Tuesday, September 08, 2009

The Legacy of Thomas Kennedy and the Current Battle for Health Insurance Reform

By Delegate Kirill Reznik (D-39).

Most people will not recognize the name Thomas Kennedy. He is not of the famed Joe Kennedy clan. He is not related to Teddy and Jack and Bobby. He was born in Scotland in 1776 and immigrated to the Unites States, settling in Hagerstown, Maryland in 1802 where he later ran for a seat in the Maryland House of Delegates. In the early 1800s, only 150 Jews resided in Maryland and Kennedy had never met one. Nevertheless, he, a Scottish Presbyterian, took up the cause of amending the Maryland Constitution to allow “Jewish inhabitants” to run for public office; something that was explicitly forbidden at the time.

The bill he wrote was defeated several times, and in 1823, having been labeled “an enemy of Christianity” and a “Judas” by his political opponents, he lost his seat. Kennedy was eventually elected back to the legislature as an independent, and with time and a change in public sentiment, the “Jew bill,” as it came to be known, passed.

It is as a direct result of Kennedy’s efforts that 21 Jewish members currently serve in the Maryland General Assembly, including myself, the second largest number in any state legislature in the country. Kennedy’s efforts were also the start to a greater expansion of the right to serve in public office, and today I serve with members from a variety of races, religions, gender, and sexual orientation. Because we have this diversity we are better off as a State. We are better off because of the sacrifice of Thomas Kennedy.

So, what does this have to do with health care reform?

I have to assume that Thomas Kennedy enjoyed serving in the Maryland House of Delegates as much as I do. I find public service through elected office to be one of the greatest callings one could have. Yes, I am still in my first term, but I hope that I never lose that feeling. My former State Senator once told me that if you ever get to a point where you do not pinch yourself every time you walk through the Chamber doors, you should find something else to do.

I suspect that it is no less rewarding to be a member of the U.S. Congress or the U.S. Senate; In fact, I bet it is more. The opportunity to help constituents on a daily basis, whether through day-to-day constituent services or through meaningful legislation, is a great reason to get up in the morning.

Well, one of those meaningful pieces of legislation is before us today in the form of health insurance reform. In fact, it is more than just meaningful; it is watershed legislation that will affect generations of Americans for decades to come. And just like other watershed legislation, it has its detractors. People who will lose money, power, and influence. People who fear change. People who are fine with the status quo because it does not affect them. They have always been here, whether it is with women’s suffrage, civil rights, Social Security and Medicare, or one of hundreds of other bills that at the time were described by those detractors as the possible end of the world. But, when that legislation was up for consideration, regardless of who screamed and yelled, the powers that be did the right thing, and today, we couldn’t imagine what life would be like otherwise.

I have the pleasure of serving on the Health and Government Operations Committee in the Maryland House of Delegates. This committee assignment gives me a very clear window into the problems of our existing health care system, which I find to be unsustainable. Even in this horrible economy, we in Maryland have been working around the edges and trying to expand health care to as many people as possible. Even facing perpetual projected deficits we have expanded Medicaid to 116% of poverty (it was 46%), provided subsides to small businesses to purchase insurance for their employees, enrolled thousands of children on SCHIP who were already eligible but didn’t know it, and helped fill the Part D Prescription donut hole for many seniors. We do it because it is the right and moral thing to do, and in the long run it is for our own fiscal health. But we can’t do this alone. We cannot print Maryland dollars and go into debt, and with the Governor announcing another $450 million in out-of-session cuts to the budget, we simply can’t afford much more.

We need federal reform, and we need it now.

So, this brings me back to my point. The current health reform debate that you are watching is not a question of what is wrong and what is right; rather it is a question of a legislator’s ability to be re-elected. This is a reality that exists for many of us. The notion that “I can’t do anyone any good if I am not here” has forced many in elected office to make decisions that they later come to regret or support positions that they don’t truly hold. It works in both ways. I’ve spoken to a number of my Republican colleagues who have admitted to me in private that they would support repeal of the death penalty, marriage equality, and yes, health insurance reform, if they didn’t think that it would hurt their chances for re-election. It seems now that the most vocal members for reform are the ones in the safest seats. The ones talking about removal of the public option, implementing co-ops, or doing nothing at all are the ones most worried about coming back.

At the end of the day, even if we pass health insurance reform, I believe most of the Democrats in Congress will get re-elected and we will maintain our majority. It is true that some will not and will be sacrificed on the altar of current public hysteria. In the end, though history will show that they did the right thing, they might lose their seats. Well, so be it. 186 years after his political sacrifice, Thomas Kennedy is regarded by many as a champion of causes greater than himself. The Delegates who voted against his bill, though they might have been re-elected for a term or two, are now lost to history.

Thomas Kennedy was brave enough to do what was right. I am hopeful that the men and women in the U.S. Congress are made of the same mettle.

Delegate Kirill Reznik (D-39)

Crossposted on Reznik for Maryland.