The 115th Congress is one day old, and a strange thing happened: some Republicans seemed to exhibit shame—or perhaps just fear of constituents. Their embarrassment began yesterday when GOP members of the House voted in a closed session to put the House in charge of ethics charges for House members. The process seems to be a redux of the 2004 GOP decision to weaken ethics rules in the GOP-controlled House, led by then House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-TX) who was later convicted of violating election law. Vice-president Mike Pence, a representative at that time, strongly supported the move.
After the vote to weaken the ethics procedures, a large number of House members, almost all Republicans, were caught in illegal scandals—one of these the Abramoff affair—that put some of them in prison. When Democrats ran against this “culture of corruption” in 2006, they won both congressional chambers and set up an independent committee to take care of House ethics matters.
History repeated itself yesterday when GOP House members voted 119-74 to put the Office of Congressional Ethics under the control of the House Ethics Committee despite opposition for leadership House Speaker Paul Ryan and Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy. Yet the majority had decided to keep investigations from public view and allow the House committee to stop investigating at any time, based on a House vote. Anonymous tips would not be investigated, and crimes could not be sent to law enforcement, a practice not only unethical but also unconstitutional. The full House would have to agree to move forward on an investigation, but the committee had no ability to search for evidence to get the approval.
The decision was not a done deal: the entire House had to vote on this change as part of the rules package today. Judicial Watch, the conservative group which pushed to get the release of Hillary Clinton’s emails, described the change as “shady and corrupt, a “drive by effort.” Phones lit up and tweets flew. Donald Trump (DT) sensed the disturbance and tweeted that the House should do other things first that favored him personally. After all, he thinks he cannot be investigated:
“With all that Congress has to work on, do they really have to make the weakening of the Independent Ethics Watchdog, as unfair as it may be, their number one act and priority. Focus on tax reform, healthcare and so many other things of far greater importance!”
DT’s staff disagreed with him. His counselor, Kellyanne Conway praised the weakening of ethics, saying that it will cut down on “overzealousness.” She lost. Only a few of the 119 supporters were willing to go public or admit that they were in favor of it. GOP constituents constantly supported the change until an emergency GOP conference meeting reversed yesterday’s vote by unanimous consent. DT took credit for this action, but one representative said that the strong public opposition had killed it before DT wrote anything.
One conclusion from Day One of the 115th Congress suggests that shame works. Without public outcry, the Republicans would have moved ahead to hide all their illegal activities. This reversal could even set a precedent when the GOP tries to eliminate health care, Social Security, Wall Street regulations, taxes for the wealthy, etc. Protest!
Of course, it’s not over. The GOP can revert to their idea when they think no one is watching or hide it inside a major bill. House Ethics Chair Susan Brooks (R-IN) said that the ethics panel will review the proposal make recommendations in late summer or early fall—probably hoping that people will be on vacation then.
A major question is whether the GOP House leadership has any more control over their members. Despite top-level arguments against weakening the ethics rules, the caucus decided to move forward on it—briefly. The Republicans in Congress have been badly split since the Tea Party revolution of 2010, creating a dilemma on negotiation. Who does Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell or DT work with if Ryan and McCarthy don’t agree with the underlings.
While the House was dithering about ethics, the Senate, with less attention, bragged about repealing “Obamacare.” Today they put together an introduction to the “reconciliation process” to out-maneuver a Democratic filibuster against any health care repeal bills. The process can be used only in bills affecting spending and revenue and must be approved by the Senate Parliamentarian before the vote can move forward.
Last year, the GOP passed the Restoring Americans’ Healthcare Freedom Reconciliation Act (RAHFRA, which probably can’t be pronounced) using the reconciliation process. Budget parts of the Affordable Care Act such as insurance subsidies, Medicaid expansion, tax increases, and the mandate to buy coverage were approved to be covered by reconciliation. Left standing was covering young people through age 26 on their parents’ policies and pre-existing conditions.
The process cannot be used for legislation increasing the deficit in ten years or more. That’s the reason that George W. Bush’s tax cuts, passed by reconciliation, had to expire in 2011.
Afraid of protests from people losing their health care or charged more for insurance, Congress wants to move quickly and hope that no one will notice the problems. Two thirds of the people in the U.S. think that the ACA either didn’t affect the number of people with health insurance or caused more people to be uninsured. With no replacement, ACA repeal will leave 22 million people without coverage and millions others suffering from the havoc in the individual insurance market.
Conway, DT’s counselor, promises that no one with health insurance will lose their coverage. GOP legislators will most likely not live up to her promise. The half-hearted suggestions for replacement go from almost nothing to keeping the ACA marketplaces, in general disadvantaging older, sick people and offering less financial help to people who use more insurance. Costs can skyrocket for people who need more health care.
With no replacement, the loss of the ACA can drastically drop coverage even if the planned repeal is years from now. Conway said that DT doesn’t have a plan ready because Rep. Tom Price (R-GA) has not been confirmed as Secretary for the Health and Human Services Department. Price wants a fixed tax credit starting at $1,200 a year for buying insurance on the private market and state high-risk pools—the ones that miserably failed in Florida and 33 other states.
Another way that the GOP is hiding its increase in deficit by repealing the ACA came from the rules package requiring the director of the budget office to prepare an estimate of whether any bill would cause a boost in spending in excess of $5 billion over the next four decades. Any bill, that is, except a bill, joint resolution or amendment that would repeal Obamacare. A major advantage of ACA was its reduction of the deficit so repealing the law would increase the deficit. To avoid the issue, the reconciliation bill keeps cuts to Medicare doctor payments, thereby scoring the bill as reducing the deficit.
Today’s budget proposal from the Republicans raises the national deficit from about $600 billion next year to a $10 trillion increase within the next decade. The bill has to pass both chambers of Congress; the question is how long Republicans can hide the increase in the deficit under the pretense that the bill concerns the repeal of Obamacare. This bill covers no specific spending. Other bills will have to do that–expenditures such as repealing the ACA, building the wall, cutting taxes for the wealthy, etc., all acts that vastly increase the deficit. Lawrence O’Donnell explains the situation here, beginning about Minute 32.
Like a dog chasing a bus, the GOP has been chasing the repeal of health care for six years. What happens when they catch it?
The GOP House members did approve a rules package that fines members who take pictures or video from the House floor. Evidently transparency is not high on their list, especially after their embarrassment from the 26-hour sit-in protesting Ryan’s refusal to allow any votes on gun safety bills.