One of the principal points of confusion, or dishonesty, in the debate about health care reform has been the existence of multiple bills coming out of Congress. When someone denounces "Obama’s reform" it is not clear what they might be referring to seeing as the White House has let the Congress draft the legislation in toto, that is, there is no Obama proposal. So, when people denounce one, you know they simply hate the President and they hate the idea of reforming health care, so they lump the two together and denounce them both.
When other opponents of the President’s start ranting about socialism, you know that they are speaking to a deep conservative concern that predates not only Obama’s presidency but almost his life. In the late 1960s, in the quest to fight sex education in the public schools, right wing groups began distributing a movie called "Pavlov’s Children." This cinematic agitprop "argued" that the Soviet Union, working through UNESCO, was using Pavlovian techniques in sex education as a prelude to getting our children prepared for totalitarian rule. If the person denouncing "socialism" happens to be in their sixties, ask them if they participate in Medicare which is certainly socialized medicine.
But, back to Congress. It is important to remember that negotiations are on-going. The bishops have been clear, speaking through the USCCB, that they support health care reform but that it must not become a vehicle for liberalizing abortion laws. Both parts of that statement are important: liberal Catholics must acknowledge that abortion should be a deal-breaker and conservative Catholics cannot hide behind opposition to abortion to oppose health care reform.
This past week, it became clear that the White House is looking to the bill coming out of the Senate Finance Committee as the most likely vehicle for achieving some modicum of bipartisan support. The President is well advised to prefer a bipartisan bill that might fall short of his complete objectives: An overhaul of one-sixth of the economy is more likely to be accepted by the American people if it enjoys some measure of bipartisan support. Commentators, however, are at a disadvantage because it is not clear precisely what is in the Senate Finance bill, especially as regards abortion.
The legislative process is on-going. Once both houses pass a bill, it must still go to conference where differences must be worked out. In this process, compromise is not always a dirty word. Some issues, such as the public option, are very amenable to compromise. For example, the Senate’s preference for cooperatives could go into effect immediately but if a given number of people still lack affordable health insurance in, say, three years or the system as a whole has not achieved the cost-savings desired, the public option could be automatically triggered. Public funding for abortion, on the other hand, is not one of those issues where a compromise solution suggests itself.
The bishops have perfect pitch on this issue. They support health care reform but insist that the reforms not become a vehicle for liberalizing the abortion laws. They have set up a website that explains where they stand on the issue and I suggest that some of my conservative colleagues consult it and see if they think the bishops are guilty of advocating "socialism."
This week and next, as the histrionics continue, remember that the legislation remains a work in progress. Negotiators do not turn over their chits at the start of the negotiations. The most important role for the press in the next fortnight is to continue to separate fact from fiction. The most important role of the citizen is to pay attention and not to be distracted by the lies, the vitriol or the hysteria. And, we have to remember to let our elected representatives know where we stand, and to do so politely.