Thursday, September 10, 2009

Congress the President and Civility

As anyone who pays even a modicum of attention to news and current events knows, last night President Obama delivered his much anticipated speech on health care reform to Congress. As speeches go it was pretty good. I hate to admit it, but he is probably the most gifted public speaker to reside at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. since Jack Kennedy. Yet his speech was somewhat overshadowed by the rather surly reception it got from the Republican minority. There were some cat calls and rather vocal hissing during his address. But the scene that will almost certainly be remembered was when Congressman Joe Wilson (R-SC) loudly shouted "You Lie!" at the President right after Mr. Obama made the (debatable) claim that his health insurance plan would not cover illegal aliens.

Setting aside for the moment the reasonable question of whether the President's statement was in fact accurate, calling the President of the United States a liar on national television during an address to a joint session of Congress was a grave breach in etiquette. There are limits to legitimate expressions of dissent and that was clearly beyond the pale. To the credit of all involved; the leadership of the GOP realized this immediately and spoke with Rep. Wilson after the speech. For his part Congressman Wilson phoned the White House to apologize and followed up with a written apology released to the press.

Of course Congress has a history of "lively" debate and heated exchanges. While I don't think we want to go back to those days, my Godfather pointed out in some recent correspondence that members of Congress back in the day were not as restrained in their passions as they are today. Fisticuffs were not unknown, members in the Senate (especially during the years predating the Civil War) often carried weapons onto the floor of the chamber and dueling was common. Perhaps the most stunning display of hot headedness occurred on May 22nd 1856 when Congressman Preston Brooks (also of South Carolina) attacked Senator Charles Sumner (R-MA) on the floor of the Senate and nearly beat him to death with a cane while an accomplice held other Senators at bay with a loaded pistol. Senator Sumner had recently delivered a scalding and highly personal attack on Senator Andrew Butler a near relative of Brooks.

It is quite possible that Republican heckling and Wilson's outburst could have unintended consequences. If the Republicans came across to Americans as behaving badly or disrespecting the President then it might damage their ability to politically challenge Obama on the health care reforms now being debated in Washington. Wilson appears to have already become something of a hero to those on the far right. But it is worth recalling that Preston Brooks also became a hero in the South following his attack on Senator Sumner. He was buried in an avalanche of fan mail with many southerners sending him new walking sticks to replace the one he broke over Sumner’s head.

In the North the reaction was quite different. Sumner was a not terribly popular radical abolitionist whose often incendiary rhetoric alienated many more moderate political figures in the North. The North itself was by no means abolitionist in its sentiment up to this point. Indeed most Northerners, if not actually sympathetic to the South, were at least largely indifferent and felt that Southern "domestic customs and institutions" were no business of theirs.

But the beating of Sumner on the Senate floor changed that. In an instant it galvanized the North and infuriated public opinion. There was universal condemnation of Brooks and overnight the South became a caricature for political backwardness and violent repression of free speech. Southerners were vilified as near barbarians. Northern public opinion had permanently turned against the South and this would have profound consequences for the future. Most historians credit the incident with helping to propel the Republican Party (hitherto a small abolitionist party) to national political prominence.

Obviously it would be grossly unfair to put Joe Wilson's rudeness in the same category as the savage beating inflicted on a United States Senator a century and half ago. But it is worth noting that in politics public opinion can be swayed by sentiment as easily as by facts. This is a lesson those opposed to the political agenda of the president need to keep in mind. President Obama is not above criticism and we must refute any effort to put him on some sort of dais. But we must also be careful to recall that he is not simply a prime minister such as exists in Great Britain who can be challenged on the floor of the House of Commons (though even there Wilson's outburst would have been out of bounds). He is also our head of state.

Like it or not, the Founders chose not to establish a monarchical head of state and instead combined the office with the head of the government. There is an old saying in the military that we salute the rank, never the man. Where the president is concerned I think this rule should be observed as far as possible. Barrack Obama is a political person with a political agenda. That makes him a fair target for criticism. But as the head of state he is also the ceremonial head of the nation. And yes that does mean that sometimes we need to bite our tongue and save the attacks for the right venue.

It now remains to be seen if this unfortunate incident has legs or if it will be quickly forgotten by the public. I think we may count on the Democrats to do all they can to make political hay of it. Republicans, if they wish to be successful, need to stay on message and avoid making our political battles personal.


Mastermind said...

