Sunday, November 15, 2009

Witnessing History

By coincidence, the Virginia Academy of Family Physicians (VAFP) Board of Directors' (BOD) meeting on November 7 was the same day that the United States House of Representatives (HOR) was due to debate and vote upon H.R. 3962—Affordable Health Care for America Act. This act has been at the center of much of the political debate all summer, and includes significant overhauls of our health care system as well as providing for the establishment of a public health care insurance plan. As we were waiting to enter the Capitol for a tour, we saw a long line of people waiting to enter the HOR gallery to witness the debate on this important piece of legislation.

Following the tour of the Capitol, my wife Janet and I came back to the hotel to meet up with other members of the BOD. While we were mingling, Jan Ragland (the current VAFP President) mentioned that Sterling Ransome (one of the VAPF’s previous Presidents) had received tickets to visit the HOR gallery and we could check with him if we were interested. We deferred, considering that it was already after 7:30 pm and we didn’t want to head back over and wait in line. However, when Sterling showed up and offered the tickets directly, we figured that we really should go and sit in on some of the debate.

When we walked back to the Capitol, we realized that the lines were gone and we were able to proceed directly to the gallery. There we saw the introduction of the Stupak Amendment (which extended the Hyde Amendment restricting federal funding of abortion to the insurance plans purchased on the health insurance exchanges proposed by H.R. 3962) as well as the introduction of House Minority Leader John Boehner’s substitute amendment that would replace the proposed legislation with new legislation put forward by the GOP. As expected, the debate on this was energetic and long, and after being in the gallery for nearly 2 hours Janet and I decided to look for a cup of coffee.

It took a little while to find an open restaurant where we could get coffee and a snack, and we decided that we would head back to the Capitol. I didn’t expect there to be a vote of any consequences for some time—I expected something to happen in the early hours of the morning, but we felt that this was a historic moment (whichever side won) and we wanted to see how long we could last.

As we approached the HOR visitor’s entrance, it was clear that something was happening. People were streaming across the plaza outside of the Capitol, which was now filled with cars where it had previously been empty. We hurried through the security stations and into the line waiting to reach the gallery. As luck would have it, the Capitol security was in the process of moving current gallery occupants out to make room for new visitors and we were able to move forward right away and were soon seated in the gallery.

The floor of the HOR, which previously had only 30 or 40 people scattered in the seats, was packed and standing-room-only. Janet and I realized that the vote was underway on Boehner’s substitution amendment, which was voted down 258-176. Suddenly we realized that this was THE vote—that H.R. 3962 was going to be voted on directly.
Before the bill itself came to a vote, Minority Whip Eric Cantor (of Virginia’s 7th Congressional district) rose with a motion to recommit the bill to committee with instructions to add language regarding tort reform. This motion was voted down 247-187, and the bill itself came to a vote.

In the gallery, I was sure that the bill would pass without difficulty. After all, the two previous votes showed less than 190 votes that would likely also be votes against the bill. As the clock started counting down the time to vote, however, it became evident that the vote was closely matched. The “nays” reached 187, then 190, then 200 as the “yeas” stayed just 3 or 4 votes ahead. Each side increased little by little until, with approximately 3 or 4 minutes left in the vote, the “yeas” reached 218—the number needed to ensure a majority in the 435-member chamber. A loud cheer went up from the Democratic side of the HOR, and from many in the galleries—even as security sought to enforce the no-clapping rule for visitors. The final minutes of the vote expired, with the final count being 220-215 for passage. Whatever your perspective on the debate, it was dramatic and terribly important moment.

I support the bill, and after the vote Janet and I walked over to our Congressman’s office to see if we could thank him for his vote in favor of the bill. Bobby Scott’s office was open, and his aides mentioned that he was due back in a few minutes and if we would like we could wait and meet him. We waited—after all, what were a few more moments when it was already after midnight—and were able to speak with Rep. Scott for a few moments and thank him for his work in support of this bill.
When I went to college, Government was the other major I was considering other than Biology. It was a great chance to see the process at work—ugly and convoluted as it can be—and an opportunity to walk in and meet our representative. Health care reform has a long road ahead of it and, whatever side of the argument you find yourself on, I urge each of us to become active and engaged in the process. If we choose not to, rest assured that someone else will be speaking their mind to our representatives.

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