Another Tricky Day

Angus King (Credit: AP/J. Scott Applewhite
Angus King (Credit: AP/J. Scott Applewhite

It was — at best — a bit of a stretch.

The Maine Chamber of Commerce held its annual dinner and awards ceremony Friday and landed U.S. Senator Angus King as its keynote speaker.

Thus, the event’s theme was Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.

You probably remember the 1939 movie that made actor Jimmy Stewart a star, especially the famous filibuster scene that portrays the young and somewhat naïve Sen. Smith as an adorable champion of integrity, truth, justice and the American Way.

As the movie began production in 1937, Stewart was only 28 years old, two years shy of the minimum age requirement to be a U.S. Senator.  Angus King, on the other hand, will soon celebrate his 70th birthday.

In the movie, a young, ambitious and principled man from an unnamed western state is reluctantly chosen by a somewhat corrupt governor to replace a deceased senator.

Back here in Real-ville, King’s trip to Washington D.C. happened much differently.  He launched his campaign only days after Olympia Snowe abruptly announced that she would not seek another term in the senate.

King, a very popular, former two-term governor, instantly crushed the hopes of more than a dozen political hopefuls who all dreamed of sugar-plum fairies and huge PAC donations. He adroitly skipped the banality of the primary process by pulling his worn and tattered “Independent” card from his breast pocket.

He quickly raised $3 million, half of which probably came from the sale of a decked-out RV that he purchased to “tour the country with my family” after leaving the Blaine House.

Maine Democrats hung their heads in shame because they knew that they’d been beat. The state GOP, full of pride after taking back the Blaine House and the Legislature a year prior, hoisted up no fewer than four candidates, including three members of Gov. LePage’s cabinet.

Cynthia Dill, a far-left Democratic state senator from Cape Elizabeth — virtually unknown outside the three-mile perimeter that surrounds her home — bravely accepted her party’s nomination for Snowe’s seat and walked dutifully — with her head held high — toward a political slaughter.

Meanwhile, King coyly teased the Maine press corps, saying he wasn’t sure which party he would caucus with if he were elected. The gag order had been issued. The emperor had no clothes, but no one seemed brave enough to say: wait a second . . . dude is a Democrat!  Instead, we lathered ourselves in the premise that Governor King would be “independent” and fix all that was broken in DC.

In essence, King won his election approximately 38 seconds after he called Congresswoman Chellie Pingree to tell her what was what.

Mr. Smith? Hardly.

One hit to the body

So, there we were on a Friday night: various members of Maine’s business community, mingling near the cash bar, sampling local foods and waiting to hear from Maine’s junior senator.

Regardless of how you feel about King’s political positions, no one can deny that he is an incredibly smart guy and a skilled politician. He exudes warmth and confidence. He is likable, smart and often — sometimes painfully so — very human; revealing an unabridged and honest insight of “how cool and fun it is” to be a U.S. Senator.

King is also an exceptional public speaker and usually a diligent student of history.

While working as a reporter, I had the pleasure of interviewing Angus King. I spent nearly 45 minutes with him, one-on-one; and it was damn hard to walk away unimpressed from that conversation. In the years that followed, I also greatly enjoyed hearing King speak at numerous public events.

Therefore, I was surprised on Friday when King — for the first time ever — didn’t mention his favorite historical figure: Civil War hero and Maine native Joshua Chamberlain. Instead, King ran through a laundry list of frustrations about the current dysfunction in Washington. And who could blame him?

Currently, public opinion polling of Congress as a whole is running just three points ahead of Osama Bin Laden’s popularity rating.

King led off his assessment of beltway politics – – quite surprisingly — by delivering a pointed jab to President Barack Obama and his signature legislation: the Affordable Care Act. It’s not like Obama needs another critic these days. The President’s own approval numbers are hovering perilously close to George W. Bush numbers.

