Friday, May 20, 2011

Right to Free Speech/Responsibility to Listen

Your representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgment; and he betrays instead of serving you if he sacrifices it to your opinion. (Edmund Burke, Speech to the Electors of Bristol, 1774-11-03.)

This quote was often on my mind during the last days of the Colorado legislative session, which just ended in early May. I was hoping to mediate between the supporters and opponents of SB-200, which was bi-partisan legislation sponsored by Sen. Boyd and Rep. Stephens , establishing a Board to set up a Health Insurance Exchange.

Many in the various Freedom groups (Tea Party, 9-12, etc.) were opposed to the legislation, while the business community supported it. As Chairperson of a local Tea Party group and member of a local business association’s task force on health care, it seemed I was in the perfect position to understand both sides and help reach a mutually agreeable compromise. I also hope for world peace; compromise between the two above-mentioned groups was just as elusive. Rather than happily mediating between the two groups, I probably just managed to make enemies on both sides.

Each side does have legitimate concerns and reasons for their position. On the supporter’s side, the business groups are desperately looking for solutions to escalating health care costs. I don’t think anyone is holding their breath hoping that Obamacare will help. The opponents called the legislation “Obamacare for Colorado.” I guess that is a good, short, emotional appeal to make but unfortunately, it’s not true. So at the hearing and in writings on the legislation, when the opponents made impassioned speeches against Obamacare, it was not relevant to the legislation at hand. At the committee hearing, I started to imagine it as a court hearing, with the legislative members of the committee as jurors. But there was no judge to bang a gavel and say, “counselor that is irrelevant, move on!”

There were some good issues that I wish the opponents had brought up. But the main thing that bothered me about the legislation was not who won or lost, but rather the process. Having worked and volunteered at the capitol as a Legislative Aide, I’ve dealt with angry constituents who are 100% sure they are right. After receiving phone calls on each side of an issue, with each side equally sure they were right, I often wished that the supporters and opponents could be gathered into a room and then mutually and rationally decide how to proceed. If I could figure out how to do this and then patent the idea, I could be a “gazillionaire”! But unfortunately for my heirs, I can’t, so I’m not.

Unlike others, I saw the issue of SB-200 as gray versus black and white. The legislation could help, but it also could hurt. This is where the beginning quote comes in. If in her opinion, Rep. Stephens thought that it was a good bill, then she would be wrong to sacrifice her judgment to my opinion. She does have a responsibility to listen to my concerns. But if after carefully considering all evidence, she still decides this is a good bill, she should not bow to pressure put on her.

At the Freedom groups’ tax day rally at the Capitol, some of the speakers called for the removal from office next election of Republicans who disagreed with “the people” on this issue. In their eyes, they represent “the people” and anyone else is just a special interest. While the various business groups that supported the legislation collectively got together and hired lobbyists to advance their position at the Capitol, I don’t see them as malevolent special interests. In a way, the Tea Parties are also a special interest group. They are banding together to get their voices heard, which is good. But they should not feel that they have a moral superiority. Both sides need to remain open minded as to the concerns of the other. That is what I found lacking. It’s hard to make progress on resolving differences if each side is just talking, and not listening. While there is a right to free speech in this country, it will not help if not accompanied by a responsibility to listen.

I started a discussion of SB-200 on our Tea Party web-site, to find out what our group thought. There were two who had heard the rallying cries against the legislation, one who was not sure, but most did not know or seem to care about the legislation. Still not sure, I solicited Mike Rosen’s opinion as he had hosted a discussion of the bill on his show. He was ambivalent. The Heritage Foundation, which most Conservatives respect, put out a position paper supporting Health Insurance Exchanges provided they are correctly set up, which would exclude the types set up in Obamacare.

Like it or not, SB-200 passed and unless by some miracle Hickenloooper vetoes it, it will become law. Rather than rallying to remove Rep. Stephens and other Republican legislative supporters from office, I would prefer the Freedom groups stay tuned to the legislation and give input to try and influence the Health Exchanges to be of the beneficial type. (SB-200 does have a sunset provision.)

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