We are accustomed to bullying in America. It seems to be the tactic most favored in the political arena, too. School kids are being taught the nasty consequences of bullying – but adults seem to need a refresher course. Over recent years we have seen thuggery such as that evidenced in Town Hall meetings by the “Tea Party” that roughed up people the majority did not want to hear.
What has become even more disheartening is the adoption of those same “rules of the game” by so-called progressives. This is the story of how those tactics recently caused the death of a major piece of highly-valued legislation in California. The long-term consequences will not be known for months, maybe years.
In 2004 then-State Senator Sheila Kuehl introduced the most ambitious legislation in the history of California health care – a state single-payer plan. Long sought by a coalition calling itself Health Care for All, various groups had formed and occasionally cooperated to pursue the bill through several legislative sessions, passing both houses only to be vetoed by then-Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger.
In 2008, with Kuehl termed out, the bill SB 810 was eagerly adopted by Sentor Mark Leno. However, he began his march through the legislature with a crop of new legislators who had no history with the bill or with Sen. Leno. It was a somewhat more conservative bunch who required significant fiscal evidence that the bill would save the state money and be affordable to individuals and families. Single payer supporters paid little attention to educating these new legislators since the bill had passed handily before. But these were different people, different times.
In late 2010 the main group pursuing passage of the bill, the State Strategy Group (SSG), agreed that to help move the bill, they would create and fund a panel of experts who would do a new fiscal analysis. The SSG knew it would cost about $250,000 to get this done well – and they agreed it was a top priority.
Without a new fiscal analysis, the bill began to bog down, not passing the Assembly in its first foray under Leno. In response to that loss, and to a perceived threat from federal health care reform, the SSG began to challenge Sen. Leno’s “dedication”, question Senate and Assembly supporters’ “commitment”, and became more and more angry that things were not materializing as they had projected.
At the behest of one member group in the SSG, the majority decided suddenly to by-pass SB 810 and take single payer to the ballot as a proposition. The member group’s policy director boasted they were ‘best buddies” with new Governor Jerry Brown and that as a result, “Jerry will get it on the ballot for us.” Another SSG member pointed out that such a move was illegal, that the Governor had no such power and that it would require a supermajority 2/3 vote of the Legislature to move it to voters because of the fiscal implications. Either that or they had to find $2-3 million for a signature campaign to put it on the ballot themselves. That wet- blanket assessment did not sit well with SSG.
After continuing for several months to insist “Jerry can do it” the SSG finally realized that Brown either couldn’t or wouldn’t get the proposition on the ballot. The SSG shifted focus to the very expensive signature campaign and full-tilt election battle towards which all fund raising efforts were directed.
By late summer 2011, the diversion of attention to the ballot meant that not one dime was allocated to the promised fiscal analysis. Despite having created an impressive panel of health economics experts, no study was ever produced. Ultimately the SSG raised no money for the ballot either, and the group angrily and grudgingly refocused again on passing the bill.
That anger at discovering there was no instant gratification spilled over into a corrosive and suspicious hostility toward Senator Leno. The SSG members suddenly developed amnesia about the fiscal study they had promised to fund, and relations between these now-grudging backers and the Senator’s office got increasingly tense. Supporters showed up unannounced demanding explanations of plans, abused the staff right down to the receptionist, and made clear they did not trust the Senator to keep the focus.
Despite the bombardment of hostility from supposed allies, Senator Leno continued to push the bill. When it predictably bogged down over lack of fiscal clarity, both the senator and Senate leadership used up political capital still getting it onto the Senate floor. However, at the floor vote, five members abstained, and the bill did not pass. Abstentions came from mostly newer senators who could not ascertain the fiscal implications of this massive health care realignment and were highly dubious the state or individuals could afford this extensive new program.
As a favor to the author and supporters, SB 810 remained “on call” for reconsideration of the floor vote to buy time for further negotiations. Senators and staff worked on getting a “courtesy vote” when a member with doubts still votes “yes” to keep it going. At least two courtesy votes were in the works – all that were needed to pass the bill – when the progressive bully machine cranked up, and the shit hit the fan.
Furious single payer supporters claimed that senate leadership had “sold out” and a massive wave of phone calls was unleashed on an unprepared senate – members, staff, and again, even receptionists.
They were inundated with screaming, threatening, angry demands that they vote for the bill. Staff were not spared. No calls were polite – they were angry and snide, shattering one young intern unprepared for personal assaults on her character and politics. Other, older staff were also unnerved by how incredibly rude the supporters of the bill were to the very people they wanted to have vote for it.
Net result? The courtesy votes quickly withered away, the bill had to be pulled to prevent its being killed. Worse, staffers said it was highly doubtful that anyone in the Capitol who knew this story would ever put themselves in a position to work with these single-payer groups again.
After almost a decade of work, single payer seems dead legislatively in California, not just as a bill but as an issue. It died not due to insurance industry or business opposition but due to the obnoxious and outrageously bullying actions of its supporters. Nice job, BullyProgs. Nice job.