Why not mention that Obama also called people liars during a PREPARED SPEECH rather than a knee-jerk reaction to someone else saying something they don't want to hear. Excerpt:

Some of people’s concerns have grown out of bogus claims spread by those whose only agenda is to kill reform at any cost. The best example is the claim, made not just by radio and cable talk show hosts, but prominent politicians, that we plan to set up panels of bureaucrats with the power to kill off senior citizens. Such a charge would be laughable if it weren’t so cynical and irresponsible. It is a lie, plain and simple.

The entire speech is full of crap like this, with Obama insinuating his critics are liars/nuts and dismissing their concerns as "bickering". Not to mention lies (like the one I quoted, the claim is flying around because Obama said it back when he was pandering to the far left wing of his own party).

I'm not sure why you're calling out Wilson for this when Obama should be considerably more dignified (arguably, I'll admit), and more importantly, when Obama has said far worse in a prepared speech (IE: it was premeditated rather than spur of the moment).

John (Ad Orientem) said...

I think you miss a subtle but extremely important difference between the president's (admittedly sharp) attack and Rep. Wilson's. The difference is the Ad Hominem. There are some others but that is what stands out, as well as the venue of course. Republicans have been calling Obama a liar since before he was elected. That's fine (assuming it's true). But not while he is speaking to a joint session of Congress. It was extremely bad form and disrespectful of the office.


Chris said...

Maybe calling Obama a liar during a joint session of Congress was in bad taste. But where was the outrage when Democrats booed and heckled Bush repeatedly (and I do mean repeatedly) during his 2005 State of the Union? There was no outrage and there was no one individual to cast suspicion on because many of them were doing it.

Also, how come Democrats can come to the floor of the Senate or House and hurl near obscenities and insults at a Republican President yet when a Republican does this to a Democrat, the Democrats cry foul and demand he be censured. Remember what happened to Rep. Dornan of California back in 1995 (i think it was 95)?

It's hypocrisy, plain and simple.

The rub is that Obama WAS lying. The language is, at best, vague and the Congressional Resource Office has said that there is nothing in HR 3200 preventing this dispersement of funds for illegals. In fact, in committee, when two specific amendments were offered to make sure that no funds were directed towards illegals, both were voted down. So though nothing in the bill says it will happen, there is nothing in the bill explicitly making it illegal either. Laws are supposed to be narrowly construed and interpreted, but in today's day and age, where argumenta ex silentio dominate, you have to have such language.

Anastasia Theodoridis said...

But there's no death panel or anything like it in any version of the bill. Mr. Obama is right. the charge IS laughable, cynical, irresponsible, and a lie. Not exactly a lie plain and simple though...

The truth is, the "death panel" already exists; i.e., the people who are charged with bringing down the cost of health care by, in effect, rationing it. And guess who heads up that committee? Ezekiel Immanuel, brother of the White House Chief of Staff.

Check it out here:

Chris said...


It's more insidious than that. Doctors, under the plan, are given INCENTIVES, monetary incentives to give counseling on end of life. Now, money is involved and Obama and anyone for this is going to tell me that this doesn't amount to government deciding, or at the very least, contributing, to decisions of who gets care and who doesnt?

John (Ad Orientem) said...

Of all the canards floating around out there I find the expression "rationing health care" to be one of the most patently absurd. We already have rationed health care. Every country in the world has rationed health care. Rationing is what you do when you have a limited quantity of something that everyone wants or needs. What makes this country stand out is that we are the only country in the developed world that still rations health care primarily on the basis of ability to pay and for profit.

John (Ad Orientem) said...

This death panels business is ridiculous. In what way is any of this more sinister than insurance companies deciding who lives or dies based on profit? Seriously folks. People need to get a grip.

End of Life counseling is not some horrific plot. The guidelines being put forward were prepared by the BUSH ADMINISTRATION and adopted by the aforementioned president for use in VA hospitals!

Anastasia Theodoridis said...

Good points, John. Yes, we already have health care rationing. My dying sister had her insurance cut off. Not that this shortened her life any; she was riddled with cancer.

And yes, we already have end of life counseling; my sister's doctor more than once urged her to give up and "let go". ("But I don't know how that's done," she told me. "What exactly do you do that's described as letting go?") and Hospice in effect killed my father by deliberate neglect, failure to hydrate, and withholding antibiotics. And lying to me about it, as I found out too late.

But I don't care whether this end-of-life rot is coming from an insurance company or the Bush Administration or who; and to me it makes no difference that we do already have it. It's still horrid. It still stinks. It's still wrong.

