Patricia Nell Warren

Single-Payer Advocates Arrested at Senate Hearing

Filed By Patricia Nell Warren | May 08, 2009 9:30 AM | comments

Filed in: Living, Politics
Tags: single-payer advocates arrested

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?

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They weren't arrested for advocating a single-payer system; they were arrested for disrupting a Senate hearing. I assume that they planned to get arrested, thereby potentially garnering more attention to the cause. The alternative is that the chair of the Committee pull a page out of Mario Cuomo's (or Bill Clinton's) playbook: allow the heckler to speak, engage them a bit in a show of openness, and then ignore the dissenting opinion entirely in policy-making. The latter course of action is a far more insidious reaction to civil disobedience. Arrests are not a bad thing when it comes to civil disobedience -- they're exactly what's supposed to happen. In many instances, the more arrests of nonviolent protesters the better (in a well planned campaign).

But of course all this is a completely separate point from whether single-payer advocates should be at the table in the first place. Of course they should. But honestly, I'm not in the least surprised that they're not. There was nothing in Obama's campaign (or Hillary Clinton's) that would have led anyone to believe that the Democratic leadership had any interest whatsoever in considering the option. Clinton was upfront at several of the debates, saying flatly (I paraphrase), "A single payer system is of course the best option, but politically, it's a nonstarter."

Civil disobedience of the sort these folks did -- complete with the attendant arrests -- is exactly the type of thing that needs to happen to force this issue. It is beyond clear that it will never come voluntarily from any political leaders. The insurance companies are way too influential in both parties. It is naive to think otherwise.

Arrests are not a bad thing when it comes to civil disobedience -- they're exactly what's supposed to happen. In many instances, the more arrests of nonviolent protesters the better (in a well planned campaign).

I rather thought the same thing, Diane. Isn't one of the usual points of CD to be arrested and therefore garner attention to your cause? If they'd stood up silently and not been arrested, Patricia wouldn't be writing about them, for example.

the change | May 8, 2009 10:46 AM

there is on change it was a lie, a complete total lie to get this man in office.

I respectfully disagree with both Diane and Bil.

First of all, the need for "disrupting Congress" shouldn't have arisen. Single-payer advocates should NOT have been blackballed from the national discussion. I'm aware that Obama's plans for healthcare reform don't include single payer, but there was no need for his administration to take such a hard-nosed stance on a healthcare MO that many Americans want and support. Senator Baucus should have defused the situation by diplomatically including the single-payer people in the discussion.

Second of all -- you're both assuming that arrests for civil disobedience are the relatively unrisky positionings that they were in the Sixties, with minor misdemeanor charges and token penalties for most arrestees. Rosa Parker got a few days in jail. Indeed, so did Thoreau in his original historic protest over taxes. Protesters used to be proud of their long records of arrests.

But this is not the case any more. Starting in the 1980s, federal and state criminal penalties have been upped in a very punitive way. Even misdemeanor convictions can bring time behind bars ranging from six months to a year. Felony charges are frequent now, even for the most peaceful mom-and-pop kind of protest. A protester's life can be up in smoke on the first arrest.

In short, America has turned very unfriendly to peaceful protest on the law-enforcement front, in a way that endangers our First Amendment right to assemble peacefully and publicly demand redress.

This is a big problem, and it has gotten relatively little news coverage, though some indie media have covered it in depth. The gay media haven't done a very good job of reporting on it...which is surprising, considering that hundreds of LGBT people have been handled roughly by law enforcement in the course of major demonstrations since the 1980s.

In California several years ago, a group of us organized a legislative task force in an attempt to make the state criminal code less punitive on legitimate protest. We got the law passed, but the governor vetoes it. Also read my Bilerico post at

Whatever judge the Baucus Eight wind up in front of, I hope that the judge doesn't throw the book at these people. If that judge does go for the maximum sentence, it will prove my point. The lives and careers of these protesting activists shouldn't be shredded because they spoke out of order at a Senate hearing.

Actually I base my comments on my experiences with civil disobedience in the late 80s and early 90s, but your point is still taken that that experience is so 20 years ago. Nonetheless, it's certainly my hope that anybody engaging in civil disobedience these days (as then) has consulted with an attorney about the likely consequences in that particular jurisdiction prior to doing something that's likely to get them arrested.

I'm trying to think of a time when America was friendly to peaceful protesters. Maybe the Operation Rescue folks... the cops always seemed very gentle and kind with those people...

