Monday, March 28, 2005


Congress and the Schiavo case

Have you ever seen the wheels come off a bandwagon so quickly?

According to recent polls, 76% of Americans “have been following the case of Terri Schiavo” either “very closely” or “somewhat closely.” Only 14% have followed the Schiavo case “not very closely.” That would be me.

I really dislike delving into the personal and family tragedies of others, and I dislike when such stories dominate news coverage when publicizing them fails to serve the useful public purpose of bringing an important and overlooked public policy matter to light. The Schiavo case doesn’t pass that test. Our laws regulating issues like the removal of feeding tubes from patients in a “persistent vegetative state” were pretty good, and not particularly underpublicized. The judicial system worked well in this case – indeed, arguably too well. There have been over 12 years of litigation over Terri Schiavo’s fate, seven years over the issue of whether her feeding tube should be removed.

But while I don’t intend to get into the details of the Schiavo family tragedy, the politics that have swirled around the case are worth remarking on. There are a couple of posts worth.

For right now, let's look at the bandwagon. On March 20th and 21st, Congress held a special session to rush through passage of “A bill: for the relief of the Parents of Terri Schiavo.”

President Bush cut short his vacation to come home and sign it. The Republicans clearly felt like the cat that had eaten the proverbial canary. They had won a splashy victory in the course of discovering the next great wedge issue – EUTHANASIA! -- which, like race in the 60s through the 90s, and gay marriage in the 2004 election, will (they hope) galvanize their religious conservative base in the 2006 midterms and the 2008 presidential race.

Democrats, running so scared of the religious right that many of their leaders are considering abandoning the party’s pro-choice position, meekly lined up behind the Schiavo bill.

But wait! On Tuesday March 22, the day that Judge Whittemore, acting under the Schiavo bill, rules against the Schindlers and refuses to order reinsertion of the feeding tube, various polling organizations take to the phones. Lo and behold, somewhere between 70 and 80 percent of Americans believe Congress was wrong to pass legislation to intervene in the Schiavo case, and President Bush was wrong to sign it!

54% said they were less likely to vote for their Congressman if he voted for the Schiavo bill (against only 26% who said they were more likely to vote for him); 65% said Congress and the president were motivated to make the law more by politics than principle (against only 25% who said the law was motivated more by principle).

By Thursday the 24th, no one in Congress is crowing about the Schiavo bill, and Tom Delay quietly slinks off his high horse.

What’s the deal? If members of Congress are such slaves to polls, couldn’t they have taken one before getting behind the bill? I guess it happened too quickly...


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