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Barton: Reform Plans Are Out of Sync With Reality

Only the most grizzled survivors of the early health care wars remember the Medicare Catastrophic Coverage Act of 1988, in which a dictatorial Democratic chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee conceived and passed a “reform” that was promptly repealed after a crowd of Chicago senior citizens pounded his car in protest. Something like that is happening again, and I suspect that it’s because Democrats are again so utterly out of touch.

What most any Congressman used to get at a town meeting during a sleepy summer recess was an earful of local issues and some usually good-natured complaining about ignorance in Washington, D.C.

Not this summer.

I’m betting that nobody who ever stood at a lectern will forget what happened this past August when Washington salon philosophy met hometown reality face to face. A few of those town halls turned into an unplanned TV show that some called, “Survivor: Congress,” and anybody with a friend or foe to hold a camera got their YouTube moment.

How’d Congress get so out of sync with the people who hired us? I think I know the answer. It’s the Washington echo chamber where working people’s voices are drowned out by those of activists, lobbyists and editorialists who sincerely believe that an idea is something to be discovered in Washington and carried home like a precious jewel to be displayed to the adoring people.

To make a point, I’m going to pick on one particular activist outfit — Families USA — but not because I have anything against a “nonpartisan” organization founded in Washington and staffed by Democrats, for Democrats, and that loves government-run health care.

Families USA and like-minded groups are simply the most visible part of a perpetual Washington exchange of ideas that is so intense and pervasive that it’s possible to conclude that nobody anywhere in America believes anything else. Discovering otherwise this past August was a shock to Democratic Congressmen who left town mesmerized by the wonders of the public option, universal health care and/or the single-payer system, and then stumbled over a different reality back home.

Enter my example, Families USA, which is just one among those philosophy-driven groups that believe hard, talk loud and don’t take prisoners. Since 2000, the group has put out 700-plus press releases, all designed to tell Congress what to do. In 2000 there were just 11. Here in 2009, they’re on track to crash through the 200-a-year mark a little before Christmas.

What they have to say is nearly as interesting as their escalating frequency. When last year’s regular Census Bureau report on health insurance inconveniently showed that the number of people without health insurance coverage declined from 47 million (15.8 percent) in 2006 to 45.7 million (15.3 percent) in 2007, Families USA was uncharacteristically silent. That’s because it took them two months to tease out enough bad news on which states were lagging, and to issue 14 press releases explaining how, for example, “Georgia Ranks Fifth Worst ...”

In pressing for health care reform, Families USA is eager to tell you what’s wrong with the system, and how it’ll get worse when the change comes from Republicans instead of Democrats. Here are some samples:

Statement: House Prescription Drug Bill Leaves Medicines Unaffordable for America’s Seniors  (June 28, 2002)
Statement: President Would Force Seniors to Lose Choice of Doctors if They Want to Receive Prescription Drug Coverage  (Jan. 28, 2003)
Governor Blagojevich’s Legislation to Provide Health Care  (Dec. 12, 2005)
National Dialogue Substantiates People’s Support for Universal Health Care  (Sept. 25, 2006)
Increase in Medicare Part D Plans Will Add to Seniors’ Confusion  (Sept. 29, 2006)
Suit Challenges New Law Requiring over 50 Million People in Medicaid to Document Citizenship  (June 28, 2006)
New Report Shows How Many People Are Likely to Die in New Hampshire Due to Lack of Health Coverage  (March 14, 2008)

(Now, history has been a little unkind to these ideas, what with the Bush administration’s Medicare prescription drug plan turning out to be popular, seniors somehow not collapsing in confusion, welfare for illegal immigrants not getting much public support, and the formerly heroic Blagojevich getting out of the policy business.)

If that’s all you ever heard — and many in Washington hear nothing else — what a surprise it must be to listen to the 5,000-plus members of actual families who packed my town hall meetings over the August break. Here’s some of what they told me:

“Get the federal government out of our lives.”

“My first statement is, relative to this health plan, I think it’s a farce.”

“I’m a little nervous and I’m a little teed off.”

“You need to really introduce a bill on the floor of the House that makes it mandatory for each and every Congressman and each and every Congressman’s staff to take out the Constitution and read the dad gum thing.”

“You can’t put a steering wheel on the American people.”

Among those gobsmacked by the notion that politicians can’t steer the public into government-run health care was Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), who quickly labeled constituents like mine “un-American.” Well, I have some news for the Speaker — my constituents are very American and very right to be concerned, and the overwhelming majority is opposed to the Democrats’ health bill.

The fact is that by hearing only each other, the president, the Speaker and their Democrats made a mess of the health care reform effort. The question now is this: Will the Speaker and the president try to ram through their flawed, big-government plan, or will they change course and work with those like me who have actually listened to a public that is telling us to reform our health care system with more freedom instead of more government?

Rep. Joe Barton (R-Texas) is ranking member of the House Energy and Commerce Committee.

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