I was in Washington on Tuesday, the second day the Supreme Court heard oral argument on the future of the president's signature health care law. The town was abuzz. The Supreme Court -- the locus of power on this day -- is located right across the street from the Capitol, which is flanked by the Senate and House Office Buildings. People came for a show, a big day -- watch the argument if you can get in, attend a rally, visit your Senator or Member of Congress. Bright shirts, megaphones and big crowds were standard, all under a brilliant springtime sun.
The stakes are high, no doubt. On the legal side, the Court is debating deep issues of the power of Congress to regulate, the proper scope of the federal government, the fundamental processes of constitutional litigation, and more. Underneath it all is a promise to tens of millions of Americans who lack access to basic, affordable health care.
After a long decline spanning two presidencies, we are just now seeing the economy pick up. It seems as though the slide has bottomed out, but the bottom is deep and the American people are still feeling the effects. Unemployment, high gas prices, and foreclosures are just a few of the indicators. And the cost of health care is increasingly crippling. So the debate is all about how we live in America. I was amazed at the range of interest, passion and emotion -- democracy at work.
I ran into a bunch of folks from South Jersey who had come in for the day, to attend a rally and to visit their senator, Bob Menendez. Susan, a retired teacher was adamant that the government just doesn't belong in this area, and she wasn't going to be quiet about it. She cherished the right to speak, and she was committed to exercising it. "When I come here I can be a little less hopeless." She very much appreciated having speech rights on this day, and in this time of significant debate and controversy.
In my cab ride across town, Adebe, originally from Ethiopia, but seven years in this country, just took it all in and enjoyed the crowd: "When it's busy by the Capitol, then it's good for cabbies!" And busy it was. In Ebenezer's Coffee House on Capitol Hill a group of 30-something year-old men in their khakis and dress shirts on a coffee break tried to prognosticate. They debated the merits, one opining on past Court precedent, another wondering how Justice Kennedy would swing, and another hoping for anything other than a 5-4 split that could be dismissed along political lines. He questioned the Court's legitimacy when it appears they are just doing political bidding -- in this case, and in general.
I visited with Arkansas Senator John Boozman, and he summed up the core concern very well. "I voted against it, and I voted to repeal it. The American people like this even less as time goes forward. So I hope the Court overturns it. But if so, what do we put in its place? The system we have isn't working, and we have to come up with something."
I remember working with Ted Kennedy almost 25 years ago, and one day I was ranting about how I was upset that there were so many uninsured Americans (a fraction of the number today). He sat back and smiled, indulging my youthful, idealistic soliloquy. When I paused and finally took a breath, his warm smile spread across his face, and with eyes twinkling he said, "What do you think I've been working on for 25 years?" So another quarter-century has passed since that day. And where are we?
I am proud that I have stayed involved in government and politics, while rooted in my life as a law professor. And I am proud that I worked as Policy Director on Barack Obama's presidential campaign, helping to craft a health care plan. The plan from the campaign was not the same as what was passed and signed into law, but I was hoping that it would bring about change that has been too long in waiting. Generations of Americans have waited. Countless Americans have died too soon for want of health insurance, been bankrupted by medical bills, or denied coverage they thought they had. So while I don't agree with Sen. Boozman in his desire to repeal the law, I do agree with his central concern -- the people aren't happy with the status quo. I hope the Congress and the president are ready to respond, whatever the Court says. Regardless of the final proclamation from the Court, the stakes are too high, and the need is too pressing to ignore.