The health care debate has been characterized by unusually contentious arguments in an ordinarily collegial House of Representatives, Congressman Bruce Braley, Democrat from Iowa, said at a Branford College Master’s Tea Tuesday.
Speaking to an audience of about 20, Braley described the pitched debates over health care that dominated town hall meetings across his home state last summer and roiled Congress throughout the fall. Opening with tales from his childhood in rural Iowa, Braley moved on to explain that he ran for Congress because of his disillusionment with the state of the union after the 2004 election. He discussed his career as well as the debate over the health care reform bill, which he helped craft as a member of the Health Subcommittee of the House Energy and Commerce Committee.
“It brings the bigger question to the forefront, which is the breakdown in political discourse that is happening across the country,” Braley said. “You can’t seem to have a respectful dialogue between opposing viewpoints.”
Braley, the founder of the Congressional Progressive Caucus — a coalition of progressive House representatives — is serving his second term as the representative of the first district in northeastern Iowa.
The bill was approved by that Health Subcommittee last July, and the Senate Committee also passed its own version of the bill in July. The House and Senate are now working to combine their two proposals.
Throughout the health care debate, Braley said, he has spoken publicly in favor of a bill that would include a strong public option and protect patient safety. But in some of the 17 town hall meetings he conducted last summer, he received mixed reactions, including physical threats.
“A Navy veteran cried that what we need is a return to the French Revolution,” he said, “complete with guillotines and blood running in the streets.”
And it not just ordinary citizens who were outraged, he said, but also his colleagues in the House.
Answering a question from Branford College Master Steven Smith about the culture of Washington politics, Braley, a former trial lawyer specializing in medical malpractice, described the night the House passed the health care bill.
Braley said he was called to the floor and began speaking about liability for medical malpractice. But as soon as he uttered the words “patient safety,” some of his fellow congressmen began chanting “Trial Lawyer, Trial Lawyer!” One Alaskan representative, Braley said, shouted ‘Line your pockets, you ambulance chaser!’”
Another congressman, who Braley said he had thought was his friend, grew red-faced and shook his fist, saying, “We’re going to get you!”
“I think a number of people had been out drinking before we had final votes,” Braley said. “Because, otherwise, I don’t know how you would explain that kind of behavior.”
Situations like the night at the House are representative of the breakdown of bipartisan political debate, Braley said. Still, he said, both parties must garner each other’s support to pass bills, and in that sense the political process must be collaborative.
Earlier in the debate, though, Braley spoke about his childhood and the path that led to his political career.
He grew up in a town called Brooklyn in rural Iowa, where his mother was a school teacher and now substitute teaches. His father worked at a grain elevator until he fell and was permanently disabled. As a child, Braley took a number of odd jobs, including delivering newspapers, washing dishes and driving dump trucks.
Brooklyn, he said, had a familial, small-town atmosphere, which inspired him to seek nonpartisan cooperation in politics. And this became a central piece of his campaign when he was first running for congressman.
“When you had a problem in my hometown, people didn’t ask if you were a Democrat or a Republican,” he said, quoting his own speeches.
Braley said the election in 2006 was considered significant in Congress because it gave the Democrats a majority. The two highlights of his career, he said, was his first day in office seeing Nancy Pelosi sworn in as the first female Speaker of the House and being part of the Iowa caucuses that handed an early win to Barack Obama.
All three students interviewed said Braley’s talk was refreshing because he described some of the intricacies and drama of House politics.
“I got a better sense of how a congressman goes back to his home and puts what his constituents say into debate,” Louis Gilbert ’12 said. “Watching the news, you get a sense that it is a battle between Republicans and Democrats, but after this, it appears that is more collaborative.”
Braley also spoke at the Yale Political Union debate on Thursday, speaking on the resolution “Resolved: A government should be responsible for the health of its citizens.”