Boehner’s new yardstick is repealing bills — but that’s not so easy

August 8, 2013
Alex Brandon/AP (Alex Brandon/AP)

House Speaker John Boehner has urged the American people to judge House Republicans not by the laws they pass, but by the laws that they repeal.

So let’s get this straight: “undoing stuff” is the new “getting stuff done.” Got it.

But it turns out that repealing laws isn’t quite as easy as it sounds. Much like un-ringing a bell, it’s far more difficult to undo a law than to pass one to begin with.

House Republicans have certainly tried to repeal Obamacare — they’ve passed a bunch of bills doing just that — but so far, no one else is biting.

For one, repeals can take a very long time. Senate historian Don Ritchie recalled that the rollback of the Glass-Steigel banking law took the better part of a century (it was passed in 1933 and repealed in 1999).

The repeal of the Volstead Act, aka prohibition, took a long, dry 14 years. First adopted in 1919 to implement the constitutional amendment banning hooch, the legislation was undone by passage of the Blaine Act in 1933, which led to the 21st amendment (hey, we’ll drink to that).

Though it may take years, Bill Galston, a senior fellow with the Brookings Institution, says repealing laws isn’t always a fool’s errand.

He pointed to the relatively quick repeal of the law Congress adopted in 1988 providing catastrophic health-care coverage for seniors, which led to a catastrophic moment for Rep. Dan Rostenkowski, then-chairman of the House Ways and Means committee.

The law was unpopular with seniors, as evidenced by that famous video clip of the Illinois Democrat being chased from one of his own town halls by an angry mob of seniors. Congress voted to strip the bill just over a year after adopting it.

What led to such a fast about-face was that the law was targeted, and it ticked off the very people it was supposed to help. “That’s the kiss of death,” says Galston, who added that he didn’t think today’s health-care law will meet a similar fate.

Boehner’s statement, Galston says, isn’t really so odd.”If you genuinely believe that there are too many laws and too much government  then you will likely reject the idea of being measured by a metric that presumes passing laws is good,” he says. “It’s not like a baseball score.”

Maybe we should stop calling them lawmakers? Perhaps they’re now law-un-makers?

Emily Heil is the co-author of the Reliable Source and previously helped pen the In the Loop column with Al Kamen.
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