The House begins debating a bill to repeal last year’s health care bill. Although the chances of actually repealing the health care law are vanishingly remote, this is the right thing to do.
First, chances of repeal are vanishingly remote for fairly obvious reasons. Although the Republicans have a majority in the House, and can probably pass it there (since the majority dominates in the House–one book on Congress explains their process not as actual legislative deliberation, but as domination by party cartels), they are still a minority in the Senate. And even though the Democrats’ majority is small and their unity fragile, meaning some Dems would conceivably vote for repeal, the majority controls what gets put on the agenda. And even if the repeal did miraculously get through the Senate, due to a wholesale collapse and retreat by the Democrats, the President would veto it, and neither chamber could muster anything remotely like a veto-proof majority.
So why waste time on something that has no chance of passing? It’s pure political posturing, right? Well, not really. First, “position-taking” is an important task in politics, because it sends important messages to one’s constituency. Even dictators engage in position-taking to appeal to their public and keep enough support–or enough lack of serious opposition–to deter threats to their regime (c.f., Kim Jong Il). It’s particularly important in democratic polities where the citizens get a regular chance to vote against you.
Of course politicians send lots of signals that are pure political posturing. The legislator who sends his constituents a mailing announcing all the bills he’s submitted is engaging in signaling, even though he may have submitted bills that he knows don’t have any chance of ever being addressed in committees, and even though he may not actually care about them and may put exactly zero effort into following some of them up. That type of signaling falls on the “pure symbolism” end of the symbolism-policy continuum (much like President Bush’s “Mission Accomplished” moment).
Most often the constituents won’t know, and won’t bother to find out, if their representative is actually putting in real effort on their issues, but occasionally they get suspicious. When a politicians repeatedly makes promises that he makes no real effort to follow through on (such as President Reagan’s vows to eliminate the Department of Education and to repeal Roe v. Wade, they can develop a problem of “credible commitment.” In fact since no one seems to really trust politicians, credible commitment is perpetually problematic for them.
But by taking time to formally debate and vote on repeal, House Republicans are demonstrating credible commitment. Sure, a cynic can argue that it’s not really credible because they know their efforts ultimately have no chance of becoming law, but cynics aren’t the target of this signal, the House Republicans’ constituents are, and they’ll mostly take the signal seriously. And they should, because cynicism aside, many of these House Republicans really do believe in repeal, and they want people to know they really do believe it, and aren’t just paying lip service to that goal.
We want politicians to take their promises seriously, so we can’t legitimately fuss when they do.
Second, this is good democratic politics, precisely because the Republicans are responding to their constituency. It’s easy to make excuses for not putting in any effort, but that makes for lousy democratic responsiveness. Whatever these House Republicans may truly believe, many of their constituents do hate the health care law, so it’s appropriate and proper that they debate and vote on it.
Third, there are a lot of people who are either convinced the health care bill is a bad bill, or who simply don’t understand it at all, who aren’t necessarily opposed to the overall concept of public provision of health care. The public as a whole is far from won over on the current law. Further debate can potentially either provide people with further information so they can make up their minds or highlight the bad elements sufficiently to ultimately force changes in the law (I’m not speaking here of repeal, but of amending). The cynic might doubt that the debate will actually shed any light, and I share that doubt. But what is sure is that there is a greater chance of light being shed with debate than without debate. Any important issue that has such tenuous public support is worthy of continued debate and argument.