"Read the bill!" Those three words, hurled as an epithet by disbelieving opponents of the Democratic health care plan, became the signature line of the 2009 congressional town hall meetings.
Rep. Steny Hoyer heard it many times.
"It's a great chant," he said, with a wry smile, at his weekly Capitol news conference today.
Hoyer is quick to point out that he's "read the bill" (earlier this summer, he was forced to concede that he had not).
However, the No. 2 Democrat in the House apparently hasn't gotten to all the fine print yet.
During his town hall meeting in southern Maryland last week, Hoyer said "tort reform"---that is, limits on medical practice suits--is "not in any of the bills at this time."
Actually, it is.
First some background: Pressure to curb malpractice lawsuits is a perennial goal, mainly of Republicans and conservative independents, who claim that capping damages for pain and suffering would lower health costs by reducing the amount of "defensive medicine" that doctors practice to avoid getting sued.
But Democratic leaders in Congress have avoided doing anything in crafting health care legislation, even as deals were cut with other players, such as drug manufacturers. Trial lawyers and their allies claim that curbing malpractice suits and capping damages wouldn't save that much money in the long run.
Former Democratic National Chairman Howard Dean, a physician, said recently that the Democrats have skirted the issue because they did not want to take on the trial lawyers, one of their party's most powerful interest groups and, more to the point, a lucrative source of Democratic campaign cash.
Hoyer, over his career, has received more than $1 million from lawyers and law firms, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, a non-partisan watchdog group; interestingly, the only industry that has given him more: health professionals.
Shortly before the House left on its just-ended six week summer break, a provision aimed at reducing the number of frivilous malpractice lawsuits was added to the main health care bill by the House Commerce committee. The panel is chaired by liberal Rep. Henry Waxman of California, a leading author of the Democratic overhaul plan, who had to cut deals with centrist Blue Dog Democrats to get his committee to approve the legislation.
The "medical liability reform" plan, which has attracted virtually no national attention, is designed to "reduce costs of defensive medicine and allow victims of malpractice to be fairly compensated." (The provision, approved on a voice vote as part of a package of amendments, also explicitly says that this must be done without limiting attorneys fees or placing caps on damage awards).
The sponsor of the provision, Rep. Bart Gordon, a Blue Dog from Tennessee, boasted to his constituents that he "was also able to get alternative medical malpractice reforms in the bill, which should help reduce the number of lawsuits that add unnecessary costs to our health care system. "
If Gordon's plan became law, the federal government could provide incentive payments to states that experiment with new ways to guarantee "prompt and fair resolution of disputes" involving medical care. It could, that is, if the provision stays in the legislation as it moves to the next stage.
While the Senate tries to find a compromise that will attract Republican votes, the House will attempt to meld the various changes made to the bill (H.R. 3200) by three different committees in July.
Each committee altered the original measure. As a result, "there is no 'The Bill,'" Hoyer explained to reporters today, only minutes after declaring that he had read "The Bill."