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How the House Really Works

Susan Walsh/AP Images
House Speaker John Boehner (right), after mistakenly thinking that the first question in a news conference was for him, Washington, D.C., July 14, 2011. The question was for House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (left).

It took less than two hours after the Supreme Court announced its decision in the case that is almost never referred to by its proper name, National Federation of Independent Business v. Sebelius, for John Boehner and Eric Cantor to make their own announcement—they would hold a vote in the House of Representatives on July 11 to repeal the law more commonly and derisively known as “Obamacare.”

“If for nothing else, today’s health care decision underscores the importance of this election,” Cantor said during a press conference. “The people of America are going to have a choice to make in November and clearly it’s a choice that will bear upon the direction of this country as far as their health care is concerned.”

Cantor is correct about that much—the future of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (the ACA in shorthand) is now up to the voters. It also took less than two hours for Mitt Romney to vow once again, this time with the Capitol as his backdrop, that he will repeal the law on his first day in office, making clear that only one option remained now to prevent socialism from taking root. “If we want to get rid of Obamacare,” he said, “we’re going to have to replace President Obama.”

Whether the Republicans will in fact be able to do so, even if Romney wins and they hold the House and capture the Senate, was a subject of debate among experts on legislative—especially Senate—procedure. A narrow Senate majority could use the process known as “reconciliation,” under which bills require only a simple majority to pass instead of the sixty votes needed to break a filibuster. But there are rules governing what can and cannot be brought to the floor under reconciliation; we can say for now that Republican success would probably depend on a few favorable rulings from the Senate parliamentarian. Some were quick to note that the last time a GOP-controlled Senate didn’t like a parliamentarian’s rulings, during a 2001 tax debate, then Majority Leader Trent Lott simply fired him.

The Senate won’t figure much in debate over health care between now and the election. As long as Democrats hold the majority, Harry Reid is in control of the calendar and he can simply prevent repeal votes from reaching the floor. The action will take place, as so much of it has these last two years, in the bumptious House. The House Republicans held their planned repeal vote on July 11 (their thirty-first), and they will continue to rail against the bill. Whether Romney keeps up his assault into the fall or backs off a bit will be interesting to see and will probably be a function of whether polls suggest that swing voters have softened on the law.

Suppose polls indicate that centrist voters in particular are willing, after the ACA received the unlikely imprimatur of the conservative chief justice, to make peace with it. In that case, we may see Romney trying not to talk too much about it—just enough to keep the hard-core Republican “base” reassured. Those polls won’t matter much, though, to House members, most of whom represent conservative districts where the risk in fulminating against the law is minimal to nonexistent.

There is, right now, something of a debate between the two broad groups within the House GOP Caucus—the mere conservatives like Boehner and the red-hots led by Eric Cantor. The issue is whether they need to make some gesture toward doing the work of legislating and come up with an alternative to the ACA, or whether they should just repeal it and return us, however messily, to the status quo ante. The red-hots favor repeal only. The insurance lobby will have much to say about which path the GOP pursues. But we certainly know which of the two party factions will be the more vocal.

Eighty-four freshmen Republicans took the oath of office to become House members on January 3, 2011 (along with the rarely noticed nine freshman Democrats). Politicians and lawyers dominated, as they always do, but this class’s ranks included a radio talk show host, a pizzeria owner, a farmer, an airline pilot, a few nurses, a youth camp director, and an auctioneer.

Many were members of the Tea Party and came from places so utterly remote from Washington as to be almost another country—places where it’s taken as a given that if you’re white and not a university professor or trial lawyer or teacher, you’re sturdily conservative; where the mega-churches are there to remind anyone who may have forgotten that one political party has declared war on Jesus while another has not; and where the television screens at the local bars show ESPN and Fox News, not the safe middle ground of CNN (the choice of most airports and other facilities that serve large numbers of Americans) and certainly not MSNBC under any imaginable circumstances. If you start talking about President Obama, or health care, or immigration, or other political issues with the people in these places, you are likely to hear a litany of resentments. The Class of 2010 was elected to act on those resentments.

Robert Draper, a contributing writer for The New York Times Magazine, took it upon himself to enter the world of the conservative congressmen and tell the rest of us about it. His account starts promisingly and dramatically, as he tells the story of about fifteen Republicans gathered, along with Newt Gingrich and their savant-pollster Frank Luntz, at a lobbyists’ expense-account restaurant not far from the Capitol on January 20, 2009. On that frigid night, as Barack and Michelle Obama went from ball to ball and were serenaded by Beyoncé for their first presidential slow dance, and as so many millions of Americans looked forward to the next four years with some optimism, this group resolved that their position in the days ahead would be simple:

They would take back the House in November 2010. They would use the House as the Republicans’ spear point to mortally wound President Obama in 2011. Then they would retake the White House and the Senate in 2012.

Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, the author of the budget plan that will be perhaps a bigger issue this fall than even health care, emphasized that night the crucial strategic point: “The only way we’ll succeed is if we’re united. If we tear ourselves apart, we’re finished.” So there it was: before the new president had made one concrete proposal, most of the leading congressional Republicans already agreed that they would oppose him and would do so, to the extent possible, unanimously. I’ve not seen this dinner reported anywhere else, and if Draper has it right, it confirms liberals’ worst suspicions.

Draper then skips ahead to January 2011, when the new class of Republican congressmen hit town. He focuses his story on a handful of Tea Party members, like Jeff Duncan of South Carolina, whose mantra was “As a Christian, Husband, Father, and Small Business Owner, I know what I believe in.” Another is Allen West of Florida, the black Republican who grew up not far from Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta but steered clear of the King family’s influence, joined the army, and moved to Florida. He told a Fort Lauderdale audience in October 2009:

You need to leave here understanding one simple word. That word is: bayonets. And charge the enemy—for your freedom, for your liberty. Don’t go home and let your children down! You leave here today—CHARGE!

He won, in a swing district previously represented by a Jewish Democrat, by eight percentage points.

The Tea Party movement certainly hasn’t lacked for coverage, and even though Draper’s book was released in April, the general outlines of the story he tells were familiar before then. Many of these first-termers knew little about the federal budget; they hadn’t fully taken account of the fact that the Democratic Senate would oppose their initiatives. They’d promised voters that they would cut $100 billion from the domestic discretionary budget and couldn’t figure out why that turned out to be impossible. In fact, it couldn’t be done because that would have meant cutting such items as education aid and funding for highways, which are in fact quite popular with voters.

Sometimes they learned that the “enemy” could include even some legislators on their side of the aisle. Jeff Duncan was disappointed to see Appropriations Committee Chairman Hal Rogers, from eastern Kentucky, vote against a big defunding of the Legal Services Corporation. The LSC provides legal counsel to poor people and had been a target of the GOP since Nixon’s day. But the powerful chairman gave it his vote because, Draper writes, “the LSC did a lot of business in Rogers’s Kentucky district.” According to Draper, the freshmen generally distrust the old-school Boehner and the way he “stabbed languidly at the ashtray, shrugged his shoulders, moseyed on over to the Capitol Hill Club [the Republican Party headquarters] or Alberto’s with his cycling pals and in general acted as if the rise of Nancy Pelosi and Barack Obama was all part of the plan.” Eric Cantor was much more their kind of guy.

Draper pays some attention to how the Democrats have, and have not, navigated the current rough waters—he says far too much, in fact, about Anthony Weiner, the Brooklynite who went down in a sex scandal of his own making (and whom no one discusses today). Draper seems to be trying to make Weiner’s downfall emblematic of something, but it’s really emblematic only of Weiner’s arrogance. Of greater interest are the sections devoted to Nancy Pelosi, reduced now from majority to minority leader, who understands very clearly that the remaining Democrats from “moderate” districts can’t stand by her. “Do what you have to do,” she tells them. “Hit me if you have to.”

Draper’s story suffers from two conventions of magazine journalism. First, the reconstructed conversation, a familiar device of nonfiction storytelling that Draper employs to a fault. Was he there at that dinner on inauguration night? If he was, he should tell us. If he wasn’t there and is reconstructing the scene, we should know what sort of evidence he’s relying on. The same question looms over dozens of scenes in the book, and as one reads through them, the feeling grows that in our current situation, when we receive larger and larger amounts of electronic information and must sift through it to arrive at approximations of the truth, the device of flat reconstruction, which is intentionally opaque about how the author cobbled these scenes together, can sound old-fashioned and contrived.

Second, his desire to keep himself out of the story, another traditional reporter’s imperative, can get in the way. He records the following exchange with Allen West, for example, without saying who West’s questioner was. Presumably it was Draper himself; why not say so? I had to read the passage three times to figure out who was having this talk with West, who says he “would have dropped a drone” on Muammar Qaddafi even before the uprising in Libya, and then is asked:

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