Montana Viewpoint

April 18, 2005

A couple of days ago the Senate debated a bill that would purportedly provide more health insurance coverage for working Montanans. Whether the bill will work or not, I can’t possibly tell you, because the economics of providing health insurance is not my field of expertise; but what I can tell you is that the arguments pro and con were predictable.

Those for the bill recognized that health insurance coverage and the lack thereof is a major problem in Montana, and that the resolution of the issue needs government interference because the private sector just isn’t making it happen.

Those against the bill admitted that health insurance coverage is a big problem, but one that government needs to stay out of. As I listened to their arguments against this particular bill, I quickly recognized a pattern of tried and true arguments designed to kill a bill emerging: “it needs more study; it’s being rushed through; it’s too complex and I don’t understand it; it might penalizes people who don’t comply, and if it does, then it penalizes them too severely; and it gives too much power to the bureaucracy.” Oh, yeah, I forgot, “it will have unintended consequences.”

Whew! It must be bad if you can say all that about it, one would think, but these arguments can be used against almost any major piece of legislation and are often successful, especially if you can get enough people to repeat them. But the fact is, plain and simple, that the opponents just plain didn’t like the idea in the bill. This sort of argument is an opinion in search of a rationale.

A lot of people, myself included, resort to this kind of argument. Hark back to the reasons you gave your folks for not wanting to do homework (it’s too hard, there’s too much of it, I don’t understand it, and the teacher’s mean and trying to punish me.) Really, all you needed to say is that you didn’t want to do it; but that really doesn’t seem like a very strong argument, does it?

Let me tell you one of the highly technical criteria legislators use when voting on a bill: a “no” vote is easier to explain than a “yes” vote. You can always dredge up some kind of rationale for a no vote that doesn’t take much explanation; but explaining a yes vote often takes work.

In order to get people to vote no, you merely have to create doubt in the legislator’s mind, and that’s done by confusing the issue as much as possible. In order to get a yes vote, you have to present a logical case and a coherent explanation, and that, believe me, can be work. Lobbyists know this and are far better than legislators at obfuscating an issue.

But let me digress and return to the issue that sparked this article—health insurance coverage. Is it a problem? You bet your boots, and everyone knows it is, but they differ in how to handle it. There’s the “free market” approach which states that if government would just get out of the way the problem would solve itself. If that’s true, it is solved already, because we in America have done a very good job at doing absolutely nothing.

One senator went so far as to say that socialized medicine—a fair and accurate name for it—doesn’t work in the long run, which is interesting because Germany has had universal health coverage since 1883. But I guess you could make the case that compared to the infinity of time 122 years is short term after all.

Providing affordable health care coverage for Americans is a major issue, and doing nothing about it isn’t doing something about it. I am on record as saying that I don’t much care how people get the health care they need as long as they get it. I have fielded too many cases of constituents with critical health problems to feel otherwise.

We legislators vote on lots of bills we don’t understand because we take it on faith that key legislators do understand it and support it. Frankly, we watch how they vote and follow their lead.

Temerity in the face of crisis is no virtue. We have done precious little to provide health care coverage for working Americans and a little experimentation is better than sitting on our kiesters and wringing our hands—all the opinions in search of a rationale notwithstanding.


Jim Elliott
Phone: 406-444-1556
Mail: State Senate Helena, MT 59620