Stupak the staunch

Chuck Donovan Contributor
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These are boom times for political lexicographers as the House of Representatives prepares for its historic vote to “reform” health care.

Added to their already copious dictionary will be such terms as “Slaughter House Rule,” “Cornhusker Kickback,” “Second Louisiana Purchase” and “Wreckonciliation.” After the final House vote, another epithet likely will be in order: “Stupak the Staunch.”

The nickname for Rep. Bart Stupak of Michigan will fit not merely because it’s accurate. It also will stand in stark contrast to the crass maneuverings that have characterized the congressional debate over fixing the health care system in recent months.

Americans were infuriated by the special deals crafted behind closed doors to get the Senate bill passed on Christmas Eve.

After all, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and President Barack Obama went out of their way to promise something better. In 2006, she trumpeted the “most ethical Congress in history.” In 2008, he pledged the most “transparent” administration ever.

For their troubles (and votes) the American people got something else.

Yes, they now know with singular detail who has visited the White House. What they don’t know is what those folks came out with. It might be an offer to be named secretary of the Navy, an appointment to the federal bench, a job on the first lady’s staff for one’s wife, or the top job at NASA.

That’s what makes it all the more arresting that President Obama, in his closing argument for his health care bill, repeatedly assured that enacting it is “the right thing to do.”

No doubt many participants in this drama believe that in their hearts. But despite a yearlong sales pitch, the polls consistently find that most Americans aren’t sold. And the Democratic leadership turned months ago to “I deal” rather than “ideals” as the watchword.

Amid this tawdry exercise—one prominent Democrat, Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell, told Sean Hannity it was “unseemly”—Bart Stupak stands out as an extraordinary example of the citizen-legislator.

The Michigan Democrat has staked out his position over 17 years of service in Congress, with fidelity to his own beliefs and to the values of his district. He believes the federal government should maintain a firewall between the health care services it funds and the practice of abortion that he and so many of his constituents abhor.

Because of Stupak’s leadership, as many as 11 fellow House Democrats appear ready to reject a health care bill they otherwise would be inclined to support. For this they have been subjected to wave after wave of criticism and, in these past few weeks, verbal intimidation and assault.

A sober man not given to hyperbolic display, Stupak describes the “living hell” he and his family faced because of his tenacity in opposing use of taxpayers’ money to pay for abortions.

“All the phones are unplugged at our house,” Stupak told The Hill newspaper, because of “the obscene calls and threats.” His wife stopped watching television news so she wouldn’t see “[p]eople saying they’re going to spit on you and all this,” he said. “That’s just not fun.”

I know personally the truth of what Stupak describes. Thirty years ago I was legislative director of the National Right to Life Committee. Using what is now ancient technology, we set up an answering machine with a daily update for supporters. Every morning I arrived first so I could clear the obscene calls from the tape.

Why would the Stupak 12 subject themselves to this kind of vituperation? It can’t be for position in the Democratic Party. And there is no sign—even with recent defectors such as Rep. Dale Kildee, another pro-life lawmaker from Michigan who now says he is satisfied with the Senate bill’s language on abortion funding—that their votes come with a price tag.

The Stupak 12 are men and women who have insisted, as Stupak says, on a principle they carry in their civic DNA.

Whatever happens on the vote, Stupak and his allies have offered Washington and the nation something we seldom see anymore. They have acted on profound ideas and not personal interests. They have been profiles in courage.

Win or lose, one result of the titanic struggle over health care reform will be wider public recognition that Congress needs a lot more like them.

Charles A. Donovan is senior research fellow in the DeVos Center on Religion and Civil Society at The Heritage Foundation (heritage.org).