The significance of a symbolic gesture

THE SIGNIFICANCE OF A SYMBOLIC GESTURE…. Late yesterday afternoon, right on schedule, the House passed a measure to repeal the entirety of the Affordable Care Act. No one, not even its most ardent champions, saw this as an example of serious policymaking — the bill, such as it is, has no chance of passing the Senate, and even worse odds of getting the president’s signature.

So why bother? Because the new House Republican majority, in their first major initiative, wanted to make right-wing activists feel better about themselves, while sending a signal about the GOP’s priorities.

It’s tempting to ignore a shallow, symbolic gesture like this, but it’d be a mistake to consider yesterday’s vote unimportant. We actually learned quite a bit from this.

First, we learned that Republicans aren’t great at counting votes. Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) boasted this week that at least 15 Democrats would join the GOP on the repeal vote. House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Fred Upton (R-Mich.) said there may even be a two-thirds majority in favor of repeal — the necessary level of support to override a presidential veto. When the gavel came down, the bill passed 245 to 189 — with a whopping three votes from conservative Democrats. So much for the GOP trash talk.

Second, we learned Republicans are still a little fuzzy on how a bill becomes a law. Rep. Joe Wilson (R-S.C.) proclaimed in all-caps last night, “WE JUST REPEALED OBAMACARE!” apparently unaware that they did nothing of the sort.

Third, we learned a great deal about the values of Republican lawmakers. Jonathan Cohn explained:

Over the last year, the Republicans have spent a lot of time arguing that the Affordable Care Act will cost too much, that it will micromanage care, that it will burden business with taxes and bureaucracy. The most outrageous claims, like the notion of government-run “death panels,” have zero basis in fact. And even the less explosive arguments frequently rely on flimsy evidence. But the most remarkable thing about the Republican campaign against health care reform is what the advocates of repeal haven’t said.

They never bothered to engage with the fundamental moral logic behind the Affordable Care Act — that a modern society guarantees everybody access to doctors, hospitals, and the treatments they provide; that it’s wrong to sit by and watch people give up their savings, or their lives, just because they happened to get sick. They have some ideas, yes, but nothing that would come remotely close to insuring 30 million people or bolstering coverage for the people who have it.

As recently as the last debate over health care reform, in the 1990s, prominent Republicans showed sincere interest in finding common ground in order to achieve similar goals. And there are, I know, honest, caring conservatives who still feel the same way. But the Republicans in the House? If they too are committed to helping the un- and under-insured, they haven’t shown it.

Fourth, we received a reminder about how much easier it is to tear down than build up. Republicans can’t be bothered to do the hard work of legislating, policymaking, and problem-solving — they find it infinitely easier to take a sledgehammer to policies that actually help people, but fail to meet their ideological standards. For all the “repeal and replace” rhetoric, the House GOP majority can’t even begin to explain the “replace” part of their agenda. Even now, after two years of fighting, it’s striking to realize that Republicans haven’t come up with an actual health care reform plan of their own.

With yesterday’s vote, Republicans effectively told American families, “We’ll gut the health care system now, and maybe figure something else out later. In the meantime, good luck — and don’t get sick.” Those who find this compelling probably aren’t paying close enough attention.

Ezra Klein added that yesterday’s vote “doesn’t tell Americans much about how the Republicans would address the nation’s toughest problems. After the vote total was announced, you could hear some members of the GOP clapping and cheering. And fair enough: They have a win to be happy about. But not one to be proud of.”