Late on a damp and chilly night, a few weeks before the midterm elections, I was strolling down Lexington Avenue, returning to my hotel, when I heard a voice from the street call out, "Hey, it's David Corn of Mother Jones
." I turned and encountered a middle-aged fellow who was part of a work crew laying fiber-optic cable beneath New York City's streets. I said hello, he told me he was a regular watcher of MSNBC, and introduced me to the two other members of his gang. We immediately started talking politics. These three guys, who each belonged to a Queens local of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, were dismayed by the prospect of the electorate handing the keys to the House to the Republicans.
"What are people thinking?" one of the men said. He told me that thanks to the health care reform bill President Obama and the Democrats had passed, he could now keep an adult son on his health insurance plan, rather than pay for separate coverage. "This is saving me thousands of dollars," this IBEW worker said. "Much more than any tax cut. And they want to take that away?"
It was as if I had walked on to the set of a Democratic Party campaign commercial. But these voters were as real as it gets. (They offered to take me into the manhole and show me the wild underworld of below-street wiring in NYC. Given that I was wearing a suit, I politely demurred.) And, yes, the Republicans do want to take that away. At least, that's the House GOPers' official position this week. On Tuesday, Boehner's Band begins debating its first major piece of legislation: repealing the health care law, lock, stock, and pre-existing conditions.
The obvious analysis is that the newly empowered Republicans are throwing one big bag to their tea party backers. After all, the Democrats who control the Senate won't repeal a bill they passed, and Obama would veto any such measure. Repeal is a moot issue. But the GOPers know that they will soon have to take several dives: They will not propose a budget that meets their promise of cutting $100 billion from the federal budget this year, and they will probably end up supporting a boost in the national debt ceiling (for otherwise the United States will default and possibly trigger a global financial crisis). They're doing what they can now, so later they can tell disappointed and angry tea partiers, "Hey, remember that health care repeal vote?"
Still, there's more to life than the tea party. Isn't there? Even for Republicans? And as the GOPers rush ahead with this symbolic vote to smother the health care law, non-tea partiers -- especially the millions of Americans who have started to benefit from reforms in the package -- might wonder: What about the "replace" in the Republicans' health care battle cry, "Repeal and Replace"?
There is no replace. There's only eradicate. Yank apart. Lash out. The GOPers do not have a substitute. This ought not be shocking. When they controlled Congress during the George W. Bush years -- and before -- they never showed much interest in addressing the extensive woes of the health care system, countering the abusive practices of insurance companies, or extending coverage to the tens of millions who go without. The House Republicans do intend to pass a non-binding resolution that will announce to the world their broad health-care aims and instruct four different House committees to develop proposals. But this is the thinnest of cover. Why are there not GOP proposals ready to go? Health care reform is hardly a new matter.
But we already know what the Republicans will propose: tax credits and medical malpractice reform, with a large dose of free-market rhetoric. Tax credits would make it easier for some Americans to buy insurance -- but they will not cause insurance companies to become more consumer-friendly. Nor will they address a fundamental problem of the system: Insurance companies make more money when they provide fewer services and keep sick people (who need a lot of services) off their rolls.
As for the details of any GOP plan, that's anybody's guess. In the last Congress, Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), the new chairman of the House Budget Committee, proposed a deficit reduction scheme that included a plan to privatize Medicare and Medicaid. Under Ryan's blueprint, the federal government would give the elderly and poor tax credits and payments they could use to purchase coverage -- instead of guaranteeing particularly health care coverage no matter the cost. Talk about rationing. Under this system, the poor and older Americans could be thrown under the gurney after spending down the amount of money available for their care.
Ryan's proposal may not make it into any GOP package. (These guys aren't that
foolish.) But there's no telling what will be in it -- if anything. There's no guarantee the House Republicans will serve up any comprehensive health care reforms. "Replacing Obamacare is not something we can accomplish overnight," Rep. Fred Upton (R-Mich.), the new chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, told The Washington Post. Yet ripping it to shreds can be done overnight. Even if that would mean that millions of Americans would have their adult children kicked off their plans and would have to contend with insurance companies tossing them aside due to pre-existing conditions.
Once again, the Republicans are calculating they can beat something with nothing. That worked fine when they were decrying non-existent death panels. And it worked in the 2010 elections. This time around, though, their spiteful and rash assault on the health care law might come with a cost. No longer are they merely trying to obstruct; they are now trying to destroy and, more important, trying to take away reforms that mean much to that cable guy and many others.
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