Monday, August 3, 2009

The Games Begin: Chipping Away at Health Care Reform During the Congressional Recess

Nancy Cohen issued a salient reminder a few days ago at Huffington Post about how health care reform got killed under the Clinton administration. She notes that when Clinton rolled out health care reform with a high approval rating and a huge percentage of citizens favoring it, Congressional deal-making stalled the process up to the 1993 Congressional recess, when a health care bill was left unfinished.

Then the relentless attacks began, with phony scandals to distract us from this crucial matter, well-funded media attacks by the health care industry, and a “pliant” centrist media that enabled these distractions and lies, never calling the bluff of the health care industry or those manufacturing phony scandals like “Troopergate.” Indeed, in Cohen’s judgment, the mainstream media played a key role in administering the “fatal poison” that killed health care reform in 1993.

By the time Congress reconvened, the damage had been done. Clinton’s approval ratings had begun to slip, he was on the defensive because of the attacks on his reputation and character, and people were confused about health care reform and tentative about supporting an initiative they had previously supported by wide margins.

The only thing I’d add to Cohen’s analysis—and I think this is also pertinent to the Clinton-Obama parallel in the story—is that, in my view, Clinton’s centrist approach of pragmatic deal-cutting and moral corner cutting played a key role in undermining his credibility as a leader from the start of his administration. Had he entered his tenure as president on message, with a clear, unambiguous commitment to progressive change, and had he shown moral backbone in standing up for what he believed in, I believe he could have accomplished much more as president.

Once he backed down and waffled on key moral imperatives for progressive change (disgracefully so, with don’t ask, don’t tell and the Defense of Marriage Act), he was doomed. The right had him precisely where it wanted him.

Cohen wonders if we’re now revisiting 1993. I’m afraid so. I’m seriously concerned that this Congressional recess will provide an opportunity for grandstanding, dissemination of lies, and pandering on the part of the mainstream media, precisely like what happened in the recess period of 1993, when health care reform died a slow death despite the hope of a majority of the electorate for progressive change in this crucial area.

I’ve just returned from a lunch at which I had the unhappy experience of sitting next to a table of white-collar bozos droning on and on about what Obama’s “socialist” health care plan will really mean. They know, you see, because they’ve been told. “The guy said.”

Their source was a “guy” who gets them told, one of that endless tribe of right-wing gurus who help us read between the lines to find out what initiatives like health care reform will really mean. The guy says that you’ll be covered up to age 60 and then they’ll drop you. If you get cancer after that time, you’ll be told it’s your tough luck: no treatment for you. The plan is to make the elderly dispensable. The guy knows. The guy said.

By the looks of it, this table of well-coiffed, well-dressed white businessmen have never experienced any anxiety about health care coverage a day in their lives, for themselves and for their families. The “socialism” they’re worried about has to do with health care for somebody else. Not them and their families and the guy that calls the shots for them.

They’re willing to believe “the guy’s” outrageous lies because they have nothing to lose, if health care reform dies a slow death yet again. They and theirs will continue to have access to quality basic health care, while huge numbers of American citizens, including millions of poor children, do not have such access.

These well-fed businessmen were sitting chewing over hate-filled propaganda and lies at a table in the capital city of a state that is near the very bottom of every index possible when it comes to children's well-being. Routine dental and medical check-ups, prenatal care, you name it: large numbers of children in Arkansas don’t have access to even the basics, and as a result, we rank 47th in the nation in the Kids Count Survey of children's well-being.

Some of our children count. Those children include the children of the businessmen I encountered today. But many of our children don’t count at all, particularly when their skin is black and they live in poverty—they don’t count, that is, in the minds of those who would like to restrict heath care coverage to those with the money to pay for it.

Interestingly enough, right before lunch, I had happened on a piece now making its way around the internet that is, I believe, on of several opening salvos we’re now going to see in an incessant, well-orchestrated campaign to shoot down health care reform during the Congressional recess period. This is Terry Mattingly’s “Catholic Pain in Health-Care Fight”, which began appearing—surprise, surprise—just as Congress went into recess.

Though the copy of the article to which I link above is dated today, 3 August, trial balloons of this piece had already begun to circulate widely and to grab the attention of centrist religious news sites like Get Religion and Beliefnet by the end of last week. The argument of each version is essentially the same: Catholics are in a bind with health care reform.

On the one hand, the Catholic church teaches that health care is a universal human right. On the other hand, health care reform may well entail coverage of procedures that the bishops reject as immoral. What are the bishops to do?

Mattingly cites a 17 July letter of Bishop William F. Murphy of Rockville Centre, NY, to Congress on behalf of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), which stresses the longstanding Catholic teaching that

[a]ll people need and should have access to comprehensive, quality health care that they can afford, and it should not depend on their stage of life, where or whether they or their parents work, how much they earn, where they live, or where they were born. The Bishops’ Conference believes health care reform should be truly universal and it should be genuinely affordable (emphasis in original).*

Speaking for the USCCB, Bishop Murphy states, “Genuine health care reform that protects the life and dignity of all is a moral imperative and a vital national obligation.”

