It was a eerie moment that reminded me of all those Bush-era overreactions to protest. On Tuesday, May 5, during a Senate Finance Committee "round table" on healthcare reform, eight activists stood up one by one to protest the fact that single-payer advocates had been denied a seat at the table. They weren't unruly or violent. They didn't throw things. They just stood up and asked why they'd been railroaded out of the discussion.
But the unfriendly gavel banged them out of order. One by one, the activists -- mostly doctors -- were hustled out of the chamber by Capitol police and arrested.
Arrested for advocating a national healthcare approach that a majority of Americans are asking for, according to many polls? Yes, indeed.
Incredibly -- days later, the President and the White House have said nothing about the incident. It doesn't augur well for how the new administration is going to handle legitimate dissent within its own ranks.
According to various of their spokespeople, the single-payer advocates had tried for weeks to get a seat at the discussion table, but they were turned down. Ralph Nader himself, when he called the office of committee head Sen. Max Baucus to lobby for single-payer to have a voice, was told a flat no. Yet every major healthcare-industry vested interest got a seat in that discussion. And Senator Baucus has proclaimed that "single payer is off the table."
It's one of those eerie moments -- and the list is getting longer -- when I wonder what is really going on, under all the glittery feel-good surfaces of the new regime? Does the word still need to trickle down through D.C.'s many layers of entrenched political habit that there's a new sheriff in town?
Where is the "change" in the Obama administration's reaction to the first challenge that they're gotten from legitimate civil-disobedience? Judging by the Senate committee's over-reaction, we have no more freedom to argue single-payer healthcare today than we had freedom to wear an anti-Bush T-shirt to a rally a year ago. Both actions got you clapped in handcuffs. The Baucus Eight were hauled off to be booked -- and charged with "disruption of Congress," a misdemeanor that could get them six months in jail.
What's really going on here? Are the Democrats being ridiculously oversensitive to Republican jeers that America would turn "socialist" if we adopted a national program of comprehensive single-payer healthcare? If so, is that a good reason to muzzle a major viewpoint at what is supposed to be a national forum? Surely Obama knows by now that there's a national groundswell of disgust and impatience with the private healthcare system!
Or was the Obama administration just bending over the desk for the health-insurance industry? Russell Mokhiber, founder of Single Payer Action, described the hearing this way: "It's a pretty spectacular display of raw political power. The health insurance industry demands that not one of the 15 people who testified today shall be a single-payer advocate. And the industry gets what it wants. It's time for the American people to storm the gates and demand -- put single payer on the table."
Last but not least -- was the law-enforcement "incident" in the Senate on Tuesday a painfully visible proof of a Capitol truism -- that "the banks own the Senate?" Will the banks go on owning the Senate even with Obama in office?
Disclosure: when I ran for a seat on the West Hollywood city council two years ago, one of the planks in my platform was to bring a comprehensive single-payer healthcare program to the city of WeHo. I was inspired by the example of California Senator Sheila Kuehl, who has advocated strongly for single-payer in our state for years, and is supported by growing numbers of voters, though she has never been able to get her healthcare bill through the state legislature. So I take these arrests very personally.
Whatever course our nation eventually decides to take on reforming healthcare, it doesn't help the sickly state of our country to deny a place at the table to all the viewpoints. I am outraged at how Senator Baucus and his committee stacked the deck, and then punished those intrepid citizens who called them on it -- right in front of the C-SPAN cameras.
Most of all, I am outraged that President Obama let this happen -- that days have gone by and he has said said nothing. Indeed, he was quicker to respond after the stupidly planned airplane fly-over that terrified New Yorkers, saying it was a "mistake." Reportedly he was "furious" when he heard about it.
Well, his administration has just made another mistake -- a bigger one. Where is our President's righteous "fury" now?