President Barack Obama trained as a lawyer and taught law for a living, but lawyers were still among his targets in the annual State of the Union address Tuesday night.
On two issues — the tax code and medical costs — Obama pointed the finger at lawyers as part of the problem. He urged Congress to “simplify” the nation’s tax system by getting rid of “loopholes” and trying to “level the playing field.” He also reiterated his openness to changing the medical malpractice system.
Not to be left out, Washington’s lobbyists got a mention of their own, as Obama asked Congress to put online details of elected officials’ meetings with lobbyists. He noted the White House has done so for officials there, though The New York Times reported last year that one result has been to move hundreds of meetings to a coffee shop across the street.
Not included in the speech was any criticism of Supreme Court decisions, such as Citizens United v. FEC, a topic in last year’s speech, or any mention of his judicial nominees, many of whom are stalled in the Senate confirmation process. As expected, six justices were in attendance for the speech, despite the controversy a year ago.
Obama’s comments about taxes were targeted, in particular, at lawyers and others who help corporations find ways to reduce their tax bills.
“Over the years, a parade of lobbyists has rigged the tax code to benefit particular companies and industries,” he said. “Those with accountants or lawyers to work the system can end up paying no taxes at all. But all the rest are hit with one of the highest corporate tax rates in the world. It makes no sense, and it has to change.”
The reference to liability for medical professionals was more brief. It came in a section of the speech addressing health-care costs, and it was the only specific idea he mentioned for reducing costs.
“Health insurance reform will slow these rising costs, which is part of why nonpartisan economists have said that repealing the health care law would add a quarter of a trillion dollars to our deficit,” Obama said. “Still, I’m willing to look at other ideas to bring down costs, including one that Republicans suggested last year: medical malpractice reform to rein in frivolous lawsuits.”
The issue isn’t new for Obama. He told the American Medical Association in 2009 that he was interested in compromise, and he ordered that $25 million be made available for grants to examine alternatives. His debt commission proposed some specific changes in December.
Still, the administration has not put forward its own proposal, and no changes were included in the Democrats’ health-care law.
Obama’s remarks were welcomed by Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas), the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, who said in a statement that Obama should support a bill Smith has pushed. “These suits drive up the cost of health care for all Americans and drive many experienced medical professionals out of business,” Smith said.
The New York-based Center for Justice and Democracy, which describes its mission as “protecting our civil justice system,” released a statement calling Obama’s remarks “disgusting” because many proposed changes would affect cases with merit. “The Republican proposals would weaken the legal rights of sick and injured patients and lessen the accountability of incompetent doctors and unsafe hospitals,” the statement said.
C. Gibson Vance, president of the American Association for Justice, which represents trial lawyers, said in a separate statement that “as many as 98,000 people die every year from preventable medical errors, with countless more injured. President Obama should direct his focus towards tackling this startling figure, not promoting efforts that could eliminate the legal rights of patients.”
Updated at 10:27 p.m.