The House of Representatives voted to repeal the Affordable Care Act, the law more commonly known as Obamacare.
The repeal measure won’t make it through the Senate anytime this Congress, and it’s extremely unlikely that President Obama will sign a measure that revokes his signature achievement.
So why did the House take such a futile action?
Well, the most reasonable explanation must be that the word of the day was “symbol” and the House was helping the press corps use it in their reports:
- Politico: “a symbolic but powerful GOP message”
- The Hill: “a largely symbolic gesture”
- Roll Call: “But still…he didn’t know how often the votes would be symbolic.”
- Wall Street Journal: “The House voted on Wednesday to repeal President Barack Obama’s health care law, a symbolic act…” (The vote is “symbolic”-not the Affordable Care Act!)
- LA Times: “This time in a largely symbolic vote to repeal it…”
All kidding aside, it is true that the vote was symbolic, but “strategic” is a better word to describe the vote. They voted to repeal Obamacare to advance political, not policy, goals. But, don’t forget the obvious: They pursue political goals so that they can accomplish their policy goals. They are advancing their political goals so that, if successful, they will partner with a Republican President and Senate in five months, to actually repeal Obamacare.
Since the Republicans took control of the House in January 2011, a clear plurality, sometimes majority, of likely voters have favored repealing Obamacare; 43% was the high-water mark for those opposed to repeal. The only way this vote could really hurt the Republicans is if they annoy voters who think they should spend their time on initiatives that stand a chance of passing. Such legislation is few and far between these days, and we are heading into what looks like will be a bruising election season, so many in Washington may be ready to check out. After all, there are fewer than 25 days that the House is in session between now and the elections.
In fact, the proximity of the repeal vote to the elections helps the Republicans tremendously. For one, Obamacare has been incredibly unpopular since the law was enacted, and when the Supreme Court upheld the law, it sustained the disdain that went along with it as well. (Following that decision, Republican Presidential candidate Mitt Romney raised $5.5 million dollars.) This latest skirmish in the health care battle keeps the story in the news and the wounds fresh.
Moreover, Members of both parties will now be able to add salt to those very same wounds. Republicans and Democrats alike will be able to use the vote to tout their records back in the Districts. Votes like this, often called “November Amendments” because they are usually on politically charged amendments to legislation, are deliberately designed votes to create issues embarrassing to the opposition in the next election. Republicans challenging incumbent Democrats may now use a “No” on the repeal vote in negative attack ads. On the other side of the aisle, Representative Larry Kissell of North Carolina and Representative Jim Matheson of Utah, two of the five Democrats who voted for repeal, cited constituent opposition (indicated quite well by their suffering poll numbers) to the law as the reason for their positions. Their fellow Democrats, however, can use the repeal vote as an example of Republicans wasting time and resources and refusing to do anything productive; they can also argue that this vote is a firm show of support for healthcare reform. For instance, Representative Lacy Clay told Roll Call that he “for sure…got floor time” to defend the law because he is in a primary against fellow Democrat Representative Russ Carnahan.
Don’t worry, Dems. If the Republicans aren’t doing anything productive in this vote, they are learning from the best. Back in 2007, when the Democrats controlled Congress, they held a vote to override President Bush’s veto of a bill that included a timeline for a troop withdrawal from Iraq. In no way, shape, or form did they have enough votes for the 2/3 supermajority needed to override the veto, but it was done to show their supporters how serious they were about ending the war. More recently, in June the House Democrats walked out on a vote to hold Attorney General Eric Holder in contempt of Congress for “refusal to comply with a subpoena duly issued by the Committee on Oversight and Government Reform”. Neither of these changed the country’s policies in the least, but nobody expected that: They were for show.
It is easy to get upset with Members who stage walkouts or hold “symbolic” votes since voters send them to Washington to “get stuff done”. The 112th Congress is a disappointment for many reasons-but chiefly because the Senate has been completely unable to engage in the legislative back and forth necessary to create compromise.The House has passed numerous bills just as it is designed to do, but a deal cannot be made between the House and the Senate if House members are the only ones sitting at the conference committee table waiting for their Senate counterparts to show up. The Senate has been unable to pass competing versions of legislation so a negotiation can begin.The Senate has failed to pass a budget, failed to pass any appropriations bills and failed to pass any authorization bills.Really, the Senate seems able to do little more than generate bluster and hot air.
Constitutionally speaking, the legislative process was designed to be slow and difficult, but the present heightened partisanship and polarization makes it incredibly frustrating. If the 112th Congress were a chess match the two sides would agree to a draw and end our national misery-but since we do not have a parliamentary system and cannot hold snap elections, the country is treated to a never-ending series of symbolic votes designed to influence the next election when both parties hope additional reinforcements may be sent by the voters.
Elections do have consequences.The divided government created by the voters in 2010 stopped the Obama Administration’s agenda in its tracks, but did not provide the Republicans with sufficient strength to put their agenda in its place. While the latest Obamacare repeal will most certainly die somewhere in the Senate, it‘s goal of defeating Democrats and electing Republicans to the House, Senate, and White House this November might be successful.If that is the case, the opponents of Obamacare will get the opportunity to vote for repeal when it counts-in the 113th Congress.
Mark Strand is the President of the Congressional Institute and Timothy Lang is a research assistant. The Sausage Factory blog is a Congressional Institute project dedicated to explaining parliamentary procedure, Congressional politics, and other issues pertaining to the legislative branch.