Stephen Reader covers politics for It's a Free Country, WNYC's interactive politics site. He joined the station in 2010 and has also worked for Studio 360, WNYC's Peabody Award-winning show about art, culture, and creativity.
The House of Representatives today voted to pass H.R.2, dubbed “Repealing the Job-Killing Health Care Law Act,” by a vote of 245-189, with only four Democrats joining the Republican bloc in voting for repeal. Members of the House of Representatives spent the past two days on the floor arguing over the bill's merits.
The debate was marked by a now-familiar back-and-forth between Democrats and Republicans, with each trotting out almost as many numbers and anecdotes as there are dollars in the national debt. Given that the bill was certain to pass, but almost certainly has no future beyond the House, this week's proceedings were closer in character to a production of Waiting for Godot than meaningful debate.
Republicans provided a chorus of jobs, jobs, jobs, as if trying to summon them from a Ouija board. Democrats played heartstrings, rolling out story after story of men, women and children with preexisting conditions who now have access to health care under the Affordable Care Act.
No one appeared to be persuaded. That’s what makes a debate like this so disheartening to watch: here is a repeal effort that is doomed in the Senate and the Oval Office and is expected to do little more than offer elected officials an afternoon to recite talking points instead of drafting fixes to what most Americans think is an imperfect bill.
Rep. Lois Capps (D-CA), among the Democrats who brought with them stories of sick constituents, used blown-up pictures of people with preexisting conditions to illustrate her point. Representative Phil Gingrey (R-GA) retorted. “If I had a poster, it would be of people in cities holding soup cans, waiting in line for a job.”
Rep. Frank Malone (D-NH) cited a report from the Department of Health and Human Services estimating that “up to 129 million Americans with preexisting conditions could lose their recently-enacted protection from insurance company discrimination.” Rep. Gingrey again offered a curt reply, saying, “if you believe those statistics, I have a beach I can sell you in Pennsylvania.”
That was the script. Democrats say repeal is bad for people with preexisting conditions; Republicans counter that failure to repeal is bad for the economy. If someone references a statistic another doesn’t like, the latter will question its accuracy. Going ahead, it feels redundant to identify Congressman as Republicans or Democrats when introducing them.
Leaving aside its effect on the economy, the laundry list of Republican complaints about the Affordable Care Act included that it was done at an awful time and that it wasn’t done transparently. “It was a bad bill passed at the wrong moment,” said Rep. Charlie Bass (R-NH). “It’s one of the major reasons we face such economic uncertainty in this country. Businesses don’t know what it will cost to hire someone.”
Rep. Michael Burgess (R-TX) found fault with the way the law has been managed since its passage. “I’m troubled because we have not had a single oversight hearing in the 10 months since this bill was passed,” he said. “The speaker rewrote the bill, it doubled in size, and then it came to the floor.”
Republicans also voiced concerns that certain provisions of the health care law were unconstitutional, but Democrats countered that the Supreme Court decides questions of constitutionality, making that issue poor grounds for repeal.
The GOP’s strongest selling point may be the fact that they campaigned on repeal—and won. “This legislation was litigated in front of the American people for 2 years,” said Rep. Burgess continued. “They rendered their verdict in November.”
That didn’t stop Democrats from trying to land some punches of their own. An animated Anthony Weiner (D-NY) said, “To those at home playing the drinking game where you take a shot every time a Republican says something that isn’t true, please designate a driver.”
“Everyone knows this vote is symbolic,” said Rep. Jane Harman (D-CA), “putting off for another day the hard work of revising and adding provisions to improve the existing law.”
That’s become the Democratic refrain in the face of repeal. Over and over, Democrats harped on Republicans for their “repeal and replace” agenda, saying they heard plenty of talk about the former and nothing about the latter. Republicans did make numerous mentions of alternative reforms, such as making alterations to malpractice liability laws, preserving the illegality of denying coverage to people with preexisting conditions, and disposing with the individual mandate. However, to date, any new reform legislation has yet to be drafted.
Rep. Charles Gonzalez (D-TX) summed up the mood on the left side of the aisle thus:
“Some are wondering why you would proceed with this measure as soon as you took over the majority. Some say it’s political theater, but I venture to guess it’s another reason. Time is not on your side. The more time you allow for this bill and its full implementation, you lose your argument. Because you’re wrong.”
“I’m not questioning intent or sincerity,” Gonzalez went on. “You were simply wrong. What was happening in the interim? People found out they could get insurance for their children with preexisting conditions. Seniors were helped with problems from the Medicare donut hole. You were in charge for 12 years and did nothing. We did something meaningful, and all you can think is to go back. You say replace. Then why force a discussion on repeal?”
H.R.2 will make its next stop at the Senate, where Democrats have promised to block the bill.