We have plenty of doctors and plenty of nurses. Doctors are overpaid and nurses are underpaid, or we'd have more of the latter. What mostly makes health care unaffordable, so that rationingt is needed, is corruption plus price-gouging. By doctors, hospitals, and insurance companies. Straighten that out, and we won't be able to hold a kleenex to every runny nose, in other words we won't be abe to accomodate people who abuse the system, but people can get all the care they need.

I hope whatever bill emerges will do this, but I'm not holding my breath.

rightwingprof said...

Given that the Democrats -- that's plural -- heckled President Bush during his State of the Union speech, I just can't get worked up over this, particularly since yes, Obama was lying through his teeth.

John (Ad Orientem) said...

Three quick points...

The major issue is not whether you are worked up over this. It is not whether I am worked up over it. It is whether the American people think Republicans are a bunch of obnoxious boors. If such becomes the case it will damage their ability (I am only nominally GOP these days) to fight Obama on substantive matters of policy.

Secondly, bad behavior on the part of others is not in my mind justification for my own behavior. "Well he did it first!" ceased to cut ice with my mother when I was somewhere around four. I think she was right.

Finally, the question of whether or not Obama's statement was factually accurate is debatable. The only argument I am aware of against him on facts is that it is presumed that the current system of requiring Emergency Rooms to treat anyone who comes through their doors will continue, and this would likely mean illegal aliens would continue to have access to emergency medical services. I do not believe that it is directly addressed in any of the pending bills though. If you have specific information that indicates either Obama or any of the pending bills specifically cover illegal aliens I would be interested to see it along with a source. Otherwise I believe that it is best to take a very deep breath before giving the lie.

Yours in ICXC

rightwingprof said...

The loophole was removed after Joe Wilson's outburst. However, it's rather silly, I think, to lament the death of civility in Congress when Ted Kennedy killed it lying about Robert Bork. There has been no civility since.

I am, however, sick of Democrats getting a pass on every sort of low, despicable behavior while the slightest infraction of politeness from a Republican gets outrage.

And there is certainly nothing wrong with calling anyone, including the President, a liar if he is, indeed, lying.

John (Ad Orientem) said...

I have heard from all the usual neo-con sources that Obama was lying. But I have yet to see any evidence of it. No one seems to be able to show me anything in writing from a legitimate source that provides evidence of this lie.

As for calling persons a liar, this implies two elements. First one needs a statement that is factually false. And secondly there must be knowledge that it was factually false at the time it was made coupled with an intent to deceive. Again despite all of the hot air I have seen no evidence. I keep asking for it and no one can provide it.

Finally I must respectfully reaffirm that while one may call someone out for lying. Doing so on the floor of Congress during a joint session is bad form. I don't let the bad behavior of others serve as my standards. Mr. Wilson was wrong and grossly disrespectful to the office of the president.

Bill Clinton is an excellent case in point. He obviously and indisputably lied to the American people while in office. I called him a liar on many occasions. But I would NEVER have been so crass as to disrespect the office he held by doing so during a joint session of Congress or any similar function.

The office is always greater than the man. And the office demands a level of respect which the person holding it rarely merits on his own.


rightwingprof said...

Well, since you'll only accept information from liberal sources, how's Time Magaine?,8599,1921713,00.html

"The controversy over Republican Rep. Joe Wilson's shouting out "You Lie!" at the President over his claim that illegal immigrants wouldn't benefit from health-care reform apparently sparked some reconsideration of the relevant language. "We really thought we'd resolved this question of people who are here illegally, but as we reflected on the President's speech last night we wanted to go back and drill down again," said Senator Kent Conrad, one of the Democrats in the talks after a meeting Thursday morning. Baucus later that afternoon said the group would put in a proof of citizenship requirement to participate in the new health exchange — a move likely to inflame the left."

Anonymous said...

As I understand it, the whole "he lied" thing comes down to whether there is a requirement that healthcare providers verify citizenship before providing care. As someone who works for a provider, I think it is absurd to place upon the responsibility of policing our borders. It is not our responsibility to determine whether our patient is a legal resident or not.

Because of where we are located, we treat many illegals. Some have commercial insurance provided by an employer. Many have false social security cards. Our attitude is that it is not our business to determine the citizenship of our patients.

We cannot be placed in the position where we are supposed to suspect every patient who has a Spanish surname and speaks with an accent.

leitourgeia said...

I think the bottom line is that we can't get there from here, whether by "here" one means being able to disagree civilly without it requiring a character judgment, or actual health care reform. The various ships have sailed, I think.

