Can They Both Be Right?
One night, while lying in bed trying to fall asleep, I found myself channel-surfing between FOX News and MSNBC. There is a certain dark humor in watching polar opposite opinions articulated with great intensity. A little voice on my left shoulder says; “The heck with ’em. Let them close down government and we’ll all save a lot of money.” Maybe what we really need in this country is another good financial disaster to usher in one party rule for awhile. The calmer, more discreet voice on my right shoulder quotes Isaiah, “Come now, let us reason together.” The last time that phrase was uttered by a politician, at least that I can remember, was Lyndon Johnson during the Vietnam War. It did not work for him, and it looks like it is not going to work now.
Is it possible that both factions are a little bit right and a little bit wrong? The answer is “yes,” as is true of most disputes that I have seen as a lawyer in my long professional tenure.
The Republicans are right that the government spends too much money on too much nonsense in a way which is both inefficient and frequently produces no good results. The Affordable Health Care Act has lots of great things in it, but it is complex and expensive. What Republicans forget is that the expense of the new law is not due to providing coverage but rather because of the way that it will enrich insurance companies and pharmaceutical industry. The Bill is also defective because it does not contain a public option which would eliminate the bureaucracy currently existing in the healthcare system. The problem is that President Obama wanted a single party payor public option alternative, but the Republicans shot it down.
Assuming that the Affordable Health Care Act has some salutary provisions and some defects, should it be used to prevent a budget from being passed and should opposition to the health care legislation be a wedge to force the United States to default on its financial obligations? Allow an example of how other governments work right here in the United States. Pennsylvania, in its constitutional revision during the late 1800’s, was quite reform minded. One of the amendments is known as Article III, Section 3. The purpose of this provision was to prevent “log rolling.” Only one subject could be addressed in any one bill. The purpose of this was to create more transparency and to make sure that legislators knew what they were voting for. Each proposition should rise and fall on its own merits rather than linking something bad with something good or something necessary with something useless. Unfortunately, the provision was virtually ignored until a case that I handled entitled North Central Pennsylvania Trial Lawyers Association v. Weaver. In that celebrated case, followed by many others of a similar nature, the legislature’s attempt to change certain court rules was linked to DNA testing in criminal cases. Most people supported the DNA testing to make sure alleged criminals were really guilty, but many thought that the legislature should not trample on court rules. The legislation passed because the two provisions were put in the same bill. The court struck down the legislation as a violation of Article III, Section 3. Since that case, the Pennsylvania courts have been consistent in demanding that the legislature look at each issue as a separate entity. A budget is a budget, and that represents one piece of legislation.
Perhaps we need an Article III, Section 3 in the United States Constitution? While linking medical health care to the budget and national default makes for good drama, the question is whether it makes for good public policy? The sensible answer must certainly be “no.”
Many folks, such as myself, are apoplectic about our out-of-control spending, national debt problems, and the depreciation of our national ethic as a result of invasive government control. There are also citizens who recognize the virtue of the Affordable Health Care Act and the necessity for improvements to that Bill. It is my view that the Republicans can get more of what they want if they focus the attention of the American public on each separately. The Republicans obviously do not agree with me and believe that they do not have the votes to shape the budget they want, to effect national policy on the debt ceiling, or to repeal so-called Obama Care. If that is true and they do not have the votes, then what are they trying to accomplish?
The rhetorical question is easily answered. If an individual knows they cannot win a dispute with a neighbor over the location of a fence, the person in the weaker position will frequently try to link the dispute to all kinds of other problems that the two neighbors have had. “You talk nasty about me to another neighbor; you don’t clean up your trash; the fence is ugly.” We have all seen that sort of human behavior before.
If the Republicans are confident about their views, which they have every right to be, they would fight out the questions of government spending on all programs, entitlement and otherwise, with fight number two being over the Affordable Health Care Act. I am not the first one to suggest that the Republicans stand the risk of handing the Democrats an overwhelmingly liberal Congress in 2014. Now that would really be brilliant strategy, wouldn’t it?
The Democrats, of course, are not showing any great diplomacy. The President and his followers realize that they have the Republicans on the ropes and they are going to throw as many punches as they can. Why not? Wouldn’t the other party do the same thing if they could? The nation is screaming for a government that can at least pay its bills, address immigration reform, and contain healthcare problems.
So here we are, stuck in the middle of government dysfunction. Anyone who runs a business, has a family, or ever had a dispute with a neighbor over a fence is appalled. What is the lesson that we as citizens are learning, and what are our kids viewing as a result of the latest adult misbehavior? No wonder society in general is less civilized, more violent, and, generally speaking, less productive. The display of pique and unreasonableness by our own elected representatives sets an example of how NOT to raise our children.
I am in the midst of reading a book about the early years of Lyndon Baines Johnson, the man who quoted Isaiah during the Vietnam War. The system may not have been much better when politicians made back room deals to the detriment of their constituents, just to advance their own careers or to get a favorite piece of legislation through the halls of Congress. There may be an advantage to battling out our differences in the public domain. The difficulty that most of us are having is not that we want to go back to the bad old days or the duels such as the one between Alexander Hamilton, the father of modern capitalism, and Aaron Burr. Rather, we do want to see each issue plaguing our nation dealt with in a separate and discreet manner so that we can understand what positions the politicians are taking on issues, and what the future portends.
While I do not expect the United States of America to pass its own version of Pennsylvania’s Article III, Section 3, perhaps the latest bloody street brawl will result in a look at the spirit of the Pennsylvania Constitution when it comes to the issues which, as a nation, we must confront.
Clifford A. Rieders, Esquire
Rieders, Travis, Humphrey,
Waters & Dohrmann
161 West Third Street
Williamsport, PA 17701
(570) 323-8711 (telephone)
(570) 323-4192 (facsimile)
Cliff Rieders, who practices law in Williamsport, is Past President of the Pennsylvania Trial Lawyers Association and a member of the Pennsylvania Patient Safety Authority. None of the opinions expressed necessarily represent the views of these organizations.