Thursday, August 13th, 2009

[Ed: Over the course of a couple of days, I read the primary health care bill before the United States Congress with the intention to blog my thoughts. It turns out that I had too many thoughts to reasonably fit into a single blog post. So I’ve decided to split it up into multiple entries. There will be at least two; probably three.

This post provides an introduction to the bill and my intent and discusses some of my thoughts on the legislative process and the duties of a citizen within that process. The next post in the series discusses the existing health care system in America and how this bill would change it.]

Because I guess I enjoy nothing more than researching silly claims made about government expenditures (see my previous post), I’ve read HR 3200. That’s right. I’ve read the health care bill.

That might be stating things a bit strongly, actually. I’ve read large parts of the bill and skimmed the rest. I’ve at least made my way through all 1018 pages. While doing so, I live-blogged my thoughts over at FriendFeed. But, now that I’m not trying to slog my way through a thousand pages of dense legalese, I want to slow the pace a bit and put down some more coherent thoughts.

Because in the last two days, I’ve certainly thought lots of thoughts. I’ve thought about health care, of course. And I’ve thought about the lousy state of discourse in our country where you don’t have to worry about facts and can just make things up. Beyond that, I’ve thought about the way Washington works on a procedural level and how their complete commitment to opacity makes it incredibly difficult —if not impossible— for the average citizen to actually keep up with what’s going on. And then I’ve wondered if it’s even worth trying and, assuming it is, how to judge when to make the effort and when to let things work themselves out.

Given the number of subjects I want to cover, it’s hard to find a starting place. Since this discussion will ultimately center around a single piece of legislation, I think I will start at the huge pile of pain that an act of Congress actually is.

The United States Code, roughly the laws of the land, is huge. I’m actually unable to find an estimate of just how many printed volumes it takes up; though the House’s Office of Law Revision Counsel makes CD-ROM iso available which they say is about 500MB of text. Whatever the actual numbers, it’s big.

So any new law enacted by Congress has to find its place within a almost unimaginably gigantic system. There’s almost no area that new legislation can touch which isn’t already covered by at least one existing law; and most areas will be touched by many. So invariably, any new legislation cannot just add to the existing body of law; it also has to change the existing body of law.

Over the centuries, they’ve picked an interesting way of doing this. The text of new laws modify existing laws with phrases like “strike the second sentence of section 57.206(b) of title 42, Code of Federal Regulations” and “insert the following text…” and so forth.

This was my first major issue when reading the bill. Even when reading every word, I could not be certain what it was actually saying without doing extensive cross referencing. For all I know, the second sentence of section 57.206b of title 42 of the Code of Federal Regulations says “Let it be established that Dick Cheney shall not eat babies.” the fairly innocuous sentence from the page 878 of HR3200 is actually going to let loose a torrent of infant cannibalism which will make the Old Testament seem tame by comparison.

Of course, I don’t think that the adjustments to existing law are really that bad. I strongly suspect that the struck sentence relates to guidelines for determining the financial need status of medical students applying for student loan and tuition payment programs. But I don’t know.

And since I set out on my trek through this horribly unentertaining legislation as a way to cure my own ignorance, the fact that I reached the end of it and still didn’t really know what it was talking about is irksome. Some opponent of health care reform could come up to me and say “The Democrats want to allow unfettered baby-eating! It’s in the bill! Read it!” and I’d like to say “I have read the bill and I am absolutely certain that there is no baby-eating provision in there.” but all I can actually say is “I have read the bill and I am fairly certain that there is no baby-eating provision in there.” Which is a slightly weaker argument.

If I had the time and a law library [ed: yes, I could use the Internet; but doing heavy research is almost always nicer with books. I don’t now why.], I could have followed all the references through and figured out the changes to existing law. Of course, if I wanted to really understand the changes in context, I would need to read that law as well.

HR3200 changed a lot of laws. If I were really dedicated to understanding what it was doing, the final bill would have been passed or defeated before I made it even halfway through. Since I’d probably also lose both my job and my girlfriend due to inattention, I decided to pick my battles.

For now, at least, I’ve decided to take the bill at face value. In sections where it’s changing a bunch of other laws one or two words at a time, I simply accept the headings in the bill I’m reading as a good faith explanation of intent. If anyone would like to put in the research to prove me wrong, I’d be happy to follow along. But I won’t be doing that work myself.

And of course, this is just one bill where I don’t really know how it’s doing. At any given point during the legislative year, there are dozens and dozens of bills being actively written, debated, and voted on. It would be impossible for me to keep up with all of that.

Fortunately, our Founders had the wisdom to foresee this exact situation and eschewed a direct democracy in favor of a republic. Since it’s impossible to keep up, I pay a few jokers to do it for me. And while I’m not terribly fond of these particular jokers, the system in general has worked out pretty well over the last couple hundred years.

Given that it’s not my responsibility to keep track of everything the government is doing and I don’t have the means to do so anyway, why did I decide to read this particular bill? Why did I finally decide that it was my civic duty to know what was happening in this particular case?

In large part, it’s because health care is a Very Important Issue. The only other time I’ve read a bill (well, a law in this case) was the Patriot Act. Because that was a seminal piece of legislation which completely rewrote civil liberties in America. I felt it important that I know what it actually did.

Health care is equally important. Real people die because of our current health care system every day. People I know and care deeply about can’t afford insurance and are purely at the mercy of others if they become catastrophically sick. It’s worth looking into for myself because it’s important.

The other main reason is that it’s a Very Important Issue which people are lying about. And they’re not just telling the standard lies one expects from a modern politician. They’re telling vicious, unconscionable, dangerous lies. Since I still have to believe that the best counter to a lie is the truth, I felt it important to arm myself with it.

And that’s why I had to educate myself on this issue more than most. Because it’s too important to let it be controlled by people who refuse to use the facts.

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