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Jewish World Review July 22, 1999 /9 Av, 5759

David Corn

David Corn
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Freedom’s Just
Another Word --
AT THE START OF the debate in the Senate last week on legislation regulating health plans, Phil Gramm, a conservative Republican from Texas, blasted the Democratic bill because "the one thing it does not provide is more freedom." Does Gramm believe that freedom currently reigns in the U.S. health care system? Actually, it does to a degree—for the insurance companies. They’re free to tell doctors and patients what to do, and they’re free of retribution should they act negligently, for patients are prevented by law from suing negligent HMOs that cause injury or death.

Gramm was correct in that freedom is indeed at issue. Under the Democratic bill, a woman in an HMO could choose a gynecologist as her primary care doctor. But Republicans voted against this. In fact, Gramm and his GOP colleagues opposed a string of Democratic provisions that would provide consumers more options, such as the choice of staying in the hospital after a mastectomy, the choice of retaining a doctor for a few months if forced to switch health plans and the choice of going to the closest E.R. Republicans, however, argued that his package represented intrusive government and would cost too much. To cover their cheeks, though, the Republicans did vote for their own mastectomy hospital-stay provision.

The tussle over the patient bill of rights -- an initiative that, after all, is a rather modest stab at health care reform, considering that it would do nothing for the 43 million Americans who have no access to health insurance -- revealed the emptiness of right-wing rhetoric about "freedom." In this instance, more government rules would stop corporations from curtailing the freedom of consumers. Should health plans be free to overrule doctors on questions of treatment? Free to order doctors not to discuss certain treatments with their patients?

Should insurance companies be free to submit complaints to a review panel hand-picked by the company, rather than one of independent experts? What value comes from the protection of such freedoms?

Gramm should have been more honest. It is not freedom in the abstract that he was serving. It was the freedom of corporations to act however the market will allow them. It would have been instructive for the public if the debate in Washington had forthrightly addressed the fundamental question at hand: Can government be enlisted to force corporations to act responsibly, especially on life-and-death matters?

Behind a wall of rhetoric, Republicans rushed to the defense of insurance companies and HMOs, entities not generally popular with the public. The Republicans must be assuming that the mild measures they did pass will let them claim they indeed care about patients—and survive the inevitable Democratic propaganda. It’s a cynical ploy.
The GOPers claim the Democrats are wrong to interject the government into health care—and then they approve watered-down, copycat legislation that does little to redress the problem but enough to ward off political criticism. If only the Republicans would act on Gramm’s true beliefs and declare: Patients of this nation, you’re on your own; let the market decide, let (corporate) freedom rule. That’s essentially the party’s position. But it has neither the guts nor the stupidity to say so.

Bile and Guts

On the subject of guts and stupidity, we turn to Sen. Bob Smith of New Hampshire. As his Republican Party was helping the health insurance industry, Smith was whipping his party for its lack of ideological forthrightness. In an overly ballyhooed speech on the Senate floor, this presidential candidate—a presidential candidate who never scored above the margin of error in a poll—left the Republican Party, wailing that it was under the control of wimps. “Maybe [the GOP] is a party in the sense of wearing hats and blowing whistles,” he griped. “This is not a political party that means anything.” His chief complaint was not that the Republicans behaved hypocritically on the health care bill, but that the party does not take seriously its own stands on two other issues: abortion and gun control.

Ponder Smith’s stand for a moment. All the leading presidential candidates of the GOP oppose abortion rights in some form or another and in Congress the Republicans have passed legislation to outlaw late-term abortions—a move that only President Clinton’s veto thwarted. Regarding guns, the House Republicans last month succeeded in smothering a Democratic gun control initiative. Yet this is not enough for Smith.

He’s peeved that the party does not excommunicate from its ranks politicians who are pro-choice and that it does not strive to roll back the modest gun control regulation now on the books. He wants the Republicans to be a party run and peopled by gun-toting mullahs.

Smith tried to sell his departure as an act of principle. It must be, for he will not profit career-wise from it. He did receive his moment in the media sun, and is free to run for president as the candidate of the wacky-right U.S. Taxpayers Party. But how many voters are waiting to rally around his platform of guns for all, abortions for none, U.S. out of the UN and abolition of the Dept. of Education? Grant Smith one cheer for provoking media chatter about third parties—we need more of them—and independent presidential campaigns—we could use more of these, as long as they’re Perot-free. But Smith is not going to pose any more of a political threat on his own than he did as a flopping GOP candidate.

Smith’s resignation afforded conservatives an opportunity to complain about George W. and the Republican establishment’s pay-now-examine-later embrace of its most prominent brand name. (“After four months of a Bush Republican Party, the only measurable result we’ve got is that Republicans have one fewer senator in Congress, which is not a good start,” the never-elected-to-anything conservative activist and presidential candidate Gary Bauer cleverly cracked.) Yet Smith jumped when nobody was pushing. His departure from the Bush-happy outfit says more about the grouser than the party he left behind.

In case you’re tempted to think that Smith is at least a principled right-wing extremist—and some critics of the Democratic/Republican duopoly tried to tag Smith as a conscientious objector to politics as usual—consider that last week Smith was awarded a “golden leash” award by the campaign finance reform advocates of Public Campaign. The nonprofit group reported that between 1993 and 1998, Smith, who chaired the Senate subcommittee in charge of toxic waste cleanup, collected $323,944 in campaign contributions from industries—such as oil, gas, chemical, mining and insurance—that want to see cleanup laws weakened.

Coincidentally or not—you make the call—Smith has pushed for legislation that would lower the amount that polluters have to pay for toxic site cleanups. He is not a crusader for straightforward politics and honest government; he is a crank—too cranky for even the GOP—who’s looking to make common cause with other cranks.

JWR contributor David Corn, Washington Editor of The Nation, writes the "Loyal Opposition" column for The New York Press.


07/16/99: In the Money
07/14/99: Basta!
06/22/99: Whose Public Service Is It, Anyway?
06/17/99: The Book On Bill
06/15/99: George W. owes Bubba big
06/10/99: You’re Okay, I’m Running For Senate
06/04/99: Gore to South Africans: Drop Dead
06/02/99: Gone Fishin’
05/28/99: It’s in The Water
05/26/99: Pistol-Whipped
05/20/99: Combat Pay
05/19/99: Meet the New Boss
05/14/99: A 37-Year Losing Streak
05/12/99: Funds Before Guns
05/07/99: Missing In Action
05/05/99: Gun Shy
04/30/99: A Flyover War
04/28/99: Darwin Made Me Do It
04/16/99: Spin to Sell
04/16/99: No Controlling Authority
04/16/99: Damage Done
04/14/99: No Left Churn
04/12/99: Clinton’s Policy Bombs
04/09/99: A Cuban Frost
04/05/99: Coups and Fibbers
03/31/99: The Flynt Fizzle
03/24/99: Liddy and St. Steve
03/19/99: Hope in Hollywood
03/12/99: Clinton: The Novel
03/08/99: A Tale of Two Clintons
03/04/99: ..and Dumber
03/01/99: Post-Mortem Ad Nauseam
02/25/99: What’s Next?

©1999, David Corn