The recent Rush Limbaugh-Sandra Fluke fiasco highlights everything that’s wrong with our political system today. Fluke testified at an “unofficial hearing” last Thursday, led by House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi after she was excluded from an official congressional hearing on the contraceptive mandate in the U.S. health-care law. Republicans, who ran the hearing, barred Fluke from testifying because her name was apparently submitted too late, a contention Democrats strongly deny. Of those who did testify, not a single person spoke in favor of the mandate. So much for participatory democracy where multiple viewpoints are considered, or at least heard.
But the situation took an even nastier turn late this week. At the unofficial hearing, Fluke, a Georgetown Law student, had testified that she and her fellow students had to pay as much $1,000 per year for birth control because the Jesuit university’s health plan did not include coverage for female contraceptives. In response to this testimony, conservative commentator Rush Limbaugh blasted Fluke’s character, saying: “What does that make her? It makes her a slut, right? It makes her a prostitute…She wants to be paid to have sex. She’s having so much sex she can’t afford the contraception.” He then continued with his degrading remarks, adding: “So, Miss Fluke, and the rest of you feminazis, here’s the deal. If we are going to pay for your contraceptives ... we want something for it. We want you to post the videos online so we can all watch.”
Such comments set off a predictable media firestorm and criticism from both sides of the aisle. Georgetown University President John DeGioia also called the comments “misogynistic, vitriolic, and a misrepresentation of the position of our student." DeGioia also called for the restoration of civility in communication and engagement, arguing that “[w]e have learned through painful experience that we must respect one another and we acknowledge that the best way to confront our differences is through constructive public debate.”
This incident is rife with many of the causes of Washingtonian gridlock today: partisan gamemanship; uncivil, vitriolic behavior, including name-calling and demonization; a refusal to acknowledge other points of view or separate ideas from individuals; and a media story that favors the dramatic and sensationalistic rather than the real policy choices at issue. In fact, what has been lost in this whole mess is a genuine debate over religious freedom vs. governmental power, or, more specifically, whether the federal government can require religious organizations “to pay for something that violates their freedom of conscience.” But this issue has taken a backseat to demeaning and shameful rhetoric, personal attacks, and political jockeying. Here’s to another productive year.