The Context Behind Nancy Pelosi’s Famous ‘We Have to Pass the Bill’ Quote


On NBC News’ Meet the Press Sunday morning, host David Gregory resurrected a favorite right-wing attack on the Affordable Care Act, asking House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) to defend her 2010 comment that “we have to pass the bill so that you can find out what is in it, away from the fog of the controversy.”

Gregory’s treatment of the quote was fairer than most, and Leader Pelosi handled the question capably, but it’s worth looking back to see how this became such a popular attack on Obamacare.

That quote, often truncated to “we have to pass the bill so that you can find out what is in it,” or even just paraphrased to hew to the right’s narrative of the quote, has been perverted to mean that the Affordable Care Act was just too many pages, and Democrats just wanted it passed without anyone reading it, and rammed it down America’s throat. While Gregory at least read the whole quote, his interpretation was similar to the narrative that developed over time, that “there was such a rush to get this done—no Republicans voting for it—and now there are unintended effects of this that were foreseen at the time, that you couldn’t know the impact of, and that now this is coming home to roost?”

The influence of that narrative is a testament to the effectiveness of a relentless echo chamber. Here’s how Pelosi’s quote was covered by Politico on the day she made it:

Pelosi: People won’t appreciate reform until it passes

Speaker Nancy Pelosi said Tuesday that people won’t appreciate how great the Democrat’s health plan is until after it passes.

“You’ve heard about the controversies, the process about the bill…but I don’t know if you’ve heard that it is legislation for the future – not just about health care for America, but about a healthier America,” she told the National Association of Counties annual legislative conference, which has drawn about 2,000 local officials to Washington. “But we have to pass the bill so that you can find out what is in it – away from the fog of the controversy.”

During a 20-minute speech, she touted benefits she thinks will be tangible to the audience’s employers. She said there’s support for public health infrastructure and investments in community health centers that will reduce uncompensated care that hospitals now need to deliver.

“You know as well as anyone that our current system is unsustainable,” said Pelosi (D-Calif.). “The final health care legislation, which will soon be passed by the Congress, will deliver successful reforms at the local level.”

Almost immediately, though, the conservative media seized on the quote, and perverted it into an indictment of the law’s complexity. The meaning that was so perfectly plain to an objective reporter on that day has been completely lost.

Here’s the full text of the speech that then-Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi delivered on March 9, 2010, via press release from the Speaker’s Office:

Speaker Nancy Pelosi delivered a speech this morning at the 2010 Legislative Conference for the National Association of Counties (NACo). This year marks the 75th anniversary of the organization. Below are the Speaker’s remarks:

“Thank you, President Valerie Brown [of Sonoma County, Calif.] Don’t we all take pride in Valerie Brown recently being named County Official of the Year for her advocacy on behalf of all of America’s counties? Thank you, Valerie. Her wealth of experience – as a mayor, a state legislator, and an educator and a county executive – makes her an innovative and effective leader for the future. At this time of great challenges, her understanding of the different needs of NACo’s diverse counties is essential.
“I understand many other county officials are here from California. Any Californians to be heard from here? Thank you for coming the distance to Washington and for going the distance for our constituents. And I want to acknowledge all of you who are here.

“I had the privilege last year to acknowledge the work of the Executive Committee of NACo by welcoming them to the Speaker’s office in the Capitol. This year, I have the even greater privilege to come to you to speak to all of the members of NACo.

“On the 75th anniversary of the National Association of Counties, your leadership is more vital and more necessary than ever. You know that. I just want you to know that we in Congress do too.

“The diversity of America’s counties represents the diversity of America. And yet, you share common responsibilities, whatever the diversity. America’s counties are leading on the issues most important to Americans: the education of our children, the health of their families, and the security of our communities.

“Your common responsibilities bring you to Washington with a common cause: to strengthen the partnership between America’s counties and the federal government. It is in that spirit that I have come here today. It’s in that spirit that we will work together to, as your theme says, to ‘find solutions in tough times.’

“I noticed as I was reading your program, it is pretty intense what you have been through this weekend and the beginning of this week, that you have one workshop that was ‘Influencing Congress from Home’ — the cyber influence, very, very important but let me say how important your presence here in Washington is, too. It is very important you have come to all the distance, all the diversity, to make your cumulative impact on the Congress. Please don’t underestimate how important your visit is to us.

“I know that you sometimes have felt that your partnership with Washington has not been a balanced one — that burdens have been put on you that you simply cannot fulfill. These difficult economic times have made your challenges even greater. We all know that.

