Weeks Before Trump Takes Office, the Pain Is Getting Real

115th Congress is off to a chaotic start, with Republicans already focused on gutting Obamacare

The 115th U.S. Congress took their oath of office on January 3rd. Credit: Win McNamee/Getty

The 115th Congress has come out swinging – and already bloodied its own nose. But the next punch, against the Affordable Care Act, is about to hurt the rest of us.

Amid the can't-look-away spectacle of the Trump campaign and now transition, the rottenness of everyday GOP politics hasn't had a moment in the spotlight in months. Republicans in Congress evidently thought they could take advantage of Trump's command of center stage to pull a fast one, stage right. In a secret vote on a national holiday, conducted after weeks of shadowy meetings, House Republicans voted to hogtie and gag the independent ethics office that has worked to uncover congressional corruption in the decade since the Jack Abramoff scandal.

In the first act of the new Congress, a GOP majority voted for an amendment to strip the Office of Congressional Ethics of its independence, ban it from taking anonymous tips, prohibit it from taking its findings to law enforcement and stop it from communicating to the American people. The author, Rep. Bob Goodlatte of Virginia, then dishonestly tweeted that the amendment "does nothing to impede OCE's work."

The Monday night vote to gut congressional ethics was a bad look for a party that swept to power in November on promises to "drain the swamp." Amid constituent uproar – congressional phone lines reportedly blew up – and a bit of eye-rolling from the president-elect on Twitter ("do they really have to make the weakening of the Independent Ethics Watchdog... their number one act and priority," Trump snarked), Republicans in Congress abruptly axed Goodlatte's amendment.

The episode exposed anew the weak leadership of House Speaker Paul Ryan. Ryan reportedly opposed the initial vote, then issued a Tuesday morning press release defending the amendment before flip-flopping again just hours later.

The GOP's opening salvo hit the wrong target: "We shot ourselves in the foot," Rep. Mike Simpson (R-Idaho) told Politico. It reminded all of America that – even in the age of Trump – political gravity still exists, and an outraged public can still force Congress to turn on a dime.

That's a valuable lesson, because Congress' next target is more outrageous, and places us all in danger. Republicans are maneuvering to gut the Affordable Care Act, without any plan to replace it. The move – sold as "relief" from Obamacare by Ryan – benefits the wealthiest Americans who help pay for expanded health care with a 2.5 percent tax on investment profits.

Who will it hurt? Trump adviser Kellyanne Conway insisted this week, "We don't want anyone who currently has insurance not to have insurance." But Republicans have announced no legislation (or plan or outline) explaining how they will preserve coverage for the 20 million Americans who have gained insurance under Obamacare.

Full repeal would return the health system to the days when a pre-existing condition was grounds for denying insurance coverage. It would reverse Medicaid expansion, which has helped lower the uninsured rate in a state like Kentucky by more than a third, to just 7.5 percent. And it would revoke the subsidies that put private insurance within reach for millions of working families.

The Republican repeal agenda may include a long sunset for Obamacare, allowing the GOP to claim a political victory for repealing the law, but postponing the pain of reversing the law's benefits for years. The idea is to set up an "Obamacare cliff": a moment of shared political peril that would make Democrats more inclined to partner with Republicans on whatever half-hearted replacement the GOP eventually come up with.

But the toxic politics of leaving millions vulnerable to illness and/or financial ruin are getting real for GOP leaders. Democrats have deftly branded the GOP repeal campaign "Make America Sick Again." In a Wednesday tweetstorm, Trump himself seemed to wobble, even as Vice President-elect Mike Pence was on the Hill lobbying for repeal. "Dems are to blame for the mess," Trump warned Republicans. "It will fall of its own weight - be careful!"

Even some in the GOP rank and file are reportedly getting cold feet. According to Talking Points Memo, one member rose in a closed-door meeting Wednesday to caution that Republicans would get no help from Democrats in fixing the mess that their repeal will bring. "We will own this thing," the member said, "and there will be consequences."