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Symbolism Versus Substance

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The House of Representatives, as expected, just voted to repeal the landmark healthcare law, which President Obama signed less than a year ago. This vote was a symbolic victory for Republicans, but not any sort of substantial change. To truly repeal the law, the Senate would have to also pass the bill the House just passed, and then both houses would have to muster a two-thirds majority vote to overcome Obama's veto. None of which is going to happen. Democrats still control the Senate, and Harry Reid has all but pronounced the bill "dead on arrival" in his chamber, meaning that today's House vote is the only victory (and a symbolic one, at that) Republicans should expect in their mad dash to repeal healthcare reform.

Which is probably fine with them. House Republicans know full well that their vote today is nothing more than empty symbolism -- but it is important empty symbolism, as far as they're concerned. The Tea Party Republicans who campaigned on the issue of "Repeal!" have proven their bona fides to their fervent supporters, and now they can throw up their hands and blame the expected inaction on Senate Democrats -- thus paying no real political price for spending time on such a Pyrrhic victory. In other words, Republicans in the House have won a single "news cycle" -- even though the more honest among them fully admit that the effort is ultimately going nowhere.

The entire exercise is nothing more than "politics for politics' sake," really. Which is fine -- both political parties do this sort of thing at times, to toss some symbolic red meat to their base. And as political red meat goes, this was the juiciest symbolism Republicans had at their disposal. The last time Republicans engaged in such potent symbolism was when Newt Gingrich took control of the House, and quickly passed all the items on his "Contract With America" -- only to see virtually all of the bills screech to a halt in the Senate.

Republicans can bask in this symbolic victory, but when Congress really gets down to business (after next week's State of the Union speech by President Obama), things are going to get a bit more complicated. The campaign slogan many of these Republicans ran on (in relation to what they called "Obamacare") was "Repeal and replace." In other words, throw the whole thing out and then start over and replace it with the wonderfulness of the Republican plan on healthcare reform. The only problem with this scenario (other than the fact that repeal isn't going anywhere after the bill leaves the House) is that there is no "Republican plan on healthcare." It doesn't exist.

This is where the substance comes into things, after the symbolism becomes yesterday's news. Republicans aren't just going to pat themselves on the back for their symbolic repeal vote and then move on to other things -- they're going to try to tinker with healthcare all year long, apparently. This action will happen on several fronts. The first of these is using Congress' traditional "power of the purse" to starve "Obamacare" of the funds it needs. Republicans may try to write into the Health and Human Services budget a ban on using one thin dime to implement the healthcare reform law passed last year. This will likely result in only symbolic victories, since (again) the Senate is going to have its say on the budget, and since many of the provisions of the healthcare reform law aren't actual budget issues and thus can't be gotten rid of with the blunt instrument of Congress de-funding them.

The next effort is going to happen (if it does) when Republicans mull over exactly how they want to tinker with the existing law in various House committees. This is where they're going to have to admit (implicitly, at least) that some of the provisions of the new law are actually quite popular with the public. Now that they've made their symbolic point with today's repeal vote, Republicans will be able to tell Tea Party voters: "We tried to get rid of the whole thing, but now we're going to have to change it piecemeal." Conveniently, the pieces that the public likes the most will likely escape such efforts to rewrite the law. About the biggest change that could actually make it through Congress might be getting rid of the individual mandate -- which has few defenders, even among Democrats.

Other than repealing the mandate, however, things get complicated awfully fast. It wouldn't surprise me to see Republicans struggle with exactly what to do on healthcare for months. There's a reason Democrats took more than a year to hammer something out, and the reason is that there simply aren't easy answers to the problems in the system. So Republicans are going to spend an awful lot of time figuring out which tactic to try in their overall efforts to get rid of "Obamacare."

It remains to be seen what the public is going to think about this effort. Polling is pretty evenly split on the Democratic healthcare reform, and it's probably a safe bet to say that polling will likely be all over the map on the ideas Republicans come up with. But the overarching question will likely not even be asked by the pollsters -- at what point does the public begin to wish that Republicans end their "Obamacare" obsession, and get on with some other important business? After all, we've spent a goodly portion of the past two years on the healthcare reform debate, and if Republicans decide to devote a lot of time to rehashing the issue for the next two years, at some point the public is going to get a little tired of hearing about the subject (if they're not already).

This week in the House was set aside for symbolism. The Republicans achieved the symbolic victory they had planned today. Which is all fine and good -- as I said, both parties occasionally delve into such blatant political gamesmanship. Congress traditionally doesn't get much done in January anyway, other than getting sworn in and listening to the State of the Union speech. And now Republicans have their symbolism to talk about next week, after Obama speaks to a joint session of Congress and the country at large. But that will be the only tangible result of today's action in the House -- a talking point for Republicans to use for a while.

In one sense, this week will mark the end of Republicans' political coyness and over-reliance on symbolism. Because after the president's speech, they're going to have to actually put some cards on the table. Substantive cards -- not mere symbolism. Republicans are going to have to finally tell the public how exactly they're going to be cutting spending from the federal budget, instead of blithely insisting that they'll find enough "waste, fraud, and abuse" to balance the budget in a year or so. They're going to have to start coming up with actual legislative ideas on the budget, and on healthcare reform, and on a number of other subjects and issues. Up until now, it has been "campaign season," where politicians can get away with gauzy promises without answering any questions about specifics. This week marks the end of this happy-talk season, and the beginning of the "nuts-and-bolts" season of writing their campaign promises into actual legislation.

So Republicans should enjoy their symbolic moment in the sunshine. It certainly is fun to pass a bill that everyone knows isn't going any further. But the time for such symbolism is fast drawing to a close. And the substance that follows is not going to be anywhere near as much fun for the Republicans, as they will be forced to present concrete proposals to the public on how to solve the nation's problems. Republicans should indeed enjoy their symbolic holiday while they can, because what comes next is going to be a lot more real than tossing symbolic red meat to their base.

 

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