Perspective: at its height, the Roman Empire was roughly 4 million square miles, with 2073 miles between London and Alexandria. The United States is roughly 3.6 million square miles, with 2462 miles between Los Angeles and New York. The Roman Empire started to crack after a couple of centuries, and I think the same is inevitable for us. We're past a "Red/Blue" America -- I think there are a plurality of different Americas various parties want, and they're mutually exclusive. God help us all.


Anastasia Theodoridis said...

I expect that's probably correct.

Multi-culturalism only works in very small doses.

And then there are the very contradictions upon which our beloved country was built: the noble ideals expressed in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution versus the practical realities of slavery and genocide (the American Indians).

And then there's the hard, sobering fact that large segments of our current economy depend upon there being illegal immigrants working for next to nothing. It's an injustice all around, but one without which we'd all be in a very, very difficult spot. To put it right would require more sacrifice than most Americans are probably willing to make. Which means there's quite a bit of hypocrisy surrounding this issue.

Nikolaus said...

Some 20+ years ago, during my wife's first pregnancy, we were insured through an HMO. Other expecting mothers in the plan shared stories that they consider terminating their pregnancy because it was cheaper. While we were never approached so bluntly, my wife overheard the nurses refering to her as "the one who was keeping 'it'!" It became clear during her labor that the OB/GYN was not well practiced in delivery and it was very clear that the hospital staff was covering for his inability.

I fear that this is an anecdote of what we have to look forward to.

Anonymous said...

So....what do you do with an "illegal alien" that has active TB or the "plague" or some other infectious disease?

I worked as a Medicaid eligibility worker in one of the most prosperous counties in California, ( and the U.S.)at a public health clinic. Most of the applicants were pregnant women, children and elderly people. About half were undocumented.

Would you like to deny medical care to a pregnant woman, ( whose child will be a U.S. citizen),? How about children, (who, if not citizens, are eligible only for restricted care, ( a broken arm, infectious disease))? Would you deny care to an old person?

I'm rather tired of reading "right-wing" screeds about health care. If these screeders want to really know the facts, let them visit a public health clinic.

The staff, doctors, nurses and clerical, are underpaid, overworked, overstressed, and yet, dedicated to providing health care to all who come in the door.

I found these people to embody the Orthodox teaching about "non-mercenary doctors" in a way that always humbled me since none, as far as I knew, were Orthodox, ( most were Catholic, Jewish or Episcopalians if anything).

Chrys said...

You are correct that the free market is a rationing system. More to the point, it is a fairly efficient rationing system mediated through the mechanism of price. Price is the point at which both buyer and seller are willing to make an exchange.

When governments seek to eliminate the unfairness that invariably occurs in such free markets (i.e., those who have and those who do not), they necessarily suspend pricing action. This invariably creates surpluses when the imposed price is too high (which the government did during the Depression in order to maintain artificially higher wages - no kidding) or scarcity when the imposed price is too low. Scarcity occurs because (A) the consumer has no incentive not to "over use" the product or service (that is, has no reason to "self-ration" by the careful allocation of resources), and (B) the producer - who is effectively selling below a prudent price (cost plus) loses the incentive to continue to provide the product or service. With market-based pricing, periods of surplus or scarcity are often corrected fairly quickly (certainly by comparison to government action) because (A) there is an incentive to do so, and (B) competition to pursue opportunities will energize the resources of often more potential providers than would or could be mobilized by government direction.

This, in turn, leads to my key concerns about ANY government option:
First, it need never operate at a profit - in fact it can operate at a loss since it will be taxpayer supported - it WILL crowd out most market-based providers. (By analogy: how many parents want to pay the extra cost of private schooling when they are already underwriting the local public school. Some, yes, but statistically few.)
Second, it can NOT possibly reduce costs or increase efficiency - which are the stated reasons for their being considered. Market-based sources MUST be responsive or else they will lose business to competition, their profits will fall and they will go out of business. Not only can they be fired, they can also be sued. These two feedback loops (fired or sued) keep them remarkably responsive to the needs of the individual. The twin blessings of responsiveness and efficiency arise from the NEED to adapt profitably to current demand.
Government programs are simply not vulnerable to either of these mechanisms; only overwhelming public sentiment which does not usually reach the required pitch until there is a clear and pervasive of ineptness AND a sufficiently tragic event to galvanize the hostility generated by common experience. (One alone will not do it. It takes both to "force" government to change.) That is, the organization can not be “fired.”
Second, they NEVER need to make a profit; they can "take" the resources they need through taxation. Only ventures that NEED to make a profit to survive will ever be responsive to an individual's demands - and that clearly isn't government. It may not be "big insurance" either - but "big insurance" exists as it does because government policies have really limited competition. A few quick changes and we could easily have health insurance that is as responsive and willing to make deals as telecom companies are now. Perfect, no. Responsive, competitive and increasingly cheap? Yes.
One reason for the widespread public reaction to this wholesale attempt to remake health care is that it so clearly contradicts our experience elsewhere.
What we need are incentives that will allow greater competition and more flexible pricing. If the goal is to provide better access to the incredible health care we have - then we need to make sure that we empower the many rather than constrain them.
If we believe that God has distributed gifts among His people – among all people, in fact – then it should not be surprising that those countries and cultures that allow them to freely exercise those gifts will also be the most blessed – as we have been. Any proposed solution to health care needs to recognize that.

