The well of the United States House of Representatives has provided the forum over the decades for some truly inspiring speeches – some delivered by members of that body, such as former Judiciary Chairman Henry Hyde; others by non-legislators invited by the House to speak to its members (Winston Churchill and Douglas MacArthur come readily to mind). On a day-to-day basis, however, what passes for debate on the floor of the House is more proletarian than uplifting. Eloquence is more often than not discarded in favor of partisanship, and substance frequently trumped by soundbites.
Even measured against this modern standard for what passes for “debate” in the Congress, however, the final presentations last Sunday evening in the lengthy health care legislation were depressing. The remarks, delivered first by Minority Leader John Boehner and then by Speaker Nancy Pelosi, completely lacked substance and, in the case of Mr. Boehner, were tinged with anger and profanity. The Democratic message, delivered by Ms. Pelosi, was typically sophomoric and poorly delivered. Her remarks claiming that the pending legislation would — presumably by placing control of medicine in America in the hands of the IRS and other government bureaucrats — unleash the American spirit of free enterprise, was silly in the extreme. Yet, because the point of Pelosi’s speech was to elicit applause rather than enlighten, it drew predictably wild applause from the Speaker’s side of the aisle.
In the long run, however, Pelosi’s comments will matter little; for her party won a significant legislative victory, and it is the results of that vote that will define the future debate, not her remarks.
On the Republican side, however, the manner in which the GOP defined the terms of its position, and the tone and substance of its remarks, will resonate beyond the March 21st vote, and probably not to the benefit of the party.
It wasn’t as if the Republican Party was not presented with a number of opportunities over the past several months during which this legislation was being crafted, through which to offer substantive, coherent alternatives while at the same time opposing the Democrats’ proposal. Throughout the months of this unfolding controversy, public polls established repeatedly that a majority of Americans opposed a government take over of the system whereby medical services are delivered and paid for. And opposing the Democratic Party’s plan on this basis was an important and appropriate strategy for the GOP.
However, in essentially limiting the Republican Party’s opposition to just that — opposition — without clearly and consistently offering a constructive legislative alternative, the minority party has dramatically limited its future likelihood of success in undoing the damage to be visited on America’s economy and medical services by this new health care law. Now that the president has signed the legislation into law, its terms become the status quo, and it is axiomatic that the most powerful force in the universe is the force of the status quo.
The Republicans will need more than the angry, profane rhetoric of John Boehner as delivered to his House colleagues Sunday evening, as a base from which to launch any electoral or legislative effort to overturn this just-enacted health care law. In fact, the image of the Republican leader angrily using profanity in his party’s concluding remarks Sunday, rather than setting forth a strong, positive alternative agenda on which to base subsequent efforts, will likely resonate to his party’s disadvantage in the months ahead.
The national Republican Party could have used the opportunity of having a national audience last Sunday evening, to present a clear, substantive alternative to the Democratic Party’s proposal that is now law of the land. Instead, it simply used the forum to play to its base with a shallow display of anger.
What small glimmer of light there may be at the end of this lengthening dark tunnel of government control, rests largely in the hands of those state attorneys general and public interest law firms that have already filed, or will soon file legal, constitutional challenges to the most problematic provisions in the health care law. The lawsuits will face a formidable challenge in convincing the federal courts that the mandates in this new law have gone beyond the pale in taking power from the people and placing it in the hands of the federal government; this, considering that in only a handful of instances in the past 75 years has the Supreme Court found any government mandate to be violative of the Constitution. Still, even though the lawyers who will be prosecuting these legal challenges face daunting obstacles, they are certain to present their arguments with a great deal more substance and professionalism than exhibited by the Republican House leadership.