Semro column: Hypocrisy — a tale of three bills
I have to write just one more column on how the health-care reform debate, if you can actually call it a debate, highlights another major flaw in our political system.
In the real world, hypocrisy is defined as the practice of claiming to have moral standards or beliefs to which one’s own behavior does not conform. In the political world, hypocrisy is defined as doing the exact same thing again and again that you condemned your opponents for doing — again and again.
The last seven years of health-care reform, culminating in last month’s chilling attempt to pass the Graham-Cassidy bill, is a textbook example of institutional hypocrisy.
In 2010, Democrats had passed separate House and Senate versions of the Affordable Care Act through the normal process of regular order, with months of committee hearings and floor debate. The two bills still had differences that had to be reconciled and voted on. But before that could happen, Democrats lost the special election to fill the Massachusetts Senate seat left vacant by the death of Ted Kennedy. Democrats no longer had 60 votes to override a Republican filibuster.
Senate leadership decided to use the budget reconciliation process to pass the bill in the Senate with a simple majority and without Republican votes. That voting strategy had never been used for a bill as massive and comprehensive as the ACA.
In 2010, Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, wrote a Washington Post editorial entitled “Reconciliation on health care would be an assault to the democratic process.”
In that editorial he said, “This use of reconciliation to jam through this legislation, against the will of the American people, would be unprecedented in scope. And the havoc wrought would threaten our system of checks and balances, corrode the legislative process, degrade our system of government and damage the prospects of bipartisanship.”
Yet, in 2017, every Republican repeal-and-replace bill in the Senate began the voting process under reconciliation. And Sen. Hatch voted for two of those bills regardless of the potential damage he opined about seven years before.
In 2010, one of the most infamous political tactics to pass the ACA was called the “Cornhusker kickback.” Sen. Ben Nelson, D-Nebraska, was one of at least three Democratic swing votes needed for passage of the bill. His support was lukewarm at best (he ultimately voted against the bill in reconciliation). To grease the skids, then-Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada carved out a deal that permanently exempted Nebraska from having to pay its share for the expansion of Medicaid. In addition, Vermont, Massachusetts and Louisiana were also offered additional Medicaid funding.
At the time, then-Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, referred to the deal as a “smelly proposition” and Sen. Lindsay Graham, R-South Carolina, told CNN, that “there are a lot of people — Republicans and Democrats — who are upset by this … is it constitutional?” In the end, the Obama administration decided to shut down the Nelson deal.
But in July 2017, McConnell offered $1.8 billion in additional funding for Alaska under the amended Better Care Reconciliation Act in order to convince Alaska Republican Lisa Murkowski to vote for it. In September 2017, Senate leadership offered additional funding in the last version of the Graham-Cassidy bill to both Maine and Alaska. You might be able to guess which senators were the swing votes for that bill.
In 2010, several Republicans claimed that the ACA was being written in secret. Rep. Tom Price (the recently resigned Health and Human Services secretary) complained that “with Democrats discussing health care in secret, they’re sacrificing the trust of the American people.” Rep. Mike Pence (now vice president) said that “it’s simply wrong for legislation that’ll affect 100 percent of the American people to be negotiated behind closed doors.”
In 2017, the Republican Better Care Reconciliation Act was literally drafted behind closed doors with even some of the 12 Republican senators assigned to write it (notably Mike Lee of Utah) having no idea what was actually in it. And this year’s effort was marked by single committee hearings, no amendments, incomplete Congressional Budget Office scores and rushed floor votes.
Now, I imagine that many of you are rolling your eyes and echoing the words of Claude Rains, playing the French police chief in the movie “Casablanca.” “Hypocrisy in Congress, I’m shocked — shocked!” And maybe that’s the problem. All too often, we acquiesce to it, accept it or even applaud it.
When the “other side” engages in political hypocrisy, we recoil in horror like we’re watching somebody abusing a puppy. When “our side” does the same or worse, we call it unfortunate but necessary, the only way to win, or the smart political move.
Our leaders only do what they think their supporters will let them do. Maybe, just maybe, we’re as much to blame as they are.
Bob Semro of Glenwood Springs is a former health policy analyst for the Bell Policy Center, and a legislative and senior advocate.