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How the House Really Works

But would his policy be to kill every bad state actor—even if, as in Gadhafi’s case, he had done nothing to harm US interests?
“No, I can’t go around and try to protect innocent civilians. I’d be all over the place.”
But he would nonetheless drop a drone on Gadhafi?
“Well, I don’t like the guy. Period.”

The exchange continues at this inane level, with West making no attempt whatever to suggest anything that could remotely be called a policy or worldview, although he seems quite aware that drones threaten innocent civilians. Draper writes that even in his indecision, West “showed certitude.” This seemed a shockingly credulous sentence, and there are enough other ones like it to suggest that Draper may have gotten too close to some of his sources. To refrain from all political judgments, as a reporter may choose, understandably, to do, needn’t mean just letting these people talk without noting their contradictions and hypocrisies.

Draper rises to the occasion, though, on the matter of the biggest legislative drama of 2011, the fiasco over the debt ceiling. During an orientation session for Republican members-elect in November 2010, Frank Luntz (he pops up at a lot of these affairs) asked the new members how many planned on voting to increase the debt ceiling. Four hands went up. When he asked the opposite question, all the others raised their hands. Eric Cantor, according to Draper, told Luntz, “You’ve caused us a problem here.” Cantor didn’t want in any way to help Obama, but he did want his charges to be open to a deal if the Republicans could wring enough concessions out of the White House in exchange for a “yea” vote.

Many of the freshmen actually began attending tutorials with Republican economists in which they learned the facts about the debt ceiling. But the facts weren’t going to get in the way of bedrock commitments: oppose Obama, oppose all taxes, administer a shock to the system. In mid-July, Draper writes, Republican leaders organized a seminar with an economist named Jay Powell, who had served in George W. Bush’s Treasury Department. In a basement conference room in the Capitol, Powell announced that “I don’t give political or tactical advice” and described to the members what would happen in August if they did not raise the debt limit:

The Treasury would be taking in $172 billion. Its obligations that month would be $306 billion, a shortfall of $134 billion. After first paying the interest, enough money would be left over to pay approximately half the bills. It would be left to the Obama administration to determine winners and losers. As a factual matter, Powell pointed out, it would be impossible to pay the troops in the field and all Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid benefits at the same time. Institutions such as federal prisons would simply have to be shut down. The average American’s home mortgage rate would skyrocket.

The group didn’t appreciate Powell’s stark forthrightness. Georgia’s Phil Gingrey—the same man who said on June 28 that far from wanting to drink a beer with John Roberts, he’d like “to pour one on his head”—announced that the group had heard from Karl Rove the day before, “and frankly, I like him better.” Rove gave political advice on how to play the debt limit issue for political advantage, dealing with none of the thorny substance.

Enough freshmen voted for the debt deal to secure its passage. But a few months later, 101 Republicans voted against three appropriations bills that had been painstakingly worked out by their own leadership, in part because of the comparatively small matter of an increase in the limit on Federal Housing Administration loans to home buyers. The chairmen of the various appropriations subcommittees that had worked on the bills were angry. They pressed Boehner to punish the dissenters, but he would not. Boehner wants to survive as Speaker, and he needs their votes. The power of people who vote en bloc and don’t care about the facts can be fearsome.

What the Republicans can actually do about the ACA now is constrained not just by procedure, but by politics—and money. At issue here is how the insurance industry will react to the Supreme Court’s decision in its dealings with Congress. It has not been widely discussed that the industry donates many millions to Republican House members and senators—around $42 million dollars in the 2010 and 2012 election cycles, according to opensecrets.org, the website that monitors campaign finance and lobbying expenditures. The industry has also given about $29 million to Democrats during the same period.

Under the ACA law, insurers must provide coverage—“guaranteed issue,” as it is called—to the sick and those with preexisting conditions. That’s expensive, and it’s why the law mandated that healthy people who had not purchased coverage do so. They will cost the insurers very little, but they’ll pay millions in premiums, enabling the insurers to finance guaranteed issue.

This means that insurers will want one of two outcomes. They’d probably prefer full repeal of the ACA, restoring the status quo ante. But if they can’t get that, they will settle for the bill as it is and learn to live with it. The worst outcome for them, in other words, would be partial repeal—repeal of the mandate. That would leave the insurance companies obliged to insure people with preexisting conditions, but without the payments from healthy new enrollees. The worst of both worlds.

John Boehner knows this, as does Mitch McConnell, the Senate GOP leader. They also know that, unlike the mandate, guaranteed issue is tremendously popular—supported by 85 percent of the public, according to a late March New York Times poll. They can try to repeal the mandate and would have public support for doing so; but they would have very small support for rejecting guaranteed coverage. Since insurers don’t want one measure to be law without the other, the Republicans will tread very carefully before proceeding to so controversial a vote. This perhaps is why McConnell said on July 2: “If you thought it was a good idea for the federal government to go in this direction, I’d say the odds are still on your side, because it’s a lot harder to undo something than it is to stop it in the first place.”

Republicans would probably prefer the fun of having Obamacare to run against to the hard work of actually undoing it. And even if they do manage to repeal the entire bill, they will have handed the Democrats an issue. Democrats will say that the Republicans are willing to let sick people die.

It won’t come to that if Obama is reelected, or if the Democrats maintain control of the Senate. In the meantime, of course, there will be the question of the Bush tax cuts, which expire on January 1, 2013, and the automatic budget cuts agreed to during the debt deal. And there will be another fight over the debt ceiling. The betting right now among people who watch these things is that the makeup of the House, at least, won’t change very much in November; the GOP is likely to maintain narrow control.

If that’s the case, and if Obama is reelected, the pressure from the financial industry and other parts of the establishment to reach a deal on the tax and budget cuts will be enormous. But the pressure from the antiestablishment right not to reach a deal will be enormous as well. When the freshmen Draper describes are vaulted into their second terms, will they start to think more like legislators and less like insurrectionists? Or will the bitter taste left by their first terms, when they managed to change so little—they couldn’t even undo Obamacare!—leave them even more devoted to the cause of crippling the Obama administration? Obama said recently that he anticipated a GOP less gripped by “fever” if he won a second term. One knows why he has to say that—but one hopes he doesn’t actually believe it.

—July 12, 2012

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