Church Lobbyist: Obnoxious Callers Killed CA Single Payer — FOREVER!

(Portion below the fold cross-posted from the Orange Juice Blog and to Daily Kos.)

You really have to read the letter to appreciate its full horror.

The short story is this: California’s “single payer health care” proposal for this two-year session had to pass the State Senate by January 31 in order to stay alive.  Despite the fact that Democrats control the Senate 25-15, it fell two votes short.  Two Democrats, Lou Correa and Ron Calderon, voted no; four others refused to vote at all.

This was a shock without being a surprise.  It’s shocking that Democrats can control the legislature and yet fail to get one of our signature proposals through even one chamber.  Yet we’ve dealt with these Senators before — we’ve seen who gives them money — so it was not a surprise.

The surprise came yesterday.  Apparently, it was our fault that SB 810 failed.  Not the insurance industry that fought so hard against the measure; not the pusillanimous Democrats who wouldn’t defend it.  Our fault: activists’ fault.  Why?  Because we kept calling Senators’ offices and some of us were allegedly obnoxious.

That’s what the letter from the Director of Public Policy of the lobbying branch of the California Council of Churches says.

My post from the local blog where I also publish is below.

Apparently, I and people like me were the ones who killed Single Payer.  Everything was well in hand and then … whoops!  We were mean to people and so it died.

The sordid tale — or at least some vague accusations of terrible things being said by aggrieved voters to office interns — may be found in this letter from Elizabeth Sholes, Director of Public Policy for California Church Impact, the lobbying arm of the California Council of Churches.  California Church Impact sports the following motto on its website:

We advocate for those who can’t afford high-priced lobbyists: low-income mothers, hungry children, elderly.

I hope that we can all agree that that is a lovely sentiment.

First, Ms. Sholes explains how the people who dropped the ball were the sponsors of the Single Payer Study Group.  Here’s the relevant excerpt:

Over a year ago the single payer grassroots steering committee, the State Strategy Group, agreed to create a panel of experts who would do a new fiscal analysis to update the information from the Lewin Report. IMPACT helped find experts on health care financing for the panel, and the SSG knew that it would cost about $250,000 to get this done well.

For both the incoming governor, Jerry Brown and all the new legislators, this evidence of cost savings for individuals, families, small business, and the state was crucial. Single payer had to show it would be at least as if not more effective than federal health care reform in cost savings for all parties. It would be impossible to convince legislators unfamiliar with single payer that it was a very responsible measure without those data.

Consequently, in its first foray under Senator Leno’s authorship, the bill did not pass on the Assembly floor. There were simply too many grave doubts, and the newer members had no interaction with single payer supporters who might have eased their concerns.

In response to that loss, the SSG decided suddenly to abandon SB 810 and the fiscal report and go the initiative route thinking it would be simple and that the governor could put it on the ballot. That is not possible since it would have to be done legislatively and requires a supermajority vote. To do an independent initiative with signature gathering is extremely expensive. SSG fund raising therefore turned to obtaining the $2-3 million needed just to do a signature drive, but the money never materialized for the ballot measure, much less the financial analysis.

No initiative. No fiscal study.

Ms. Sholes may or may not fully appreciate that, in presenting the matter as she does, she is in effect calling her “allies” like Sen. Leno and 18 other Democratic Senators irresponsible.  They, after all, supported single payer without the requisite study — given that “this evidence of cost savings … was crucial … [and it] would be impossible to convince legislators unfamiliar with single payer that it was a very responsible measure without those data.”  (Yet 19 of them irresponsibly voted “yes” anyway, based on existing evidence!  Thanks for the support, “ally”!)  And is it the case that new members had “too many grave doubts … [having] had no interaction with single payer supporters who might have eased their concerns”?  Did they, um, seek out such interactions?  I know plenty of people who would have talked to them!  We’ve interacted with Sen. Correa, but he just keeps repeating that “the state’s piggy bank isn’t big enough.”

