Among the 535 elected representatives deciding the future shape of the American health care system, some 44% are millionaires, according to a new study by the Center for Responsive Politics (CRP), a nonpartisan reseach group that tracks the effect of money in U.S. politics and policy. Rep. Cao is not among them. Neither are his constituents.
"I listened to the countless stories of Orleans and Jefferson Parish citizens whose health-care costs are exploding -- if they are able to obtain health care at all," Cao, the first Vietnamese-American to be elected to Congress, said in a statement after the legislation passed the House with a 220-215 vote.
"Louisianans need real options for primary care, for mental health care, and for expanded health care for seniors and children," he added. Cao fled Saigon with two siblings three days before the city fell when he was 8 years old and came to America. Last year he defeated William J. Jefferson -- the Democratic lawmaker busted with $90,000 in his fridge -- who ran while under indictment on federal corruption charges and has since been convicted.
A City on the Margins
Cao's father, an officer with the South Vietnamese Army, was imprisoned by Communists. Cao almost became a priest, spending six years in the Society of Jesus, the Jesuit order. In a C-Span interview, Cao said during that time he was asking "a lot of questions about human existence, human life, what is the meaning of life," adding that Kierkegaard, the Danish philosopher, "was involved in my life."
The average annual income in Cao's district is about $25,000 -- well below the national average. Thoughout the parishes near the French Quarter, entire blocks of dilapidated NoLa-style houses are for sale. The city's grand boulevards are the scenes of idle. Tourist traffic is the only real sign of bustle.
In short, while New Orleans has made strides since being devastated by Hurricane Katrina, it remains very much a city on the margins of American political power. (Having inveterately corrupt officials doesn't help, either.) Cao, who went to Baylor University and later earned masters and law degrees from Fordham in New York and Loyola University in New Orleans, where he and taught philosophy and ethics, decided to embark on "a personal crusade for social justice," according to his website.
"Much Better Positioned" for Hard Times
Cao's vote for expanded health coverage for the citizens of New Orleans comes as a new study, released in the middle of the worst recession in generations, shows some 237 millionaires are serving in Congress -- nearly half of the lawmakers. That contrasts with about 1 percent of all Americans are considered millionaires. What's more, 50 members of Congress have estimated wealth of at least $10 million.
"Generally speaking, members of Congress are wealthy by comparison with the vast majority of Americans. That doesn't mean they're immune to the effects of this ailing economy -- they're not," said Sheila Krumholz, the CRP's executive director. "But they are much better positioned to withstand financial pressures than the people they represent."
Rep. Cao doesn't own a sports team or a real estate empire -- unlike some of his colleagues. He made a bold bid for some publicity -- if not lasting power -- when he decided within the last 15 minutes of the proceeding, to vote yes for the health-care bill.
"My vote tonight was based on my priority of doing what is best for my constituents," Cao said, adding that he had "obtained a commitment from President Obama that he and I will work together to address the critical health-care issues of Louisiana."
It's a win-win for Obama, of course. He gets his health-care bill through the House (the Senate will be a lot tougher), and he can be seen as aiding New Orleans. What Cao's vote does for his political career remains to be seen.