“Together, here in this room, we have the opportunity to ensure that the partnership between America’s counties and the federal government is strong, productive, and balanced.

“Just a little more than a year ago, our President Barack Obama stood on the steps of the Capitol, just a little more than a year ago and called for swift, bold action now to restore our economic growth. In his budget, he set out a blueprint founded on three pillars for our prosperity: a highly-educated workforce, the future, a clean energy economy, good-paying jobs, and quality, affordable health care for all Americans. And he saw these critical building blocks as engines of job creation and economic growth.
“Answering that call, and responding to the needs of America’s counties, we passed the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, creating and saving up to 2 million jobs so far, and more to come.

“You know best what the Recovery Act means to American’s counties. I have traveled the country, visited many counties to dedicate, groundbreak, observe funding coming into counties, tens of millions of dollars in some counties, over $100 million in some counties, hundreds of millions of dollars. For the Port of Houston, for a highway in Colorado, whether it is keeping teachers on the job, cops on the street, we believe that the Recovery Act was essential to keep us from an even worse recession. But in fact, it has created or saved 2 million jobs.

“Of particular interest to America’s counties – we increased FMAP, providing immediate relief to counties in the 27 states that contribute to Medicaid, and shored up the safety net for families in difficult times. We provided $624 million for counties in Energy Efficiency Conservation Block Grants — and I know that is important to many of you, you have told me — to promote energy efficiency and conservation while creating jobs and lowering energy costs. I am committed to ensuring that this initiative is strong and ongoing. We have $178 million in Community Development Block Grants that helped you to expand community services, and modernize housing and wastewater systems.

Transportation investments and broadband access that have strengthened business opportunities close to home.

“You’ve seen the results, many of you, you have told me about them and again, as I say, you have told me on the site right in your own counties. But I want to just tell you, give you a perspective from here as to what the difference the Recovery Act has made nationally to our economy. Consider this:

“In the last quarter of the Bush Administration, what was reported in the first quarter of last year, America’s GDP, the rate of growth of GDP was a minus 6.4 percent. Minus 6.4 percent. In the equivalent quarter of the Obama Administration one year later, it is at plus 5.9 percent. A swing of over 12 percent in the GDP. This is the fastest rate that we have seen in a long time.

“When we were debating the recovery bill a year ago, a year and a month ago, the stock market was about 6,500. Yesterday it closed 10,500 — a swing of 4,000 points.
“Just last week, we learned that America’s manufacturing base grew for the seventh straight month — and is now at its second highest level in years.

“And think of this – jobs. In the first three months of 2009, but let me just state one month so that we can compare them. In January of 2009, the last month of the Bush Administration before we passed the Recovery Act, 779,000 Americans lost their jobs. 779,000 for January of 2009. This January 2010, 20,000 Americans lost their jobs — far too many, we want to move to the plus side of course — but a difference of over three quarters of a million people in just that one month. Thank you, American Reinvestment and Recovery Act.

“But our work is far from complete. We know that. Congress will stay focused on our top priority: putting Americans to work. And I said putting Americans to work, I didn’t say putting Americans back to work. Because we have far too people who will have no job, never had a job that they would go back too.

“So we must invest in training, apprenticeships, and vocational education for the chronically unemployed so we put all of America back to work — some back to work, some newly to work. I think you see this in your counties where we have some young people who have not had the opportunity that America must afford them so that as our economy grows with training and vocational training that many more people will participate in the economic prosperity that we see for our country.

“Just last week, we passed the Hiring Incentives to Restore Employment Act, that’s HIRE — Hiring Incentives to Restore Employment Act, we write these acronyms — another step forward in our fight to put more Americans back to work.

“With $15 billion in critical investments, this bill includes: extension of the Highway Trust Fund. And though the investment is $15 billion and that is paid for, it will unleash tens of billions of dollars in infrastructure investment in your communities. And for small business, we can never do enough and more needs to be done but in this particular bill: a payroll tax holiday for businesses that hire unemployed workers, to create some 300,000 jobs and an income tax credit of $1,000 for businesses that retain these employees. It’s very specific and targeted. And then we have specific support to small businesses with tax credits and accelerated write-offs.

“This bill is one key element, just one step of our broader agenda to expand lending to small businesses, build the infrastructure of the future, support job training, keep police, firefighters, and teachers on the job.

