To Be Blunt About It

Set it and forget it. You hear that said all the time in those infomercials for this kitchen gizmo or that – those infomercials everyone blows by on their way to something even vaguely worth watching on television. And no one watches infomercials – they’re just a way for local stations to make some money filling dead air. If Acme Toaster Ovens wants to buy an empty unscheduled half-hour, that’s fine. It’s cheaper than buying syndicated reruns of Three’s Company or My Mother the Car and trying to sell thirty-second spots for that. No one is watching anyway. So the stations set it and forget it – just like that gizmo that will roast your turkey while you’re at the mall. Some things you just put on autopilot.

And except for political junkies and policy wonks – and those obsessively committed to a cause or ideology – Americans believe in a set-it-and-forget-it government. We elect representatives to go to Washington and do the tedious work of keeping the government, and the country, running reasonably smoothly. We don’t want to know the details. Except for a few libertarians everyone is fine with them figuring out how to use the tax money we send in, for roads and schools and national defense and all the rest. And a safe food supply and safe and effective drugs, and an air-traffic control system and minimal product safety rules, would be nice too. But just keep the air and water clean and the power on, and set things up so the bad guys go to jail now and then. That’ll do.

It’s representative democracy – not democracy itself. Everyone does not participate. No normal person has time for that, for all the details. That’s what our representatives are for, what politicians are for. Sure they do odd things now and then, like declaring National Kumquat Day or whatever, but you have to cut them some slack. You wouldn’t want to spend your days involved in legislative minutiae, arguing about cloture rules and subsections of the tax code. So we send them to Washington to do that for us. Set it and forget it.

But as with that Acme Toaster Oven, sometimes things go wrong, and Adam Serwer offers an instance of that:

In their latest move in the battle over contraception coverage, top Republicans in Congress are going for broke: They’re now pushing a bill that would allow employers and insurance companies to pick and choose which health benefits to provide based simply on executives’ personal moral beliefs. Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), the top GOPer in the Senate, has already endorsed the proposal, and it could come to a vote this week. The measure would make the religious exemptions to President Barack Obama’s health care bill so large they’d swallow it whole.

These guys really do hate the Affordable Care Act – or assume their constituents who keep them in office do – and are looking for a way to gut it:

Obama’s Affordable Care Act requires all health care plans to offer certain services and benefits, including birth control. Last week, Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) offered a “conscience amendment,” to the law, pitching it as a way to allay religious employers’ qualms about providing birth control to their employees.

But this Roy Blunt thing is pretty strange, or not well thought-out:

Blunt’s proposal doesn’t just apply to religious employers and birth control. Instead, it would allow any insurer or employer, religiously affiliated or otherwise, to opt out of providing any health care services required by federal law -everything from maternity care to screening for diabetes. Employers wouldn’t have to cite religious reasons for their decision; they could just say the treatment goes against their moral convictions. That exception could include almost anything – an employer could theoretically claim a “moral objection” to the cost of providing a given benefit. The bill would also allow employers to sue if state or federal regulators try to make them comply with the law.

This isn’t a proclamation of National Kumquat Day. Sewer suggests that this is actually dangerous:

If Republican leaders get their way and Blunt’s bill becomes law, a boss who regarded overweight people and smokers with moral disgust could exclude coverage of obesity and tobacco screening from his employees’ health plans. A Scientologist employer could deny its employees depression screening because Scientologists believe psychiatry is morally objectionable. A management team that thought HIV victims brought the disease upon themselves could excise HIV screening from its employees’ insurance coverage. Your boss’ personal prejudices, not science or medical expertise, would determine which procedures your insurance would cover for you and your kids.

“One of the fundamental purposes of the Affordable Care Act was making sure all health insurance plans cover basic services. The Blunt amendment would do away with that,” says Sarah Lipton-Lubet, a policy counsel with the American Civil Liberties Union. “A business could deny coverage for cervical cancer screening for unmarried employees, out of opposition to premarital sex.”

And this is a big change:

Although the Blunt amendment takes the conservative position on birth control coverage to its logical conclusion, conservatives have previously rejected the notion that religious belief entitles individuals to ignore the law. “To permit this would be to make the professed doctrines of religious belief superior to the law of the land, and in effect to permit every citizen to become a law unto himself,” Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia wrote in a 1990 decision involving Oregon men who sought an exemption to drug laws on the grounds that consuming peyote was part of their religion.

Yes, Antonin Scalia actual said that – see Employment Division, Department of Human Resources of Oregon v. Smith (No. 88-1213) 307 Or. 68, 763 P.2d 146, reversed for the details. Ah, you don’t do details. No one does. But there are the details of the Blunt Amendment – strange stuff, for the detail-minded.

But this is where we’re headed, and this last Sunday, Mitch McConnell explained the upcoming Republican strategy to CBS’s Bob Scheiffer:

SCHEIFFER: And Senator Blunt from Missouri, one of your Republican colleagues, he wants an amendment now that would allow any group that had a moral objection to this, to not have to pay for birth control pills. Are you willing to go as far as Senator Blunt wants to go on this?

