Murphy’s law?

ON A HOT DAY last summer Representative Scott Murphy (D-20th) stood before a couple hundred people gathered at the Golden Harvest farm store in Kinderhook. The main topic that day was healthcare, and Mr. Murphy said he favored reforming the nation’s healthcare system. Using what seemed like irony at the time, he told the crowd that this country has the best health care in the world “for the people who can afford it.”

Even before he narrowly won election to Congress to fill the seat vacated when Kirsten Gillibrand was appointed to the U.S. Senate, Mr. Murphy could afford good care. As a member of the House of Representatives, he has all the care he needs. And the irony now is that Mr. Murphy voted No on the bill adopted late Saturday by the House that would reform the nation’s healthcare system.

In a statement after his vote, Mr. Murphy indicated that the bill, HR 3962, would not curb costs and would increase the federal deficit, positions at odds with the best non-partisan estimate available. He also faulted the measure for imposing new taxes on local medical equipment makers, presumably including General Electric, whose profits were down last year to only $18 billion. And he says that the bill doesn’t go far enough to fix what’s wrong with the cost structure of the current system.

The congressman says he still supports national healthcare reform even though he voted against it.

Lots of people share Mr. Murphy’s dissatisfaction with HR 3962, although for reasons other than the ones he cites. But unlike Mr. Murphy, most successful politicians accept that they can’t achieve perfection, so they settle for compromise in order to get things done.

Only occasionally do lawmakers have the opportunity to decide a question so important that their votes help shape the future for decades to come. That happened with social security in the 1930s. It happened again with the Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act and the creation of Medicare in the mid-1960s. None of these laws was perfectly crafted, and each underwent changes and improvements in subsequent years. But the men and women who voted for those programs understood that they could strengthen the nation with new laws–even flawed ones–aimed at righting neglect and discrimination.

Mr. Murphy has every right to stand against the tide and resist this reform. But quibbling as he does over the details of the healthcare overhaul and then claiming he still supports its goals betrays a lack of conviction that diminishes both him and his office.

In fairness, though, maybe this call for him to embrace a grand vision despite his misgivings misses the point. Maybe Mr. Murphy, only a few months into his first term as an elected official, remains naïve about how the game is played. Perhaps he doesn’t understand that when Congress passes an imperfect bill, the members can fix loopholes when problems arise.

But if his actions result from his inexperience with the legislative process, why did Mr. Murphy issue a press release last week extolling his vote amending a new law meant to protect consumers from the predatory practices of credit card providers. His release says the original law, signed by President Obama in May, would not have protected consumers until the end of February, leaving credit card users vulnerable in the meantime. So Congress quickly fixed the flaw, making the bill effective next month. In other words, Mr. Murphy does understand how the system works.

Perhaps the congressman has survey data that convince him Columbia County voters don’t care much about healthcare. If not, he has played a risky hand with his vote against the healthcare bill. This county gave him the largest margin of all 10 counties in the 20th District in his race for the House seat. He won here by more than 2,300 votes, while he beat his opponent, Republican Jim Tedisco, by only 726 votes overall. And looking to the future, recent election results suggest that incumbency counts less than ever these days.

If the Senate fails to produce a healthcare reform bill, perhaps Mr. Murphy’s vote will fade into obscurity. But with millions of people nationwide unable to afford care and insurance companies poised to slap double-digit increases on healthcare premiums, don’t bet this issue will disappear any time soon. By contrast, Mr. Murphy, who stood against the best attempt yet to solve this national crisis, might well disappear from the political scene sooner than he expects. 

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