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The bishops and their(?) lobbyists

By Phil Lawler (bio - articles - email) | Oct 19, 2009

 Writing in Time magazine, Amy Sullivan asks: "Will the Church Try to Block Health Reform?"

The question is ironic, in light of the energy spent by Catholic officials-- especially at the US Conference for Catholic Bishops-- to promote the health-care reform package. Now it seems the White House and its journalistic allies are setting the USCCB up as scapegoats, in the case the campaign fails. 

Sullivan's complaint-- and it's fair to assume she's picked up this complaint from the Obama administration-- is that the USCCB assured supporters that a cosmetic change in the proposed legislation known as the Capps Amendment, prohibiting the most direct forms of federal funding for abortion, would be enough to ensure the American bishops' support for the bill. But after that amendment was approved, Cardinal Justin Rigali announced that it wasn't good enough-- that since the measure still provided ample indirect subsidies for abortion, the bishops could not support it. The bishops, Sullivan suggests, had reneged on a political commitment. 

You won't find-- anywhere-- a commitment by the US bishops to support a particular piece of legislation. But if Sullivan's reporting is accurate, some lawmakers felt that they had received such a commitment. How could that have happened?

Deal Hudson, who has spent enough time in Washington to know how these things work, has a likely explanation. Some USCCB lobbyist(s), acting in the bishops' name (or at least claiming to do so), gave the assurance that the Capps Amendment would do the trick. Now Hudson wants to know:

From whom at the USCCB did Congressional Democrats receive assurances that Capps was going to be enough to satisfy the bishops?

Good question. Here's another: If a USCCB lobbyist overstepped his bounds, made a promise he should not have made, and thereby put his bosses in an awkward position, will those bosses (the bishops) realize that they've been poorly represented, and perhaps need a different lobbyist?

Come to think of it, here's another question: The bishops had no incentive to promote the Capps Amendment; it didn't fix the problems they saw in the legislation. But the Democrats did have an incentive to pass the amendment: precisely to quiet the bishops' opposition. So if it was a USCCB staff aide who persuaded lawmakers to approve that amendment, who was he really working for? When this lobbyist was telling legislators how to assuage the bishops' concerns, was he really lobbying Congress on behalf of the bishops? Or was he, in effect, lobbying the bishops on behalf of the Democratic majority? 

Deal Hudson ends his analysis of this telling episode with a conclusion that's right on the money:

Sullivan's purpose in writing her article is to point a finger at the bishops for thwarting health care reform. What she has really done is reveal the close relationships that exist between the USCCB, Congressional Democrats, and the Obama administration.

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