Tuesday, March 30, 2010

What Color Is Pete Sessions' Sky?

Pete Sessions
Rep. Pete Sessions

It's a beautiful Spring day in north Texas. The temperature is expected to reach 80 degrees for the first time in over five months. The sky is blue. Health insurance reform is the law of the land. God's in his heaven and all is right with the world. But not on Rep. Pete Sessions' world. There, the sky is dark and the deluge is coming. According to one of Sessions' hand-picked experts from the medical industry, misquoting Mao, "It's always darkest before it's totally black."

I previously gave my initial reaction to Sessions' town hall meeting held Monday night at the Eisemann Center in Richardson. After the jump, I'll fill in some of the details of what was said.

The Dallas Morning News has its own story by Ian McCann. McCann provides a few quotes from Sessions, a few quotes from a spokesman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, and leaves me with the impression that the live audience was treated to some kind of balanced presentation of both sides. In fact, the DCCC spokesman didn't speak at the town hall meeting and if there was anything said by those who did speak -- Sessions, his three hand-picked experts from the medical industry, or audience members -- that alluded to even the slightest good that might come from health insurance reform, I missed it. Instead, the constituents of the 32nd District were treated to two hours of assertions by Sessions like this:

  • the legislation was designed to inflict as much damage as needed to kill the free enterprise system
  • the drug industry will be "decimated"
  • cures for diseases like Alzheimer's and breast cancer are now impossible
  • research into the human genome will come to a "screeching halt"
  • Tarrant County's public hospital will be forced to close
  • "America's days as a superpower are over"

The evening started with Sessions using 30 minutes to explain the bill, or rather explain selected parts of the bill. He admitted that "there are some ideas in the bill that I support" but he didn't spend any time going through what those are. He either totally ignored or mentioned only on the way to a "but" the various benefits such as extending health insurance coverage to 32 million low- or moderate-income Americans, making tax credits available to small businesses who offer health insurance to employees, making prescription drugs more affordable for seniors, expanding preventive care services, eliminating the insurance companies' power to deny coverage based on preexisting conditions or to drop coverage when you get sick or reach some arbitrary lifetime cap in benefits, etc., etc., etc.

Instead, this is how Sessions explained the law to his constituents: a government-run health exchange, a federal health care board making decisions about treatment, mandates, $1.2 trillion in spending, $500 million in taxes and $500 million in cuts to Medicare. That's it. That's why the sky looks so dark on Sessions' world.

Sessions also derided the legislative process, saying it didn't include debate with the American people. He complains that the law was passed before the Easter recess instead of after. He didn't mention the twelve months that reform has been debated in Washington, on television and talk radio, and around the country, both while Congress was in session and during the 2009 summer recess, the Thanksgiving recess and the Christmas recess. No other reform ever had a more thorough airing of the benefits and costs, pros and cons, facts and lies, than health insurance reform. Sessions' desire for one more delay was less in the interest of improving the bill than in killing it. Sessions himself was photographed outside the Capitol inciting protestors by holding up part of a large sign reading just that, "Kill the bill."

Sessions complained that over 80 Republican amendments to the reconciliation bill were voted down by the Rules Committee. He didn't mention that many of those amendments were frivolous amendments designed simply to slow the process. He didn't mention that 100-200 serious Republican amendments were already incorporated into the law that was passed before the reconciliation bill was brought up. He didn't mention that Democratic amendments to the reconciliation bill, such as a public option, were not allowed, either. The time for endless debate over health insurance reform was over. The time to vote had finally arrived.

Sessions said his own "reasonable" position is that we should repeal the bill and start over and replace it. After thirty minutes misrepresenting the law as it now stands, he spent a couple minutes laying out what he would replace it with: tort reform, portability, universal access, and health savings accounts. He provided no details.

Sessions then had three of his hand-picked experts from the medical industry speak. One told the audience that when the government seeks to make Medicare financially sustainable, "be very afraid." He admitted that the talk of death panels last summer was "exaggerated," followed immediately by a "however..." and then some more scare stories. He referred to the "lamestream" media which suggests he's listening to Sarah Palin, something that's really scary. The second expert warned that reform law "hastens the bankruptcy of Medicare" and "ignores the successes of tort reform in Texas." He didn't explain why, even with tort reform in Texas, Sessions' district still has more uninsured constituents than any other Republican district anywhere in the country. The third expert gave his explanation why people don't have health insurance. It's either because, even though eligible for Medicaid or SCHIP, the poor don't sign up because they can't get a doctor to see them, or it's because the well-off don't see a tax advantage in buying insurance. His solution? Tax credits. He didn't mention the tax credits that are in the new law.

Then it was time for questions from the audience.

  • One questioner urged Sessions to make sure the GOP had a candidate in 2012 "with a brain in his head." He didn't say which current likely candidates he thought didn't meet that qualification.

  • Another accused the President of wanting to push immigration reform and let prisoners vote so he and the "crooked Congress" would be re-elected. Sessions let her complaint go unchallenged, but a later audience member pointed out that the states, not the federal government, decide whether convicted felons can vote, whether in prison or after release.

  • Another complained about the "song and dance" behind the executive order reaffirming existing law that federal funds not be used for abortions. Neither the questioner nor Sessions explained why they were upset about an executive order that they would certainly have cheered had President Bush signed it.

  • Another denied the Constitution gives Congress the power to regulate health insurance. Sessions neglected to say that the Commerce clause gives Congress the power to regulate interstate commerce and the Sixteenth Amendment gives Congress the power to levy an income tax. Instead, Sessions simply said he agreed with the gentleman.

  • Another asked Sessions' opinion on the likelihood of repeal. Sessions avoided admitting the chances are slim to none by replying instead with the non sequitur, "America's days as a superpower are over."

  • Another objected to providing translators for patients with limited English proficiency.

  • Another claimed that citizens were being turned away and dying because trauma units are filled with illegal aliens.

  • Another complained that Congress exempted themselves from the law. That's not true. In fact, Congress forced themselves to enroll in the new plans to be offered by the exchanges to be set up by the states. Instead of correcting the questioner and dispelling this persistent myth, Sessions subtly but importantly changed the wording as he rephrased the question, saying the "writers" of the bill exempted themselves. "Writers" in this case aren't Congressman or their personal staff, but committee staff, who are allowed to keep the insurance they currently have from their employer, just like all other federal employees and everyone else in America, for that matter. Congressmen and their personal staff are the *only* Americans the law forces to change insurance provider. So, Congress are not "exempt" from the law as the questioner claimed. Not that the audience learned that from Sessions.

  • One questioner, the only one opposing Sessions' position, caught Sessions generalizing cherry-picked facts from a Congressional Budget Office forecast. Sessions dismissed the charge by saying that the CBO numbers were only "guesstimates" anyway.

  • The only nonpartisan questioner pointed out that Sessions has been in office for many years, that health insurance problems didn't start in 2010 and that repeal would just take us back to the old problems. Instead, why don't the parties just work together? Sessions' answer was that it's the Democrats' fault.

If anyone is not convinced that Congress is broken, Sessions' performance at his town hall meeting should be enough to remove all doubt. A healthy disagreement over policy is one thing. Unfairly presenting opposing opinions through both omission and distortion, demonizing your opponents, and scaring the electorate with exaggerated warnings of a coming Armageddon is something else entirely. As long as Congress is led by people like Sessions, on either side of the aisle, America is doomed to be governed by a dysfunctional Congress. Judging by the rousing support Sessions received from the partisan crowd in Richardson, the weather forecast for Washington calls for lots more rain. Luckily for Americans outside of Washington, the sun shines bright again.

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