SENATOR MITCH MCCONNELL: Yeah, it’s not a moral objection. This is about the free exercise of religion. And under our constitution, you don’t take a poll to find out how people feel about a constitutional freedom…

BOB SCHIEFFER: Well – I guess what I’m asking you though is – is are you willing to go as far as Senator Blunt now wants to go and just write in legislation that would ban any group that had just a, quote, “moral objection,” not just a religious group but just any group that had a moral objection to that? Would – would you be willing to push that in the Senate?

SENATOR MITCH MCCONNELL: Yeah. You know if- if we end up having to try to overcome the President’s opposition by legislation, of course, I’d be happy to support it and intend to support it.

So the Republicans are now committed to this idea – anyone can disregard this law for pretty much any reason.

And that’s an interesting idea – think of it as institutionalized anarchy. We have laws. But they’re really more suggestions than laws. Every man’s a king, or something. Any “religious beliefs or moral convictions” are far more important than any silly law. And those laws can be ignored – in the name of religious freedom. It’s hard to overstate how radically anarchistic this notion is. The rule of law is abandoned – period. This guarantees chaos.

And Slate’s David Weigel adds context:

Not to be too patronizing or anything, but the Constitution prohibits any bill establishing or restricting religious beliefs. Morals, though – that’s not in the Constitution, and that could mean anything. This creates an opening for Democrats.

And Greg Sargent talks to Elizabeth Warren about this. She wants to win back the Massachusetts Senate seat from the Republican up there and she’s willing to hammer him on this:

“I am shocked that Senator Brown jumped in to support such an extreme measure,” Warren told me by phone just now. “This is an all new attack on health care. Any insurance company could leave anyone without health care, just when they need it most… This is an extreme attack on every one of us. It opens the door to outright discrimination. It would let insurance companies and corporations cut off pregnant women, overweight guys, older Americans, or anyone – because some executive claims it is part of his moral code. Maybe that wouldn’t happen, but I don’t want to take the chance.”


And this is how Republicans can lose control of the issue.

And that could happen. David Lauter in the Los Angeles Times reviews all the recent polling and finds most of the nation, save for those really committed one way or the other, would just as soon set it and forget it:

The dispute stirs up ardent partisans on both sides with much less impact on those in the middle, providing an opportunity for groups on both the left and the right to raise money to motivate their supporters without undergoing huge political risk. Two new polls released Tuesday provide evidence for that. The Pew Research Center looked at who has been following the debate and what they think of it. The key finding: “This issue has attracted much more attention from people at either end of the political spectrum than those in the middle.”

And if you think of what Roy Blunt and Mitch McConnell are up to as a Republican infomercial, well, as usual, no one is really watching:

Gallup looked at whether Catholics’ views of Obama had changed over the last couple of weeks. They haven’t – at least not in a statistically significant way. Four weeks ago, an average of 45% of Catholics said they approved of the job Obama has been doing. This week, 46% did. In the intervening two weeks, the approval number had ticked up as high as 49%, but all those changes are within the poll’s margin of error of plus or minus 4 percentage points for the Catholic sample. Over time, it’s possible the issue could begin to weigh more heavily on how Catholics view Obama, but so far, the impact has been minimal.

And other new polling show just how dangerous to the Republicans this is:

Amid continued controversy surrounding an Obama administration policy mandating that women working at religiously-affiliated institutions be provided with free access to contraceptive health care, a new CBS News/New York Times poll shows that most Americans – including Catholics – appear to support the rule.

According to a survey, conducted between Feb. 8-13, 61 percent of Americans support federally-mandated contraception coverage for religiously-affiliated employers; 31 percent oppose such coverage.

The number is similar among self-professed Catholics surveyed: 61 percent said they support the Obama administration’s rule, while 32 percent oppose it.

Majorities of both men and women said they are in favor of the rule, though support among women is especially pronounced, with 66 percent supporting and 26 percent opposing it. Among men, 55 percent of men are in favor; 38 percent object.

That’s devastating, and Time’s Michael Scherer covers the poster boy for Blunt’s efforts:

Last October, Rick Santorum gave an interview with an Evangelical blog called Caffeinated Thoughts, in which he said contraception is “not okay,” and that this would be a public policy issue he would tackle as President. In particular, he said he would “get rid of any idea that you have to have abortion coverage or contraceptive coverage” as a government policy.

And the key quote from Santorum is this:

It’s not okay because it’s a license to do things in the sexual realm that is counter to how things are supposed to be. They’re supposed to be within marriage, they are supposed to be for purposes that are, yes, conjugal, but also [inaudible], but also procreative. That’s the perfect way that a sexual union should happen. We take any part of that out, we diminish the act. And if you can take one part out that’s not for purposes of procreation, that’s not one of the reasons, then you diminish this very special bond between men and women, so why can’t you take other parts of that out? And all of a sudden, it becomes deconstructed to the point where it’s simply pleasure. And that’s certainly a part of it – and it’s an important part of it, don’t get me wrong -but there’s a lot of things we do for pleasure, and this is special, and it needs to be seen as special.


