Land of Make Believe

GOP, Democrats Fiddle With Health Care as Unemployment, Tax Cut, and Debt Crises Loom

House Republicans voted to repeal the Affordable Care Act, with both parties spewing absurd rhetoric—but ignoring serious issues like unemployment, the debt ceiling, and expiring tax cuts. Patricia Murphy reports.

J. Scott Applewhite / AP Photo

Two days after President Obama called for Congress to approve tax cuts he knows will never pass, House Republicans voted to repeal his health-care law, which they know he will never sign.

The dueling fools’ errands cemented the impression that has been growing for some time—that official Washington has become little more than a backdrop for partisan campaign commercials, a land of make believe where bills never need to pass, press conferences substitute for negotiations, and both parties’ behavior would be comical if the problems facing the country were not so serious. (Not only is there no agreement in place, or even being discussed, to deal with the looming debt-ceiling increase, unemployment remains above 8 percent, and the payroll tax cut and Bush tax cuts will both expire at the end of the year.)

But let’s hold off on serious for a minute, since that’s what the House did as it debated whether to repeal the health-care bill that affects one-fifth of the American economy and potentially the health of every American.

Rep. Phil Gingrey (R-Ga.) showed up to the debate Tuesday with a life-sized portrait of Boss Hogg from The Dukes of Hazzard, explaining to his fellow House members that Mr. Hogg “uses his position of authority to terrorize the citizens of his community.” Gingrey said that “life is now imitating art” (assuming that by “art” he meant The Dukes of Hazzard and warned, “We have another boss in our midst and I call this boss Obamacare.”

But as if to prove that absurd comparisons and basic-cable rhetoric are not only the domain of Republicans in Washington, Rep. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) followed Gingrey, comparing the GOP with Glenn Close’s bunny-boiling mistress character in Fatal Attraction.

“Have you ever seen Fatal Attraction? Great film,” Murphy began, as he explained that Republicans are as obsessed with the health-care bill as Glenn Close was infatuated with Michael Douglas. “House Republicans have finally hit their boil-the-bunny moment. Enough is enough.”

But is enough enough? It didn’t seem like it when the House finally voted 244 to 185 to repeal the Affordable Care Act for the 33rd time this Congress, but word spread that unsatisfied conservatives will now push their leaders for a vote to de-fund the health-care bill entirely, since defeating it altogether has gotten nowhere in Washington, despite their best efforts.

Knowing that the repeal bill will die in the Senate again, House Speaker John Boehner defended Wednesday’s vote as “another chance for the Senate to heed the will of the American people…and for those who did not support repeal the last time, it’s a chance for our colleagues to reconsider.”

Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi said she did not need to reconsider the Republican’s latest repeal efforts, which she called “a useless bill to nowhere.” But she did take the time before the repeal vote to try to force anyone who voted to repeal Obama’s health-care reform to also give up their own federal health benefits. Pelosi’s bill, of course, went nowhere.

But just because legislation is dying in the Congress as potential catastrophes loom for the country, it’s not entirely true to say members of Congress are getting nothing done.

Moments after the repeal vote, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee sent an email under Pelosi’s name blast to supporters, reporting the House’s move to repeal, and inviting donors to “Stand with President Obama and donate $3 or more to defeat Tea Party Republicans.” The vote was just what Democrats needed to fire up their base, and pump them for money at the same time. Republicans, for their part, launched a series of attack ads against Democrats, telling voters that the only way to repeal the health-care bill now is to repeal their local Democratic representative in November.

While Congress bats health care and taxes back and forth, it shouldn’t come as any surprise that the work they are supposed to be doing is not getting done. In addition to the infamous fiscal cliff looming at the end of the year, Congress has not passed a single appropriations bill to fund the government past September.

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Although some spending bills almost always are left to the end of the year, House Republicans are now refusing to work off the same baseline budget as Senate Democrats, thus preventing even a single spending bill from even being debated. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid warned Tuesday that no spending bills will pass this year “until the Republicans get real.”

Getting real has not been anyone’s strong suit in Washington lately, and it was clearly not on anyone’s agenda this week.

Moments after the repeal bill passed the House, Rep. Ander Crenshaw (R-Fla.) went to the floor to thank a group of Democrats and Republicans for getting together with him Monday, when he and a group of House members played a round of golf at the Columbia Country Club for the annual Congressional Challenge Cup between the parties. (The Republican team won, by the way.)

“I want to thank them for their dedication, their hard work,” Crenshaw said, “And most of all, for just showing up.”

Showing up, it seems, is an achievement in itself for the 112th Congress these days.