It's crunch time, people.
For those not versed in the way Washington works (and the glacial pace of Congress), the last couple of months may have been a little frustrating. The marathon effort to reform our nation's health care system began in early spring, continued throughout the summer, and is now entering its last laps. Some people thought this was going to be a sprint and thus had unrealistic expectations for the schedule it was going to follow (this includes, I might add, President Obama -- who initially called for an insanely-optimistic timetable from Congress). As the process has ground slowly forward, frustration and despondency about the pace of Washington was to be expected at times from reform advocates. The relentless drumbeat from the media saying "health care reform is dead," or even "this or that aspect of health care reform is dead," coupled with the over-the-top media coverage of this summer's town hall hotheads has surely taken its toll, one would think.
One would be wrong about that. Yesterday, over 300,000 people picked up the phone and called Congress demanding health care reform this year. This effort largely passed unnoticed by the media, of course. But the phones ringing off the hook certainly did not go unnoticed by Congress.
The entire health care reform effort is now entering its final stages. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid are in the process of writing one bill each, to be introduced for a floor vote in their respective chambers. While the five committees who drafted their own bills got a lot of attention, anyone familiar with the legislative process knows that nothing in any of the five bills they produced is written in stone -- everything is still up in the air.
Which means it's horse-trading time, in a big way. This wrangling over details is happening (as it always does) behind closed doors, and while leaks and rumors are rampant, the media is largely ignoring the process for now. But this doesn't mean your voice isn't important at this stage. Quite the contrary.
Both Pelosi and Reid are trying to craft something that they know will have the floor votes to pass. Because they would rather know ahead of time who will vote for what, they are both in the process of very quietly corralling their fellow Democrats in a process known as "whip counts." This means the leaders are calling up every Democrat in the House and Senate, and attempting to get a firm commitment from them to vote for one plan or another. When the leaders know they have the votes, then a bill will emerge -- but not before. Congressional leadership (no matter what the party, and no matter what the issue) never wants to be surprised by introducing major legislation, and then having it fail because they haven't counted their own party's votes correctly. So they try to do this counting ahead of time, and out of the public eye.
This is all normal, and part of the way Congress operates. But this also means that Democrats in both houses are facing enormous pressure -- right now -- to lay their markers down, and decide what they can and cannot vote for. Many of these Democrats, up to this point, have had the luxury of waffling and refusing to take a position on the various ideas which have been floated. The time for such luxury is at an end.
This is where politicians' self-interest comes into play. Politicians will rarely admit it, but their main motivation is to keep their jobs. Getting re-elected is paramount in their thinking. This is not exactly a big secret or anything, I should add.
Idealistically, this means that politicians will do the best possible job to further their constituents' interests in Congress, in the hopes of riding a wave of approval during their next election. Cynically, this means that politicians will do the absolute minimum necessary for "The People," while keeping their deep-pocket donors happy by doing what they're told to do in Congress -- and hoping that "The People" don't notice.
But whether you look at it optimistically or pessimistically, all politicians know that in the end the voters must be assuaged from time to time by politicians doing the job they're actually sent to Washington to do -- pass some decent legislation to make people's lives better.
So congressmen notice when the switchboards light up on any one particular issue. And yesterday, Organizing For America (which used to be Barack Obama's online campaign organization) not only lit up congressional switchboards, they absolutely melted them down with the flood of calls generated in favor of health care reform.
It is not too late for us all to take part in this final push. Calling your representative or senator is an easy process, and doesn't take long to do. While it may take a few calls to actually get through (in the midst of such a flood of telephoning), it is important enough to keep trying. When you do get through, you'll find that you don't need to go into great detail about what exactly you are for or against, as the individual congressional offices at this point will be tallying your call with thousands of others. If you're for (or against) single-payer, or a public plan, or Medicare for all, or taxing millionaires to pay for it, or whatever -- it will only take a minute to voice your opinion to them.
This is especially important for those living in states or House districts with Democrats who are not fully on board the health care reform train. These officeholders saw lots of angry people at their summer town hall meetings, and may be thinking: "I'll never get re-elected if I vote for health care reform." Calling them up and voicing your opinion helps change this to: "If I vote against health care reform, there is no way I'm going to get re-elected."
Many of these on-the-fence lawmakers are watching the sands of opinion shift right now. They see that the overwhelming majority of Democrats in Congress are now lining up for strong health care reform. The Blue Dogs and "moderates" thought they were driving the train, but they now are beginning to see that they are an outnumbered minority. So their choice becomes one of voting with their party, and riding the wave of approval which will follow; or voting against their party, and being kicked out of office next year due to absolute disgust from their party's base. In other words, self-preservation is kicking in.
I should mention, in the spirit of full disclosure, that I am not affiliated in any way with Organizing For America. And I am not even advocating a particular health care reform plan or scheme here. I really don't care which side of which sub-issue you favor in this fight. I am urging everyone -- no matter what you feel is "the answer" on healthcare reform -- to pick up the phone and have your voice heard by your elected officials in Congress.
Because now is truly crunch time. Next week will likely see Reid and Pelosi firming up their bills, and possibly even starting floor debates. This is the point when the media will wake up and begin covering the story again. This is also the time when the anti-reform people will be motivated to call Congress in an effort to derail reform for the year.
So I strongly encourage everyone in the pro-reform camp to pre-empt this by getting your call in first. Take five minutes and dial up your representative and senators. Let them know how you feel. 300,000 citizens just did so, and your call can add to this public opinion tsunami. Don't think: "Oh, I've already done that," or "I've already protested," or "I went to a town hall," or "It won't make any difference."
Because now -- this week -- is the real crunch time. Now is the time to make your wishes known to the people who are supposed to represent you in our government. Because in the future, you certainly don't want to be wondering whether you could have made a difference or not. If you're for healthcare reform (of whatever flavor), it is now time to pick up the phone and say so. Because they're listening.
[Note: If you're wondering how to make such a call, check out the USA.gov site to see how to phone or email (or even Twitter) your elected officials. Choose the White House, the House of Representatives, or the Senate, and either send them an email today, or pick up the phone. It's easy!]
Chris Weigant blogs at: ChrisWeigant.com