And of course I couldn't agree with you more that single-payer advocates should be at the table. But I'm not at all surprised that this administration is not inviting them.

I share your passion on this subject Patricia. I agree that this whole issue could have been averted IF single payer advocates where part of the process.

I feel that the Obama administration will quickly loose its political capitol from within his own camp and surely from me IF this man can't stand up to right and wrong.

Where is his commitment to follow through on his campaign promises like, single health payer, overturn Don't Ask, Don't Tell, etc., know fairness in what he campaigned for?

I had such hopes for 'change' with Obama...but I feel my support slipping more gradually all of the time.

This is just sad...

I'm exhausted with Democrats in Congress, and the Whitehouse.

I am a disabled veteran. I have socialized medicine. I have very good healthcare.

Why can't my mother have my healthcare? Why can't my brother in Mobile have my healthcare? Why can't the guy living on the corner have my healthcare?

Universal single payer healthcare is socialism. But all our capitalist competitors benefit from single payer healthcare.

I'm exhausted by Democrats in Congress and the White House.

Greg, I agree with you 110 percent. Universal single-payer healthcare may be "socialism," but so is the big government that pushes its tentacles into every nook and cranny of American life, from agriculture subsidies to programs and regulations of all kinds.

We need to stop quibbling about the labels, and just do the right thing for our people.

Can someone help me on this? I don't have the full background, and from the clip it sounds like the guy started talking the second they convened the meeting. If this is correct, I would have had him removed as well. Sorry, but the fact the guy got arrested isn't the least bit "shocking" or "eerie," given the timing of his conduct.

Should single payer advocates have had a seat? Sure. But that doesn't absolve of the duty of civility. The first guy seemed either: (a) ignorant of how, ya know, meetings work; or (b) intent on getting hauled out and/or arrested to get the issue on TV, so mission accomplished.

Separately, GregC, the reason you have "socialized medicine," as you call it, is because you earned it by serving your country. That's the covenant we made. We said if you risk life and limb to protect American interests and lives (a task few accept), we'll provide you medical care for life. While I hope the administration expands coverage, until it does, I have no problem with veterans receiving something I can't get. They earned it.

Chris, you're missing the point of my comment. Because the hearing denied a seat at the table to the single-payer people, these protesters (8 of them, BTW, not just one) face the same level of outrageous penalties that were used to stifle dissent during previous administrations.

At some point, the Obama administration is going to have to take on this issue. We can't go on criminalizing dissent in this way if we want to call ourselves a "democracy."

If you want to learn more about this issue, visit the website for Just Dissent at

Don't give me that I served my country crap. Not while you give cover to closet cases who suck dick in the bathroom and vote bigot on the the house floor.

Have you ever had to look someone in the eye and say there is nothing I can do? Not because it is inconvenient. Not because it does not fit in the right campaign picture. No. I don't think so. I had to tell them no because the taxpayer didn't find their life worthy enough.

I served my country as a closeted Air Force Staff Seargent, an openly gay AmeriCorps*VISTA marketing coordinator and as a civilian public health program manager. Nothing I have done entitles me to healthcare more than the man sleeping on the porch of the church across the street.

I am so angry all I want to do is go in the bathroom and pull my skin off. I served my country, but not nearly enough.

My comment is a bit over the top and borders on the personal. For that I apologize.

Robert Ganshorn Robert Ganshorn | May 9, 2009 7:56 AM

It is interesting to note that civil liberties are never done away with in a sudden single hit, but gradually and over time. (except for the Patriot Act)

The erosion of our Bill of Rights, health care issues and the power to care for my partner drove me from Amerika. It should not have had to have been that way, but any argument I gave myself to stay boiled down to the imperative to best control the care of my partner.

Thank you Patricia

Ralph Nader just posted an outraged analysis of the administration's single-payer positioning. It's well worth reading:!.html

Few politicians in either party seem to care about the some 20,000 Americans who die every year because they can't even get healthcare.

Robert Ganshorn Robert Ganshorn | May 11, 2009 4:49 AM

Or the continuing cost of obtaining it slowly bleeds one dry. I just had three nights in hospital, pay 92.00 monthly for insurance, had no exclusions on my policy and on a $3,000.00 bill paid $21.00 leaving the hospital with a weeks worth of followup medications.

As a gift in south Florida I could have gotten useless insurance for $650.00 that would have had co pays and the other drek that makes the policy worthless in practice.

Enough already