Health Care Act

ACA complexity: Was Pelosi channeling decades-old cartoon?

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi speaks about the Supreme Court ruling on the Affordable Care Act last week.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi speaks about the Supreme Court ruling on the Affordable Care Act last week. Getty Images

Did anyone else feel a sense of time-warp confusion while reading about last week’s Supreme Court ruling on the Affordable Care Act?

My brow furrowed when I read Bloomberg View columnist Noah Feldman’s report on Chief Justice John Roberts’ majority opinion: Roberts quoted an essay on statutory interpretation by the great Justice Felix Frankfurter, the father of the modern idea of judicial restraint. Frankfurter described a cartoon ‘in which a senator tells his colleagues ‘I admit this new bill is too complicated to understand. We'll just have to pass it to find out what it means.’ ”

Wait ... what? Isn’t that a variation the famous quote from House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi? If it was a well-known joke when Frankfurter was on the bench (1939 to 1962), could its attribution to Pelosi be an urban legend or bit of political propaganda?

Nope. Pelosi actually said her version of the quote – “we have to pass the bill so that you can find out what is in it, away from the fog of the controversy” – back in 2010.

According to PolitiFact, the Texas GOP promptly juiced it up a bit, circulating word that Pelosi had confessed that “the Democrats have to pass their terrible health care bill so that the American people can actually find out what’s in it.” But the fact-checkers concluded that the real quote was close enough to rate the GOP statement “mostly true.”

Pelosi argues that the sound bite was taken out of context and stripped of nuance, which centered on the complex process of producing a health reform bill. But as far as I can tell, she has never said she was quoting an old joke.

So this appears to be a case of life imitating the cartoonist’s art.

Helms: 704-358-5033;

Twitter: @anndosshelms. This article is done in collaboration with Kaiser Health News, an editorially independent program of the Kaiser Family Foundation.

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