WASHINGTON (BP)–President Obama signed a massive economic stimulus bill Feb. 17 amid a range of protests about a move toward rationed health care, unwise and exorbitant expenditures, and religious discrimination.
Southern Baptists inside and outside of Congress were among those expressing opposition to the legislation.
The president and other supporters promoted the bill, which will cost an estimated $787 billion over 10 years, as a necessary step in the effort to revitalize a dramatically faltering economy. They say it will create or preserve 3.5 million jobs.
The signing of the bill into law neither ends the economy’s woes nor completes all that needs to be done to reverse the economic decline, Obama said.
“But today does mark the beginning of the end — the beginning of what we need to do to create jobs for Americans scrambling in the wake of layoffs, the beginning of what we need to do to provide relief for families worried they won’t be able to pay next month’s bills, the beginning of the first steps to set our economy on a firmer foundation, paving the way to long-term growth and prosperity,” the president said before signing the bill in a ceremony in Denver.
Foes of the legislative package, however, said the new law falls short in its mission while it poses threats to Americans’ liberties. Among the concerns raised were:
— It paves the way for a government-controlled medical system that will result in rationed health care.
— It provides too much spending in areas that will not immediately stimulate the economy and increases the financial burden on future generations.
— It will discriminate against faith on college campuses by prohibiting religious worship or instruction in buildings renovated with stimulus funds.
Ethics leader Richard Land and Sen. Tom Coburn, R.-Okla., both Southern Baptists, issued warnings about the bill’s health-care implications.
“To me there are a lot of things that are disturbing in this bill,” said Land, president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, “but if I were to single out one thing that is most disturbing it would be the $1.1 billion to create a superstructure of rationed health care to the sick and the elderly.
“[I]t should disturb every American profoundly,” he told Baptist Press.
A member of New Community Church in Muskogee, Okla., Coburn called the provision “the most dangerous precedent for health care in this country we have ever seen.”
The new law establishes a Federal Coordinating Council for Comparative Effectiveness Research, which Land and Coburn say will lead to health care being provided based on whether it is cost-effective.
The new council “is modeled after a similar council in the British socialized medicine system,” Land said. “This council will evaluate medical treatments and drugs based on their comparative effectiveness as opposed to their clinical effectiveness. Clinical effectiveness, which the Senate Republicans tried to substitute in the bill unsuccessfully, would evaluate various treatments based solely on their medical benefits. Comparative effectiveness, on the other hand, is a euphemism for cost effectiveness and will be used, as it is in the British system, to either grant or deny health care based on whether it is cost effective.”
A practicing physician, Coburn said on the Senate floor Feb. 13 before voting against the measure, “What we are saying [in the law] is that we are going to allow the government in the future to decide what care you will get.
“We are going to abandon the knowledge of physicians, the experience they have with their patients, the 8 to 12 years of additional training they have and the lives that have been dedicated to improving the health of their patients. We are going to abandon that to a bureaucracy where the government says, ‘We know best.’
“[It] will kill health care in America as far as its quality,” Coburn said.
Another Southern Baptist member of Congress opposed the bill because he believed it failed to live up to the promise of stimulating the economy. Rep. Heath Shuler of North Carolina was one of only seven Democrats who voted against the legislation.
The bill’s “focus should have been solely on programs that offer an immediate economic impact — like extending unemployment insurance — and investments in our nation’s infrastructure, which have a rate of return of 6 to 1,” Shuler said in a written statement after the Feb. 13 roll call.
“In the end, this bill simply contained entirely too much spending in areas that will not provide an immediate stimulative effect to our nation’s economy,” said Shuler, a member of Biltmore Baptist Church in Arden, N.C. “With our national debt approaching $11 trillion we should not be borrowing hundreds of billions of dollars without careful and deliberate consideration.”
In his floor speech, Coburn said the legislation would “steal … hope” from children.
“We are limiting their liberty economically,” Coburn said. “We are limiting their freedom to be the best and brightest and have the greatest potential that any society has ever offered their youngest citizens.”
The new law includes a section that raised concerns among religious liberty advocates. It makes money available for the renovation of university and college facilities but bars those buildings from being used for religious worship or instruction. One of the effects apparently would be to bar Bible studies and worship meetings by Christian and other religious student groups in facilities that have undergone repairs or modernization work underwritten by stimulus funds.
The American Center for Law and Justice (ACLJ) promised before final passage it would challenge the controversial religious provision in federal court.
The president’s signature to the bill came four days after the House of Representatives and Senate both approved a final, negotiated version. The 1,073-page measure was not finalized by negotiators from both chambers until late Feb. 12, but it still was voted on the next day. Republicans criticized the quick action, saying no member of Congress was able to read the bill before the votes.
The House voted 246-183 for the measure. No Republicans voted for its passage. In the Senate, passage came on a 60-38 roll call, with three Republicans joining 55 Democrats and two independents in the majority. No Democrats opposed it.
Like Republicans, Shuler was disturbed by the way consideration of the bill was handled.
He was “remarkably disappointed in House leadership for bringing a bill of this size and magnitude up for a vote without giving members adequate time to review it fully,” Shuler said. “We must have a greater respect for this institution and for its members.”
The North Carolina Democrat has introduced a bill that would require all legislation to be posted online for 48 hours before floor consideration.
Land said the effectiveness council created by the new law uses as its blueprint a book by Tom Daschle, who was nominated by Obama as secretary of Health and Human Services before removing his name from consideration because of tax problems. Daschle would have acted in that post as “health-care czar,” Land said.
In the 2008 book “Critical: What We Can Do About the Health-care Crisis,” Daschle explains “such a comparative effectiveness council would slow the development of new drugs and treatments which are expensive,” Land said. “And he sees this as a good thing, even though it would end up denying American patients the benefits of better research in terms of improved health and increased longevity.
“Daschle explains that Americans, especially elderly Americans, have got to get used to living with less comfort and less treatment for various medical maladies. Under the British system, a mathematical formula is used, with age as a significant factor, in determining what health care is cost-effective. Under that system in 2006, for instance, the British council denied treatment to elderly patients suffering from macular degeneration until they had gone blind in one eye. Then they could receive treatment for the other eye,” Land said.
“To show you the commitment that the Obama administration has to this health-care proposal, Daschle was slated not only to be the secretary of HHS, but he was going to have an office in the west wing of the White House, which is, as far as I know, unprecedented. This is the resurrection of HillaryCare with a vengeance.”
Hillary Clinton, now secretary of State, headed up an expansive health-care reform effort when her husband became president in 1993, but the highly criticized plan failed to gain legislative support.
Tom Strode is Baptist Press Washington bureau chief.