Terry Mattingly rightly recognizes that Catholic teaching consistently holds that health care is a human right, and, as a consequence, it also maintains that all believers have an overriding moral obligation to help everyone in society—and, in particular, those most on the margins—to obtain access to quality, basic health care, regardless of age, social status, or income.

But in Mattingly’s view, “there’s a problem.” To be specific:

The letter [i.e., Bishop Murphy’s letter to Congress] stresses that the church will support accessible, affordable, universal health-care reform if it “protects and respects the life and dignity of all people from conception until natural death.”

But this statement misrepresents—and spectacularly so—what Bishop Murphy’s letter says. The letter does not say that the church will support accessible, affordable, universal health-care reform if it protects and respects the dignity of all from conception until natural death. As the USCCB website’s executive summary of the letter notes, “The letter supported efforts to pass health care reform, but warned against inclusion of abortion.”

The letter supported. And then it warned. That’s an all-important distinction, and it’s one completely obliterated by Mattingly’s observation that the bishops intend to support accessible, affordable, universal health-care reform if it meets policy criteria important to Mattingly (and the bishops)—e.g., if the health-care plan rejects provisions for abortion.

Mattingly is not Catholic. He was raised Southern Baptist, and is now a member of the Eastern Orthodox church. Perhaps he doesn’t fully understand how teachings about human rights work in the Catholic traditions.

Human rights are not contingent—not ever. There is no if, when it comes to human rights. There is only always and everywhere. They apply to everyone, everywhere, at all times and in all places, because they are God-given.

To make human rights contingent is to undermine their theological foundation: human rights, for everyone who is human, apply universally because they are a divine endowment that makes us human. The USCCB letter does not say that the bishops will support accessible, affordable, universal health-care reform if certain policy provisions are in place, because the letter cannot say this and be faithful to Catholic teaching.

The inclusion or absence of policy provisions does not obliterate or undermine what is foundational here—the right of every human being in the world, in every place in the world, to health care. We may certainly talk about and decide how to apply this moral imperative in concrete situations, and in that context, we may well choose to support this or that health care plan, insofar as it serves that fundamental moral imperative and others important to our religious tradition.

But we cannot use what is foundational, the universal human right on which everything depends, as a bargaining chip in a campaign to force the body politic to do our bidding when it comes to policy provisions, even when those are grounded in other moral imperatives. We can’t do so without undermining the very foundation of universal human rights we want to use in combating abortion. It’s all about human rights, in the final analysis—inalienable, universal human rights from which moral imperatives flow.

What Mattingly and those with whom he is allied recognize, of course, is that the Catholic teaching about human rights presents an insuperable obstacle for all those who want to pull Catholics into their anti-health care reform fold. And so and his allies want to chip away at Catholic support for health care reform by creating an artificial opposition where there is none: either health care for all without provisions for abortion, or no health care for all, period.

He wants the U.S. Catholic bishops to hold health care reform (and the nation) hostage by refusing to support what they have no choice except to support, if they are to be faithful to the tradition—universal health care as a human right—if a plan for health care reform does not outlaw abortion and other procedures the Catholic tradition regards as immoral.

And he is unhappy that the bishops are not doing this, and are not speaking out—against health care reform!

As I say, this is an attempt to chip away at Catholic support for health care reform. It is an attempt to drive yet another neocon wedge between the Catholic bishops and the new administration (and the bishops and their flocks, who tend to buy the human rights argument across the board, in significant numbers).

It is, in other words, part of an orchestrated campaign by the right and their centrist mouthpieces to find any way possible to sow seeds of doubt (and to disseminate lies) about health care reform in these days of Congressional recess. It is no accident that this piece is hitting the media just as the recess begins.

And it’s no accident it’s being picked up by centrist sites like Beliefnet, on which I gave up when its founder Steve Waldman endorsed Obama’s decision to invite Rick Warren to his inauguration. I emailed Steve Waldman to tell him that I was closing my account at Beliefnet when he took that step.

It’s no accident that mainstream, centrist media sites pick up stuff like Mattingly’s piece, which is essentially an attack on health care reform itself, because Mattingly, Waldman, and the mainstream media are all part of one big insider’s club, which is all about allocating power and being in the seats of power. Not about careful analysis of religious news. And certainly not about standing with those on the margins who are trying to find a way inside not the circles of power, but inside meaningful social access, period.

This club is not about those of us who are gay, on the outside looking in. Nor is about about those millions of children in this country whose parents are poor, and many of whose faces are darker than those of the members of the club. It is not about any of us who are on the outside looking in, hoping to have what those in the club take for granted for themselves and their families and friends: basic access, fundamental rights.

Fortunately, the bishops happen to stand with those on the outside looking in, those without basic access—or they say that they do so. They say that they stand with the marginalized because they have to say this, if they hope to be faithful to Catholic teaching and the example of Jesus. Trying to get them to back off their affirmation of health care as a human right—a universal human right—is going to be an uphill battle, no matter how politically necessary that may be for those powerful elites in this nation for whom the right to health care will always depend on the right to pay, and that right alone.

*I’m citing here and in other places in this posting the précis of Bishop Murphy’s letter on the USCCB website. That précis links to an online copy of the entire text of the letter.