By now you have heard about Congressman Joe Wilson (R-SC) interrupting President Obama's September 9, 2009 speech before Congress on health care by shouting "you lie!" Much has been written about the lack of comity displayed by Wilson. While this is an important discussion, less has been said about whether the charges are actually true.
This is what Obama said before Wilson's outburst: "There are also those who claim that our reform effort will insure illegal immigrants. This, too, is false." So, what led Wilson to claim that Obama was lying? Wilson sits on a committee that has been working on the details of the primary (there is more than one) House version of a health care reform bill. There is a provision in that bill that states no illegal immigrants will be eligible for health insurance under the new program, but contains nothing to enforce this provision. To Wilson, a law without a mechanism for enforcement is as useless as no law at all. Charles Krauthammer makes this point also in an editorial for the Washington Post. He writes, "the problem is that laws are not self-enforcing. If they were, we'd have no illegal immigrants because, as I understand it, it's illegal to enter the United States illegally. We have laws against burglary, too. But we also provide for cops and jails on the assumption that most burglars don't voluntarily turn themselves in." So, there is an important detail in the bill that should not be overlooked. But, the larger question is, should members accuse each other of lying when they have disagreements over fine details. If this became customary, Congress would get bogged down in shouting matches, and have even more difficulty with the business of governing.
Wilson and Krauthammer missed something else important, however, when they accused the president of being dishonest--there was nothing in the speech to indicate that Obama was talking about the bill in Wilson's committee, or any committee for that matter. He was presenting his plan, or what he would like to see in the final bill, to Congress. This should be obvious to anyone who pays attention to the words of the speech. How can he lie about what is in his own plan? If Wilson agrees with the president that a new health insurance plan should not be available to undocumented workers, he should have applauded that part of his speech, rather than hurl a slanderous charge.
Wilson could have avoided unnecessary embarrassment if he would have simply paid attention to what Obama was actually saying. Indeed, politicians in general need to do better at listening to their political opponents. Obama is also guilty in this regard. In a previous post, I pointed out how Obama wrongly accused the head of the National Right to Life Committee of lying. And more recently, he claimed that those who raise concerns that the new health care plan would pay for abortions with government funds are "bearing false witness" (a phrase from the 10 Commandments which means "lying"). Obama should have taken the time to read what those who raise these concerns are actually saying. Opponents acknowledge that there is nothing in the bill specifically stating that abortions would be paid for (a point Obama makes often in his defense), but worry that without a provision specifically excluding abortions, abortions may end up as part of the services provided (by executive order, for instance). A fine detail, to be sure. But, as in Wilson's case, politicians should not accuse each other of lying simply for having disagreements over fine details.