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Health Reform and the Pickle Principle

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"And let us not be weary in well doing: for in due season we shall reap, if we faint not." -- Galatians 6:9 KJV

The echo of Nancy Pelosi's gavel had scarcely faded when the political prognostications began:

"The health care bill will be the death knell for Democrats as middle-class Americans see what a radical government power-grab it is."

"No, the health care bill will be a tremendous boon for the Democrats as middle-class Americans learn the truth about the bill's actual contents."

And so on and so on ...

Excuse me while I interrupt the roiling rhetoric to take a more philosophical view. Tarry with me for a moment to look at the health care vote through the prism of the life and times of one of greatest public servants this nation has known, my old boss and mentor, the venerable late Congressman J.J. "Jake" Pickle of Austin.

Jake Pickle never cut much of image on the national stage, but those who know Congress know who he was. As the third-ranking member of the House Ways and Means Committee and chairman of its powerful oversight subcommittee, and as number 10 in overall seniority in the House of Representatives, he wielded substantial institutional power.

His influence was even greater because of his impeccable integrity, folksy humor and the wisdom that came from 60 years of old-fashioned political spadework.

It was Jake Pickle who saved the Social Security system when it was on the verge of collapse in 1983. Against huge odds, he defied powerful forces on the right and the left to push through legislation raising the eligibility age, delaying some benefits and raising the tax revenue needed to shore up the system -- all at time when the Republican White House and Senate and the Democratic House of Representatives were at each other's throats.

Pickle's fingerprints were also all over the landmark budget deals of 1980s and 1990s which helped the nation emerge from two recessions, including the 1993 Clinton budget battle that produced a combination of taxes, budget cuts and new spending that is now widely hailed as setting the stage for the record economic expansion of 1995 - 2007.

By his final years in the House, he was virtually alone in the fight to stabilize the nation's disintegrating private pension system. He was also unflagging in sounding the alarm that the quasi-government entities Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac had far too much power and far too little oversight a decade and a half before both had to be bailed out by taxpayers.

So over the course of this amazing record of service, what was Pickle's greatest single achievement?

If you asked him, it wasn't even close: The proudest vote he ever cast was the one that posed the greatest political threat: his vote for the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

As one of only six Southerners to support probably the most controversial legislation of the last 100 years, Pickle genuinely thought his vote for the bill in his first full term in Congress would end his political career in its infancy. He often mused about the avalanche of mail and phone calls he got against civil rights, and how every one of his advisers -- including his best friend, former Texas Governor and U.S. Secretary John Connally -- urged him not to commit political suicide by supporting it.

At the end of the day, Pickle decided that, despite the political fallout, he simply could not in good conscience vote against a measure that would bring a fuller measure of the promise of America to the ten percent of her citizens who were denied it.

Yes, it was a tough vote. Yes, he had to fight off challengers who attacked him on that vote for the next two or three election cycles. But by the time he retired from the Congress more than thirty years later, he was one of the most popular and powerful officeholders in Texas political history.

Don't get me wrong, I am not equating the epic struggle for civil rights with the health care -- not by a long shot. But as I watch, read and listen to the observations of all the solons, sages, and soothsayers who seem to be able to see the events of the last few days, weeks and months only in terms of the political horse race, I can't help but reflect on what I call the Pickle principle:

At some point, the point is principle.

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