“Tomorrow, Congressman George Miller will introduce his local jobs bill, which allows for county governments and municipalities to retain workers. I think Valerie had a hand in this. I know he is grateful to the input of NACo in crafting this significant legislation. We believe at this time that nothing is more critical to the long-term economic security of American families and to our economy than comprehensive health care reform, health insurance reform.

“As you are in Washington this week, we stand at the doorstep of history, ready to realize a centuries old dream, started by a Republican President, Teddy Roosevelt. He was the one who started this country thinking in this direction, and we are deeply in his dept. But, we are a hundred years late. A century old dream of health care for all, and we will be prepared to send the bill to President Obama’s desk that ensures affordability for the middle class, accountability for the insurance companies, and access for millions more Americans, tens of millions more.

“Nobody knows better than you the strain on hospitals that never turned a patient away, and health care providers grappling with the challenges of the uninsured and shrinking reimbursement. You know as well as anyone, that our current system is unsustainable. It’s unsustainable to individuals and their families. It’s unsustainable for small businesses. It’s unsustainable for your communities. It’s unsustainable for our state, local, and national budgets.

“President Obama said, one year ago, when he called the first bipartisan, on March 5th of last year, the first bipartisan House and Senate meeting together with many outside stakeholders together at the White House, to find a way for us to come together. And at that time, he said: ‘Health care reform is entitlement reform.’ We cannot sustain the upward spiral of the increases in health care and what that means in Medicare and what it means in Medicaid. So from the standpoint of our national budget, and for your budgets, the current system, as I said, is unsustainable.

“Again, it’s unaffordable for families, individuals and families, for businesses of any size, and it is a cost to our economy. Imagine an economy where people could follow their aspirations, where they could be entrepreneurial, where they could take risks professionally because personally their families health care needs are being met. Where they could be self-employed or start a business, not be job-locked in a job because they have health care there, and if they went out on their own it would be unaffordable to them, but especially true, if someone has a child with a pre-existing condition. So when we pass our bill, never again will people be denied coverage because they have a pre-existing condition.

“We have to do this in partnership, and I wanted to bring up to date on where we see it from here. The final health care legislation that will soon be passed by Congress will deliver successful reform at the local level. It will offer paid for investments that will improve health care services and coverage for millions more Americans. It will make significant investments in innovation, prevention, wellness and offer robust support for public health infrastructure. It will dramatically expand investments into community health centers. That means a dramatic expansion in the number of patients community health centers can see and ultimately healthier communities. Our bill will significantly reduce uncompensated care for hospitals.

“You’ve heard about the controversies within the bill, the process about the bill, one or the other. But I don’t know if you have heard that it is legislation for the future, not just about health care for America, but about a healthier America, where preventive care is not something that you have to pay a deductible for or out of pocket. Prevention, prevention, prevention — it’s about diet, not diabetes. It’s going to be very, very exciting.

“But we have to pass the bill so that you can find out what is in it, away from the fog of the controversy. Furthermore, we believe that health care reform, again I said at the beginning of my remarks, that we sent the three pillars that the President’s economic stabilization and job creation initiatives were education and innovation — innovation begins in the classroom — clean energy and climate, addressing the climate issues in an innovative way to keep us number one and competitive in the world with the new technology, and the third, first among equals I may say, is health care, health insurance reform. Health insurance reform is about jobs. This legislation alone will create 4 million jobs, about 400,000 jobs very soon.

“We must have the courage, though, to get the job done. We have the ideas. We have the commitment. We have the dedication. We know the urgency. Now we have to have the courage to get the job done. So proud that President Obama is taking the message so forcefully to the American people! This is long overdue, a hundred years.
“The challenges we face, the health, the education, the education of our children, the economic well-being of their families, the safety of neighborhoods, all of this, all roads lead to you. The challenges we all face are too great though for each of us to face them alone. We need to form the partnerships, strengthen partnerships at every level of government and with committed and compassionate leaders to understand that the need to focus on the next generation, we need to focus on the next generation, not the next election.

“With that in mind and with great enthusiasm and a sense of history that we have of this responsibility to ensure that health care in America is a right not a privilege; let us move forward in the spirit of restoring and strengthening our partnership, and finding solutions in difficult times. In so doing, we will realize the dream of a brighter future. Thank you for all that you do to make that so.

“Thank you NACo, for the opportunity to be with you. On behalf of my colleagues in the Congress, I welcome you to Washington, D.C. I hope we will see you on Capitol Hill. We want your advocacy either here or from home.

“Thank you, Valerie Brown, for the invitation to be here. Thank you all.”

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