It’s not often that a film starring Bill Murray plows headlong into the works of George Orwell.
But on Capitol Hill, a Murray/Orwell mash-up is practically comme il fault when lawmakers grapple with an issue as incandescent as the repeal of the health care reform law – just days after the Supreme Court ruled it was constitutional.
The House of Representatives launches a two-day debate today to rescind the controversial statute – known formally as the Affordable Care Act (ACA) – and maligned by detractors as “Obamacare.” House Republicans plan a vote to eliminate the law Wednesday. But this is old hat. Lawmakers have voted more than 30 times to either expunge, derail, curb or defund the law since the GOP seized the House’s helm in January, 2011.
That legislative treadmill was enough to drive Rep. Frank Pallone (D-NJ) to cite Murray’s screen work at a Monday meeting of the House Rules Committee where members prepped the latest repeal effort for debate.
“It’s like Groundhog Day around here,” said Pallone of the 1993 hit comedy starring Murray. “It just seems like almost every other day we have another effort to repeal the same thing over and over again.”
When it came her time to speak at the hearing, Rep. Virginia Foxx (R-NC) elected not to invoke Murray’s work in Groundhog Day – let alone anything he did in Meatballs, Ghostbusters or even on Saturday Night Live. Instead, Foxx settled on Orwell’s autocratic novel as her benchmark for the health care law engineered by President Obama and Congressional Democrats.
“I think my colleagues should read the book Nineteen Eighty-Four in terms of rewriting history and how you make things sounds great that are not great,” said Foxx. “I think we are living through that experience.”
Foxx said Americans would “gain our freedom again” through repealing the Affordable Care Act. Before finishing her screed, the North Carolina Republican then stared at Pallone, Rep. Sander Levin (D-MI) and Rep. Rob Andrews (D-NJ) – sitting just feet from her at the witness table – and likened their legislative efforts to the tyranny propagated in Orwell’s fictitious land of Oceania.
“The difference between the liberals in this country and the conservatives is the issue of freedom,” lectured Foxx. “You and your colleagues want the government to control every aspect of our lives.”
Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-IL) had just entered the room and could barely contain herself.
“That’s not true,” she blurted.
And just like Nineteen Eighty-Four, the Rules Committee to repeal health care reform become a paradox. The debate devolved from a quip about a lighthearted date movie to a graduate-level seminar on dystopian literature. Rumor had it that The Handmaid’s Tale and A Clockwork Orange were on the Rules Committee’s syllabus for later this semester.
“That was pretty harsh,” said Rep. Jim McGovern (D-MA) to Foxx. “I’m pretty sure I’ve been called a big brother totalitarian who wants to take everybody’s freedom away.”
Rob Andrews practically suggested that the GOP’s deployment of the term “death panel” was a perfect example of Orwell’s newspeak.
“It is false and always will be false,” said Andrews, himself bordering on doublespeak.
“I think her comment in using Nineteen Eighty-Four demonstrates how very difficult it is to get anything done here,” lamented Sander Levin.
Pallone noted that it was ironic that Foxx focused on Orwell because he was busy reading Nineteen Eighty-Four in his spare time.
Rep. Pete Sessions (R-TX) suggested that he thought lawmakers were “talking past each other.”
And that’s what one can expect over the next couple days on the House floor. Republicans will contend that even though the Supreme Court found the health care law to be constitutional, that doesn’t mean it’s good policy and will fight for a repeal.
“It’s now the job of Congress to repeal Obamacare,” said Rep. Joe Pitts (R-PA).
Democrats will argue that Republicans are wasting precious time that could be devoted to fixing the economy.
“What we’re doing is making political points,” said Rep. Louise Slaughter (D-NY).
Slaughter may be onto something.
Republicans rode the furor over the health care law to victory in the 2010 midterm elections. They hoped to recapture that magic again this year, vowing to redeploy the contretemps over the law this fall. Many Republicans anticipated that the Supreme Court would strike down the law. That would arm them with plenty of firepower to turn on the Democrats. But when the High Court upheld the law, the GOP resorted to yet another vote to repeal the law.
First of all, the GOP doesn’t like it. And more votes to repeal plays well to the conservative base. That’s to say nothing of bringing along lots of moderates and even disaffected Democrats. But voting again to repeal the ACA is simply sound electoral politics for Republicans.
The House GOP conducted its first vote to fully repeal the Affordable Care Act on January 19, 2011. The House voted 245 to 189 in favor of liquidating the statute. All Democrats voted against the repeal except three: Reps. Mike Ross (D-AR), Dan Boren (D-OK) and Mike McIntyre (D-NC). They’re all moderate to conservative Blue Dog Democrats. The trio voted no on the original health care bill in November, 2009 and March, 2010. Ross and Boren are now retiring. Only McIntyre is standing for re-election.
After redistricting, McIntyre faces an uphill battle to hang on to his seat this November. Republicans will also be watching Reps. John Barrow (D-GA), Ben Chandler (D-KY), Larry Kissell (D-NC), Jim Matheson (D-UT) and Collin Peterson (D-MN). All are moderate Democrats who voted no on the initial health care bill in 2009 and 2010. All face potentially tough re-election bids yet voted against the GOP repeal last year.
Like McIntyre, Kissell encounters a more Republican-leaning district this time around. And he plans to vote to repeal.
“I voted against it originally and I will vote to repeal it,” said Kissell in a statement.
But that doesn’t include Kissell’s January, 2011 vote where he voted no on the Republican repeal effort. Rightwing super PAC’s and the GOP are sure to have documented that vote and intend to use it against the North Carolina Democrat this fall.
Some 22 moderate to conservative Democrats voted in favor of the health care law in 2009 and 2010 and clung to their seats. Reps. Shelley Berkley (D-NV) and Joe Donnelly (D-IN) voted yes and are now in dogfights for Senate seats. Rep. Leonard Boswell (D-IA) is locked in a battle with Rep. Tom Latham (R-IA). Republicans are sure to come after Rep. Nick Rahall (D-WV) who voted yes but faces what could be the most-competitive contest he’s seen in his 36 years in Washington.
This is to say nothing of the 17 former House Democrats who voted yes on health care reform in either 2009 or 2010 and then lost two years ago.
In Nineteen Eighty-Four, the lead character Winston Smith spends his days working for the Ministry of Truth – which is anything but. The Ministry of Truth spits out incongruous syllogisms like “war is peace” and “freedom is slavery.”
There is no Ministry of Truth on Capitol Hill. But at least one lawmaker avoided Ministry of Truth-like rhetoric when he analyzed the comments of both sides in the repeal debate.
“We should wake up and start telling people the truth,” barked Rep. Alcee Hastings (D-FL) at his Republican counterparts at the Rules Committee meeting. “I hope a lot of you lose and I hope I win.”
That’s one of the few unvarnished statements surrounding the health care repeal debate. And it’s a sentiment that lawmakers from both parties may secretly utter over and over again between now and November.
Just like Groundhog Day.