The House Energy and Commerce Committee just started the first of several congressional hearings on the Affordable Care Act’s website, but this will not be a normal discussion between lawmakers and Obama administration officials.
Let’s note at the outset that there’s nothing wrong with congressional oversight hearings. On the contrary, this is one of Congress’ key functions, and even those who champion “Obamacare” have no reason to complain about lawmakers checking up on the administration and demanding the best possible performance.
But therein lies the rub: that’s not quite what Republicans have in mind today. Alec MacGillis had a good piece on this the other day.
Generally, holding a hearing demanding to know why a new program isn’t functioning better implies that … you want it to function. Until now, Republicans have managed to oppose Obamacare totally, to undermine its implementation left and right while casting symbolic votes for repeal and, just recently, engaging in an immensely costly charade to press for the “defunding” of the law.
But now that the law is actually going into effect, seizing on its deficiencies takes on a different aspect: It means, at some basic level, accepting the goals of the law as worth achieving
Theoretically, that’s exactly right. The ostensible point of today’s hearing – the first of several such panels that will all make the same point – is that Congress is dissatisfied with the well-publicized website glitches and wants the administration to do much better.
But the trouble is, Republicans are crying what Matt Miller aptly described as “crocodile tears.”
To listen to Republican laments about Healthcare.gov’s terrible launch, you’d think the GOP was deeply concerned that people who need affordable health insurance are being denied this essential protection thanks to the administration’s incompetence.
But of course nothing could be further from the truth. What conservative officials, pundits and advocates are screaming is closer to the following: How dare you totally screw up something that we think shouldn’t exist!
I’ve watched Congress for quite a while, and I’ve been to more congressional hearings than I can count, and I honestly can’t think of anything similar to the charade we’ll see today. The Republican majority is complaining about the functionality of a website that they’d just as soon destroy. They’re furious Americans are struggling to sign up for benefits that Republicans don’t want them to have. They’re demanding better performance of a system they’ve spent years deliberately trying to sabotage, and have no intention of trying to help fix.
The hearing will give the appearance of a committee that wants to see improvements, except those responsible for calling the hearing – the one who’ll complain the loudest – don’t want improvements at all. Their stated preference would be that the website that doesn’t work as it should to stay that way indefinitely.
And so what is, exactly, the point of the exercise? Part of this is simply an excuse to grandstand. Republicans took a beating when they shut down the government, and so they’ll take advantage of the opportunity today to release some frustration and go on the offensive by shouting at Obama administration officials for a few hours. I’m sure it’ll be quite cathartic.
The other part is to advance the GOP’s public-relations goals. A hearing like this produces media coverage that questions the administration’s competence, while possibly even discouraging consumers from signing up for coverage – which is the Republicans’ ultimate goal anyway.
To see the hearings’ theatrics as a sincere exercise related to substance and oversight is to overlook every relevant detail. If Republican policymakers want to talk about playing a constructive role in improving the system, making federal law more effective, and easing the process through which Americans get coverage, there’s ample room for that conversation.
But since they don’t want any of those things, today’s discussion is less of a hearing and more of a joke.