I’m sitting through a meeting of the House Voters and Elections Committee. I’m also wafting in utter essence of politics.
We think we elect people, but the legislators at the Roundhouse during this 30-day legislative session are not, actually, people. They are letters. They are either “D,” or they are “R.”
There are seven Democrats and six Republicans on this committee. They will vote on two issues over the next one-and-a-half hours : health care, and minimum wage. The votes will run straight down party lines. 7-6, 7-6.
Nate Gentry, a Republican from Albuquerque, makes the strongest impression on me of anyone here. “What does ‘affordable’ mean?” he bullshits through a smirk, exaggeratingly throwing his hands in the air, and saying over and over “I don’t mean to be flip,” even though he does.
“What does ‘accessible’ mean?” Weak.
House Joint Resolution 23 seeks to amend the New Mexico Constitution to include this: “Health care is a fundamental right that is an essential safeguard of human life and dignity. The state shall ensure that every resident has the opportunity to realize this right by establishing a comprehensive system of quality health care that is accessible to each resident on an equitable basis regardless of ability to pay.”
Rep. Gail Chasey (D-Albuquerque) is sponsoring the resolution, and she’s brought, as an expert, a med student from UNM whose first name is James (I was late to this hearing, and trapped in my seat once I got there, so I never got his last name). Dr. James (as he shall henceforth be known on The Flip Side) is feisty, loud, and grasps this subject quite well. He appears to have put a lot of work into drafting those two sentences.
For a bill to become law, it must survive committee. “Agriculture and Water Resources,” for example, is a committee. Or “Appropriations and Finance.” Or “Indian and Cultural Affairs.” Etc…. (The one I’m at, again, is “House Voters and Elections.”)
Committee is where lawmakers make their bones, voting “Yes” or “No” based on all sorts of variables. Any of these committees can kill a bill by voting it down.
Or they can chicken out and table it, in which case it’s also dead.
This is the meat of a legislative session. It’s the whole reason all these big-shot men and women – warrior-like survivors of an odious election process – have come together in Santa Fe for 30 straight exhausting days.
To haggle over bills.
Bills to salve society’s wounds are introduced by the dozens. They swim against the current, to live or die.
The chairperson (like a capo on “Sopranos”) is overseeing this Voters and Elections meeting, and asks if anyone in the audience would like to speak against the proposed constitutional amendment. This happens at every committee meeting, for every bill.
Lots of hands go up. Seven people who identify themselves as “registered lobbyists” for various health insurance companies (United, Blue Cross Blue Shield…) stand and speak for about one minute apiece.
“…puts us on the road to socialized medicine” is one phrase that’s deployed, by a woman with short, asymetrical black hair, whose huge suit collar has sparkling little spots all over it. Also brandished about by The Seven Lobbyists is the term “fiscal impact.”
Fiscal impact. Fiscal impact. Fiscal impact.
One guy, actually here to speak on another bill, raises his hand when it’s time for supporters. He’s the only one. He says he was diagnosed with Stage 3 Hodgekins Lymphoma some years ago and “if not for social medicine, I would not be here.”
Dr. James has to speak when the “audience” of mostly lobbyists is done. Quite loudly, he points out that the leading cause of bankruptsies in the country is health care costs, for people who already have health insurance. (When this hearing is over, Dr. James will actually flabergast one of the lobbyists by flashing her a huge smile on his way out of the room. She will act incredulous.)
And that’s besides the point, because the amendment is not for a new system of single-payer healthcare, Dr. James says. It’s “a moral step forward.” It’s “a dynamic definition to health care which may change through time.” It “obligates the state to progressive evaluation” of how well New Mexicans are being cared for, medically speaking.
The term “watered down” comes up a while later, after Gentry gets insufferably clever again. He begins to propose an amendment (to the constitutional amendment, dammit) which adds “water” and “food” before “Health care.”
Because promising health care as a right is the same as promising food and water (and “nutrition,” Gentry says in jest) as a guaranteed right, Gentry says.
I don’t get his point, and I kind of don’t want to. Please, though, explain this to me in the comments below if you understand what he’s saying.
Gentry is showboating. Seriously. Halfway through suggesting his revision, he says he’s decided to “withdraw” his amendment. Just wanted to start to suggest it to prove a point, apparently. People in the room laugh.
Revisions are made by Democrats on the committee, in hopes of recruiting Republican votes. The word “affordable” is inserted. There’s an attempt at changing the word “ensure” to “make a reasonable effort.”
The Declaration of Independence, Dr. James says, does not say “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness that the state can afford.”
You should never immediately blame a politician who says “I was for it before I was against it.” Good ideas get watered down to nothing in committee, squished and shaped in an effort to get Republicans or Democrats to vote against their party, which does not happen.
So the whole big machine of lobbyists turns out to be meaningless, because everyone votes based purely on partisanship. 7 D’s, 6 R’s. The lobbyists have influenced nothing. And yet there they sit, in really nice clothes, satisfied by a job done.
Next up is another bill. It wants to raise the minimum wage for the entire state, relative to inflation based on some uniform calculation. It would up the minimum wage next year from $7.50 and hour to $7.66.
All the same lobbyists who didn’t like the health care amdendment have stuck around to speak up against this minimum wage increase. I wrote a little story about it for IndependentSourcePAC.org. (Click here.)
It passes out of this committee 7-6, with everyone voting, again, straight down party lines. The Republicans do not want to increase the minimum wage to coincide with inflation, arguing it isn’t paid for. The Democrats do.
Switch one person here from “”D” to “R” – or the other way around – and these bills amount to nothing. Laws about health care, or what the poorest people in New Mexico earn to buy anything, are at the mercy of these 11-person committees.
If I have a point here, and I’m not sure I do, it’s this: These all seem like nice people (except for Gentry), but they vote with their party. Each and every one of them.