Reprinted with permission from AlterNet.
The runaway train that is the Republican-led Senate’s assault on health care safety nets is nearing its fateful conclusion.
At stake is not just the American health care system but the architecture of democratic self-governance. The nation will either be ushered into unprecedented lawlessness on political, policy and personal fronts led by Republican Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, or the culmination of the GOP’s increasingly manic seven-year assault on Obamacare will be a return to some semblance of constitutional governance and politics serving the public interest.
The Senate’s mounting crescendo has been an unfiltered display of disregard for the rules of democracy. The Republicans have shown themselves to be the party that cares most about their power, political gamesmanship and serving their wealthy patrons. But the lawlessness they have embraced is multi-layered.
The Proliferation of Lawlessness
It begins with flouting the Senate’s “regular order,” as ailing Republican Sen. John McCain said in a dramatic speech after returning from brain surgery. That clunky term means constitutional governance: writing bills publicly, holding hearings where both parties hear from their experts, negotiating and compromising to make the incremental changes that comprise the painstaking nuts and bolts of governing. Each of these meticulous steps—designed to prevent rash action, if not mob rule—were jettisoned by McConnell, without protest from his caucus.
Then there is the lawlessness that McConnell, House Speaker Paul Ryan and the Tea Party-led Freedom Caucus would unleash on the nation’s imperfect health care system, which as everyone knows, is based on private insurance and government safety nets. The various bills and amendments that have come from both chambers, but especially in the Senate, would unleash the dogs of predatory capitalism via wholesale deregulation in health insurance billing, hiking prices while narrowing coverage of major illness.
All across America, everyone except for the wealthy few would face more hardships, emotional anxiety, pocketbook pressure and fewer options in getting the medical care they need. And the cost of that deregulation—the removal of laws and legal standards and oversight—is not merely fiscal.
The attack on the health care system cannot be seen in isolation from other Republican assaults on politics in the public interest. Trump’s belittling of his own attorney general for properly recusing himself from the Justice Department’s investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 election is also an attack on the rule of law. Sessions, by all accounts, was legally required to recuse himself. When the president slams Sessions for following the law, he demeans both, which must be seen as his intention.
The president’s brazen talk of pardoning himself is the ultimate expression of the corrupt belief that the law does not apply to the powerful. The founders of the American republic did not create a government based on the belief that the better angels of human nature would prevail. They knew better, creating deliberate restraints among competing branches of government so no one party, political juggernaut or aspiring tyrant could seize the day. The Republicans’ increasingly vitriolic assault on Obamacare has been the leading edge of a much larger wedge where the party has put its own power above the rule of law.
The Senate GOP didn’t follow the U.S. Constitution when it refused to consider Obama’s final Supreme Court nominee. Republican legislators in red state after red state have adopted a catalog of anti-voter laws, all suppressing voting blocs to preserve red rule. The list goes on—Donald Trump has assaulted every federal agency that is required to implement the laws passed by Congress that he and his anti-regulatory patrons want to erase.
The proposed dismantling of the health care system is of a piece with Trump’s gutting the Office of Government Ethics, whose director quit earlier this month. The ethics office seeks to identify and prevent conflicts of interest in government service. This goes along with Trump’s flouting of the emoluments clause of the Constitution, which forbids receiving “gifts” or “emoluments,” meaning payments, from foreigners. In all these cases, Republicans view law as a hindrance.
The Senate’s health care vote Thursday evening will set a course for the nation’s politics and culture for years to come. It is a fraught moment. The political system, which is supposed to reflect and uphold the ties that bind our society together, is poised to descend into lawlessness. It could also return to lawfulness. The Republican deregulation of private health care and gutting of public health care safety nets highlights and focuses the personal and societal stakes unlike any other recent federal legislation. All but the very rich will be affected.
The Road Ahead
Even if the Republicans fail to repeal Obamacare, it is a stretch to believe that they will return to “regular order.” There’s been no sign that the Trump presidency and Congress under Ryan and McConnell are anything but abnormal. The White House, especially, is constantly sending out messages that it believes it is above the law. There’s no better example than Trump saying he will pardon everyone ensnared in the Russia campaign collusion investigation, including himself.
But this is bigger even than Trump’s ego. Trump and his minions have attacked every branch of federal government, from seeking to repeal or not enforce environmental and civil rights laws as they eye privatizing education and immigration prisons. Trump’s attacks on Attorney General Jeff Sessions and his foot soldier Newt Gingrich’s propagandistic attacks on the Justice Department’s wider mission all fit the mold of a raging authoritarian intoxicated with amassing more power.
There’s another passel of extremists in the House, which passed a health care bill ending coverage for tens of millions, gutting government health care for the poor and elderly and giving the rich a major tax cut. That leaves the Senate as the final roadblock. There, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has shown he is as cold and as ruthless in the pursuit of power and imposing GOP rule as any of the 20th century’s worst political demagogues.
But McConnell may not get his way. Senators on both sides of the aisle know the stakes in the votes on Thursday. Everyone knows that hundreds of thousands of residents in their states will be affected—and most of those people vote. The nation’s health care system hangs in a balance. So does the American democratic process. Led by McConnell, the Senate will either embrace a new era of lawlessness or start on the laborious path back to lawfulness. A fateful vote and fateful day await.
Steven Rosenfeld covers national political issues for AlterNet, including America’s democracy and voting rights. He is the author of several books on elections and the co-author of Who Controls Our Schools: How Billionaire-Sponsored Privatization Is Destroying Democracy and the Charter School Industry (AlterNet eBook, 2016).
Jefferson Morley is AlterNet’s Washington correspondent. He is the author of the forthcoming biography The Ghost: The Secret Life of CIA Spymaster James Jesus Angleton (St. Martin’s Press, October 2017).
This article was made possible by the readers and supporters of AlterNet.