But the failure wasn’t ultimately the legislators’ fault, you see: it was the supporters who killed the bill … FOREVER!!!

Senator Leno continued to shepherd SB 810 until, as is customary, it went into “suspense” the last week of January in Senate Appropriations. Suspense occurs when there are large questions about costs and means to cover them. Despite the pressure to hold the bill for lack of financial analysis, President pro Tem of the Senate Darrell Steinberg used his leadership strength to send it to the floor. At the first floor vote, five Senators abstained, all of whom had the same fiscal reservations expressed by Senators in Appropriations. Steinberg, as a strong single payer supporter, kept the bill “on call” until the absolutely last moment, January 31 by which time legally it had to pass or die.

Over the weekend senators Leno and Steinberg asked the abstaining members for a “courtesy vote.” This is a vote that occurs when a member with reservations still moves a bill to keep it going.

Those votes were getting pinned down when on January 30th the grassroots advocates started a massive phone campaign to senators. The results were shocking. Office after office including Leno’s and Steinberg’s were flooded with calls — angry, berating, nasty, threatening, and bullying calls. These were not from opponents of single payer. These were from supporters.

When callers could not access senators or their top staff, they lambasted lower-level staff right down to the receptionists.  One young woman, new to the Capitol, was shattered by the vicious attacks on her and her senator. She was absolutely devastated by the personal assaults on her character and politics. Other, older staff were tougher, but every one of them was shaken to their foundations by how incredibly violent and abusive the calls were from supporters.

What the enraged supporters did not realize — because they never asked — is that yes, the requisite number of courtesy votes were being gathered. But after the barrage of abuse, these senators, all with reservations due to the absence of information on financial impacts, withdrew those votes in disgust. Senator Leno then pulled the bill rather than having it die on the floor.

We are aware that these calls did not involve the faith community. Insofar as people identified themselves, those from faith groups were not the source of the harassment. It did not matter enough, however, to prevent the massive meltdown from other less responsible groups and individuals.

At this moment so much damage has been done from the barrage of nasty calls that it is seriously doubtful any legislator will ever work with any of the single payer supporters again, not even in the faith community.

I was certainly one who encouraged people to contact their State Senators regarding SB 810.  When I do so, I usually tell them to be polite; I also tell them that they should tell their stories.

Here’s one of their stories: I was recently asked, through my work for the Occupy movement, for help by a woman I’ll call Alice.  She is a cancer survivor — or at least in remission.  She recently received notice of a premium increase for her individual policy.  She’s now expected to pay $830 per month — $10,000 per year — just for herself.  She’s disabled by her illness, can’t work enough to make ends meet, too young for Medicaid — and she’s concerned that she will have to give up her insurance altogether.  For her, that could be a fatal outcome.

You know what?  She’s pissed off.  She’s going to meet with Correa’s office today — at my urging — in the hope that perhaps they’ll be able to find some angle that can keep her insured, keep her alive — keep her, by the way, from burdening the state with emergency room bills that she would not be able to pay.

I told her — other strong activists told her — “don’t lobby him.  Don’t make a statement.  Just find out how to help yourself.  We don’t want you to die.”

She said “I just want to ask him some questions about why he voted against single payer.”

“Don’t do it,” a chorus of us said.  But it’s probably in vain.  Do you know why?  It’s because she is a very intelligent woman, she knows that a bill like SB 810 would possibly save her life if it were now in effect, she has her dignity, she has enough pride to think that others should honor her dignity — and she’s pissed!!!

That’s how people are — we in the 99%.  If you act unreasonably towards us, and thereby threaten our lives and our families’ well-being, we get uppity.  Some of us are hard to calm down.  Some of us get impolite — because this is not some abstract enterprise for us, but this is our lives.

