The health care debate took a sharp detour off the high road Wednesday when Rep. Pete Stark (D-Oakland) told the only woman member of his health subcommittee that she learned what she knows about the subject “through pillow talk” with her doctor husband.
Stark, chairman of the House Ways and Means subcommittee, later apologized to Rep. Nancy L. Johnson (R-Conn.), saying that he “had not intended to question her expertise in any area” and that he thought his own wife “would agree wholeheartedly” that the comments were inappropriate. Johnson is married to a gynecologist.
The California congressman’s comments came during the second day of voting by the panel, which endorsed giving the government new powers to control prescription drug costs and set aside a sharply higher cigarette tax than President Clinton has proposed.
The health subcommittee is the first congressional panel to consider sweeping health legislation since the President put it at the top of the national agenda. It is considering a bill, written by Stark, that reaches the Clinton goal of universal coverage by expanding the Medicare program.
Johnson is a leading voice among Republicans on health care. During the week the subcommittee has been drafting its health care bill, Johnson’s combative tone and conservative ideological bent has visibly aggravated the liberal chairman.
The tension erupted when another Californian, Rep. Bill Thomas (R-Bakersfield), attempted to delete Stark’s proposals to give the government new powers over prescription drug prices and greater say in their uses.
Republicans said the proposal would constrain physicians from trying new uses for existing drugs and would dampen investment and research on new ones.
Stark answered: “The (chairman) does not intend, under any circumstances, to let the greedy drug manufacturers decide how they’re going to waste the taxpayers money.”
After Rep. Jim McDermott (D-Wash.), a psychiatrist, defended the cost controls, Johnson conceded that he is the only member of the panel who knows firsthand the needs of physicians, but noted pointedly that he is “in a specialty that uses a rather narrow range of drugs.”
Stark then told Johnson, using the third-person form of address that is standard in congressional proceedings: “The gentlelady got her medical degree through pillow talk and the gentleman from Washington got his medical degree by going to school.”
Johnson, who has been in the House for more than a decade, replied: “I get my knowledge of the medical system from endless hours as a representative in this Congress, in hospitals and physicians’ offices talking with patients.” She has been on Ways and Means since 1989, and was the first Republican woman to be named to that highly sought panel.
Stark has a history of making controversial statements. In 1990, he said then-Health and Human Services Secretary Louis W. Sullivan, a black, was “as close to being a disgrace to his profession and his race as anyone I’ve ever seen.”
In its second day of voting on amendments to Stark’s bill, the panel dealt the pharmaceutical industry a blow by upholding its chairman’s cost-control proposal and defeating most of the Thomas amendment. Stark’s plan is more far-reaching than Clinton’s in giving the government the authority to regulate drug costs.
By a 6-5 vote, the panel tabled an amendment by Rep. Michael A. Andrews (D-Tex.) that would have raised the cigarette tax, currently 24 cents a pack, to $2. By comparison, Clinton’s plan would increase the tax to almost $1.
The discussion of the cigarette tax increase centered not so much on the tax itself as on how it would be used. Andrews proposed using it for a combination of small-business subsidies and public health initiatives. He said he would bring the idea up again later.
Stark and Johnson got an opportunity to air their differences again Wednesday night when House leaders staged the first of a planned series of Oxford-style debates to be broadcast on C-SPAN and National Public Radio.
Congressional leaders hope that the debates will improve the image of Congress by giving members a forum to discuss the broad themes behind important issues in ways that they often cannot during the restricted, usually technical floor debates over legislation.
Wednesday’s topic, chosen by the Democrats, was whether Clinton’s health care plan best represents the elements needed in health care reform. In addition to Stark, the Democratic team included Majority Leader Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri, and Reps. Henry A. Waxman of Los Angeles and Rosa DeLauro of Connecticut.
Joining Johnson and Thomas on the GOP side were Minority Whip Newt Gingrich of Georgia and Rep. Thomas J. Bliley Jr. of Virginia.