To cure the dysfunctional Congress — don’t call the doctors
Public approval of Congress stood at 11 percent in the most recent CBS and Gallup polls. The consistency of such highly negative opinions, Congress’ recent work product and the manner in which it has been done suggest the dismal ratings are well deserved. One candidate for president, the incumbent who has modest approval ratings of his own, yet four times as high as Congress, has clearly taken a page from Harry Truman and shrewdly decided to run against a “do nothing Congress.”
There are lots of reasons why the proceedings of both houses have deteriorated into endless rounds of finger pointing and recrimination, depriving the nation of many urgently needed laws, nominees and programs. One reason for the dysfunction, and a surprising and even shocking one to the not easily shocked Weekender, is the arrival of a group of reactionary physicians, who by virtue of the American romance with doctors exercise disproportionate influence in the halls of Congress.
There currently are 19 medical doctors in the House and Senate, the highest number ever. Seven are “freshmen” and over half have been in Congress three or fewer years. Their lack of experience has not engendered humility nor motivated them to learn their jobs before relentlessly attacking new colleagues and demanding that many existing federal programs, departments and institutions be dismantled.
One of these doctors, Larry Broun of Georgia’s 10th congressional district, set the tone for this tactically and ideologically cohesive group by comparing then President-elect Obama to Hitler and Stalin one week after the 2008 presidential election. Broun later told a radio interviewer that he didn’t know whether Obama was a citizen or a Christian, but knew he was a “socialist.”
To date, Dr. Broun’s major accomplishments have been introduction of bills declaring 2010 “The Year of the Bible,” one banning sale of sexually explicit materials on military bases (I can hear the grateful screams of male soldiers all the way from Bagram Air Base) and uncovering the socialist plot at the Centers for Disease Control to force Americans to eat more fruit and vegetables.
Another self-described “Georgia Peach” representing the 11th district is Dr. Phil Gingrey, who initially said that attacking the new president wasn’t a wise tactic. Gingrey rebuked Rush Limbaugh after the conservative pundit criticized Republican leaders Mitch McConnell and John Boehner for their timidity. But Gingrey quickly repented on Limbaugh’s show saying “I just want to tell you, Rush, and all the conservative giants … that I regret those stupid comments.” Gingrey went on to vote against the federal assistance programs for GM and Chrysler, against the stimulus package and against TARP, programs which by all accounts prevented the deep recession of 2008-09 from cascading into an economic abyss. Gingrey supports one type of bailout, for small community banks — two in which he is heavily invested and served as a director while in Congress. Both banks failed after the loans they made to Georgia real estate developers defaulted after the abandonment and foreclosure of thousands of real estate bubble houses.
Another doctor-member whose main source of income is neither medical fees nor his congressional salary is Dr. John Fleming, representing Louisiana’s 4th district. Fleming owns 33 Subway shops and a string of UPS stores. Clearly understanding a moment in history and his role in it, Fleming, on Sept. 19, two days after Wall Street was occupied, complained about the president’s proposal to tax 1 percenters, like him, at Reagan era rates, stating “…by the time I feed my family I have maybe $400,000 left over…” Fleming and a vast majority of the doctors in Congress support a single tax rate applying uniformly to the top and bottom 1 percent. Indeed, Fleming and doctor-members Broun, Gingrey, Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, Tom Price of Georgia and Phil Roe of Tennessee would entirely eliminate income taxation and substitute the so-called “FairTax” a 30 percent national sales tax on all purchases, adding three bucks to the price of a typical 10 spot Subway meal.
A similarly accurate and representative highlight film could be assembled for each of the 19 doctors. Instead, let’s examine how the doctors as a group have voted on many of the bills and issues that “Ontheissues.org,” an independent, non-partisan, non-profit group selected to evaluate the substantive positions of all 535 members of the 112th Congress.
First we examine the votes and stated positions of the 18 Republican doctor-members, beginning with their extraordinarily revealing positions on health care. Every doctor other than Ron and Rand Paul backed the alternative federal budget advanced by Wisconsin Congressman Paul Ryan that eliminates the Medicare program over a 10-year period. The Pauls opposed the Ryan Budget, but of course, also call for the abolition of Medicare, just more rapidly.
Every member that took a position opposed expansion of CHIP, the Children’s Health Insurance Program, providing coverage for children in families without health insurance, and every member also opposed expansion of S-CHIP, the state component of this program. Every doctor opposed the 2010 Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (“ObamaCare”) and called for its repeal. Every member stating a position, save one, opposed treating mental illness as the equivalent of physical illness in federal health programs. Dr. Charles Boustany representing Louisiana’s 7th district was the exception.
On abortion, there is virtual unanimity among the 18 on the overarching matter and every subsidiary issue. The lone potential exception is Dr. Nan Hayworth representing New York’s 19th, who prior to entering the House was pro-choice and whose physician husband has performed abortions. At this point, Hayworth refuses to talk, but in one vote closed ranks with the 17 other Republicans to prohibit any federal funds from being used to pay for abortions in any circumstance, including rape, incest or to save the mother’s life. Every member stating a position said human life begins at “conception” or “fertilization” and opposed all embryonic stem cell research.
Every member stating a position claimed protection of the unborn (now called “preborn”) under the Constitution’s 14th Amendment that states:
“All persons born or naturalized in the United States … are citizens of the United States…”
Yet these members at the same time demand that children born in the United States to illegal alien parents should not be citizens. These doctors have become “lawmakers” and it would be prudent for them to actually read and understand the words in laws such as in this case the word “born” in the law called The United States Constitution.