As we feasted on our salads, King relayed an anecdote about a text message he sent to his chief-of-staff a few weeks ago, when the healthcare.gov site was rolled out.

“If you want to know what the Soviet Union was like in the 1970s, go to this website because nothing works like it should,” King said. There were a few nervous laughs in the room as people turned to one another with puzzled expressions.

“I’m a supporter of the Affordable Care Act, but boy, have they screwed up the implementation,” King went on to say. “It’s really frustrating that they can’t even do a website right.”

Someone just got themselves removed from the President’s Christmas card list.

Shiny, happy people

King continued his rather populist bashing of DC’s political climate, focusing most of his energy into the sometimes stunning changes of a hyper-partisan Congress.

He bemoaned a lack of civility and expressed frustration about his colleagues who are genuinely worried about re-election in 2014 because of an ever-increasing gap of political polarization on both the left and right ends of the political spectrum.

He relayed a story about his interaction with another member of his incoming senate class, Republican Ted Cruz, by saying he found the conversation “interesting and productive” but drew a laugh when revealing that his wife witnessed them talking on C-SPAN and immediately castigated him with a call to his cell phone. “She wanted to know, why are you talking to Ted Cruz?”

It’s easy to be a populist and a centrist, but King’s story revealed that it’s a lot easier to talk the talk than walk the walk. King seems sincere about his willingness and eagerness to find bi-partisan solutions to our nation’s problems, but his own wife went ballistic when he spent just a few moments chatting with someone from the other side of the aisle — albeit someone from way over on the other side.

King also shared insights about some fellow members of the senate, revealing the human side that is often missed by MSNBC, FOX or CNN. For example, King said he learned that Senator Orrin Hatch, a patriarch of the GOP, grew up literally dirt poor in Pennsylvania. Hatch’s family lived in a home with dirt floors and one wall in their home was erected from a salvaged billboard that Hatch’s father was able to drag home.

Of course, King spent a fair amount of time Friday evening rigorously patting himself on the back, portraying himself as the great white hope in the U.S. Senate. He’s a politician, so it’s to be expected; but he conveniently skipped over some remarks he made just a few weeks ago during the government shutdown.

King, who doesn’t hesitate to show his annoyance, told a reporter earlier this year that Republicans who were stalling implementation of the ACA are “guilty of murder.”

Apparently, King’s pleas for a more civil discourse are reserved for those who disagree with him. It’s also surprising, given his penchant for history, that King buys into the half-cocked notion that our Congress is more hyper-partisan now than ever before.

King didn’t win his landslide election because of money or better television ads. Maine voters are smarter than that, especially when they speak so loudly and clearly.

Maine’s voters sent Angus King to Washington simply because they knew he was the right guy for the job. Even King acknowledges that he has difficult shoes to fill, pointing out the state’s legacy in sending remarkable people to Washington: Margaret Chase Smith, Edmund Muskie, George Mitchell and Bill Cohen.

Maine’s voters know that Angus King is stubborn, especially once he buys into an idea. They know who he is, and they respect his feisty temperament and keen intellect. They also know he’s a politician and will sometimes disappoint but rarely back down. King has a long road ahead. He’s not Jimmy Stewart.

King is a real person, complete with all the quirks and inconveniences associated with being human. He proudly led the charge to integrate technology into public classrooms, but yet goes old school with markers and an easel board to make his points. It’s damn hard not to like or respect the guy.

He’s human, and thus, flawed. And if you ask him, he will gladly tell you that being a member of the U.S. Senate is pretty damn “cool.”

Mr. King is not Mr. Smith, but if he wants another term in the U.S. Senate, all he has to do is call Chellie Pingree and tell her to wait another six years.

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Obamacare: Myths and Facts, Part I

health-care-debateSome say that the Patient Protection and Affordable Health Care Act ( aka Obamacare) will provide the final nail in an already sluggish national economy, cost millions of jobs and further entrench every American into greater government dependence.

