Mr. Bennet goes to Washington

Frank Capra’s great film “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” is a fiction, a fantasy, or even a fairy tale. But like all great works of the imagination, at its heart lies a real truth.

Capra’s 1939 film tells the story of a naïve and idealistic man appointed to fill a vacant Senate seat. Once in office, his honesty and integrity set him on a collision course with the corrupt powerbrokers who run the country, but he refuses to back down.

Now, 70 years after “Mr. Smith” was released, the essence of Capra’s film can be seen in the debate on health care reform.

Sen. Michael Bennet of Colorado represents Jefferson Smith in this real-life drama. Sen. Ben Nelson of Nebraska and his cohorts who used their votes to twist concessions from the bill parallel the Senate powerbrokers faced by Smith.

While Nelson and a few colleagues held out against health care reform until they could trade their votes for major concessions, Bennet pledged to support the bill on principle, even if it ended his short Senate career.

“If you get to the final point and you are a critical vote for health care reform and every piece of evidence tells you if you support the bill you will lose your job, would you cast the vote and lose your job?” CNN’s John King asked Bennet.

Bennet replied with a simple and uneviquocal, “Yes.”

“When it comes to health care reform — when it comes to lowering costs and finally doing something about the millions of people in this country who live just one medical emergency away from financial ruin,” he said, ‘no’ is not a serious response.”

By contrast, Washington Post columnist Chris Cilizza wrote that Ben Nelson “played the legislative process like a virtuoso” to gain concessions for his state.

The price for Nelson’s vote was high. He won permanent federal funding for an expansion of Medicaid in Nebraska worth up to $100 million over 10 years. He also got major tax breaks for the insurance companies in Nebraska.

While Nelson is the greatest beneficiary of vote trading, other senators took advantage of the situation as well.

Senator Mary Landrieu parlayed her vote into major Medicare subsidies her state, as did senators from Vermont and Massachusetts. In addition, Vermont’s Bernie Sanders claimed to have secured an investment worth between $10 billion and $14 billion for community health centers in his state.

Connecticut independent Joe Lieberman — sometimes called “the Senator from Aetna” — did not ask for money or other concessions, but his was the unkindest cut of all against health insurance reform.

Though he had supported some variation of a public option or Medicare buy-in for years, when an opportunity to actually vote for a bill presented itself, Lieberman killed it to protect the insurance industry that has been more than generous to him.

“I think its pretty clear we are witnessing the impact of special interest groups at work in the Senate,” said Connecticut political science professor Gary Rose. “To think otherwise would be naïve. More than anything else, this is a lesson in the role of lobbyists and special interests.”

While millions of Americans watched in dismay, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid was forced to make concession after concession to these unscrupulous senators. As a spokesman for Reid said, this was business as usual in the Senate. These concessions are “just part of the normal legislative process,” he said.

Or as Cilizza put it: “Reid managed to divine what each of the 60 members of his fractious caucus needed to be a ‘yes’ and give it to them without permanently hobbling the bill. Hard to argue with that kind of success.”

Another Democratic operative called Nelson’s tactics “a one man study in how the Senate works,” and suggested “they should teach this in civics class.”

My high school civics teacher would turn over in her grave to hear these words. For her, the hero of this story would not be the power mongers, but the junior senator from Colorado. Asking nothing in return, he was willing to put his career on the line to do what he saw was right.

As Senator Jefferson Smith said, “you’re not gonna have a country that can make these kind of rules work, if you haven’t got men (and women) that have learned to tell human rights from a punch in the nose.”

Sen. Bennet knows the difference, and Colorado should be proud of him.


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