Now I should make clear that I don’t entirely believe Ms. Sholes’s story.  I’m not saying that she’s lying; I’m saying that perhaps she was counting chickens, when it comes to these “courtesy votes,” that were not quite hatched.  I’d like to know which two Senators among the four Democratic holdouts — Padilla, Vargas, Rubio, and Wright — were the ones who had tentatively committed to the courtesy vote.  (I presume that it wasn’t Correa or Calderon, who voted “no.”)  Oh, I know that I won’t be told this — I know that I’m supposed to just accept that this must be kept secret, but I do really want to know.

Here’s why I want to know.

Let’s presume for the moment that Ms. Sholes’s story is correct.  Let’s, just because we could use some examples, say that the two who were in the bag and then jumped out of the bag, were Vargas and Rubio.  (I choose Vargas because this website has taken an interest in his campaign; I choose Rubio because he’s retiring from office.)

What Ms. Sholes is asking us to believe is that Vargas and Rubio (or whoever) had been convinced that sending the bill to the Assembly was worth doing — presumably because it would allow time to investigate the financial aspects of the bill that 19 members either didn’t care about or (more likely) didn’t find lacking — but they changed their minds because individual citizens alerted to the situation called up and were (allegedly) abusive to their staff.

And, what’s more, the abusiveness of citizens to these staff members was so awful that “it is seriously doubtful any legislator will ever work with any of the single payer supporters again.”  It was THAT BAD!

Well, now.  I would take all of the anguish of all of the staffers who answered all of the calls on January 30 and 31, roll it up into a ball, and set it on one pan of a scale in which the other pan held only Alice’s anguish about the idea of her dying because she can’t afford health insurance.  And then I would let go.

My strong suspicion is that the anguish of Alice would outweigh all of the anguish of these staffers, and all of the anguish of their bosses, and all of the anguish of the members of California Church Impact over this event, combined.

And that is how it should be.

[Let’s say that hypothetically] I’m planning on running for State Senate this year.  If I should win, I will tell my staffers this:

If you can’t handle being abused by angry citizens, who may or may not have legitimate grievances and may or may not have a couple of screws loose, then you should not be answering the phones.  If you are abused, I will feel bad for you, and I might even call up some of those constituents and give them a piece of my mind on your behalf.  But there is one thing that I will never do:  I will not vote against an otherwise worthy bill, or vote for an unworthy one, because people were mean to you … or to me.

Ms. Sholes’s depiction of our legislators, as people who are not willing to put aside their personal emotions and do what they think is right every single time they vote, is insulting and, I would like to think, inaccurate.  People will suffer and die — the low-income mothers and children and the elderly served by California Church Impact will continue to suffer and die — due to the lack of affordable health insurance and adequate health care in this state.  To say that this solution of this problem should be put aside forever because they were mean to legislators is breathtaking in its temerity.  It fundamentally misconstrues the role of legislators as masters rather than servants.  I’d expect better of a church group.

Beyond this, Ms. Sholes’s story is insulting to Majority Leader Steinberg and Senators Leno.  If the votes were truly in the bag — which I doubt — and they knew that calls were coming in, those figures should have raised the alarm immediately to tell supporters to get out the word for people to STOP CALLING!  If things were really taken care of, they just had to give the word — that’s a lot easier than people trying to control the message that someone might have seen five steps removed from the sender, alerting them to call.  But no such word came out — and yet proponents of single-payer take the blame.

If I took Ms. Sholes’s story seriously, this would have to be the lesson I’d take: don’t ask people to call the government.

Don’t ask people to call the government because some of them may at some point be mean and mess everything up.  And you can’t even say “don’t call the government anymore if we tell you to stop,” because by then it might be too late.  So the only thing to do, if you want people to support the bill, is to carefully control which voters do call in — make sure that they’re all polite and charming and well-spoken.  (And then you have to hope that your opposition doesn’t engage in a “false flag” operation of calling in and being abusive while claiming to be proponents, because from the looks of Ms. Sholes’s letter that would work wonderfully.)

