“Let the games begin!”
So exclaimed Republican Rep. Mimi Walters at the beginning of a meeting of the Energy and Commerce Committee on Wednesday, perhaps not realizing how loudly her voice had risen. As members filed into their seats for consideration of the comprehensive health care overhaul that Republican leadership had unveiled just 40 hours earlier, the description “games” would prove to be prescient.
The committee’s markup of its portion of the American Health Care Act began at 10:30 a.m. By the time members broke for votes on the House floor around 2:40 p.m., no legislation had been—what’s the term?—“marked up.” The committee did, however, devote roughly four hours to equally tedious and entertaining procedural grousing.
House Democrats, having no real power in the body, do maintain the power to slow down the slog toward passage of the Trump-endorsed “repeal and replace” plan through procedural objections, a fact of which they are all cognizant. Chairman Greg Walden was barely able to begin his opening statement before Democrats objected that their newly established vice-ranking member, Rep. Kathy Castor, did not have extended speaking time equivalent to that of the Republican vice chair, Rep. Joe Barton. Republican Rep. John Shimkus objected.
“Are you serious?” replied Democratic Rep. Ben Ren Lujan.
“I’m serious,” Shimkus said.
This argument about whether to grant Castor three minutes lasted roughly 10 minutes.
The Energy and Commerce Committee, which has jurisdiction over seemingly all domestic commerce, is a committee of 55 members. Proceedings can slow to a crawl—or never begin—when all members are allowed to give opening statements.
Many Republicans gave up and yielded their time after the most senior members were able to speak; few if any Democrats yielded their time to criticize the Republicans for both a rushed process and the bill’s content. “As President Trump says: Sad! Sad!” Rep. Jan Schakowsky told the committee. The term “reverse Robin Hood” was bandied about several times. Democrats favorably cited Sen. Rand Paul and the House Freedom Caucus, the leading conservative critics of the bill, for their uprising against their own party. “Was [the bill] really being hidden from Democrats and America,” Rep. Peter Welch, turning around and pointing in Walden’s face, said, “or was it being hidden from your Freedom Caucus?” Rep. Ben Ray Lujan instructed Republicans to “check Rand Paul’s Twitter feed” and its frequent updates on the secrecy of the process.
“When people find out about this bill,” Rep. Mike Doyle bellowed, “you’re going to wish you didn’t go anywhere near your town hall meetings.”
Potshots accepted, the chairman moved to consideration of the bill for markup, the alleged purpose of the markup meeting. Pallone did not let Walden get very far, asking how long the process would take.
“Should we be prepared to work late each markup day?” Pallone asked. “Or do you plan to complete the day at a certain time and move to the next—”
“It appears,” Walden cut him off, “based on the fact that there are no amendments available for consideration that we should be done fairly soon.”
“What does that mean?” Pallone said. He claimed that Democrats had about 100 amendments to offer. Barton complained that this sizable number of Democratic amendments were not submitted two hours prior to the start of the hearing, and therefore should be tossed away.
Walden has a tough job, even without the potentially impossible duty of producing a health care bill that can find 218 Republican votes in the House of Representatives. He also has to balance his interest in quickly moving this bill to passage—before more people can find legitimate grounds to complain about it—with his desire to create the impression of “regular order.” Now, dropping a tightly guarded comprehensive health care overhaul on a Monday night and then moving to rush it out of committee by Wednesday, all while bypassing subcommittee consideration, is not the purest expression of “regular order.” This may be why Walden, after arguing with Pallone for a while, relented and said that if he wanted the committee to consider amendments, they could consider amendments assuming they ever materialized.
After a Pallone motion to delay the markup by 30 days was tabled, a clerk proceeded to read the entire, scintillating text of the American Health Care Act. Nearly every member, including Walden, left the room.
As the afternoon session began, productive markup was further delayed by 90 minutes of soliloquy, again abetted by Democratic use of procedural hurdles. Committee members, by moving to “strike the last word,” can earn themselves five minutes of speaking time. And so all Democrats on the committee moved to “strike the last word” on the underlying bill before amendments could proceed.
Democrats devoted most of this attention to discussion of the Congressional Budget Office, which assesses the effect of legislation—and so far hasn’t assessed this rather large one. They were reasonably furious that the committee would be marking up a comprehensive health care bill without a report from the legislative scorer about its budgetary impact or effects on premiums, deductibles, coverage figures, and so on.
Talking points politely trashing the CBO appear to have been distributed to important Republicans. House Majority Whip Steve Scalise, a member of the committee, asked why anyone cared what certain “unelected bureaucrats” had to say after—according to him—they got the Affordable Care Act scoring so wrong? At approximately the same time at the White House, Sean Spicer was telling reporters that “if you’re looking to the CBO for accuracy, you’re looking in the wrong place.” (It is worth noting that the current CBO director whom we apparently can’t trust, Keith Hall, was selected in 2015 on the recommendation of the House Budget Committee chair, then–Rep. and current Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price.) Rather than tamping down interest in what the CBO has to say, these criticisms just make the bill’s detractors even thirstier for the score. What, pray tell, could be the reason for such a preemptive strike against these nonpartisan bean counters? Could it be that CBO will ultimately be unable to identify the nonexistent revenue sources in the American Health Care Act?
The committee will vote on some amendments, eventually, and Democrats will try to drag out each vote as long as possible. Trolling Walden is a win-win for Democrats. If they’re able to draw the markup on for days and days, then that slows down the move to a vote. The longer this process goes on, the more criticisms of the bill will accrue. And if Walden eventually reaches his limit and moves to wrap up the markup before all amendments can be considered, then Democrats can run around with their hair on fire with new evidence of the dictatorial process by which the American Health Care Act is being jammed through Congress.
Around 3:15 p.m., nearly five hours after the markup began, members returned from their floor votes. Was it finally time for some amendments?
Walden first recognized Lujan.
“Are we still on ‘strike the last word?’ ” he asked. They were. Nearly everyone in the room, even Walden, whose life has taken a turn for the miserable, had to laugh.