It was a stunning moment in the middle of last night's presidential address to Congress. As Barack Obama ran through the litany of untruths told by opponents of his plan to reform the nation's health care system (death panels, government-paid abortions, free medicine for illegal immigrants), Republican Congressman Joe Wilson of South Carolina shouted out "you lie!"
President Obama seemed stunned, not sure how to react. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi's eyes shot daggers Wilson's way. Vice President Biden and First Lady Michelle Obama shook their heads in disapproval. Democrats drowned Wilson in a chorus of boos. It sounded like a backbencher being shouted down during Question Time in Parliament. His fellow Republicans gave Wilson scolding looks, and the conservative from Columbia, SC seemed to sense immediately that he had done something wrong.
Wilson apologized later, admitting his outburst was "inappropriate and regrettable." It was also unprecedented. Never in anyone's memory had a member of Congress heckled the president during an address to a joint session. George W. Bush uttered all sorts of things that we now know to have been completely false, and not once did a liberal Democrat stand up and call him a liar, to his face, during a nationally televised speech. Can you imagine the Republican outrage if one had? The drumbeats for resignation, impeachment, maybe even public hanging for treason would have been deafening.
You can't access Wilson's House website right now - it's crashed from excessive traffic. His Twitter feed has been overwhelmed. His Democratic opponent in next year's election has reaped $100,000 in donations overnight from outraged voters. Conservative bloggers have already launched a campaign to respond in kind, seeking donations to re-elect this "great American hero."
So, was the president lying? Or was Wilson?
For the most part, the facts are with the president on this one. Some fairly quick research and interviews after the speech last night clarified what's true, and what isn't.
First off, on the issue of health care for illegal immigrants: The 1018-page House bill specifically outlaws spending federal money to provide health care for them. It couldn't be more explicit. So when the president told Congress "the reforms I'm proposing would not apply to those who are here illegally," he was telling the truth, and not, as Congressman Wilson asserted, lying.
But - and there's often a but when you're dealing with federal legislation - there is nothing in the bill that would keep illegals from buying their own health insurance, and as Republican Congressman Dan Lungren of Sacramento told me last night, House Democrats killed a GOP-sponsored amendment that would require people to show proof of citizenship to obtain government health benefits. In other words, the reform plan excludes illegal immigrants from health care coverage, but it lacks an enforcement provision to make sure they don't get it anyway. That's a sore point for the GOP, and the source of Wilson's anger.
On other points of contention, President Obama stretched the truth a bit, mostly through sins of omission.
For example, he's changed his tune slightly on whether we'll be able to keep the insurance coverage we have now, if we want to. For months, he has guaranteed that those who like their current plans can keep them. Last night, his wording was different: "Nothing in this plan will require you or your employer to change the coverage or the doctor you have."
That's true - it won't. But there's nothing to stop your employer from dumping its insurance plan, sending you out into the private market, or to a new insurance exchange, and possibly to a government-run option, if that idea survives the Congressional meat-grinder. There could be incentives in the legislation that make it more economical for companies to stop insuring their employees. The Congressional Budget Office projects that about three million workers will suffer that fate under the plan, as now written.
And what about the president's assertion that he "will not sign a plan that adds one dime to our deficits either now or in the future. Period" ? The president's first attempt at that line was interrupted by applause, so he said it twice. Both times, it wasn't 100% accurate. Well, he hasn't signed anything yet, so maybe he really means it. But it rang hollow, coming from a president who's already shown his willingness to increase the deficit at an exponential rate that would make even the Deficit King, George W. Bush, blush.
In fact, the CBO said the House bill would add more than $200 million to the deficit. But Pelosi and company dismissed that unbiased opinion, saying their bill would actually cut the red ink by $25 million. How did they reach that conclusion? They simply exempted about a quarter of a billion dollars that the bill spends on Medicare reimbursements for doctors. Even though Congress recently enacted "pay-as-you-go" legislation, requiring that all new programs be paid for, the Congressional negotiators made an exception for the reimbursements, and decided they don't have to be counted towards the total cost of the package.
Isn't that convenient? I think I'll subtract our mortgage payment from my expenses this month so that my bank statement can be printed in black ink for once.
On the hot-button issues, though, the president was telling the truth. There are no death panels in the health care bill. There is nothing in there allowing federal funding of abortions. The Hyde Amendment remains firmly in effect, and this bill does not repeal it. That won't stop his Republican opponents from saying otherwise as they try to derail reform.
The last ten minutes or so of this speech were as eloquent as any policy address you will ever hear. This wasn't an Inaugural Address; it was a nuts-and-bolts policy speech. Yet from the moment he brought up the late Ted Kennedy, Obama's rhetoric soared as movingly as ever. Singling out three iconic Republican Senators who'd worked with Kennedy on health-care issues was a particularly effective device. If you haven't read the text of Kennedy's deathbed letter to Obama about health care reform, click here. It will bring tears to your eyes.
It was a British Prime Minister, Benjamin Disraeli, who famously declared that "there are three kinds of lies: lies, damn lies and statistics" (although Mark Twain is the one who gave Disraeli's line wider circulation). We've heard more than our fair share of all three during the health care debate, and we're likely to hear many more. Last night's breach of Congressional etiquette would have felt familiar to Disraeli, but for Americans, it was much too reminiscent of last month's occasionally raucous public health care forums. Here's hoping that Congressman Wilson's outburst shocks the country back into a sober, civil discussion of a critically important issue. Sadly, as Disraeli might say, that's not bloody likely.