A brainstorming session between two conservative activists spurred the strategy to convince voters not to trust their legislators on health care.
In early July, settled in at one of Grover Norquist’s conservative movement breakfast meetings, Colin Hanna and Peter Roff had a brainstorm. Hanna, who commutes to Washington from the Wilmington, Delaware offices of his organization Let Freedom Ring, speculated that Americans were concerned about Congress considering a health care bill that not every member had read. Roff, a senior fellow at the libertarian Institute for Liberty, suggested that there was a way to take advantage of this. Members of Congress could be put to the test: No vote on health care unless they’d read the entire bill.
“The credit for the actual idea, I want to give to Peter,” Hanna told TWI on Wednesday. “From there we refined the language and we came up with our respective pledges for members of Congress.”
The respective pledges–a “Pledge to Read” from Hanna’s group, which is racking up signatures, and a “Truth in Voting Initiative” –have been smash hits. Ninety-eight Republicans in the House and Senate have signed onto Hanna’s pledge, which demands that members read any health care bill “personally, in its entirety” and make sure it’s available on the Internet for 72 hours before a vote. More importantly, they have changed the tone of the health care debate as members prepare to head home for a five-week recess during which liberal and conservative pressure groups will fight to lock up or break up support for a far-reaching reform bill.
On Tuesday, 180 members of the House Democratic conference met for two hours to listen to a read-through of the current version of the party’s health care legislation; after the meeting, Rep. C.A. “Dutch” Ruppersberger (D-Md.) told reporters that “no one’s going to say we haven’t read the bill.” On Wednesday, Barack Obama told a town hall in North Carolina that a month-long delay on a health care vote might be a good thing, because it would give members “time to read” the bill.
All of this represents a small but important messaging success for conservative opponents of current Democratic health proposals. And it’s the latest example of how an Obama campaign promise, of more transparency in government, has been turned against the administration and congressional Democrats.
“Democrats remember that they lost control of the health care debate in 1993 and 1994 when people read the bill and reacted to what they were reading,” said Michael Franc, vice president of government relations at the Heritage Foundation. “People hear about a crazy proposal and they ask themselves: if this one proposal that sounds kind of crazy is in there, what else is in there? The details are seen as a real danger for proponents of this bill. They wanted to do this in a hurry, working off talking points and executive summaries.”
According to Republicans in Congress, the groundwork for this campaign and this argument was laid years ago. In 2006 and 2007, Republican opponents of immigration reform legislation picked apart the bill sponsored by Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.) and Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and highlighted portions such as Z-visa limits and scholarships for the children of naturalized citizens to drive up conservative outrage and the debate dragged on. In December 2007, Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) roasted Democrats for claiming that there had been ample time to read an omnibus spending bill because it had been posted online, without much fanfare, for two days. And this year, Republicans have repeatedly, theatrically waved around the thick bills they were voting against to argue that Congress was rubber-stamping junk, waste, and earmarks.
The short-lived outrage over the bonuses paid out to employees by the bailed-out American Investment Group was not enough to help Republicans win a special election for a House seat in upstate New York, but party strategists have not forgotten how it flummoxed Democrats or how it introduced the question of what Democrats such as Sen. Christopher Dodd (D-Conn.) knew when they voted for the economic stimulus package. “I think we’ve reached a tipping point,” suggested Hanna.
“We’ve had too many huge pushes by Washington to ram through these enormous bills in short periods of time,” explained DeMint’s spokesman Wesley Denton. “Members go home and their constituents know more than they do about these bills. That’s why the ‘read the bill’ movement is registering. Between the amnesty, the bailouts, and the stimulus, politicians showed that they didn’t understand what they had voted for.”
It’s a simple message that comes with the trappings of a good-government reform idea. Americans for Prosperity, a conservative group that has been helping organize anti-spending “tea parties” and anti-health care reform rallies, has prepped for the upcoming recess with a softer message; a TV ad telling voters to ask their members of Congress whether or not they’ve read the bill. The news of Democrats girding themselves for those questions with a special health care cram session was treated as a small victory by AFP. “It shows that our message is getting through,” said Amy Menefee, a spokeswoman for the group.
Obama’s guarded comments about the value of reading the bill hinted at the politics at work; demanding more transparency is a more subtle and powerful way of pressuring Congress into delaying or killing a health care vote than cries of “socialism” or a mounting “government takeover.”
“I don’t see anything mischievous or Machiavellian about this,” said Mickey Edwards, a former Republican congressman who is now vice president of the non-partisan Aspen Institute, and who has been critical of Republicans in opposition. “Passing bills without reading them has been a problem for decades. When I was a congressman and this came up at town halls–someone asking me about some obscure provision in a bill I’d supported–I used to defend myself by admitting, well, I didn’t read that part.”
While Republicans have not-so-quietly cheered delays in the health care bill mark-up process, seeing a prolonged debate during the recess as the best chance of tabling the most expansive version of reform, they’re careful not to present the “read the bill” campaign that way. “Just because you want to slow the process down doesn’t mean want to you want to kill something, necessarily,” said Matthew Specht, a spokesman for Rep. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.).
At the same time, Republicans were cheered by Obama’s comments on Wednesday. One GOP staffer told TWI that after the president suggested that he would “go line by line” through the health care bill with any senator or representative who asked, staffers joked about heading up to the White House, carrying take-out pizza, taking up him up on his offer.
“Was that a sincere offer to go through the bill line by line?” laughed Hanna. “I hope he’s reserved plenty of time. There are a lot of people who’d take him up on that.”
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