Others say the new law is a landmark piece of legislation that will literally save thousands of lives by making health care more affordable and accessible to all Americans.

Which argument is correct?

Given the hyper-inflated and strictly partisan rhetoric, it’s hard to know the answer and history will be left to judge the law’s merits and flaws.

In the meantime, I will attempt to examine the new law from both sides of the debate and offer some of the research I have conducted about the law. This week’s installment:

Comparison to Medicare: Myths and Facts

Supporters of the ACA enjoy pointing to the federal Medicare program as a primary defense of the new health care law.

This, in my opinion, is a dangerous proposition for several reasons.

1.) Medicare applies almost equally to all Americans, unlike the ACA, which primarily targets those Americans who do not have (by choice or income restraint) access to health insurance in the private marketplace. In fairness to the ACA, however, it’s important to note that the new law does offer universal protection to all Americans from rather abhorrent practices that were all too common in the health insurance industry, especially rescission clauses, coverage limitations and denial for pre-existing conditions.

The insurance industry argues those practices were necessary to stabilize costs, yet it remains difficult to assess how those savings were passed onto consumers. Thus, one of the more popular components of the new law requires insurance companies to direct a minimum 80 percent of premium revenue toward actual health care costs.

2.) Unlike the ACA, Medicare is not a mandate and you are not fined or otherwise penalized for choosing not to participate as a consumer in Medicare. Both programs, however, are supported by federal tax dollars. Supporters of the ACA argue that mandated participation is the only way to ensure an affordable marketplace. They also say that mandating purchase of health care coverage is no different from a state government mandating required liability insurance coverage on registered motor vehicles.

Comparing mandated auto liability insurance and requirements to purchase health insurance from the private sector is a seriously flawed rationalization that does not hold up under its own weight.

This is a matter of definition and it is outlined in law (both federal and state).

In the state of Maine, you are required by law to have liability auto insurance to drive a vehicle, as pointed out by Senator Angus King during his defense of the ACA on the senate floor earlier this week.

Senator King, formerly the governor of Maine, should know that both the Maine Department of Motor Vehicles and the Maine Legislature define driving as a privilege, not a right.

Maine’s law requiring auto liability insurance makes a lot of sense. It acknowledges and reinforces our shared responsibility to be accountable if we cause damage while driving, but it does not interfere with our rights to make choices, to exist as free people. We have the choice not to drive, whether we like to admit or not. Each of us has the option of walking, biking or using public or private transportation to get to and from wherever we want to go.

The ACA, however, requires, under penalty of law, every American to have basic health insurance. There is no choice. Either you have health insurance or the government is going to levy a fine upon you. Period.

Enter Chief Justice John Robert of the U.S. Supreme Court, a Bush-appointee who is considered a conservative. During a challenge to the ACA, Roberts tipped the scales of justice by opining that the ACA is a tax, and thus; the new law does not violate the Constitution because the power to levy taxes rests with the Congress and can be applied to all citizens.

ACA supporters, including President Obama cheered Roberts’ decision and validation of the new law. Strangely, those cheering previously argued that the new law is not a tax. But none of us should be surprised by the process of politics.

While participation in Medicare is voluntary, it should be noted that this federally subsidized form of health care is universally popular among both Republicans and Democrats.

3.) On a final note, Medicare was a bipartisan piece of legislation. The ACA was not. In fact, the ACA was passed via a straight party line vote only a few months before the Democrat Party was about to lose its majority in the U.S. House of Representatives. In the Senate, all eyes turned to the razor-thin party lines and the election of Republican Scott Brown of Massachusetts  who would stunt a filibuster-proof majority.

On Christmas Eve in 2009, the Senate voted 60-39 in favor of the ACA. (Not a single Republican voted in favor, including Sen. Olympia Snowe of Maine, who voted to approve a senate version in the Senate Finance Committee on the condition of subsequent changes she was promised in the final bill.)

