08/20/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

My Take on Dems, Politics, and Health Care

As many of you know, I've been on the Hill asking Representatives where they are on health care, and specifically, the public option. In six days of work, I've managed to film over 60 of our esteemed Representatives. If you are interested, read on... I'll tell you how things have gone so far and what I think about the whole mess.

First, some background.

My primary assignment is to find members of the progressive caucus that wrote a letter setting forth criteria they said would be critically important for a bill to win their support. For those of us that want health reform done right, this was an encouraging step; the caucus' letter insisted that the bill include 1) a strong public option that would be immediately available to all (no triggers); 2) bargaining power; and, 3) accountability to Congress and the people. Since the signatories to the letter came out so strongly in favor of these provisions, I was asked to see if the Representatives were committed to following through. The only way that commitment can be proven is if they promise to vote against any bill that doesn't live up to their (supposedly) unequivocal demands.

It turns out that there is no easy way to visit with any particular Congressperson. Staffers hear where you are from and what you want and shunt you off indefinitely. No politician likes to be put on the spot; they like it even less when they feel trapped by a document they signed for political reasons, but without any real conviction. Although they strived to come as close as they could, the vast majority of Caucus politicians refused to tell me what I wanted to hear. Instead they fed me their specialty: politics.

So far, only ten have taken the pledge, and of those, I've only spoken with two (Wexler and Cleaver).

Many, many more have reserved for themselves the right to cave (or sell their vote for pork or other incentives). To see if your representative has been approached, check out FireDogLake's youtube archive.

As I was saying, there is no easy way to schedule time with these folks - especially if they know they are being pressed from the left. On the other hand, if you are a non-threatening boy scout troop, or a high school class or, of course, a lobbyist... you're probably golden...

Under such circumstances, FireDogLake Action was forced to take an unconventional approach: the street interview. Several times each day, Congressman are called to vote. They wear pagers (seriously) that send the bat-signal. Typically, from the time the pagers go off, they have about 15 minutes to get to the floor of the House Chamber to cast their votes. For the most part, our Representatives occupy offices across Independence Avenue in the Rayburn, Longworth or Cannon Office Buildings. On nice days, they'll trek about 1,200 feet across the street to the Capitol, cast their vote(s), and then walk back. (On not so nice days, or when they want to avoid the public, they'll take a Member's-only tunnel that runs beneath the streets.) It is during this trek that I do the intervies as opportunities present themselves.

More often than not, I've been surprised by the reactions I've gotten. Several members, with a camera filming them, have refused to tell me their names.

They walk silently alongside me, even as I remind them that I'm their boss... Who do they think provides their paycheck, health care and pensions? I'll tell them the interaction doesn't need to be this way... that I'm not there to be a douchebag; I just want to talk about health care. Still they walk, not even identifying themselves. I tell them it won't be that difficult for me to identify them; I'll just crowdsource it through the on the internet. That if they don't want the video sent to their district bloggers, newspapers and television stations, I'd be happy to delete it if they would just tell me where they stand on health care. I'm truly amazed that so many refuse to even identify themselves. To me, it's not just wrong; it's stupid. These videos are going to be posted. What happens after that is beyond my control. If their Republican opponent decides to use the video to demonstrate how out of touch the Representative is... well... I'm not responsible for that. On the other hand, if you've got sound reasons for disagreeing with me, I'm happy to give you the chance to tell your side of the story. Several representatives have taken that path, and as you'll see soon, it's probably worked out fairly well for them.

The silent types area distinct minority. Most of these folks will talk to me, with varying degrees of engagement. Many - like Dan Lipinski, will practically jog to the Capitol to avoid as much conversation as possible.

Others will insist on small talk much of the way or otherwise filibuster ala Condi Rice at the 9/11 hearings. The goal here seems to be to say as little as possible that could get them into trouble. I'm fairly decent at bringing them on point and getting the questions answered, but follow-up is limited, if not impossible.

The next group of folks are mostly progressives with some degree of knowledge of the netroots and FireDogLake.

