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Opinion: Let the Senate Be the Senate Again

The alternative: Taking the road to irrelevance

From left, Sen. John Barrasso, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Sen. John Thune conclude a news conference after McConnell announced there would be no vote on the health care bill this week. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
From left, Sen. John Barrasso, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Sen. John Thune conclude a news conference after McConnell announced there would be no vote on the health care bill this week. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

I have a question for the senators trying to decide whether to vote for the Obamacare repeal bill when it comes up in the Senate:

Did you really fly 1,000 miles in coach for this?

Did you give up your old life back home to take a backseat to the House (the HOUSE!) on writing legislation?

Do you spend days and weeks away from your families, raise millions of dollars from people you don’t like very much, and put your friends and family through everything you do, just to vote up or down on legislation you never saw before Monday?

I also wonder why you spent all that time on the Small Business Committee (we all know nobody likes it) if your Super-A committee was just going to get passed over when the time came to write the health care bill, which is likely the most consequential legislation of this decade.

If the legislators aren’t going to legislate, if the world’s greatest deliberative body isn’t going to deliberate, what exactly is the point of all of this?

Those are the questions I have for senators, but they are also the questions senators must have been asking themselves as the health care bill was conceived, crafted and released this month, all with only a handful of their colleagues involved in the process.

A pivotal moment

The vote, when it happens, will be about much more than health insurance. It will also be a key moment for the senators of this Congress to decide what role the institution will play in decision-making in Washington going forward.

Between the Obama White House and the Trump administration, the Senate is already well down the road to irrelevance, relegated to naming post offices and authorizing bills the presidents never cared much about (Farm Bill, I’m looking at you). A bias for easy votes and delayed decisions over the last ten years drained away the Senate’s power and it is now, more often than not, sidelined for some of the most important decisions affecting the county.

President Barack Obama turned treaties into “accords,” to skip the headache of going through a partisan Republican Senate for approval. Both Obama and President Donald Trump engaged in military action the Senate should have first debated and authorized, but never did. Trump is now pushing senators to vote for the health care bill that the House mostly wrote, with no Senate hearings, markups, or debate.

The latest Congressional Budget Office estimates of the bill are atrocious by any interpretation. Twenty-two million Americans without health insurance. The elderly, the disabled and the poor become the hardest hit. Medicaid, no matter how the administration tries to spin the math, will cover fewer children. Safety-net hospitals will take on more uncompensated care and eliminate preventative services that save both lives and money. That is what we know.

The bill will also save billions of dollars in projected health care spending at a time the country is running up monstrous debt. It’s possible that health care for the working poor is not an outlay this country thinks it can afford, but that choice should be debated, not dismissed, or worse, denied. At the moment, every one of those difficult choices are being glossed over and ignored when the Senate is cut out of the process.

HHS Secretary Tom Price and OMB Director Mick Mulvaney have dismissed the CBO numbers entirely, saying the CBO is not capable of estimating health costs. But with no hearings to attend, no witnesses to question and no input on the legislation, senators have nothing but the CBO numbers to rely on, and even those fail to get down to state-by-state granularity to tell members how their own constituents could be affected.

That senators would even consider voting on the bill, regardless of their ultimate up-or-down decision on the underlying policy, is all we need to know about how much of its own power the Senate has given away in recent years.

Breathing room

When Speaker Paul D. Ryan was asked if Majority Leader Mitch McConnell would get the Senate bill approved this week, he said, “Don’t vote against Mitch McConnell.” And I don’t.

By delaying the Senate vote until after the July Fourth recess, McConnell is taking the first step toward letting the Senate be the Senate again. He has saved senators the need, for now, to vote on a bill that none of them wrote and none of them can say will make their constituents’ lives better, not worse.

He has also given them at least a week of breathing room. I hope they use that week to find a way to make themselves relevant to the health care reform process, instead of irrelevant, and insist on crafting legislation, instead of just voting “yea” or “nay” on other people’s ideas.

Hearings could be lengthy. Debates could get ugly. Nobody would get everything they want, but nobody ever does. Americans understand that. But at least the Senate would be asserting its authority to try to get the legislation right for the American people, instead of just getting it over with, which is clearly the guiding principle of the Obamacare repeal effort so far.

The problems with Obamacare aren’t going away, so the need to pass legislation won’t go away, either. If the Senate doesn’t pass this bill, they will be back down this road again. But maybe they’ll do it right next time. Maybe the Senate will be the Senate again. 

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