After one of the recent failed Senate votes to overhaul Obamacare, a reader posed a question: How much time has Congress spent actually trying to throw out the law, without success? It’s a good question, and one for which we can probably never have a concrete answer.
For example, what counts as an effort to undercut Obamacare? Should we count measures that were eventually signed into law by President Obama? Do we count amendments to other bills? Do we count bills that never came to a vote? Is it possible to figure out precise numbers on how much time a measure spent in committee or being debated on the floor of the House or Senate?
As it turns out, you can figure out precisely how much time a bill spent in debate on the floor of the House, thanks to data at Congress.gov. So, setting aside those bills that were signed into law, we estimate that, between 2011 (when Republicans took control of the body) and this year, the House spent about 377.6 hours debating and passing anti-Obamacare bills that never became law.
How much time is that? It’s nearly 16 solid 24-hour days. If you assume Congress actually only works 12-hour days — a generous assumption — that’s a full month of time spent on an effort that went nowhere. It’s like they added in an extra August recess over that six-year period.
The peak of time spent came in early 2012, though for much of the early part of that year, the House was considering and passing bills that tweaked the law in some way. (Much of the data from this period came from this 2014 article by our Ed O’Keefe.) Then there were the votes in late 2013 that forced the government into a shutdown when Republicans refused to pass a budget that didn’t slice up the health-care law. And, of course, the American Health Care Act push earlier this year that, so far, hasn’t become law.
Again: This is solely House votes on bills and amendments that were approved by the body. It excludes, for example, committee work. The bills above were submitted to committee 82 times, with 30 actions resulting. It’s very hard to say how many hours that took. It also excludes the debate in the Senate. There was less time spent on such legislation in that chamber, given that it flipped to the Republicans only in 2015. But the time spent in the Senate also isn’t broken out by minute in Congress.gov’s data, the way the data are for the House.
It’s a valid question to ask whether this is a bad thing. Is it bad for legislators to debate and pass bills even if they don’t become law? I suspect that the point of the reader who emailed was that a lot of time had been burned on a fruitless enterprise — and one that, until Jan. 20 of this year, was obviously fruitless, given the president. These days, of course, passing a law to repeal Obamacare might actually be something that could take effect.
If only Republicans in the House had proposals that could pass the Senate.