Taking Ms. Sholes’s teaching at face value means a commitment to abjuring popular activism because someone might not be as well-bred as a lobbyist or constituent called on behalf of California Church Impact.  It is advice not to get people riled up, to “shut up and leave it to the pros.”

Indeed, Ms. Sholes’s advice is very comforting to those legislators who would prefer not to have to deal with hoi polloi at all.  I am also struck — gobsmacked, in fact — by the fact that these six Democratic State Senators, let alone their fifteen Republican counterparts, are entirely exculpated from the failure of this bill.  Nope!  It’s the activists’ fault, and only the activists’ fault!

Sadly for Ms. Sholes, and for me, and for progressive Senators and Assemblymembers and activists everywhere, the estimable level of decorum she sees as critical simply is not going to be met in the future — because income distribution is getting worse, and times are getting tougher, and people are getting mad.  They’re going broke and they’re dying and they see their government not quite accomplishing what it needs to do.

I’m sorry for the staffers who, to credit Ms. Sholes’s story, received such abuse from constituents (or from non-constituents.)  That should not have happened to you.  But if the lesson you gleaned from it is that it is OK to change your vote in a life-or-death matter against the interests of people who are worked up into righteous indignation, then I am doubly sorry for you, because you have learned a false and corrosive lesson.

As for Ms. Sholes — I’d like to introduce her to Alice.  Another bill, AB 52 — already passed by the Assembly — would give the Insurance Commissioner the ability to regulate unreasonable premium rate increases of the sort that might soon kill Alice.  These same six Senators (plus one other, whom I won’t name) are believed to be the ones blocking its passage.  If you can tell me which Senators are just being coy, but who really would vote for the bill if people are just nice to them, I’ll try to spread the word to people not to vent their anguish at them.  (Following the example of the very polite Insurance Commissioner Dave Jones, I already do this, but I’ll try even harder.)

Please, someone, get me their names.  Then it can be only those Senators who can’t be moved to vote to respect the lives of people like Alice who will receive holy hell — because that’s what we have to deliver to them.

Update [in original post]: How did I gloss over the best paragraph of Sholes’s letter, right after what I copied above?

This means single payer likely is dead in California. The most important point is that SB 810 died NOT due to the insurance industry or even from Senate opposition — the votes were ready for passage – but due to the obnoxious and outrageous actions of its supporters.

Yes, it’s pretty easy to say that the insurance industry and Senate opposition killed SB 810 — what with the actual evidence at hand suggesting it at all.  But it’s also getting easier to say that Ms. Sholes is mostly carrying water (and body armor) for one or both of the above players.  One wonders, given her protestations of progressivism: why?

10 thoughts on “Church Lobbyist: Obnoxious Callers Killed CA Single Payer — FOREVER!”

  1. Why not establish non-profits at the local level cities and perhaps counties banding together to create a pool of the insured that could effectively compete with the large insurers???  If you whack the profit off the top of Blue Cross, etc and offer those rates I think you’d have a winning strategy that would be a very effective use of the private sector.

    And no, I’m not trolling you guys.  I’ve long thought this the best solution for healthcare and many other services (see the civil provided broadband and TV in that North Carolina City)

  2. That’s it? If I call a Representative and get obstreperous, I can stop legislation in its tracks?


    Who knew?

  3. But didn’t we manage to get this passed at least twice during Gov Gropinator’s administration?

    This sounds more like the democratic “designated villain” trick (see Glenn Greenwald). As long as there’s a republican in the governor’s office who can be counted on to veto, it can pass. As soon as it might put Jerry Brown on the spot, somebody in the senate needed to step up and take one for the team by blocking it.

  4. It is pretty clear that opposition to anything government does, or tries to do, can be rather quickly organized.  This is just another example of info-fascism in action.  The best post I have read recently on this subject comes from antoher area, climate change, but the example shows how well organized the other side really is.

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