In politics, it is generally not a good thing to characterize something nearly every adult in the country has happily used as “a license to do things in the sexual realm that is counter to how things are supposed to be.” According to a more recent Pew poll, 85% of the country believes that contraception is either “not a moral issue” or “morally acceptable.” Eight percent view contraception as “morally wrong.”

In contrast with Santorum, Mitt Romney made it clear in a recent debate that he did not want to weigh in on the moral question of contraception. “Contraception. It’s working just fine. Just leave it alone,” he said, providing one of the great soundbites of the 2012 cycle.

Romney is a real set-it-and-forget-it kind of guy. But Talking Points Memo reports that things will now come to a head:

Sensing a political upper-hand in the brewing culture war, Senate Democrats had their guns blazing against the GOP’s birth control amendment Tuesday, vowing to fight Republicans’ best efforts to tack it on to the bipartisan highway bill and warning that the measure would take women’s health in America back to the “dark ages.”

“In 2012, I stand here in complete amazement,” said Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-CA), “that in a country known for its medical breakthroughs and advancements, Republicans would have us go back to the medical dark ages.” She said the energy and transportation bill otherwise has strong bipartisan support, and deemed the contraception amendment both a poison pill and irrelevant.

Boxer, who chairs the committee with jurisdiction, said Democrats have been told that GOP lawmakers will continue to demand its inclusion.

Yes, a spokesman for Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell confirmed that a letter has been filed with the majority Democrats. They will attach this “conscience amendment” to any and all legislation, starting with this new the bipartisan highway bill:

“I’d like to get it on a bill the President has to sign,” Blunt told TPM on Tuesday. “But I’d also like to see it debated and voted on, and so we’ll just see how that goes.”

This will fire-up their base – no new roads or bridge repairs unless all employers everywhere get to ignore the Affordable Care Act for any reason that occurs to them. Heck, eight percent of the nation views contraception as “morally wrong” after all.

Does that strike you as insane? Maybe it is, and it certainly gave Boxer a chance to pounce:

Quoting a line from Jon Stewart, Boxer grimly jested that if the amendment passes, employers with a moral conviction that laughter is the best medicine can deny their workers access to life-saving treatments, and instead tell them jokes.

And the riposte was this:

Blunt defended his amendment against the Democrats’ attacks in a huddle with reporters, declaring that if it passes, “there is no right that any American would have that they haven’t had for the first 225 years of Constitutional history.”

Flanked by Catholic Bishops who oppose Obama’s new rule, Republicans have tried to paint the amendment as one that restores religious freedom and scraps onerous mandates in the Affordable Care Act. The aim is to continue trying to paint Obama as anti-religion. It also helps divert attention from the improving economy and the payroll tax cut debate, neither of which are shaking out to be politically advantageous for the GOP.

But then Frank Lautenberg, the Democratic senator from New Jersey, accused congressional Republicans of taking cues from Rick Santorum – which seems a bit unfair. But they’re all in this together now.

But that’s only the Senate, where the Democrats have the majority:

House Republicans haven’t insisted on attaching a Blunt-like amendment to the highway bill, but Senate Democrats know full well they can quash it in their chamber. In many ways it would suit them to have a debate about birth control coverage as polls show them continuing to be on the right side of public opinion, even after the GOP offensive of the past few days.

All this has ever-liberal Digby a bit worried:

For all the talk about this being a big winner for the Democrats I honestly have a hard time seeing them be willing to spend much more time on it if the Republicans decide to really push it. I could be wrong, but I’m already seeing some allies rolling their eyes and saying “enough already with the birth control, we have important issues to hash out.” I hope I’m wrong – or that the Republicans decide to drop back on this for the time being in light of these polls showing that a large majority support the contraception mandate.

But Kevin Drum isn’t worried about the Blunt amendment to everything:

As with most Republican legislation these days, it’s designed to prove to the true-believer wing of the party that their representatives in Congress are true believers too. The clown show in Washington DC continues apace.

Well, it’s more of a sleazy infomercial than a clown show. The huckster says look at what we’ve got for you here today – set it and forget it and wonderful things happen.

No, they don’t. Everyone knows about infomercials.


About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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One Response to To Be Blunt About It

  1. Dick Bernard says:

    OK, here’s some comments from a little guy, a lifelong Catholic, on this issue du jour. This one links back to the first, which was Feb. 12. Reduced to the absurd, the image I retain is from the national evening news on Saturday when some guy standing in the pews of a quaint Catholic Church earnestly declared the Catholic line, purportedly representing all of the purported 77,000,000 of us. Actually, I’m glad this issue is on the table for frank open discussion. It’s needed. The Bishops are indeed back in the 13th Century…. Thanks.

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