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A Baby in Every Crib?

We learned in school that America's legislative assemblies are the deliberative bodies that decide our laws. After solemn debate the people's representatives vote up or down, and that's more or less the end of the matter. We were misinformed. The most serious deliberation often begins only after the people's reps have done their duty.

We got a call last week from David Hultgren, a state representative from the Galesburg-Monmouth area. Hultgren wanted to talk up a bill he helped sponsor, House Bill 1470, also known as the Family Building Act. Opponents call it the In Vitro Fertilization Bill--after the procedure whose cost of about $7,000 per they have no interest in bearing.

We'd never heard of House Bill 1470 under any name. Hultgren explained that the bill's of keen interest to couples who can't have children--it would require group health insurance plans that cover pregnancy costs to also cover treatment for infertility.

"The government steps in and regulates business from time to time," Hultgren argued. "We regulate business to promote fairness, to promote competition, to eliminate discrimination. We have health policies in the state of Illinois that insure pregnancies, that insure abortions, that insure sterilization. But not for this class of people. It's estimated that 1 in 12 couples of childbearing age fall into this category."

So you're trying to promote fairness and eliminate discrimination, we said to Hultgren.

Yes, he said. "It's terribly unfair to allow companies--and indeed, this bill is limited to policies that already offer pregnancy benefits--to discriminate against employees who need coverage for fertility."

HB 1470 was written and lobbied for by Resolve of Illinois, an advocacy group for the infertile. Opposed by both business and insurance interests, it cleared the Illinois house and senate in June without a vote to spare. So why was Hultgren calling? He'd already won, hadn't he?

No, he hadn't. His bill mandates coverage, and Governor Edgar doesn't like mandates. Edgar has until September 24 to sign the bill or veto it, and Hultgren understands that it would be much easier for the governor to veto a bill that passed the General Assembly by a whisker if nobody knew about it than if the public had clasped it to its heart. So he's working the phones. He called us, he called Tom McNamee of the Sun-Times, Thomas Hardy of the Tribune, and the editor of the Illinois Times. McNamee wrote a friendly article last Friday, and as a result a Resolve attorney was invited onto WGN radio that evening. Another Resolve member called every TV station in Chicago, which yielded a report on Channel Seven. And a PR guy working for Resolve called WBEZ and the Tribune's Joan Beck.

This campaign has a lot to do with garnering public sympathy--and just as much to do with manipulating someone you've almost certainly never heard of: Erhard Chorle. Chorle's a special assistant to the governor, and his job is to review HB 1470, study the position papers, listen to the arguments of both sides, and then brief the governor, perhaps throwing in a recommendation of his own.

Chorle has heard from legislators for the bill and against it, from industry groups asking for a veto, from doctors who perform in vitro fertilization, and even from children who are products of fertilization techniques. He's read the papers and watched TV. He's met with representatives of Resolve, and with an emissary from the Illinois Manufacturers' Association who explained why industry does not want this burden on its back.

And so, as they say, the system works. Both behind closed doors and in the media, HB 1470 is receiving vigorous debate. And the General Assembly is irrelevant to the process.

It doesn't surprise Chorle that things got hotter after HB 1470 cleared the legislature. "I can't give you the number of how many pieces of legislation were introduced this session," he told us. "There were 600 bills at the beginning of the session involved with just the area I deal with, business-regulation issues. Ninety-five passed. You can't focus sufficient attention on all 600 of them."

He didn't, and reporters didn't. But the Illinois Manufacturers' Association watched House Bill 1470 from day one. A spokesman's description of the IMA's unyielding opposition has a Churchillian ring: "If we can't kill it in committee, we try to kill it in the house or senate. And if it goes to the governor, we write letters to the governor trying to get him to kill it."

