By Lindsay Smith
Montpelier: At a Democratic caucus meeting this week House Majority Leader Rep. Lucy Leriche (D-Hardwick) reminded her Democrats to act as “good soldiers” when it came time to vote on the floor. What she meant by this raises interesting and awkward questions about a bill that will have such a profound affect on the lives and the economy of Vermonters, and which so many legislators admittedly do not and did not understand when they voted for it.
When H.559, An act relating to healthcare reform implementation was still being debated in the House Committee on Healthcare, it was clear many members were having trouble understanding the bill. As Rep. Paul Poirier infamously admitted before his vote, “There’s a lot of it I don’t understand. I don’t know how many times we’ve heard, ‘I don’t know.'” Still, the bill passed out of committee, and Poirier, a good soldier, voted for it.
But, if the supermajorities of Democrats are acting as good soldiers, who are the generals?
Observers of the debate of H.559, An act relating to healthcare reform implementation, have noted that there seems to be an unhealthy lack of separation between the executive branch and the legislative branch of the government, with governor Peter Shumlin, former President Pro Tem of the Senate and his staff, calling too many of the shots without any questions. Good soldiers don’t as questions. (But good Representatives do.)
During the house floor debate on H.559, Rep. Mike Fisher (D-Lincoln), chairman of the House Committee on Healthcare, was discovered trading real-time text messages with the Shumlin Administration’s Director of Health Care, Robin Lunge. At the time, Fisher was reporting the bill and being “examined” (answering questions) by is fellow legislators about the legislation and proposed amendments.
This real-time communication is not banned by House rules, but some see it as bad practice. The house prides itself on transparency and respect for the institution. Traditionally, legislators call for breaks or pass notes if they need to communicate while the House is in session. This creates a visual knowledge that they are seeking additional resources. If Fisher had called for a break and verbally consulted with Lunge, other legislators would have noticed he was using her feedback. To secretively glance down at an electronic “cheat sheet” creates a false impression that the reporter of the bill actually knows what he or she is talking about.
Darcie Johnston, founder of Vermonters for Healthcare Freedom (VHCF), explained why, in her opinion, Fisher and Lunge’s actions were inappropriate. “It demonstrates the power and the reach of this Administration and the weakness of the legislative leadership to explore and defend the policy on their own.” To truly maintain a healthy separation of powers, members of the House must debate and discuss bills without intervention from the executive branch.
Good soldiers vote for what they’re told to vote for, regardless of the quality of the legislation. They also vote against what they’re told to vote against, regardless of the quality of the legislation.
A case in point is an amendment offered by Rep. Oliver Olsen (R-Jamaica) that would have eliminated a 2005 Vermont participation in an Illinois program named “I-SaveRX.” The programs website, I”-SaveRX.net”, is no longer functional and directs users to advertisements. Also, the phone number associated with the program directs callers to a sex hotline. Olsen’s common-sense amendment was surprisingly met with opposition from Fisher and other Democrats. Supporters of the amendment felt Democrats were voting against Republican amendments, despite the nature of the amendment. Fisher stated, “We have done a little bit of research to determine that there is some problems with the website,” but admitted the committee had voted the amendment unfavorable by a vote of 7-1-3.
Olsen withdrew his amendment, then brought it back the following day. Apparently in the interim, different orders had been given to the good soldiers and this time Olsen’s amendment passed. Other common sense Republican offerings were not so lucky.
Rep. Mark Higley (R-Lowell) proposed an amendment that would eliminate any mandate to participate in the exchange. (Federal rules make entrance into the exchange optional, but H.559 dictates that small businesses with 50 or fewer employees, participation will be compulsory as of January 2014.) Rep. Peter Fagan (R-Rutland) proposed an amendment that would make financing information for the exchange and Green Mountain Healthcare available before the next election. This would push the deadline up from January 2013 to September 2012. These amendments were shot down.
When most Vermonters go to the polls, they hope to elect a strong representative who will, as the title implies, represent them in the State House. Someone who will use common sense, had work, a little elbow grease to understand legislation and do what’s best for the folks back in the district. How many Vermonters go to the poll hoping to elect a “good soldier?” Because that, it appears, is what a supermajority of us get.
Rob Roper contributed to this article.