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My son, who worked as a DC intern, has told me about what it was like to have access to areas of the Capitol that the public never sees. He was especially taken by the lower regions far below where the tourists walk every day. There the air is musty with the scent of history made pungent by narrow, cave-like hallways and ghost-like lights.

In these corridors are doors that look like no one has opened them for half a century, signs in aged fonts at least a century old, and wall hangings that probably belong in a museum. My son said that had he decided to open one of the doors he would not have been surprised to see Henry Clay or Daniel Webster walk out.

It has long been speculated that ghosts haunt the Capitol, both in a real and a metaphorical sense. After all, John Quincy Adams literally died at his desk in the House and Preston Brooks beat Charles Sumner within an inch of his life in the Senate.  In the past few weeks a restless spirit seems to again be walking the corridors of the Capitol, something it has done with some regularity in the past few years.

Certainly the spirit was there when Jim Bunning conducted a half-hearted filibuster that had Democrats apoplectic. Bunning’s filibuster was half-hearted because back in the day when a filibuster was really a filibuster–that is before the Senate rules were changed–the person conducting the filibuster actually had to physically hold the floor.

But that all ended when Harry Byrd put in place “dual tracking,” which allows the Senate to conduct business on several matters at once instead of one bill at a time.  Essentially, the Senate can set aside whatever is being debated on the Senate floor and move immediately to another item on the agenda.  Hence the filibuster can continue ghost-like while other discussions continue on the floor.

Before dual tracking once you stopped talking someone else could capture the floor and end the filibuster.  That is why in the famous filibuster scene in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington; James Stewart has to keep talking until he drops from exhaustion.  Barry Friedman and Andrew Martin have proposed ending dual tracking because it would force the current crop of Republican road-blockers to literally put up or shut up.

The ghost would have agreed with that. He would have found Bunning wimpy for not being able to conduct a real filibuster. That is because the ghost once held the record, going nonstop for 24 hours and 18 minutes.  He prepared for the event like a prize fighter, sweating in a steam bath so he wouldn’t need a bathroom break, downing a sirloin steak and stocking up on throat lozenges and malted milk tablets. Just in case, a staff member waited on the edge of the Senate chamber with a pail just in case a bathroom break was needed.

The ghost also surfaced this week when it was proposed that there be federal standards for education common to all states in order to receive education stimulus funds.  No doubt a few people heard the ghost shrieking about that one since he had long been opposed to any federal intervention in education.

The place I really noticed the ghost was when I watched the Health Care Summit, which was conducted not at the Capitol but Blair House, where there was an assassination attempt on Harry Truman.  I definitely heard him speaking through the mouths of several Republicans. The ghost’s name is Strom Thurmond.

It was Tom Harkin of Iowa and to a lesser extent Louise Slaughter of New York who pointed him out to me. Harkin finally put the healthcare debate in terms everyone can understand by referring to it as segregation, with a small “s.” What Harkin meant was that the existing system discriminates as rigidly unjustly and callously as Jim Crow. As Patty Murray so eloquently pointed out, it even kills people.

I deliberately put segregation with a small “s” because some might see Harkin’s remarks as themselves a bit racist, since Segregation with a capital “S” was a system that dictated every aspect of the lives of African Americans from where they could get a drink of water, eat a meal, go to school, use the bathroom, and even be buried. Health-care segregation is not cultural in the way racial segregation was and still is.

Harkin might have better chosen the word discrimination, but he chose not to. Still, the point Harkin zeroed in on is that the health care system parallels segregation in that people do not choose to be ill. One very stupid and callous Republican reminded me of this when he blamed most people’s health care problems on bad habits such as smoking, overeating and lack of exercise.

That was pure Thurmond. This was the Senator who for most of his life defended Segregation as a system. While he was never as off-the-wall as race baiter Theodore Bilbo, Thurmond thought Segregation as necessary because this man, who it turns out fathered a child with an African American woman, did not believe in mixing the races.

Discrimination is actually a very real part of the health care debate because a majority of the uninsured in this country are people of color or single mothers. The Republicans don’t want you to know it and the Democrats seem reluctant to play the race card. Even Barack Obama has said nothing about it.  So when the Republicans blame the uninsured or those denied insurance or their own problems it has both a racist and sexist tone to it.

Now it is important to point out that there is a difference between those who voluntarily refuse to have coverage and those who cannot get it. A study by June and Dave O’Neill has shown that 43% of the so-called uninsured actually have the income to purchase insurance but choose not to do so. Of course when these people end up in the emergency room guess who pays for their refusal to carry insurance? The American tax payer.