Brian Boyer, who's doing PR for Resolve, said he naively assumed that when the bill passed the General Assembly there were no more battles to fight. Then he realized that the opposition had merely rolled up its sleeves. "After we found out that the Manufacturers' Association was out there lobbying--and of course they have a lot more muscle and a lot more money than these infertile couples do--I thought it would be a good idea to see whether there could be some favorable articles," Boyer told us. "If there was a supportive column by Joan Beck, certainly that wouldn't hurt."

But Beck didn't write a column. Instead she wrote an editorial urging Edgar to veto the bill.

Beck began by giving HB 1470 its due: "It's one of those warm-your-heart bills it would make you feel good to support. It could help create urgently wanted babies, build families, satisfy innate yearnings to have children. And it wouldn't cost the financially pinched state any new tax dollars."

Sounds great! unwary readers must have marveled. But Beck quickly disabused them. She explained that "state legislators succumbed to the emotional pressures of a special interest group and to their own do-good sentimentality." HB 1470 is "sentimental and well-intended"--which is to say naive and not to be taken seriously by serious people. "Hard-hearted as [Edgar] will have to be to veto it," she wrote, "the governor should resist this temptation to do good with other people's money."

Why? (We thought we elected governors to do good with money that isn't theirs.) "The General Assembly has no business dictating what kind of health benefits employers must pay for," Beck declared. The Tribune considers this general proposition holy writ, and Beck saw no need to argue it--beyond observing that "health insurance costs have been rising so fast and so steeply that they have become a serious drag on corporate profitability and competitiveness."

Would HB 1470 noticeably worsen the drag? Another thing Beck did not do was sort out the competing apples-versus-oranges claims that put the bill's financial costs in dramatically different lights. Resolve argues that HB 1470 would raise insurance costs by about $1.50 per insured employee per month. IMA lobbyist Boro Reljic points out that in vitro fertilization is a chancy process that could be attempted four times under the bill before coverage was cut off. He says that insurers could wind up paying additional medical costs that might approach a billion dollars.

In short, Beck did not provide Erhard Chorle with either fresh facts or fresh arguments to help him frame his brief. Instead, she played to the governor's ego. The editorial's underlying message to the governor, we told Beck, is "Be a man." That's why we were sure she hadn't written the editorial until she told us she had.

"It was meant to be sympathetic," Beck said, and we believe her. How can anyone not feel sympathy for people who long to have children but cannot? And yet what she wrote sounded to us more imperious than sympathetic. It sounded condescending and dismissive.

But that's a common problem at the Tribune. Perhaps it's something in the water.

The American Way

"Raisa, I can't sleep," said the Soviet president.

"Try counting cabinet ministers who betrayed you," his wife suggested.

"I already did that," he moaned. "I also tried saying the name of every remaining communist in Moscow. Nothing worked."

"I bet Yeltsin's sleeping," said his wife.

"You want to know what's really bothering me?" said the president. "I brought in glasnost. I brought in perestroika. I ended the cold war and freed Eastern Europe. And do you know what they're saying about me in the American papers? They're saying in the eyes of history I'm just a transitional figure."

He was close to tears. There was silence in the bedroom for a while, and then the president's wife spoke.

"Honey," she said gently. "In the eyes of history, everyone's a transitional figure. If they're anything at all."

That made him feel a lot better. He got snuggly. "Actually, Lenin should be proud of me," he giggled in her ear.

"Why's that?" she wondered.

"Do you realize the blow we've struck the capitalist Yankee dogs? Everything they most believe in is now in peril."

"Apple pie?"

"Not even close."

"Baseball?"

"You're getting warmer."

"God?"

"Now you're hot."

Then she knew: "Anticommunism!"

"Yes," said the Soviet president, staring at the ceiling. "Anticommunism. It crossed racial, ethnic, and class lines to unite the American people in war and peace. It kept the generals happy, provided work for millions, and brought meaning to the lives of both its adherents and its opponents."

His wife mused, "In its name, America's rulers could get away with just about anything."

"And now it's ours," sighed the Soviet leader, and dozed off at last.

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