly thought the house belonged to Perriello himself). Someone showed up and cut the gas line.
Catholics United is obviously an interested party in this issue. We support the law and want repeal to fail. But supporters of health care reform are prepared to debate if necessary. After all, it will allow us to shine a light on that pain that repeal will inflict on America's families and businesses, and the fact that the new law will give families more control over their health care. A debate would allow supporters to point out that the Republicans do not have an alternative plan and to highlight the law's many benefits, like the ban on insurance companies denying care to people with pre-existing conditions and reduced prescription drug costs for seniors. It would give us the chance to talk about how the Republican repeal plan would force nearly 900,000 American families to go bankrupt because of medical bills. It would let us highlight recent data showing that health care reform has already resulted in a huge spike in the number of small business providing health insurance to their employees.
Most people agree that the vote would be purely symbolic because Senate opposition to repeal is solid and even if it weren't, President Obama's veto is certain. So what is the point of conducting this debate? To get headlines? To fulfill promises to the Republicans' hard-core base? I understand that this is the signature issue of the new Republican House majority, but the debate won't advance any new ideas because it's only about the "repeal" part of the Republican "repeal and replace" campaign. The "replace" part is being referred to various committees. But the debate may inspire another round of inflammatory rhetoric inside and outside the Capitol.
There's no easy answer to stopping hateful language from overtaking civility in our politics. What's needed isn't censorship, but self-restraint. Canceling a purely symbolic repeal vote that has little chance of enactment may be a good way to set an example.