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Curtis: A Stark Perspective on 40-Year Career

California Democrat’s leadership extends beyond the halls of the Capitol

Everyone in Washington has an opinion on Rep. Pete Stark. The California Democrat’s penchant for speaking his mind — at times when things were better left unsaid — has earned him quite a reputation. In the end, it may have been part of what led to his defeat, but it is also something that will be sorely missed on Capitol Hill.

Stark’s career is much more than the quips that are rehashed every few years. Each day, millions of Americans are helped by legislation he authored and pushed to enactment through four decades of dedicated public service.

Serving as either chairman or ranking member of the Ways and Means Health Subcommittee since 1985, his mark on health policy — especially Medicare — can’t be overstated.

He created COBRA health insurance coverage, which has allowed millions of Americans to maintain coverage while they are between jobs. He authored the life-saving Emergency Medical Treatment and Active Labor Act, which requires emergency rooms to treat patients suffering from health emergencies before questioning whether they have health insurance.

Like the late Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., Rep. Henry A. Waxman, D-Calif., and other legislators with substantial accomplishments on health, Stark’s approach was nothing if not practical. He never let the perfect be the enemy of the good, but he could always be counted on to lead the charge in opposition to provisions that would take the nation backward.

He worked closely with President George Bush and organized the health care industry to develop the formula that underlies the Medicare physician payment system now used by most private insurers. The health IT provisions in the 2009 stimulus, which are helping modernize our health care system, are modeled on his legislation, the Health-e Information and Technology Act of 2008. He wrote the “Stark laws,” which limit physician self-referral arrangements that put profit ahead of patient care.

His leadership doesn’t stop at health care policy.

After meeting a young Steve Jobs on a cross-country flight in the early 1980s, he worked closely with him to create what has often been called “the Apple tax credit” to provide an enhanced deduction for companies that donate computers to schools.

He has been a consistent outspoken opponent of war, and his calls for reining in wasteful defense spending are now mainstream. He won passage of a tax on ozone-destroying chemicals in the late 1980s, effectively driving the development of less harmful alternatives. More recently he has led the way in pushing for a carbon tax — an idea that is gaining traction here and around the world. He helped to rewrite the tax code in 1986. He has worked to improve the lives of America’s foster children, enact paid family leave, end discrimination against gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender individuals in adoptions and protect Social Security.

And his leadership goes far beyond the wonkiness of Washington.

In 2007, Stark’s candor was displayed when he became the first member of Congress to declare himself an atheist. For his honesty in taking on a political taboo and his work to defend the separation of church and state, he was recognized as the Humanist of the Year in 2008, joining the likes of Kurt Vonnegut, Jonas Salk and Alice Walker.

Unlike many lawmakers who have forsaken public town meetings, Stark has never shied away from hearing from his constituents. He has hosted monthly public meetings over his entire career. He even refused to cancel them during the infamous August 2009 health care overhaul debates — believing that people deserved to be heard, even if the forum would be unpleasant.

I could keep going about all the good my boss has done. I’ve been honored to serve as his chief of staff for the past 15 years. Sure, there are times I’ve cringed as much as anyone at something he has said. And, yes, I’ve been in the unenviable position to have to help him dig out of some of those statements.

But no one can question Pete Stark’s commitment to those who don’t have a voice and his firm belief that government is here to improve people’s lives. He has never wavered in his willingness to challenge special interests and take on powerful groups in order to pursue the right public policy.

They just don’t make ’em like Pete anymore. That makes some people happy, but it really shouldn’t.

Debbie Curtis is chief of staff for Rep. Pete Stark, D-Calif.

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