And May the Odds be Ever in Your Favor

It’s only natural that the gigantic blockbuster premiering this weekend would draw the crowds.

People started queuing up outside well in advance, vying for a seat to view the stagecraft.

The show everyone is clamoring to see is something of a cultural icon which started several years ago. Many believe the theatrics depict a post-apocalyptic dystopia where a powerful government wields ultimate controls over its citizens. To assert its power, the government routinely selects a group of people and designates them for death via “the reaping.”

The world will be watching.

What? You thought I was talking about people lining up before the midnight opening of The Hunger Games?

Hardly. I’m referring to people who started waiting outside the Supreme Court on Friday to catch three days of oral arguments over the Affordable Care Act. It’s one of the most controversial cases to come before the High Court in years. It’s certain to command as much attention as Bush v. Gore did nearly 12 years ago.

Many critics of the Affordable Care Act believe the law is so intrusive that the nation is just a few ticks away from the regime that rules Panem in The Hunger Games. After all, the health care law includes what some characterize as a “death panel. Those critics describe this committee as one which decides who lives and dies when meting out health care coverage.

Certainly, supporters of the health care law strenuously object to that description. They argue that the “Independent Advisory Board,” known colloquially on Capitol Hill as “IPAB,” is anything but a “death panel.” They contend IPAB is a council put in place to reduce Medicare costs.

But either way, the Supreme Court hears arguments about the constitutionality of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) next week.

And that’s why line standers began materializing on the south sidewalk of the court Friday.

Two men who looked to be in their mid to late-twenties sat quietly on a concrete berm near a tree. They appeared to be first in line, Neither cared to say much, declining to answer reporters’ questions. However, one did introduce himself as “Matt.” Both wore black tennis shoes and tweed, wool hats. A pile of newspapers, a banana, and a half-eaten bagel were strewn around their encampment. A stack of paperback philosophy books peaked out of a black, Volcom knapsack. About the only thing they didn’t have with them was an Etch a Sketch. Both of the men’s arms were wildly tattooed. The characters “HUMII” were inscribed in purple and black onto each of one man’s knuckles.

Someone said the men arrived Friday morning around 9 am from Philadelphia. Another line stander hung out nearby in a foldable chair. She was from Atlanta.

Line standing is as ubiquitous on Capitol Hill as StubHub! is to securing seats at sporting events. The firm is a Washington institution, billing its services as “helping you out against the crowd.” It pays people anywhere from $20 to $40 an hour to hold places in line for major Congressional hearings and at the Supreme Court. And when the doors open, the people who put in the time in line disappear and are replaced by those willing to pay top dollar to score a seat.

The oral arguments on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday are marquee events in Washington. A spot inside the courtroom is more coveted than a World Series seat at Yankee Stadium.

Supreme Court spokeswoman Kathy Arberg says the courtroom has a minimum of 60 seats available to the public to hear the cases. The Court also offers a section of 34 seats where people rotate every three to five minutes just to see a portion of the arguments. In other words, when it comes to the public, it would take 535 Supreme Court chambers to fill out a single Yankee Stadium.

Seats inside the Supreme Court are especially sought-after since no television cameras are allowed inside the chamber. There is no live feed. However, the court will release audio tapes of the arguments in the early afternoon.

The lack of pictures gives the Beltway message masters a chance to stage their own splashy Broadway production, Washington, DC-style. After all, few pieces of legislation have fueled such ardor as the debate over the health care law. It started with a month’s-worth of vitriolic town hall meetings in August, 2009. Democrats in favor of the legislation scrambled to find the votes and used creative parliamentary mechanisms to usher the bill across the finish line. Republican opponents of the package screamed bloody murder. Protesters massed outside the Capitol. Some threatened to kill lawmakers if they voted for the bill. Someone even phoned in a death threat against now-retired Senate Parliamentarian Alan Frumin.

It’s no surprise that public interest in the arguments is high. But that’s augmented by the political implications. The Affordable Care Act is the touchstone of President Obama’s legislative agenda. And in an election year, Republicans are sure to remind voters that it was Mr. Obama and Congressional Democrats who crafted the measure. The conventional wisdom is that a Supreme Court decision rendering the law to be unconstitutional is a body blow to the president. But many argue that outcome only emboldens the Democratic base to fight against Republicans winning the White House, holding the House and seizing control of the Senate.

This is one of the reasons some of the TV networks will launch wall-to-wall coverage.

Crowds will rally outside the Supreme Court. Lawmakers such as Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-MN) are advertising that they will attend the oral arguments. Others are planning press conferences after court adjourns for the day. For instance, the GOP-driven Doctors Caucus, comprised of physicians who serve on Capitol Hill, scheduled an afternoon presser near the steps leading to the House of Representatives.

This comes on the heels of the two-year anniversary of Congress approving the health care law. Late this week, the Republican National Committee unfurled a banner in the front of its Capitol Hill headquarters. “Happy Birthday, ObamaCare!” read the sign. “We didn’t forget you.”

Meantime on Saturday, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) blasted an email solicitation to potential donors.

“Republicans want to take away health benefits and protections already helping millions of Americans. Don’t let them,” read Pelosi’s plea.

Elsewhere in the email, the California Democrat chastised the GOP for its efforts to discredit the law.

“The Republicans’ swift-boat strategy is clear,” Pelosi wrote, borrowing a noun-turned-verb which the GOP used to question the military valor of Sen. John Kerry (D-MA) during the 2004 presidential campaign.

House Republicans made sure they kindled the passions about the health care law by voting a few days ago to repeal IPAB.

Rep. Jack Kingston (R-GA) defended describing IPAB as death panels because he says it’s a term the public is acquainted with.

“IPAB doesn’t mean an Apple tool. I say ‘Do you remember death panels?,’” Kingston says when speaking to constituents about the IPAB repeal. “Our job is to communicate something. Then you can get into the weeds.”

It’s likely to be a frenzy next week as both Democrats and Republicans try to seize the Supreme Court arguments for political advantage.

“I have no idea what the Supreme Court’s going to do,” said House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) when asked if he was confident the court would find merit in the GOP’s assertions about the law.

Many supporters of the Affordable Care Act give Pelosi credit for muscling the legislation through Congress. But she was more confident than Boehner was about the High Court siding with her position.

“It is ironclad Constitutionally,” Pelosi said. “I have faith in the courts and have faith in the bill.”

Either way, a blockbuster production hits the silver screen in Washington. No one expects to sway the views of the Supreme Court justices. But they will certainly attempt to influence public opinion in an election year.

To paraphrase a catchphrase in the film, “Happy Health Care Games. And may the odds be ever in your favor.”