This summer, the American people have focused intently on how Washington proposes to reform health care. One thing is clear: They aren’t impressed with Congress’ efforts to date.
A new CBS poll shows that average citizens, by a margin of 31 to 18, think they’ll be worse off under the proposed overhaul. Their worries at town halls–about the value the government will place on human life and about the odd claim that spending $1 trillion more will save money–are commonsensical, not un-American questions. The president has an opportunity Wednesday not to double-down on the Congress’ failing strategy, but to demonstrate the kind of change to Washington’s business-as-usual on which he campaigned.
While the media has focused on intermittent shouting, our main take-away from the town halls has been different: An unprecedented number of voters are actually reading the draft legislation. At the overflow events we’ve seen, broad cross-sections of America–patients to providers, students to seniors, small-business owners to corporate executives–are reciting page and line numbers from the 1,000-page bills. In most cases, questioners have shown greater command of the technical substance of these proposals than many who have voted for the legislation.
Working Americans, who have seen billions of their hard-earned dollars squandered on the financial and auto bailouts, no longer believe Washington deserves the benefit of the doubt. After the frantic rush to pass an economic stimulus package less than 24 hours after it was written, only a small fraction of the dollars have been spent in the subsequent seven months. While Washington guaranteed the stimulus bill would keep unemployment below 8%, one in 10 Americans are now struggling to find jobs. Washington promised to cut the deficit in half, yet budget officials project we will actually add more than $9 trillion to the national debt over the next decade.
Asking if Washington’s rhetoric matches the reality of what the bills say is not only the right but the responsibility of an engaged, educated citizenry. Beltway insiders do not seem to realize that average Americans no longer take politicians’ vague promises at face value.
On Main Streets across Texas, the quote of the year belongs to Rep. John Conyers: “What good is reading the bill if it’s a thousand pages and you don’t have two days and two lawyers to find out what it means after you read the bill?” Feeling swindled from the $787 billion stimulus bill, wary constituents are picking up the slack and reading the health care legislation themselves. And they want to make sure their elected representatives know what the fine print actually says.
We agree with the president that inaction on health reform is not an option. But worried Americans are wisely asking if their leaders are sure that their bills will not simply make today’s problems worse. They are wary of giving control over personal matters of life-and-death to distant bureaucracies and to political deal-cutters who often do not even know the details of their own deals.
The president can bank a huge reservoir of public trust Wednesday by engaging the public with direct answers to their commonsense questions, such as:
–We spend nearly double per capita what some other industrialized nations spend on health care; how will another trillion dollars really reduce health care spending?
–How can we cut nearly $500 billion from the Medicare program for seniors when it is now underfunded by three times the national debt and currently projected to be bankrupt by 2017?
–How will a new government-run insurance program “keep insurers honest” when our two current public plans, Medicare and Medicaid, are riddled with unmatched fraud, waste and abuse?
–How do we reconcile the claim that lobbyist influence in Washington is decreasing with the fact that those most closely consulted on these gargantuan bills are special interest groups like the pharmaceutical industry?
–”Minimum benefit packages” that are mandated as a part of every insurance plan sound great, but since there’s no such thing as a free lunch, don’t mandated benefits actually reduce choices and drive up costs for all patients?
–Will employer “pay-or-play” mandates accelerate the job losses we are seeing across the country?
By honestly engaging the centrist questions of the voters Wednesday night–instead of parroting the central planners’ one-size-fits-all talking points–the president could provide the specificity the people are demanding and lead a supermajority of the middle. For example, he has repeatedly said that reform should spread to the entire system the superior quality and cost-effectiveness of integrated delivery systems–like the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota or Scott & White in Texas. We agree. But now he needs to tell us how his solution will help rather than hurt these non-governmental innovators. If he can do this, he may find the kind of broad public support that Congress’ efforts have lacked.
As important: By paying serious heed to the public’s fear–that a Washington that doesn’t read its bills is as likely to break what works as fix what’s broken–Obama can rebuild the trust of the American people in their leaders.
Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, serves on the Finance, Judiciary, Agriculture and Budget committees and is the chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee. Benjamin E. Sasse, former U.S. assistant secretary of health, teaches at the University of Texas and advises health investors.
Op-ed by Sen. Cornyn and Benjamin E. Sasse and was posted on Forbes.