Many of them owe a lot to bloggers and their on-line allies; they are happy to speak with me. Unfortunately, for the most part, their happiness does not translate into giving us what we want. Politicians simply do not want to make promises that diminish their leverage. If they make a commitment to vote against a bad bill, everyone knows where they stand. These are the last folks House leadership will try to whip (bribe) at crunchtime. If the guy in the next district over is getting a $100 million earmark for his cooperation, it's not going to look good back home that you got diddly-squat. Party loyalty prevents you from ever explaining the disparity. And for all of your conviction, you could end up on the losing side of a lopsided vote. Hell, if a bad bill is going to pass, with or without your cooperation, why not cave and get your earmarks? Ultimately, it's really, really hard for any Congressperson to draw a line in the sand. (And that's why the Representatives that do commit deserve your undying gratitude.) So... We get folks like Murphy, Gonzalez and Butterfield trying to tell us everything we want to hear, but unwilling to take the last step. I think they are sincere in what they are saying... they really would like to see everything in the progressive letter... but they aren't really committed to making it happen.

The smallest group of Representatives are those that disagree with the House bill and are willing to tell me why. So far, these folks are the ones that have given me the most cause for reflection. Earl Pomeroy, Greg Walz and Jared Polis each fit into this category. The reason they surprise me is that when you take the time to hear their objections, it becomes clear fairly soon that 1) their complaint may be valid; and, 2) it might be possible to address their concerns without upending health care reform - simply pass a single, narrowly-drawn amendment that addresses their objections. Of course, the devil is in the details, and it may be the case that what they are asking for is more difficult to accommodate than it appears, but... Well...


Well... this is what I think.

I think that we are all absolutely within our rights to insist on a strong health care fix. And I think we are all conditioned by years of frustration to assume the worst from certain Democratic factions - especially the Blue Dogs. And that isn't our fault - they really have fucked us over the years... So when we read that Pomeroy won't support the bill, we assume the worst. But then Jane and I corner him, he explains his objection, and says he'll support the bill if he can get it fixed.

Then I go speak with Walz, a Minnesota progressive, and he tells me he agrees with Pomeroy - that small states got rolled by large states and screwed out of their rightful share of Medicare reimbursements, even though they have providers like Mayo that get better results. All of a sudden, Pomeroy's objection looks a lot more reasonable. Of course, I'm not a policy expert, so I can't articulate an argument for or against, but it seems to me that we might be better served by recognizing that no bill this large is going to please every Democrat on the Hill when it first surfaces. That's why we have Committees and amendment processes. And if an adjustment to reimbursement rates is what it takes to get rural Reps on board, let's look at the policy implications before buying into the favored media narrative that Democrats are fighting amongst themselves.

The Polis vote was similarly instructive. Again, I'm not sure of the policy nuts and bolts, but Polis explained that under the bills funding scheme, some successful mom and pop business would take a bigger hit that multi-national corporations. There are a few fixes available and he'd like to see them enacted. And it wasn't just Polis! He crafted a letter that several freshman Democrats signed - many of them progressive heroes. Again, we hear a single data-point (Polis voted against the bill in committee!), and we assume the worst. But it may just be the case that the bill can be tweaked to address Polis' concern. (And by the way, this wasn't a case of Polis being against taxing the wealthy; he suggested raising the corporate tax rate to achieve parity).

I'll sum up...
1) I'm really, really surprised at the number of Representatives that believe they can kow-tow to lobbyists, but ignore regular grassroots Americans that want to ask them a few policy questions on the Hill.

2) I'm disappointed and jaundiced by, but not surprised, at the political gamesmanship that even our most admired progressive legislators feel compelled to engage in.

3) I think it is important to pressure obstructionists and absolutely punish those that are acting in bad faith (as tools of health care and insurance lobbyists), but before assuming the worst, I think we should examine the policy implications of the objections cited to see if they may be overcome.

Update: After writing this post, I sent it around to a few people for review. Some folks disagree with where I am with Polis and Pomeroy. They, correctly in my opinion, point out that Pomeroy has received more money from lobbyists, insurance and health care interests than any other member. Moreover, when I talked to Walz, I asked him if this bill makes things worse than the status quo. He said it didn't, but they were looking to fix a long-running disparity. So... These guys are really holding health care hostage in order to get more dollars for their districts. But that's politics, right? That's their cost of doing business. I think we should call their bluff and give it to them; if they don't climb aboard after that, we go scorched earth on them.

The Polis conversation inspired this blogpost by ScareCrow. I'm not sure ScareCrow has all of the facts correct, and Polis addressed the double-taxation issue... But ScareCrow's post is worth reading. At bottom, we are looking at letting millionaires stand in the way of health care reform.

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