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Bored sick by the bill

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Who was it who said that once you see how laws and sausages are made you lose your appetite for both? As the US public service cable channel C-SPAN shows us the pigmeat stuffed into the legislative casing of the House of Representatives' health-care reform bill, Winston Churchill's belief that democracy is the worst possible form of government except for all the others has never felt more apt.

The coverage was billed as a great floor debate - something that almost never happens in the House, where the real business takes place in committee meetings. Only camera hogs take to the floor to give speeches to the empty chamber; that's how Newt Gingrich began his climb to the Speakership, giving bomb-throwing speeches to nobody but acolytes gathered around TV sets in the hinterland.

The real action, as usual, took place away from the cameras. The bill was narrowly passed 220-215: "moderate" Democrats in more conservative districts were able to avoid going on record in support, once the leadership knew it didn't need their votes for victory.

Meanwhile, on the floor, both sides repeated the talking points as robotically as Mao's schoolchildren. Occasionally the spectacle was enlivened by Republicans objecting to the unobjectionable, or opponents in the galleries being told to hush up by whichever nameless Democrat was presiding. One would have had to be recovering from mummification not to recognise every argument - points hammered home during seemingly endless months of cable news debate.

And there are months more to come. Because US government is designed to prevent big, fast change, and because every committee with a claim to jurisdiction over a major reform has to get in on the act, nearly a dozen House and Senate committees have participated in the communal meat-grinding. The bill just passed by the House of Representatives faces an uncertain fate in the Senate. Don't sell your US insurance company stocks yet.

Harry Shearer plays more than 12 characters in The Simpsons and was Derek Smalls in This Is Spinal Tap. His album Greed and Fear is out in January. harryshearer.com

This article appears in the 16 November 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Dead End