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Health Care Repeal Process Signals GOP Intent

The new House Republican majority was eager to demonstrate its determination to be results-oriented by hitting the ground running. Sometimes, however, such flying starts end up as flailing stumbles.

The Republicans’ rush to repeal the health care law in the first week of the new Congress produced just such an awkward spectacle. The majority was saved only by the one-week delay occasioned by the Tucson, Ariz., tragedy. That enabled it to right itself, regain its balance and proceed in a more measured and tempered manner. When called out by reporters for violating the party’s openness pledge right out of the gate, Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) responded that he had never promised that all bills would be considered under an open amendment process. Fair enough.

In his acceptance speech as Speaker, Boehner promised the minority that “you will always have the right to a robust debate in open process that allows you to represent your constituents, to make your case, offer alternatives and be heard.”

While the special rule for the health care repeal denied all 29 amendments filed by Democrats with the Rules Committee, it did allow for the minority’s traditional right to offer a final amendment in a motion to recommit with instructions. Democrats exercised that option by unsuccessfully trying to prevent the repeal from taking effect until a majority of House Members and Senators waived their right to participate in the federal employees’ health care benefits program.

Beyond that, the minority was granted half of the seven hours of general debate last week, not to mention most of the 12 hours of testimony on the bill in the Rules Committee on Jan. 6 — all broadcast live on C-SPAN and on the new committee website. (Republicans are to be commended for the new House rule encouraging all panels to webcast hearings and meetings.)

Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) got the only amendment blessed by the Rules Committee (and self-executed to adoption), and that was to implement a new House rule that allowed the Budget chairman to insert a statement in the Congressional Record exempting the repeal bill from pay-as-you-go budgetary scoring. That sleight of hand highlighted another embarrassment: The Congressional Budget Office estimated the repeal bill would add $230 billion to the deficit over the next decade. The Speaker brushed that off as being the CBO’s “opinion.” More accurately, the estimate was based on dubious assumptions that Democrats had imposed on the CBO. Nevertheless, the damage was done.

It is easy to criticize a majority party that pushes its top priorities at the outset of a new Congress without proper committee consideration, deliberation or opportunity for minority alternatives. But it’s not an unusual practice. When Republicans previously came to power in 1995, their opening day rules package provided for consideration of the Congressional Accountability Act — a bill to apply to Congress the same laws that apply to the private sector. It was also closed to amendments, but at least it had unanimous support, passing 429-0.

When Democrats regained control of the House in 2007, they made in order four bills on opening day under closed amendment rules, notwithstanding similar promises of greater openness: the 9/11 commission’s recommendations, minimum wage, stem-cell research and prescription drug benefits. In 2009, Democrats used the same device on opening day to make in order the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act and a “paycheck fairness” bill, both under closed rules. In both Congresses, the bills passed on near-party-line votes, as did the health care repeal bill last week.

Both Democrats and Republicans justified their actions on the grounds that the measures had been thoroughly debated in the previous Congresses — a slap at large classes of freshman Members in all four Congresses who weren’t privy to any of those debates. The larger damage done, though, is in starting off a Congress by circumventing the regular order that both parties had promised to restore. Bad actions beget bad habits. When Members see how easy it is to ram through their priorities, they tend to pressure their leadership for more of the same, just as their interest group allies are cheering them on to make their legislation as closed, clean and quick as possible.

Still, what was most disturbing about the health care repeal process was that Republicans put the proverbial cart before the horse by passing a repeal bill before any replacement bill was ready for consideration. Instead, they put forward a process resolution instructing the four committees of jurisdiction to report their replacement pieces, but with no set deadlines for doing so.

Surely Republicans weren’t contemplating letting so many things and people slide through the cracks between enactments of their repeal and replacement bills. It became clear as the debate wore on that the Republicans were serious about developing sound alternatives to Obamacare. The upfront repeal vote was simply a declaration of future intent and not a substitute for policy content. The proof of actual will and intent will be in the replacement pudding.

Don Wolfensberger is director of the Congress Project at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and former staff director of the House Rules Committee.

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