The odor of corruption and criminality engulfing the Trump administration has forced Democrats in Congress to oppose the president on two fronts—one in the realm of legislation, and another in the realm of oversight.
Complicating matters further is the fact that the nature of the two fights are thematic opposites. The investigations of the Trump Organization and Russian meddling in the 2016 election are overwrought with dramatic tension. Explosive new details spill out on a near-daily basis, as one witness after another—former FBI Director James Comey last week, Attorney General Jeff Sessions this week—testifies before the Senate. Legislation and oversight are equally important congressional prerogatives, each of enormous public interest, but only the latter is producing big news at the moment.
That is in large part due to the extraordinary, scandalous steps Republicans are taking to advance legislation that would take health insurance away from millions. Senate Republicans have all but completed a secret bill, the precise contents of which are only known to the 13 men who drafted it, the analysts at the Congressional Budget Office (who are duty-bound not to leak), and, in all likelihood, health industry lobbyists, whose influence in this instance is as opaque as the legislation itself.
The process is secretive precisely to limit the number of bombshell stories that can be told about it—to keep the media in the dark so that public pressure is held at bay until the bill becomes law, and it’s too late.
If there’s consolation for Republicans in Trump’s scandal-plagued presidency, it’s that the wattage of the scandals serves, in effect, as a distraction from the fact that the party’s top legislative objective is so toxic they have to treat it as highly classified information. But the scandals may be so severe and fast-moving that they’re increasing the GOP’s desperation to pass a ruinous and inhumane health care bill as quickly and quietly as possible, before the Trump administration experiences complete political collapse and the window to accomplish anything at all closes.
It has been widely and rightly hypothesized that the GOP’s patience with Trump’s assault on the norms and traditions of government, and on the rule of law, is partly due to their understanding that he will sign their bills to deregulate polluters, deregulate health insurance companies, deregulate the financial industry, and cut high-income taxes. It follows that if and when their agenda falters, Republicans will be more inclined to serve as a check on the president’s lawlessness and shine a light on his wrongdoing.
But the reverse isn’t necessarily true. As Trump’s legal and political jeopardy increases, it doesn’t automatically place the GOP’s legislative agenda further out of reach. In two ways—by creating diversions, and by increasing panic among GOP leaders about their window to pass anything—Trump is making legislative progress easier, or at least more urgent.
Before the inauguration, I worried that The Donald Trump Show would serve (consciously or otherwise) as a distraction from the public’s business on Capitol Hill—that it was “eerily possible to imagine Republicans pulling off the most regressive social reforms in modern history under a cloak of darkness.” Very quickly, The Donald Trump Show morphed into a shambles of a presidency, but the effect has been very much the same. The secretive legislative process Republicans have adopted serves as a second layer of protection from public scrutiny.
While we don’t know what, exactly, is in the Senate’s health care bill, we can guess that it doesn’t diverge significantly from the House GOP’s American Health Care Act—after all, the differences between two bills will have to be reconciled before a consensus plan is sent to Trump’s desk. And the AHCA, as the CBO determined in June, would cause 14 million Americans to lose insurance within a year, and reduce coverage by 23 million over 10 years, relative to current law. On Tuesday, Trump reportedly urged Senate Republicans to create a “more generous” Obamacare alternative, calling the House bill “mean.” But it’s safe to assume many millions of Americans would lose insurance under the Senate’s version, too.
It is possible that Democrats will adopt more uncompromising tactics to at least draw attention to the fact that Republicans aren’t allowing public input or amendments, and are offering no candor, in writing their secret health care bill to take health insurance away from millions. Politico reported on Tuesday that Democrats have a two-pronged strategy:
They plan a sustained attack on Republicans’ hypocrisy for ramming through a bill with no committee hearings after the GOP blamed Democrats for years for passing Obamacare with no Republican votes. And when and if the bill comes to the Senate floor, Democrats will use every tool at their disposal to try to slow it down, from challenging the parliamentarian’s decisions on the arcane rules, to forcing a high-profile and lengthy series of amendment votes to shine light on the legislation.
Stipulating that if 50 Republicans in the Senate are dedicated to passing major health care legislation, nearly sight unseen, they can and will succeed—just as they succeeded in completing their theft of a Supreme Court seat earlier this year.
But Democrats have little to lose in using everything in their power to weaken Republican resolve. In an interview with MSNBC’s Chris Hayes on Tuesday, Oregon Senator Jeff Merkley said he would consider denying Republicans unanimous consent—the presumption of consensus that allows Senate business to proceed swiftly and smoothly—for all motions, slowing the body to a crawl. Steps like these will help determine whether leading media outlets treat this story with the urgency it deserves. Outside actors are unlikely to consider the Republicans’ secret Trumpcare bill a scandal if Democrats don’t treat it like one.
Thus far, Democrats have mostly endeavored to hope Republicans will do their opposition work for them. GOP efforts to cut Democrats and the broader public out of the process could indeed backfire. Republicans are so desperate not to be caught on camera running away from questions about their secret bill, they briefly prohibited reporters from filming interviews with senators in the hallways of the Capitol and Senate office buildings, only to relent after a media uproar.
These sorts of missteps shine a light, however briefly, on the heist Republicans are trying to pull. But for the most part, Republicans have managed to insulate themselves from accountability—and to avoid all transparency—while the process is underway, which is precisely when the public is most entitled to both.