Repeal-and-replace is probably doomed. Congress rarely works along party lines.
By Frances Lee
Jul 21 2017
In the seven years after the Affordable Care Act became law, Republicans voted more than 60 times to repeal it. Each time, the legislation passed the House easily, only for Democrats to block it in the Senate; in 2015, though, a repeal bill passed the Senate, too, forcing President Barack Obama to veto it. So when the GOP began this year in control of Congress and with President Trump in the White House, the law’s fate might have seemed sealed.
Instead, efforts to repeal and replace Obamacare collapsed Tuesday, although the Senate will still try to push ahead this coming week. But if the effort fails, a promise that has been at the heart of Republican campaigns since 2010 — abolishing the ACA — could go unfulfilled at the peak of the party’s recent power.
That should not come as a surprise: My research has found that it’s extremely rare for a majority party on Capitol Hill to deliver on its agenda if the minority holds strong against it. And passing a partisan messaging bill that everyone knows will have no real-world consequences, such as the past repeal votes, is nothing like actually legislating — a distinction well understood by congressional party leaders and rank-and-file members.
Majority parties in Congress rarely succeed in passing laws along party lines. In a recent paper, James Curry and I show that most legislation — major and minor bills alike — passes with majority support from both parties. Minority party support for enacted legislation seldom falls below 70 percent in the Senate or 60 percent in the House. Fewer than 15 percent of new laws are enacted over the opposition of a majority of the minority party in the Senate. These patterns are consistent across Congresses with either unified or divided party control. Likewise, the tremendous growth in party conflict in Congress has hardly budged these figures. No matter how many one-sided messaging bills majority parties ram through one chamber of Congress, actual legislating today remains overwhelmingly bipartisan.
Curry and I also specifically examined the ability of majority parties in Congress to enact their agendas. We identified the 197 items that majority leaders flagged as priorities at the start of each Congress between 1993 and 2017. We found only 10 cases in which a majority party succeeded over the opposition of most minority party members and the minority party’s leaders in both chambers.
The Affordable Care Act was one of those exceedingly rare cases. But repealing it hasn’t been.
Most of the time, when parties pass something they promised voters, they do so by co-opting the minority party in at least one chamber of Congress, usually with the support of at least one top opposing leader. This pattern holds regardless of unified or divided party control of government. What Republicans have been attempting to do with health care this Congress is something parties rarely succeed at doing.
Issues that make for great campaign pledges typically present thorny problems of governance, as Republicans have been demonstrating. No issue was better than health care for GOP messaging during the Obama presidency: It excited base voters, motivated donors, fueled candidacies, and provided a ready argument to criticize the performance of the opposing party and its president.
But when parties engage in messaging, they do not have to confront hard choices. Partisan talking points make simplistic promises — only upsides, without any downsides. “You should have the freedom and the flexibility to choose the care that’s best for you,” read House Speaker Paul D. Ryan’s “Better Way” agenda last year. “. . . You and your family should have access to the best life-saving treatments in the world.”