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How the House Really Works

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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:

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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