I spent Monday and Tuesday on Capitol Hill, meeting with legislative staff on both sides of the aisle to provide them with The Hastings Center Bioethics Briefing Book. After meeting with seven Democrats and seven Republicans—including both personal and committee staff—I came away with two predominant impressions:
1. Health care reform, even with the current economic climate, will be the dominant legislative issue early in the term.
2. Despite the fierce political battles we are currently engaged in, what goes on behind the scene, by and large, is far less partisan and far more practical.
As to the first point, every single person I met with said that he or she expected health care reform to dominate the agenda. Many were attending or leaving meetings talking about the three general divisions under consideration: coverage, health care quality and system delivery, and public health and prevention. Clearly, many issues in bioethics fall under those umbrellas. In addition to the meta-issues of cost and how to pay for reform, staff was particularly interested in end of life care, family caregiving, clinical trials and access, genetic testing and screening and personalized medicine, fetal testing, organ transplantation, newborn screening, and health information technology (this last was a major interest).
Issues not fitting under the umbrella of health care reform, were “follow-on biologics,” food and drug import safety, and conflict of interest. Oh—and look for stem cells to fade from the front pages. As one staffer said, “It’s becoming less of a dividing line.” The expectation is that if Obama wins, he’ll sign an executive order reversing the Bush order. McCain might do the same, but if not, the votes are there for legislation. And legislation might be enacted in any case, in order to stop presidential ricocheting on research.
Which brings me to point number 2: while the fringes of the parties might capture headlines, judging by the very smart staff advising them and helping to craft legislation, most members of Congress appear to want to work together on most issues. Here’s to November 5th, when we can look forward to getting down to business.
Mary Crowley is Director of Public Affairs and Communications at The Hastings Center.