We were one month deeper into the 2009 health care debate than we are into the current one when a development that seems quaint by today’s standards nearly derailed the whole process.
“I’m going to really put you on the spot,” Senator Kent Conrad, the Democratic chairman of the budget committee at the time, asked Doug Elmendorf, then the director of the Congressional Budget Office. “From what you have seen from the products of the committees that have reported, do you see a successful effort being mounted to bend the long-term cost curve?”
Elmendorf answered, “No, Mr. Chairman.”
For the most part, the only people who will remember this exchange are reporters who covered the Obamacare legislative process, and an assortment of other wonks and nerds, but it is no exaggeration to say Elmendorf’s unassuming testimony rocked Capitol Hill and threw the fate of health care reform (not for the first time or the last) into doubt. The Washington Post called it a “devastating assessment … of the heath-care proposals drafted by congressional Democrats.” Soon, the White House’s frustration with the CBO’s pronouncements spilled out into a very public fight.
Today it is impossible to imagine Republicans inviting the CBO director to a public hearing to testify about the American Health Care Act. Republicans consider it a matter of great urgency that they pass a bill with minimal public scrutiny before the July 4 recess. They intend to release a bill text Thursday and hold a final vote within a week, with no hearings in between. It is even further-fetched to imagine Republicans imperiling the bill’s odds of passage by exposing it to constant public scrutiny for a full year, as Democrats did with the Affordable Care Act.
But while some Republicans might admit that their own methods are contemptible, they will never allow that they are essentially unprecedented or even worth stopping. The aftershocks of the AHCA, should it make the jump from secret bill to public law, are almost impossible to contemplate, and will roil politics for years. Every single Republican in the Senate is responsible for the fact that we’ve reached this precipice.
The popular perception that Democrats “rammed” Obamacare down the country’s throats is entirely a product of Republican myth-making. Having succeeded in perverting the public record with lies about Obamacare, Republicans in Congress see no downside to asserting that what they’re doing today is the same thing Democrats did eight years ago.
Generally speaking, this false equivalence takes two forms. The first is characterized by crocodile tears from Republicans who want credit for criticizing their own party, without taking any affirmative steps to change their party’s course:
The second is characterized by testiness and pre-adolescent retribution.
Both camps of Republicans are posturing based on a falsified history of Obamacare, with the single aim of controlling the bounds of dissent. Senator John McCain’s mealymouthed admission that secrecy is bad lays down the marker that Republicans are allowed to whine disingenuously about the process, but not to use their senatorial powers to do anything about it. It permits critics in the media who are reluctant to consult the public record to level charges of hypocrisy, but nothing more.
The insistence or implication that Democrats did it first is fabricated to protect the Senate health care bill from being treated as the scandal it is. Senator Rand Paul didn’t defend his claim, because he knew it was false; he just wasn’t expecting a reporter to challenge his perversion of historical fact. There are two interlocking things happening here: Republicans think they need to defend their actions with indefensible claims, and think they can make those claims to reporters’ faces without being asked to defend them. Both things should incense journalists and the broader public.
Republicans’ contempt for the intelligence and hard work of people who covered the 2009 health care debate—indeed the contempt for truth itself—doesn’t just make this attempted heist easier to pull. The fate of their bill turns on it.