Sorry about the length.

Anonymous said...

Chrys- An interesting analysis...with a flaw the size of Mt. Everest.

This is health care that is being discussed. Not cars, TV's, houses, clothes.

Health care. Pregnant women, sick babies, infants, children, elders, etc;etc;.

You know....what the Good Lord gave away in his healings? I don't remember Christ charging anyone for His healing nor asking anyone if they had health insurance...nor do I remember the "unmercenary doctors" doing so, ( which is why they were martyred at the instigation of the AMA of their day).

You should examine how other countries provide basic health care for their citizens.

Chrys said...

Anonymous, I think you are missing the Himalayan flaws in your own assumptions. (Or, if you prefer a Biblical reference, the beam in your assumptions.)
Did Jesus, the Apostles and the unmercenary healers ask for insurance or charge anything? No. But He and they were not supported by the State either, which is what you seem to be recommending. Your example disqualifies the one “option” as much as it does the other . . . unless you are actually suggesting that doctors to work for free. (In which case, demanding sanctity from the medical profession should shrink the number of service providers to a very small handful.)

In the interest of consistency, you would also have to note that Jesus didn’t charge for His teaching or His feeding of the masses either, so – by your criteria - teachers and restaurateurs – as well as your own bishop and priest - are violating the spirit of the faith as well.

It is in fact the wealth that our system – as a whole – has created, that allows us to mandate that emergency rooms (our current universal coverage system) treat all of the people you cite – whether they have insurance or not.

Are you suggesting that the market is “o.k.” for non-essential services, but not for essential services? This seems to be the case from your second sentence. This assumes that government will somehow provide more efficient, more productive and more responsive care than a market-based system – which is exactly what I was addressing previously. The problem is that government is economically parasitic – it doesn’t “produce” anything; rather, it consumes resources. (I am NOT suggesting that it has no valid role. Government is well-suited to provide a regulatory and protective role.)

You point to other systems. Many countries enjoy the advantage of being able to “off-load” their most demanding medical cases to the US – where we can and will treat them. This “ventilation system” allows them to maintain their barely solvent systems. By all accounts, however, Canada and Britain are facing serious financial strains. But this again goes to my key point that government is not structured in the manner required to be either responsive or efficient. Bankruptcy is inevitable – the difference being that government can use its monopoly on force to delay the outcome by underwriting these losses with taxes . . . until it can’t. Of course, how inefficient and unresponsive care is more humane, however, has yet to be satisfactorily explained.

More would be lost than efficiency, however – most of the dynamism that continues to produce revolutionary medical technologies and pharmaceutical innovations would be lost as well. The reason for this is inherent in government’s approach. To maintain control, government limits “input” into the system to a small handful of authorized – often bureaucratic – people; by contrast the market is open to the input of anyone who has a better idea or way. This, it seems to me, is far more amenable to the gifts that God has generously distributed to His people. The innovations developed in the market continue to enhance the services of doctors everywhere – not just here, but in state-mediated countries as well (except maybe Cuba and North Korea). It is important to know what we would be losing as well before we decide that someone else’s motive is offensive and we should have the right to control their income.

Finally, despite the leftist notion that compassionate policies are consistent with the Gospel, at no point does Jesus commend anyone for the service of someone else. Paying taxes are a duty, not an act of generosity. If I choose to give away all of my wealth, I may well be on the path to sainthood, but if the government simply takes it from me, I gain nothing. If I choose to support or serve the poor, I may be a “good and faithful servant.” If I vote for policies that direct an agency to do so, it does not redound to my credit. The unmercenary healers offered themselves – not a government mandate in their stead.

Anonymous said...


There's no use in arguing with someone who truly thinks that THE STATE is somehow something separate from yourself or the people around you.