Hypocrisy has always been a vital lubricant to making the gears turn in Washington. Give politicians some power and a job to get done, and they quickly forget their righteous critiques of the seamy practices they denounced when the other side was running things.
Rarely, however, has the double standard been so flagrant as now, when Republicans are scrambling to keep their promise to “repeal and replace Obamacare.”
Exhibit A: Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), who is set to produce a draft of a bill to be voted on next week.
Back when the Affordable Care Act passed on a party-line vote in 2010, the then-minority leader was full-throated in his denunciation of “the partisan route” that majority Democrats had taken and of the “closed-door sweetheart deals that were made to gain the slimmest margin for passage of a bill that’s about their health care.”
If Republicans got back in control, McConnell vowed in 2014, “there’s not a chance” they would act as Democrats did.
But that earlier process — which also included many months of committee hearings and bipartisan negotiation — was as transparent as a fish tank compared with the drafting of a health-care bill that is taking place privately in McConnell’s office, largely with a small cadre of aides. The leader himself has acknowledged it is a “Republicans-only exercise.”
Senate GOP leaders argue that they have held more than a dozen closed-door listening sessions in which members have had the chance to learn about policy options and share their opinions. But members and staff say privately that those conversations haven’t included any specific details of what leaders plan to put in a final bill.
Many in McConnell’s own party are grumbling publicly.
“I would like a more open process. That’s for sure,” said Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), who added that she cannot commit to a position on the legislation because she has no idea what is in it.
“We used to complain like hell when the Democrats ran the Affordable Care Act. Now, we’re doing the same thing,” said Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.).
McConnell, however, is far from the only Republican who seems to suffer from a sudden case of amnesia.
Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price has expressed no qualms about the way Republicans are putting together their bill on Capitol Hill.
But back on Jan. 14, 2010, when he was a Republican congressman from Georgia, Price tweeted: “With Democrats discussing health care in secret, they’re sacrificing the trust of the American people.”
That moment seven years ago was a critical one for Democrats. As they realized that a special-election defeat in Massachusetts could cost them their filibuster-proof majority in the Senate, their leaders were scrambling for a backup plan.
In the end, Democrats got their bill, but the legislative maneuvering it took to get it over the finish line was not pretty.
There had been special deals for individual senators that became known as the “Cornhusker Kickback” and the “Louisiana Purchase.” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) made an infamous declaration that spawned a legion of attack ads: “We have to pass the bill to find out what’s in it.”
As the House prepared to pass the health-care legislation, then-Minority Leader John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) thundered from the well of the chamber: “Look at how this bill was written! Can you say it was done openly, with transparency and accountability, without backroom deals struck behind closed doors, hidden from the people? Hell no you can’t!”
“Have you read the bill?” he added. “. . . Hell no you haven’t!”
Indeed, “Read the bill, read the bill” was a frequently heard chant at tea party rallies before the passage of the Affordable Care Act.
But when the Republican-led House passed its own version of the latest health-care bill in May, many who voted for it acknowledged that they were not all that familiar with what was in their legislation that affects one-sixth of the U.S. economy — though it was a mere 137 pages, compared with more than 2,000 in the ACA.
“Oh, gosh!” Rep. Thomas Garrett (R-Va.) said in an interview with MSNBC. “Let’s put it this way: People in my office have read all the parts of the bill. I don’t think any individual has read the whole bill. That’s why we have staff.”
Beyond the awkwardness of having to eat their own words, however, Republicans could face real danger in doing things this way on an issue such as health care, which touches the life of every American.
“We all know that hypocrisy is a co-pilot in Washington,” said John Weaver, a Republican political strategist. “But we’re not talking about some provision in the tax code that impacts billionaires, or an esoteric trade policy that only affects Vietnam.”
“If they think they can keep a bad bill secret until the last minute and it will change their fortunes, that’s crazy,” Weaver added. “It won’t be sustainable, and it will be one of the leading reasons we could lose seats in Congress next year, and maybe the White House” in 2020.
On Tuesday, a clearly frustrated McConnell called Democratic complaints about the secretive process “laughable” and “irrelevant.” The majority leader promised that lawmakers will be given adequate time to review the final bill, but added that Democrats have made clear that they are not interested in making any major changes to Obamacare.
“I think this will be about as transparent as it can be,” McConnell said. “No transparency would be added by having hearings in which Democrats offered endless single-payer system amendments. That is not what this Republican Senate was sent here to do.”
It also may be that McConnell simply is out of options, short of surrendering on what has been the Republicans’ signature promise in every election since 2010.
“There must be no other way, because McConnell always has a plan,” said Ed Rogers, a lobbyist and veteran Republican strategist. “He has carefully assessed all other ways to proceed, and this is the best one. The Republican universe will adapt.”
Kelsey Snell contributed to this report.