IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Setting a trap, falling in it

Why in the world did GOP lawmakers organize a congressional hearing that made them appear foolish?
The dome of the US Capitol is seen in Washington, D.C., September 20, 2008.
The dome of the US Capitol is seen in Washington, D.C., September 20, 2008.
House Republicans are taking a fair amount of flack in the political press today for yesterday's disastrous committee hearing on private insurers and the Affordable Care Act. There is, however, a lingering question: why in the world did GOP lawmakers organize the hearing in the first place?
To briefly recap, Republicans on the House Energy & Commerce Committee put out a misleading survey to insurers two weeks ago, which they in turn used as the basis for a fraudulent report last week. The GOP's conclusion: based on manipulated data, "only 67%" ACA consumers paid their first month's premium. The findings weren't even close to true.
But that didn't stop these same Republicans on the same committee from organizing a hearing with insurance company executives yesterday, to explore this and related topics. Democrats could hardly believe their good fortune.

House Republicans summoned a half-dozen health insurance executives to a hearing Wednesday envisioned as another forum for criticism of the Affordable Care Act. But insurers refused to go along with the plan, and surprised Republican critics of the law by undercutting some of their arguments against it. Insurers, appearing before a panel of the Energy and Commerce Committee, testified that the law had not led to a government takeover of their industry, as some Republicans had predicted. Indeed, several insurers said their stock prices had increased in the last few years. The executives also declined to endorse Republican predictions of a sharp increase in insurance premiums next year, saying they did not have enough data or experience to forecast prices. And they said they were already receiving federal subsidy payments intended to make insurance more affordable for low- and middle-income people.

Ordinarily, those who control a congressional committee call hearings that are intended to advance their own agenda -- which makes sense, since no one would deliberately organize a hearing to make themselves appear foolish.
But that's exactly what happened yesterday. These GOP lawmakers set a trap, fell in it, and were "visibly exasperated" by the results.
So, the question is why -- why would Republicans call a hearing and invite witnesses that would shred the Republicans' own argument?

We don't have to rely on reporter interpretations (here's another one). It made no sense to hold the hearing unless Republicans were (foolishly) confident that the testimony would support their talking point, instead of undermining it. The only plausible explanation is that closed feedback loop. Either members of the committee managed not to be aware of the criticisms of their survey, or they mistakenly wrote off the criticism as partisan backbiting.

Many have long wondered whether House Republicans actually believe their own rhetoric, even after it's been discredited. Some argue that GOP officials realize what they're saying is often wrong (i.e., they're being deliberately dishonest), while others argue they're sincere but ignorant.
By Bernstein's reasoning, the latter is true, at least in this case.
Republicans could have very easily brushed up on the basics of current events -- or at least asked their staffs to help get them up to speed -- before yesterday's hearing, so they'd know what to expect from their own discussion and their own witnesses. But instead, these GOP lawmakers simply embraced their own propaganda, leaving them stunned when insurers told them how wrong they are.
It's possible these Republicans saw reports that accurately reflected reality, but they assumed it was just the "liberal media" trying to fool them.
The moral of the story is that epistemic closure is a dangerous thing. If you're convinced by your own certainty, you reject all evidence that challenges your assumptions, and you only talk to those who reinforce your errors, your familiarity with reality will become strained.
In this case, the Republicans' feedback loop turned out to be deafening.