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Smart Bombs: Social issues enjoy revival

So, what was this year in politics going to be about again? Oh yeah, jobs. Don’t feel bad if this slipped your mind after last week’s fast and furious battles over social issues.

The week started with Susan G. Komen for the Cure announcing that it would rescind its decision to cut off breast cancer screening funds to Planned Parenthood. Then the foundation’s vice president, a pro-life politician from Georgia, suddenly quit, which is odd, because Komen said this officer had nothing to do with a decision that had nothing to do with abortion.

It was during this debate that pro-lifers wondered why people were spending so much time on this issue when the economy needs so much attention.

Meanwhile in Olympia, the House of Representatives passed a historic gay marriage bill and sent it to the governor to sign. It was during this debate that opponents wondered why lawmakers were focused on this when the economy and the budget needs so much attention.

Finally, the Obama administration’s mandate that employers affiliated with religious institutions provide contraception coverage lit a fuse that is sure to burn until Election Day. On Friday, the administration announced an “accommodation” under which the mandate would switch to the insurers of these religious institutions.

It was during this debate that the gatekeepers of the nation’s top concern – the economy – intervened with a reminder. Not really. They instead joined the exaggerated wailing over “the assault on religious liberties.”

So either jobs can wait a while or the nation really can tackle more than one issue at a time.

Public OPtion Reborn? This birth control imbroglio is one of those “only in America” issues. That’s because we’re alone in tying employment to health care coverage. The drawbacks are the lack of portability (lose your job, lose your coverage), the acceptance of millions of uninsured people, and these “conscience” battles over what should be covered.

None of these is a concern under government-run plans in other nations. But a “Medicare for all” idea was shot down during the health care debates, so we’re stuck with the employer-based model. But if there were a public option under this system, women who were denied contraception coverage could make a choice that would keep the consciences of Catholic institutions clean.

Unfortunately, this was also shot down over the fear that private insurers couldn’t compete with a public option; therefore, the very foundation of the free-enterprise system would be shaken to its core.

I suppose the moral of this tale is that Americans worship at different altars and don’t fear the same demons.

For Whom the Bell Tolls. Some Catholic leaders are unhappy with the Obama administration’s compromise because they say there is no middle ground on birth control, which most of the church’s female parishioners use anyway. They want the mandate lifted for all employers so that a Catholic running a secular business can withhold contraceptives coverage.

As Anthony Picarello, general counsel for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, said: “If I quit this job and opened a Taco Bell, I’d be covered by the mandate.”

First, I think that would be an excellent idea, because Picarello would discover that many fast food workers forgo their employers’ plans because they’re so skimpy. Perhaps that discovery would animate a secular region of his conscience. On the other hand, he should already know this since Catholic hospitals admirably spend huge amounts on charity care for the uninsured.

Second, he has a profound misunderstanding of the U.S. health care system. As Jonathan Cohn of the New Republic points out, government heavily subsidizes workplace coverage with favorable tax treatment. Absent that, most employers wouldn’t be in the health care business and paychecks would be higher. Under this subsidy, an employer is given an incentive to withhold some worker money to help buy a group insurance policy. Most employers also charge their workers a monthly amount to participate in the plan.

So by what nondivine right could Taco Bell manager Picarello exclude contraceptives coverage under a policy purchased in part with his female employees’ money? Now, if he wanted to buy a policy without government help, he could. But my guess is that a secular consideration would win that conscience battle.

Associate Editor Gary Crooks can be reached at or (509) 459-5026. Follow him on Twitter @GaryCrooks.