How the House Really Works

tomasky_1-081612.jpg
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…


This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Try two months of unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 a month.

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our complete 55+ year archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 a month.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your nybooks.com account.