CURES Act: Lessons Not learned; Credit Unrewarded


“If you don’t concern yourself with who gets the credit for what is accomplished, you can accomplish much more.” — Former House Republican Leader Robert H. Michel, R-IL

Bob Michel would admonish me with that observation when, as his press secretary, I struggled to win him credit for what he accomplished and especially for the tone he set. He knew that while patting yourself on the back on occasion was an honest gesture, there was a lot more to our lives in politics than shiny medals and silver trophies.

As renowned author of the Chronicles of Narnia and lay theologian C.S. Lewis observed: “True humility is not thinking less of yourself; it is thinking of yourself less.”

I was reminded of credit given and credit denied a few days ago while force-feeding myself the NBC Nightly News. Most network news, which feigns objectivity, is far from my comfort zone ideologically, but as ancient Chinese philosophy reminds us, there is bad with good and good with the bad. So I watch it all.

Aired on the NBC newscast December 13, was a short piece by correspondent Peter Alexander on President Barack Obama signing the 21st Century Cures Act. Alexander called it the “cancer moonshot bill.”

Most people who watched it probably didn’t think the report was anything unusual, in fact it wasn’t. It was a stereotypical. The focus was on Vice President Joe Biden and his late son, Beau, who died of a brain tumor at age 43, and President Obama’s mother, who died of cancer when she was two years younger than Obama is now.

No one can slight the national anguish that surrounded the death of Biden’s son. Everyone, especially parents, felt some of the pain he and his family experienced. And, we have heard the President talk of his mother many times, never with less sympathy for him.

No one can fault NBC for tugging at our emotions. Or can we?

What was wrong with the report and what is wrong with too much of American journalism is that it was very short on information, and the little information included was badly misleading.

Alexander left viewers with the impression that (a) the CURES bill was about Vice President Biden’s “cancer moonshot” campaign; it wasn’t; (b) the President and Vice President had a lot to do with its passage; they didn’t; (c) the legislation was all about cancer; it isn’t; and (d) Republicans had little or nothing to do with getting the legislation to the President to sign; they did.

Let’s take a step back.

One of the disturbing trends in politics and government is the growing evidence that the American people, and particularly younger Americans, are poorly educated and badly informed about current events, why problems occur, and how they are actually resolved. Lack of civic education is particularly acute in two stages of the political process. The first is at the polls, and the second is in the quality of the relationship between those who govern and the governed.

Civic knowledge, civic engagement and civic responsibility are critical to the functioning of government in a Republic; absolutely critical. And, frankly, they are sadly lacking.

You need to look no further than the last election. Too many people didn’t even vote. Too many of those who did, whether for Trump, Clinton, Stein, Johnson, or Old St. Nick were motivated by angry emotions, rather than educated judgments, by irrationality rather than common sense, and by falsehoods rather than facts.

There are many fault lines. They are visible in our partisan political system, in our political leadership, and in the conduct of campaigns. They are very visible in our educational system, from grade school through college. They are visible in our current delivery system of facts and information—the news and infotainment media. They are visible, too, when we look in the mirror.

Back to Peter Alexander. His piece was more storytelling than news reporting. What he and other media, particularly print and online, should have reported and been reporting all along was how this bill made it through a gridlocked legislative process in a contentious election year; what was contained in it, how the contents were changed, and why and what its impact would be on American families. The public would have learned a lot, about health care, about politics and about governing. They would also have learned who deserved the credit or the blame for the outcome and why.

The 21st Century Cures Act is a valuable tutorial in responsible legislating. It took three years to complete. As recently as last July it was declared dead. Its origins were and remained bipartisan. It was the by-product of listening sessions, hearings, engagement with a variety of health communities, and responding to feedback. Through most of its inception and development, it followed the regimen of what’s left of proper legislative procedure, commonly known as regular order.

The legislation was the result of old-fashioned, down-in-the-trenches, sausage-making compromises and trade-offs. Sausage is good once it gets to the dinner table.

CURES Act is law because of the dogged work of its two chief sponsors Republican Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Fred Upton of Michigan and Democrat Committee member Diana DeGette of Colorado. Health Subcommittee ranking Democrat Gene Green of Texas and a Subcommittee member, Republican Tim Murphy of PA, played key roles, as did Chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, Republican Senator Lamar Alexander and the Committee’s highest ranking Democrat, Senator Patty Murray of Washington. The White House was seldom engaged.

Those at both ends of the political spectrum who believe the word “no” is the sum and substance of good policy making, were simply outmaneuvered, right up to the end when an innovative application of procedural rules was used to get the legislation across the finish line in the Senate, just days before the 114th Congress ended.

The legislation was also far more expansive than Alexander reported, providing for quicker approval of drugs, funding for the states to fight opioid crises, and more aid for research into the causes of Alzheimer’s, one of the most debilitating and expensive diseases in America.

The New York Times: “The measure would benefit people with mental illness and chronic diseases, biomedical researchers, pregnant women, hospitals, children with diabetes, people addicted to opioid drugs, children who are bullied and those who are gravely ill. ‘I doubt there is a family in America who will not be touched by this important legislation,’ said Senator Susan Collins, Republican of Maine.”

It will make possible new groundbreaking research into 21st Century brain research, health care devices, genetics and genome technology that may open whole new horizons on the origins and mutations of diseases. And, yes also funds for Biden’s moonshot.

Some media did cover the passage and signing of the Cures Act. Very few even mentioned Upton or DeGette, not even the once venerable Associated Press. The two legislators and their colleagues, however, accomplished a small public policy miracle in an atmosphere of partisan gridlock, ideological extremism, and a virtual breakdown in the relationship between the Legislative and Executive branches of government. They saw a need, created an opportunity and got it done. Thomas Edison once said that: “Opportunity is missed by most people because it is dressed in overalls and looks like work.”

Public policy is like that. It is work, oftentimes tedious and boring. Chances of success are slim, and you seldom get anywhere when your chief concern is who will get the credit.

They did it well, and deserved the credit.

Editor’s Note: Mike Johnson is a former journalist, who worked on the Ford White House staff and served as press secretary and chief of staff to House Republican Leader Bob Michel, prior to entering the private sector. He is co-author of a book, Surviving Congress, a guide for congressional staff. He is currently a principal with the OB-C Group.