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Congress Needs More Catcalls

Rep. “Joe” Wilson (R-SC), the cracker bigot who offended Congressional decorum by shouting “You Lie!” during President Barack Obama’s health policy address last week, claims his outburst was the result of his emotion getting the best of him. The question I have is why emotion didn’t get the best of more progressives members of Congress—those who claim to be anti-war, pro-choice, and especially to favor single-payer health care, or at least a genuine, robust publicly owned insurance program to compete with the private insurance industry.

Wilson, a former aide to racist Senator Strom Thurmond, claims he was upset that Obama was saying his health reform plan wouldn’t provide insurance coverage for illegal immigrants (though given his history, he was probably just upset that a black guy was up there in front of him giving a presidential address). But surely there were other people, on the left, who were gagging during that talk for other more rational reasons.

One of the big problems with American democracy is that the presidency has over the years been elevated to the level of a monarchy, with all the imperial trappings and pomposity formerly associated with royalty. Presidents surely should get no more respect than a prime minister, and look at the hoots and catcalls PMs have to endure when they address Parliament in the UK or even staid Canada.

That’s a good thing.

Here are a few of the things that should have elicited at least some boos or derisive laughter, instead of polite applause from the liberals in that joint session:

First and foremost, Obama’s claim that he was “determined to be the last” president to have to deal with health care reform and that he didn’t want to “kick the can” down the street for a future administration to deal with. In fact, that is just what he did with his proposal, which has left the basic untenable system of employee-financed healthcare in place, and which has left the private insurance industry in control of who gets treatment and how much they will have to pay for it. It’s a sure bet that before very long—perhaps in just four more years—another president will face the same crisis. A boisterous cat-call of “Can Kicker!” here would have been in order.

Obama said that “nothing else even comes close” to health care expenditures in terms of causing the federal deficit. In fact, something does—the military budget—but that topic is off limits for both Republicans and Democrats.  Why couldn’t Wisconsin Sen. Russ Feingold have yelled out, “What about military spending!”

Perhaps one of the biggest lies of the night was the president’s claim that while there are “arguments to be made” for single-payer systems like Canada’s, switching to single-payer in the US would require building “an entirely new system from scratch.”  The truth: Medicare is already a successful single-payer system and in fact, it is bigger and older than Canada’s own nation-wide system. Expanding it to cover every American would not be starting from scratch at all. It would be expanding something already proven.  Where were the shouts of “What about Medicare!” from Rep. John Conyers (and his dozens of cosigners), whose bill, HR 676, to expand Medicare to all has been barred from getting even a hearing by the House leadership with encouragement from the White House?

The president insisted that insurance executives don’t “cherry-pick” profitable customers and push out those who are sickest, because they are “bad people.” He said they are just doing it because it’s profitable.  It would have been nice if at least someone in the assembled throng of lobbiest-enthralled House and Senate members had shouted out something like “Just like bank robbers and drug dealers!” because the truth is that health insurance executives are bad people. They know that they are killing people every day through their ruthless policies, and they go right ahead and do it. Pursuit of profit does not, or at least should not, constitute a license to kill. (Just imagine a hit man, at his sentencing hearing, telling the judge, “I’m not a bad person, Your Honor. I just knock people off because it’s profitable.”)
The president said he was “not trying to put the insurance industry out of business,” and added, “They provide a legitimate service.”  This line, not surprisingly, given the amount of money that industry has lavished on members of Congress and on the president himself, got what was probably the loudest bi-partisan applause of the night. But it surely led to a lot of groans and of coffee, tea or beer being spewed out involuntarily across carpets and upholstery in homes across America. Legitimate service? Insurance firms are nothing but vampires,  or better, leeches on the health care system. They provide no service. Ask doctors, who have to fight to get permission to treat patients, and then fight to get reimbursed. Ask patients, who spend hours on the phone arguing with faceless drones, some probably in Bangalor or Manila, who are denying them coverage for needed medicines or procedures that are supposed to be covered. Listen to the testimony of whistle-blowers who have confirmed that those drones actually get paid bonuses based upon the number of claims they manage to deny. How satisfying it would have been if someone in Congress had yelled out, “Legitimate service my ass!”

Turning to the pathetically circumscribed and downsized “public option” in his “reform” plan, Obama declared that “a strong majority of Americans still favor a public insurance option.”  Well that may be true, but it’s not the whole truth. It would have been a great moment for Kucinich or Conyers or some other progressive member of Congress to shout out: “A majority also favors a single-payer plan!”

And where the defenders of women’s rights, when Obama vowed that under his plan, “no federal funds would be used to fund abortions?” Couldn’t someone have shouted out, “Women have rights too!”  Is the president really saying that if a woman is raped, or a child gets pregnant through incest, or if a woman’s life is at risk because of a pregnancy, that his plan will not pay for her to obtain an abortion? Cries of “For shame!” should have been ringing through the hall!

Finally the president said that one reason the nation has such record deficits is that during the prior administration, so many initiatives, “including the Iraq War,” were set in motion but “not paid for,” and he vowed, “I will not make that same mistake with health care.”  But he is doing the same thing with supplemental war funding requests for his war in Afghanistan, and with the continued war and occupation in Iraq, and someone should have called him on that. Besides, there’s no way that the program he is proposing will be paid for by current funding. It will add to the deficit and he should have the courage to admit it, or to call for more taxes on the wealthy to pay for it. A lusty “Tax the rich!” cry in unison from the progressive caucus would have been appreciated by viewers.

Racist whack-job Wilson did the cause of democracy and honest discourse an unintended favor when he called the president a “liar.”  In doing so, he put a much-needed ding in the wholly inappropriate and dangerous imperial aura of “respect” that has grown like lichens around the office of President. No more than anyone else in this nation, a president should have to earn the respect not just of the members of Congress, but of the broader public. He or she is another citizen, no more and no less, and when a president, like President Obama in this instance, dissembles, exaggerates or attempts to deceive or mislead, it is healthy for democracy if he is called out on it immediately and publicly.

We need more honesty in Washington, not more civility.

DAVE LINDORFF is a Philadelphia-based journalist and columnist. His latest book is “The Case for Impeachment” (St. Martin’s Press, 2006 and now available in paperback). He can be reached at dlindorff@mindspring.com

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Dave Lindorff is a founding member of ThisCantBeHappening!, an online newspaper collective, and is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion (AK Press).

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