The reckless Republican decision to begin a chaotic Senate floor fight over the future of health care in America, with nothing but the abstract goal of gutting Obamacare to anchor the process, is like a leap into a dark void.
It has been widely noted that by submitting to this process—which began with secret bill writing, continued with secret horse trading, and now moves to a rule-bound debate over no tangible bill—Senate Republicans have enabled a calamitous erosion of democratic accountability without any clear substantive outcome in mind.
The nature of the process underway in the Senate right now—unlimited amendments to an underlying bill that hasn’t been decided upon yet and may not exist—could easily yield unworkable legislation that breaks the health care system, but becomes law anyhow.
Republicans don’t know, in other words, what’s at the bottom of the void, or whether it’s bottomless. What makes it even more outrageous is that none of the Republican senators can trust any of the other Republican senators to adhere to any consistent principle. They have no idea what each others’ breaking points or bottom-line commitments are.
The Trumpcare process has been defined by the lies Republicans have had to tell their constituents and each other to keep the process going. For the most part, the specific lies have pertained to the substance of the repeal endeavor itself. These aren’t overstated generalizations that won’t prove to be literally true, but claims that are directionally opposed to the truth.
President Donald Trump is unsurprisingly the worst offender, but he’s faced stiff competition from the likes of his own health and human services secretary, former Congressman Tom Price, who has made astonishing promises, like that Americans will “absolutely not” lose Medicaid under a law that cuts Medicaid by 35 percent, and that “nobody will be worse off financially” under a law that reduces insurance assistance by about a trillion dollars. House Speaker Paul Ryan has joined Trump in promising that legislation gutting protections for people with pre-existing conditions will actually leave people with pre-existing conditions better off.
But what’s nearly as striking is the fact that members have allowed this ethic to seep into the commitments they make to each other and to their constituents.
Perhaps no state in the country has benefitted from the Affordable Care Act as much as West Virignia. One week ago its junior senator, Shelley Moore Capito, made the following promise:
Literally nothing has happened in the intervening days to address her concerns. If anything, the process has become more opaque and uncertain. And yet, on Tuesday she discarded that promise and cast a decisive vote to begin debate anyhow.
Capito’s reversal is the starkest, but she, too, faces stiff competition. Last week, Kansas Senator Jerry Moran insisted, “We must now start fresh with an open legislative process.” He scrapped his commitment and voted to begin debate on Tuesday. Nevada’s Dean Heller, along with a number of other GOP senators from Medicaid-expansion states, said they couldn’t support the Medicaid cuts proposed in various Trumpcare iterations, but on Tuesday they, too, capitulated to Mitch McConnell.
These inconsistencies aren’t simply testaments to spinelessness and dishonesty. They are harbingers of how, in a lawless process where everyone thinks they can depend on someone else to take a tough vote for them, an unworkable bill that nobody likes can pass. It is thus a mistake to assume that tallying firm statements of opposition, let alone vague protestations, tells us anything meaningful about what will happen when time comes to take a final vote.
The safer, though sadly less predictive, analytical posture is to throw once-reliable whip counts out the window, and accept that lying as a strategic virtue has spread from Trump to the Capitol, and begun to subsume the entire Republican Party.