Cong. Ryan Still Struggling

by Michael Sean Winters

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“Seek joy where joy may be found.” If the joy you seek is veracity, politics is a bad place to seek. Still, I was especially disappointed with Congressman Paul Ryan’s comments on ABC’s “This Week with George Stephanopoulos” yesterday regarding the Supreme Court’s decision on the Affordable Care Act (ACA). Cong. Ryan has indicated a willingness to at least try and engage the social magisterium of the Church, and I am one of those people who is just old-fashioned enough to believe that politics is better conducted by engaging those with whom one disagrees than just hoping to beat them at the polls. But, it is hard to engage with someone who so easily, and effectively, parrots the more extreme lies perpetrated against health care reform.

You can see the interview by clicking here.

First, Congressman Ryan refused to distance himself from some of the more extreme statements made about Chief Justice Roberts. Stephanopoulos repeated some of those comments, including a comment by a colleague in the House, Rep. Jack Kingston that “I fell like I just lost two great friends: America and Chief Justice Roberts” and Glenn Beck’s efforts to sell a tee-shirt that features Roberts’ face and the word “Coward” emblazoned beneath. “Well, yeah, I’m disappointed in this ruling,” was Ryan’s reply. Excuse me? One may suppose, although I don’t, that Roberts got it wrong, but the one thing he did not display is cowardice, as evidenced by his funny remark that as soon as the Court term was completed, he was heading to Malta to teach a course and that Malta is an “impregnable fortress.” Roberts showed courage in reaching his conclusion. Nor was his conclusion extreme, namely, the decision about health care reform belongs to the political branches of government and the role of the courts is to find if there is constitutional warrant for that decision. Roberts found such warrant in the taxing authority, not the commerce clause, a fact with long-term, and largely conservative, implications. But, he found it. And he was willing to stand up to those with whom he normally agrees to articulate that finding. That is not cowardice.

Ryan than insisted that the ACA will “move us closer to a debt crisis.” If there is anything to admire about Cong. Ryan, it is that he has focused the nation’s attention on the debt crisis that looms. It does not loom immediately, as Republicans often suggest, but it looms nonetheless and there are moral implications to be sure. If left unsolved, the choices will only get harder and the consequences more severe. Of course, Ryan’s moral stature is suspect because his commitment to lowering the debt is profoundly undercut by his unwillingness to even contemplate raising taxes on the super-rich. But, on this particular point, the CBO has concluded that the ACA will lower the deficit, not increase it, and claiming otherwise is simply disingenuous. You can’t cite CBO only when its numbers agree with our political ambitions.

Medicare cuts also became part of the discussion. Here, the Cong. did not lie: The ACA does cut Medicare by $50 billion a year over ten years. But, the whole point of the ACAS is to reduce health care costs overall and if that is not achieved, and Lord knows the market has failed to achieve that, then Medicare will be unsustainable no matter who is tinkering with it or how they tinker. Ryan also warned darkly about “rationing,” as if health care was not already rationed. This is a mere scare tactic.
Stephanopoulos tried repeatedly to get Cong. Ryan to explain how the GOP’s commitment to “repeal and replace” would work out. So far, the GOP is quite clear on the “repeal” part and much less clear on the “replace” part. Ryan did not explain why the GOp could not introduce a “replace” law at the same time as it votes to “repeal” the ACA. If the GOP had its way, those who currently have health care coverage because of the ACA – children with pre-existing conditions, young adults who are now able to stay on their parents’ policies, etc. – would they lose it while the GOP debates a “replace” bill? By 2014, no one of any age can be denied insurance because of a pre-existing condition. What will happen to them? Remember, the trade-off for the insurance companies was that they would agree to cover people with pre-existing conditions in return for extending the pool of those who purchase insurance because of the much-maligned individual mandate.

The most obvious lie coming from critics of the ACA is that it is a huge tax. To be clear: Only those people who fail to get insurance will be subject to the tax penalty. Various experts say this will be around one percent of the population. The tax penalty will rise, starting at a little under $100 per year and rising to around $600 per year. How does one percent, paying $600 per year, qualify as a huge tax? The GOP wants the American people to believe they will all be paying a tax because of the ACA. This is simply not true. The Democrats need to find an effective way to combat this idea before it takes root, and it is fairly simple to do so. If you get into your car, you are legally required to put on your seat belt. If you don’t, and a policeman notices, you can pay a fine. Very few people pay the fine because most people buckle up. Most people, ninety-nine percent, will get insurance and avoid the tax penalty for failing to do so. That will not effect in the least those who get insurance anymore than your decision to not buckle up will affect me who did.

Ryan also stated that the ACA amounts to a “complete government takeover of 17% of the economy.” He contrasted “government-run” health care with “patient-centered health care,” although on its face, the ACA provides for more patient-centered care than our current system. But, in what meaningful way does the ACA represent a “government takeover”? I would have preferred a government takeover actually, and any law to do so would have been far less cumbersome than the ACA. The reason the ACA is so complicated is because it keeps the private insurance market which entails all manner of waste. I wish Stephanopoulos had asked Ryan to explain why our health care costs amount to 17% of our national economy, a far higher percentage than any other modern, industrialized nation.

The most worrisome mistake Ryan made, however, has to do with his stated willingness to engage Catholic social teaching. He said that the two previous guests, Vicki Kennedy and Jack Lew, saw health care as a “government granted right” and that he believed rights “come from nature and God according to the Declaration of Independence.” But, no one to my knowledge has said that access to affordable health care is a “government granted right.” Rather, the social magisterium of the Church has repeatedly insisted that it is a basic God-given human right, one that governments are required to acknowledge and enflesh. That is what the ACA attempts to do. Are there alternative ways to enflesh that right? Of course. But, Ryan and his fellow Republicans are a bit shy about the specifics. Nor have they ever introduced the kind of comprehensive reform that would actually achieve nearly universal health care.

I hope that Congressman Ryan will someday get serious about engaging Catholic social teaching. I am waiting for the evidence that he has done so. His performance yesterday was not encouraging.

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