In their defense, the doctors frequently cite the Constitution’s Second Amendment and uniformly oppose any restriction on the possession of firearms. Every member stating a position backs legislation that would allow a person permitted to carry a concealed weapon in her own state to conceal a weapon in any and all states, including those which would prohibit her from packing. In every case this absolutist gun position contradicts the member’s very strong states’ rights position and specifically the position that his state need not honor the lawful same-sex marriages of other states, like those performed in New York. In the America desired by these doctors, you can pack your gun when traveling across state lines, but not necessarily your spouse.
Indeed, every member, save one, stating a position supports a constitutional amendment barring same-sex unions and defining marriage as the union of one man and one woman. The exception is Ron Paul, who calls for no civil marriage, state or federal, with the matter left exclusively to “churches.” Every doctor stating a position opposes protecting lesbian and gay citizens from employment discrimination and all but one oppose extending the protection of hate crime laws to homosexuals. The exception is Dr. Bill Cassidy, representing Louisiana’s 6th district.
The doctors speak and vote as with one voice on energy and environmental issues. Every doctor stating a position wants to drill for oil on the Outer Continental Shelf; they all would bar the EPA from regulating greenhouse gases and from implementing the CO2 limits set out in the Kyoto Protocols. Many have also signed the “No Climate Tax Pledge,” which opposes “cap and trade” legislation as a hidden tax on the industrial use of oil, coal and natural gas.
Every member voting cast a vote against expanding Amtrak and against a more modest supplementation of its budget. Beyond ending “birthright citizenship” for so-called “anchor babies” born to alien mothers, the doctors agree on other key issues involving immigration. All the members stating a position oppose amnesty for the more than 10 million illegal aliens who de-facto permanently reside in the United States and these members support building a fence along the border with Mexico. Additionally, Doctors Gingrey and Ron Paul don’t think too much of Dr. Hippocrates, as they would report to immigration authorities illegal aliens who seek treatment in hospitals.
All but one of the doctors voting cast a vote to terminate the Home Affordable Modification Program designed to restructure mortgages which went into default during the foreclosure crisis, in part because of the practices of sub-prime mortgage brokers whose industry these same members voted against regulating. The exception was Dr. Joe Heck, representing Nevada’s 3rd district.
Every member stating a position opposed the GM and Chrysler bailouts, opposed four weeks of paid parental leave for federal employees, opposed shareholder votes on corporate executive compensation, opposed raising the minimum wage to $7.25 an hour, opposed any federal funding for National Public Radio, opposed restricting employers from interfering with worker efforts to unionize and opposed the U.S. participation in the highly successful NATO initiative in Libya, in which no American soldiers died.
The Doctors Rand and Ron Paul bring a host of additional “againsts” to Congress. Both oppose virtually any military base or involvement abroad, calling it “unconstitutional” and bringing to mind the “hollow men” isolationists of post-World War I America. Both Pauls oppose Social Security; Ron because he declares it unconstitutional, Rand would allow voluntary participation. Rand clearly has taken most of his highly idiosyncratic conservative/libertarian philosophy from dad, including opposition to the public accommodations provisions of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the absolutist anti-abortion position. That one is extraordinarily difficult to reconcile with any coherent concept of individual liberty and responsibility — the core of true Libertarian ideology. But Rand has yet to vote or rail against many things Ron has already attacked, generally because — you guessed it — Ron says they’re “unconstitutional.” Ron’s targets include the federal student loan program, most drug laws, recycling, “Amber Alert” programs, the IRS, FBI, TSA and the Department of Homeland Security. Rand is ahead of dad on one issue, as he would bar all gays and lesbians from the armed forces. Ron would simply prohibit them from adopting children.
The lone Democrat among the 19 doctors is Jim McDermott, a psychiatrist representing Washington State’s 7th district in and around Seattle. On every issue discussed above, McDermott, characterized by Ontheissues.org as a “hard-core” left-liberal” has voted opposite to the 18 Republican doctors all characterized as “right-conservatives” and mostly “hard-core.” McDermott was last re-elected in 2010 for his 11th term, gaining 83 percent of the vote. Unlike the 18 Republicans, McDermott has made a name for himself voting for legislation, including many bills he sponsored and which passed with bipartisan support. Three of these, the “African Growth and Opportunity Act,” the “Cedar River Watershed Land Exchange Act” and the “Aids Housing Opportunity Act” were signed into law by Presidents George H.W. and George W. Bush. McDermott, while in Washington’s legislature, wrote the Washington State Basic Health Plan, offering health insurance to the unemployed and working poor, the first such state program in the nation.
However, it must be reported that Dr. McDermott played more than a minor role in creating the toxic atmosphere that has brought work to a near halt in Congress.
McDermott was given and then leaked to the press an illegal recording of a 1997 meeting among Newt Gingrich and several Republican House colleagues, where they discussed how to handle the fallout from Newt’s admission that he had violated House ethics rules. McDermott’s disclosure of the recording was improper and led to a judgment of more than $1 million that he paid to Representative John Boehner of Ohio, now house speaker.
In part because of this deplorable incident, McDermott, a shrink, cannot fulfill an otherwise obvious and needed service for the 18 other doctor-members: group therapy for their chronic cynicism bordering on misanthropy. An exploration of why these doctors have adopted such a consistently mean-spirited and obstructionist approach to their jobs is beyond the scope of this column. The Weekender will pursue this and other facets of this alarming but fascinating trend in a much longer forthcoming article.
For now, I recommend consideration of a slight modification in the cry uttered by Dick the Butcher in Shakespeare’s “Henry the VI, Part 2,” when he proclaimed “The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers.”
To cure the dysfunctional Congress — don’t call the doctors