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MY DAY IN THE U.S. SENATE GALLERY DURING THE MEDICARE REFORM BILL DEBATES - NOVEMBER 24, 2003

So today was my last day here. I'm leaving tomorrow morning for home. Today was a fascinating day. My goal was to see the Senate in session. I have seen all the buildings around here before, but haven't seen much of the action. So I woke up at about 8 and took the Metro to L'Enfant Plaza. I got a little lost and ended up walking by the Dept. of Housing and Urban Development before realizing I had gone the wrong way. Once I corrected that, I walked over by the reflecting pool and got some cool pics with the Washington Monument and the Capitol. Then I went to Senator Levin's office and got a pass for the Senate Gallery.

Now I really lucked out for two reasons.

  1. The Senate would probably have already gone home for Thanksgiving, however there is this big bill they are debating about revamping Medicare, which some of you may have heard about. So, because of this bill, they were in session for me to even see them. Otherwise, they would have left for Thanksgiving already, and probably been out until next year.

  2. Because this is such an important and historic bill, I not only got to see a session dealing with something that is pretty memorable, but also everyone was there and many eloquent speeches were given.
Basically, the idea is to give seniors on Medicare prescription drug coverage, which is a good idea. But of course the Republicans surrounded this idea with a ton of other horrible ideas, and ultimately end up taking tons of money and just giving it to the drug and insurance companies. For those interested in more detail, see me later, as I am now an expert on Medicare reform :) The Democrats really tried to stop the bill. As a supporter of the Greens, I'm usually the first to say that the Democrats are totally weak and refuse to stop things like this. But I can tell you that many of them did all they could to stop it. First, they tried to filibuster, but the Republicans, by just two votes, were able to stop that. Then the Democrats pointed out that in the first year of the plan, it put them over the budget. So, of course, then the Republicans (and a few Dems - the ones that give them a bad name) voted to just waive that issue. Ain't it nice having unlimited credit!

Anyways, at one point in there I went to go get lunch (from a hot dog stand a block from the Supreme Court) and as I was walking out, I saw that the lady in front of me had a Michigan State jacket on. I asked, and turns out she was from Warren, Michigan. We live 5 minutes away. Small world. Anyways, after I ate, I was back in that gallery for about 7 more hours. At this point the only question was when they would finally vote on this bill. Well by the time I left at about 9, they still hadn't voted. So what I saw the rest of the day were a number of very eloquent and powerful speeches, almost all Democrats speaking against the bill.

I am sure that the Dems don't do enough to stop things like this from happening, but you won't be able to tell me that there aren't any Democrats who at least speak out quite loudly against these huge corporate giveaways. Hillary Clinton gave a very impressive and actually pretty touching speech about how this bill would hurt the most helpless senior citizens the most. Mark Dayton from Minnesota, Lautenberg from New Jersey, and others spoke against it. John Kerry said it was a huge giveaway. Debbie Stabenow talked about the people in Michigan who go right across the tunnel to get their drugs far cheaper. John Edwards also spoke. The most emphatic was probably Ted Kennedy, who was basically screaming at the top of his lungs, claiming that once they undermine Medicare here, they will come after social security next. He was actually there and voted to initiate Medicare back in 1965!! Many of these Democrats used terms like corporate welfare and spoke of making pharmaceutical and insurance executives rich at the expense of the elderly and the taxpayers. So that message, which is typically a Green message, is definitely being heard in the Senate from some Democrats on some issues, at least.

Coming out for the bill were all the Republicans who spoke (Hatch, Grassley, Hutchison, Frist) and John Breaux who is the most conservative Democrat in the Senate.

Chris Dodd of Connecticut gave a speech which brought up another pretty shocking fact. He said he has been in the Senate for 25 years and two things happened with this bill that he was shocked by.

  1. In the House of Reps. the vote, which is supposed to last 15 minutes, instead was drawn out for 3 hours so that the Republicans had time to twist a couple Dems' arms - and possibly bribe or threaten a fellow Republican - to change their votes. This is just absolutely against the procedures of the House.

  2. The Republicans wrote this bill almost entirely alone. They only let 2 Democrats be involved in the committee and actually said that if the Democratic Senate Minority leader (Tom Daschle) showed up, they would call off the meeting. This is crazy stuff! The Republicans have gotten to a point where they simply ignore the rules of how Congress runs, and refuse to even let the other party members attend the committees! If they did things like that in Iraq, we'd go in and use military force to stop it! Yet it's happening right here. All I can say is there is crazy stuff going on in this government.
Dodd gave a great speech about how important it is to let minority voices be heard and how the tension of debate between the different points of view creates new ideas and improves the end product. Ironically, while he has supported campaign finance reform, I doubt Dodd would support including third parties in debates, instant runoff voting or proportional representation which would really bring in minority voices. I'm sure he only means his minority, not the groups that are next in line to be heard after his party. I wanted to call his office, play the tape of what he said, then ask if he'd support these reforms. But, somehow I doubt consistency is considered necessary in a government this hypocritical. I have little doubt that many of these Dems have taken money from the same corporations they are blasting right now. Furthermore, one of the best points the Republicans made repeatedly was that many of the things the Democrats were blasting, they had supported in other bills before. In fact, some of the things the Democrats were speaking against they themselves had proposed earlier!

Anyways, at 9 I had to leave as I was starving and wanted to give myself time to get home and sleep at a decent hour so I can wake up to drive home. But I could have watched this all night, it was so fascinating and educational. One more thing that really struck me was this: The bill they are voting on is a huge huge bill. It would revamp Medicare, which affects 40 million American senior citizens, unlike anything in the nearly 40 years that program has been around. The story of this bill has been on the front page of newspapers everywhere. And yet, at 5 or 6 P.M., as they debated, there were only 3 or 4 of us in the gallery watching!!

This is the U.S. Senate. I always imagined that if a bill of this size was being debated, the place would be filled with either concerned seniors or insurance company execs. hoping it passes or something. Indeed, since word that this bill might pass came through, pharmaceutical and insurance company stocks have risen. This bill has that widespread an effect. Yet here we were, only 3 or 4 of us in the gallery. I realize everyone can watch on C-SPAN if they care, but nonetheless I was a bit surprised that there were so few there. It may be just another sign of the utter collapse of participation or interest in our democracy. These are not tiny decisions. This decision today will affect millions of senior citizens and their families. But they just happen in this very small room, far away from most of them, and few will ever even know exactly how it came to be. So ultimately, this was a lesson in exactly why the changes discussed at the conference that brought me here are so urgently needed to increase participation and to help bring more diverse voices into the game, as Senator Dodd so forcefully advocated, though I don't think he meant it quite the way I do.

At about 9, I took the Metro back to Greenbelt where I've been saying, and got some dinner. Now it's time to go to bed and drive home tomorrow! See you soon.

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