So who are the uninsured? The largest group are single mothers.  Over half are female and 58% are people of color. The more startling data are which states have the largest percentages of involuntarily uninsured. The top five are Texas, New Mexico, Louisiana, Florida and Arkansas. Dixie rises again.

Besides segregation the other part of Strom Thurmond’s ghost that entered the room was state’s rights. After the Brown v. Board decision, Thurmond and 19 Southern Senators and 81 Representatives issued the Southern Manifesto which accused the Supreme Court of treading on the rights of the states.

We decry the Supreme Court’s encroachment on the rights reserved to the States and to the people, contrary to established law, and to the Constitution…At the expense of our children and families, they make up laws, invent new rights, free vicious criminals, and pamper felons in prison…The sound principle of judicial review has turned into an intolerable presumption of judicial supremacy.

In essence Thurmond was saying if states want to keep the races separate by force if necessary then they had the right to do so. As George Wallace would later demonstrate by symbolically blocking the door of the University of Alabama to prevent James Hood and Vivian Malone from registering, the federal government had no right to question what Thurmond and the others felt were the “domestic relations” and “regional culture” of the South.

Today the same doctrine of state’s rights is also the real heart of the health care debate. Ronald Reagan taught the Republican Party not to use the phrase state’s rights which by 1980 had become a code word for racism. Instead he cleverly changed it to “big government.”

But the message coming from the Republicans is the same as Thurmond’s — government ought not to be messing with the states. The Republicans have made it clear too many times during the debate over health care they want to leave it to the states, which is exactly what Thurmond said in a different context.

Of course leaving healthcare to the states means the lowest common denominator wins. It means that preventing the discrimination Tom Harkin referred to is up to the states, just as Strom Thurmond wanted to leave racial discrimination to the states.

Mississippi has a health care system on a par with that of Third World countries. If Mississippi wants to offer Third World health care than that is Mississippi’s right just as it was their right to have Jim Crow laws. The National Center for Health Statistics points out:

Mississippi’s health consistently ranks dead last among states in annual tallies produced by the United Health Foundation. It has the highest rates of obesity, hypertension and teen pregnancy in the country, with about 20 percent of its population lacking health insurance.

So what unlikely source did Mississippi enlist in trying to improve its health care system? Not the United States, not even some European Country, but that nation at the top of America’s demonology list, Iran.  The Center for Health Statistics gives an answer as to why Mississippi would enlist Iranian experts:

In Iran, preventive care is a priority and special attention is paid to high-risk groups such as mothers and children. Health care workers are chosen and trained within each community. Preventive and curative programs are integrated seamlessly. The system is decentralized, which encourages regional facilities to become self-sufficient and empowers local communities.

In contrast, Mississippi has a fragmented ad-hoc system of hospitals, health clinics and individual medical practices.

Healthcare discrimination as practiced by states like Mississippi means that if you have the misfortune to live there you will live in a state with higher infant mortality and lower lifespan expectancy than if you live in Minnesota. Yet somehow the Republicans have managed to convince a significant number of Americans that it is okay that someone in Mississippi faces a greater likelihood of dying than someone in Michigan.

That in a nutshell is the difference between the two parties and has been ever since the Republicans took up the Thurmond Manifesto, first with the Goldwater campaign and then with Richard Nixon’s Southern Strategy.

As Barack Obama pointed out several times during the Summit — and frankly could have done a better job doing — there are times federal solutions are the only just ones, the only ones that keep the playing field level. We gave up allowing states to regulate things like food and drug laws because frankly some of them were not doing a very good job at it. Americans accept that as a legitimate role of the federal government.

That we do a better job of regulating meat than we do health care is a national disgrace. Person after person at the Summit trumpeted the fact that we have “the best health care in the world.” No one chose to challenge that false statement. According to the World Health Organization we do not have the best health care in the world if by that you mean a system in which all citizens fare well.

According to one WHO study, the United States ranks 37th in the world, tied with Slovenia and one hundredth of a point above Cuba on the index used to compute the rankings. Above us are Morocco, Columbia, Saudi Arabia and virtually every Western European nation.

Yes we have places like John’s Hopkins and the Mayo Clinic, which most concede are the best in the world, but most of us do not have the good fortune of being able to access Mayo Clinic-class healthcare. I say this because the Mayo Clinic saved my life, but only after a bitter battle with my insurer in which my doctor finally made it clear that if I did not have access to Mayo’s experimental procedure he would hold them personally responsible for my fate.

Similar stories told by many at the Summit made it abundantly clear that this has got to end. In a famous speech that caused a walkout at the 1948 Democratic convention and Strom Thurmond’s Dixiecrat run for the presidency, Hubert Humphrey said it was time “to get out of the shadow of states’ rights and walk forthrightly into the bright sunshine of human rights.”

The same also holds true for health care.

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