Republicans are becoming a party that won’t take the obviously helpful step of preparing the field before engaging in battle. Like President Trump, congressional Republicans get ready to make major moves by shutting their intentions off from the disinfecting reach of daylight.
In the latest case, their secrecy surrounds the writing of a healthcare bill to repeal and replace Obamacare. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., made it clear recently that he intends to speed the Affordable Health Care Act through the Senate. But the bill has not been made public, and the regular order of a committee process has been abandoned.
This echoes the Trump administration’s rushed travel ban in January and, more pertinently, resembles the House’s first abortive stab at passing the same bill, the American Health Care Act. These are not attractive precedents.
Many of the attacks, in the courts and in the media, on Trump’s refugee and visa order are unfair. But the president made his job harder by skipping proper preparation. The White House didn’t make the case for the order and failed to run it through legal checks and interdepartmental review. The resulting mess damaged efforts to control the border.
Trump’s firing of James Comey had a similar flavor or something justified in principle but botched in practice. White House officials took the action without notice, without consulting those involved (including Comey), and without even agreeing on their reasons. The result, again, was a mess.
The pattern was the same on Capitol Hill when House leaders wrote their repeal-and-replace bill behind closed doors, brushing aside committee markups, floor debates and amendments.
The GOP adopted the left-wing view that as political leaders they should be technocratic central planners whose vast competence made the opinions of the public an irritating distraction rather than an essential element in government.
Unsurprisingly, that House healthcare bill failed. When the House adopted a more collaborative process, two months later in May, it passed.
Now McConnell is also eschewing the committee process, assembling a small “working group” to give ideas in the bill, but still essentially just assigning the legislative drafting to a handful of staffers. Under the current plan, nobody will read the bill until shortly before it comes up on the floor for expedited consideration.
Committee hearings or some other open, collaborative process create something like a consensus among lawmakers whose votes leadership needs. It also allows a public airing.
Policymakers have an obligation to convince the public when they are changing laws and policies. Legislative leaders have an obligation to give their members the chance to propose changes, defend their proposals, and, when it is possible, hold votes on their ideas. If your idea for solving a problem doesn’t make it into the final bill, it will then be because it lost a vote and lawmakers found a different solution. This is a more acceptable way to lose than if your idea never got heard. Transparency produces support.
Opacity alienates people. So it’s a bit of a mystery why Senate leaders are set on a closed-door and rushed process. Maybe they think it will help get a bill passed before the summer recess. Maybe liberal critics are correct that they think their legislation will be fiercely unpopular. Maybe they’ve adopted the Barack Obama mindset: “We know what works. We know what we have to do. We’ve just got to put aside the stale and outmoded debates.”
But conservatives don’t govern that way. Conservatives value debate and deliberation, and they distrust central planning. Since January, Republicans have forgotten too many times. On repealing Obamacare, it’s time for some old-fashioned conservative humility.