The Senate version of the bill was approved in the U.S. House by a 219-212 vote on March 21, 2010 (Again, not one Republican voted in favor and they were joined by 34 Democrats in opposition. President Obama signed the bill on March 25, 2010.

Comparatively, there was a lot less drama regarding passage of Medicare in 1965. Of course, this happened before the internet.

In fact, Medicare was the result of much more compromise and its passage showed bi-partisan support.

In the Senate, 57 Democrats and 13 Republicans voted for passage of Medicare; seven Democrats and 17 Republicans voted against it.

In the House, 237 Democrats were joined by 70 Republicans in support of Medicare; 48 Democrats joined 68 Republicans in voting against it. The law was signed by President Lyndon Johnson on July 30, 1965.

Those who would say modern-day partisanship is to blame for the party line vote on the ACA, should be reminded that Democrats and Republicans have been able to hash out bipartisan compromises regarding updates and amendments to Medicare as recently as this year. Of course, this dynamic gives credence to Rep. Nancy Pelosi’s statement that the ACA can be “tweaked” as it moves forward.

Next: The financial implications and benefits.

Street fighting man

Sen. Angus King
Sen. Angus King

While many of us were obsessing this week about whether Big Brother is monitoring that silly cat video we posted on Facebook or whether the IRS will now audit Tim Tebow, Maine’s newest senator quietly announced that he was consolidating two of his southern Maine field offices.

Although the news of Senator Angus King closing his Biddeford and Portland offices didn’t exactly set the world on fire, it does bear mentioning and warrants a positive shout-out for at least two reasons.

1.) Consolidating the Biddeford and Portland office at a centralized Scarborough field office is aimed at efficiency and will save taxpayer money.

2.) More importantly, this symbolic gesture recognizes the most important part of what constituent service should entail: the constituent.

Allow me to explain the more important, latter point. King wants his staff in the field; mobile, flexible and ready to meet with constituents on their terms.

Instead of being pinned down at a desk, King wants Bonnie Pothier (King’s York County rep.) and Travis Kennedy (King’s Cumberland County rep.) to spend more time moving around their respective fields, more involved in the entire area than just one particular office location.

So, while the office closing represent a slight loss for the cities of Biddeford and Portland, the bigger gains will be for people who were already somewhat geographically removed from those locations; i.e. residents or business owners who live or work in places like Standish, Kittery, Sanford and Brunswick.

Sure, this is mostly a symbolic gesture, but it is consistent with what King promised us during last year’s campaign: to find ways to better connect Maine people with Washington D.C., such as his weekly  Capitol Coffee sessions, held each Wednesday morning in his D.C. Senate office. If you happen to be in DC, you can swing by and have a blueberry muffin with your senator. 

Symbolic, Folksy, Quirky? Check to all three, but it does again reinforce the idea that your senator is available and wants to hear from you.

And today, King begins his Your Government, Your Neighborhood roadshow, in which his staff will fan out across the state to hold listening tours with any interested constituents. Although this method of constituent outreach is almost as old as the US Senate; King is leveraging his social media assets to amp up constituent participation.

And finally, King, the governor who launched Maine’s seventh-grade laptop program, is using technology to hopefully connect with every classroom in Maine by using Skype, as detailed in this story from the Bangor Daily News.

As Americans continue expressing a lack of confidence in the federal government, it’s real easy for most of us to remain stuck in a cynical posture about those loathsome folks bickering in Washington.  But at least King is pushing for a greater connection with his constituents, and saving us a few bucks in the process.

I have never been an Angus King cheerleader, and I think it’s far too early in his senate career to determine whether he can actually pull off some of the lofty ideas he talked about during the campaign, but so far…. I like what I see….

The idea of free coffee on Wednesday mornings? Well, let me know when we can start sampling Maine micro-brews in the Dirksen Senate building on Thursday nights, and I’ll be the first in line every week.

Related: My interview with Angus King in November 2002