Opinion: With Health Care Vote, House GOP Landed on Sitting Duck

Bill was legislative and political malpractice of the highest order

Rep. Greg Walden, R-Ore., chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, and Rep. Kevin Brady, R-Texas, chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, conduct a news conference after the initial rollout of the American Health Care Act the day before. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

House Republicans would have been better off passing a blank bill than the rancid stack of used toilet paper that squeaked by, 217-213, on Thursday.

All we really know about this bill for sure is that it would strip insurance entirely from tens of millions of Americans; endanger minimum health benefits previously guaranteed; slash Medicaid for the poorest and sickest in our country; create a $138 billion slush fund for state health programs; and give healthy tax cuts to the investor class.

For the most part, we don’t know how much the winners would get and how much the losers would forfeit because House leaders and the White House — after failing to pass the bill twice before — were too chicken to wait for the numbers from the Congressional Budget Office.

So, 217 members of the party that caterwauled about “reading the bill” during the year-plus process that yielded Obamacare happily rushed to the House floor to vote for something they can’t possibly fully explain to their constituents.

Rep. Chris Collins, R-N.Y., helpfully acknowledged in an interview on CNN that he didn’t read the bill. Trust me, not only was he hardly alone, but that’s true for the vast majority of lawmakers of both parties on pretty much every bill that hits the floor. Sure, they’ll read something short, but they didn’t get in this line of work to, well, work.

What’s shocking, but unsurprising, is that members don’t seem to care what the major provisions actually do — and, to the extent that they do, it’s usually about a narrow piece of the bill that affects only their district, state or ideological base.

The good news is that this bill, smelling the part, was greeted in the Senate like the aforementioned stack of used toilet paper that it is. It was dead before it arrived at the doorstep of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s office. And, of course, that’s really the point. House Republicans just needed to pass something — anything — so they didn’t look quite so incompetent at executing on the one campaign promise that has animated their last four election drives.

Since they know the best-case policy scenario now is that they get a chance to swallow whole whatever the Senate can pass, it made absolutely zero sense for them to use the power of a populist election mandate to try to re-rig the system in favor of the wealthiest Americans at the expense of health care money and coverage for everyone else. On a political level, though, they might just be OK with parking the bill in the Senate and telling constituents that they did, in fact, vote to repeal and replace Obamacare. That way, they can say they did their part and were frustrated by Democratic intransigence in the Senate.

At some point, voters will figure out that their policies don’t match their populist rhetoric. The longer they can keep that a secret, the better they’ll do at the polls in 2018 and beyond. That’s why they would have been better off writing a bill that said something to the effect of “Be it enacted, whatever the Senate passes — LMFAO.”

Instead, all but 21 of the Republicans (including the one who was absent) have now provided all kinds of fodder for political ads. A Democratic opponent can hit them for leaving constituents vulnerable to a loss of basic benefits, for sending their district’s tax dollars to Wall Street tycoons, or, perhaps, just failing to make any improvement at all to Obamacare if the bill never becomes law.

The irony, of course, is that they’ll all have to defend it whether or not they voted for it. The midterm elections will be nationalized. The one silver lining for some of these incumbents is that it would have taken a switch in two votes to defeat the bill, so not everyone who approved it can be labeled the deciding vote. If Democrats are smart, they’ll pair lawmakers from the same state or media market who voted for it and say they were the deciding votes.

This bill was legislative and political malpractice of the highest order, and members of the House Republican Conference should be furious with their leaders for exposing them so badly. The House GOP needed a vehicle. Inexplicably, they decided to clamber onto a sitting duck.

Roll Call columnist Jonathan Allen is a co-author of “Shattered: Inside Hillary Clinton’s Doomed Campaign” and has covered Congress, the White House and elections over the past 16 years.

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