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Danger Lurks for GOP in Overdoing ‘Message’ Votes

Last week’s party-line House vote to repeal the 201o health care law was arranged so the 70 freshman Republicans could go on record in support of a campaign promise. Such messaging votes have their place, argues Don Wolfensberger of the Wilson Center and the Bipartisan Policy Center, but only if paired with debates that might actually produce some changes in policy.

And Wolfensberger, a Roll Call contributor and former House Rules Committee staff director, says the GOP is running a risk by not doing more on the legislative front these days. In light of the party’s new interest in investigating potential Obama administration scandals, his analysis is worth noting. Here’s Don:

“There must be 50 ways to leave your health care law.” That’s how  songwriter Paul Simon might describe repeated attempts by House Republicans to disengage from the president’s Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act.

Actually, by last count the House has only voted 37 times to repeal Obamacare in whole or in part.  The most recent effort occurred on May 16 when the House voted 229-195 to pass a total repeal bill sponsored by Tea Party Caucus founder Michele Bachmann, R-Minn.  This was the first run at the law in the 113th Congress. Nevertheless, the exercise has become so old hat that none of the nine House committees of jurisdiction bothered to report the bill this time. 

Both political parties when in the majority send clear signals on when they are engaging primarily in partisan messaging versus serious policymaking. One signal is lack of any committee hearings, deliberations or report. Another is the preclusion of any minority party input or amendments. A third is the preemptory scheduling and consideration of a measure.

In the case of the health care repeal, a fourth is the lack of any majority party attempt to offer an alternative.  Does anyone recall the original House GOP pledge in 2010 to “repeal and replace” Obamacare?   Majority Whip Eric Cantor made a run at a partial replacement with a bill to ensure insurance coverage of people with preexisting conditions.  But he didn’t get any farther than House adoption of a rule for its consideration, after which he was chased into the penalty box by his own teammates for deigning to suggest an alternative.

In fact, it was the backlash against Cantor’s strategy that forced the leadership to hastily schedule a vote on the Bachmann repeal bill.  That followed directly on Heritage Action’s May 16 letter advising Speaker John A. Boehner and Majority Leader Eric Cantor not to schedule any legislation that would highlight “ideological differences within the House Republican Conference.” Instead, the letter urged the GOP to focus on Obama administration scandals.

There are two possible downsides to this proposed strategy for retaining control of the House in 2014. First, Republicans could end up getting hurt more than helped by running investigations of the Obama administration into the ground.  While the GOP thinks it smells blood in the current scandals, the odor may wind up being from the party’s own self-bloodied nose. Those pushing hardest for an all-scandal, all-the-time approach, even to the point of dropping the “I” word, weren’t here two decades ago and are operating on the glory days folklore of  the Gingrich Republican revolution.

The new Republican majority in the 104th Congress embarked on a series of investigations of the Clinton White House.  Who can forget those golden oldies of  Whitewater, filegate and travelgate — capped-off by the impeachment of President Bill Clinton himself in 1998?   The only thing Republicans had to show for it all after the 1996 and 1998 elections was an increasingly smaller majority and a speaker forced to step down over his own ethics problems and likely defeat.

The second downside to the Heritage Action approach is the assumption that people won’t notice that Congress is again not getting anything done legislatively.  Passing bills that only have unified Republican support in the House only guarantees they won’t go anywhere in the Senate.  That do-nothing approach lost House Republicans seven seats in 2012. It is unlikely the voters will reward the party in 2014 if it fails to produce for the second consecutive Congress.

If there was one mandate that resonated from the 2012 elections it was for the president and both parties in Congress to work together to get some critical things done for the country on jobs and the economy.  The repeated Obamacare repeal attempts, if embraced as a model for the future, portend a party that has run-out its string and is left spinning aimlessly — a yoyo to nowhere.

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