Republicans Are Legislating Like There’s No Tomorrow

Forget about the future. The GOP just wants what it wants—now.

Theo Anderson March 14, 2017

The GOP’s burning itch to dismantle Obamacare and reverse even the modest progress made in the provision of healthcare fits with the big-picture pattern of Donald’ Trump’s first weeks in office and of U.S. conservatism in general. (Photo by Albin Lohr-Jones/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images)

Sen. Tom Cot­ton of Arkansas sug­gest­ed Sun­day that the push by his fel­low Repub­li­cans to pass a health­care reform bill was putting the GOP’s House major­i­ty at risk. Don’t walk the plank and vote for a bill that can­not pass the Sen­ate,” he warned. That warn­ing became more urgent Mon­day after an analy­sis by the Con­gres­sion­al Bud­get Office showed that 24 mil­lion peo­ple would lose their health­care insur­ance over the next decade under the GOP plan. The effects would hit old­er, low-income peo­ple espe­cial­ly hard. A 64-year-old mak­ing $26,500, for exam­ple, would pay $14,600 in pre­mi­ums for insur­ance, ver­sus $1,700 under Oba­macare. Vox called it one of the largest, most sig­nif­i­cant income redis­tri­b­u­tion pro­grams the US gov­ern­ment has ever con­sid­ered — from the poor to the wealthy rather than the oth­er way around.”

"Legislating is about serving and protecting the winners of the game; the future be damned."

In a ratio­nal polit­i­cal cul­ture, those num­bers would move Repub­li­cans to recon­sid­er their ideas. There is scant evi­dence that we live in such a cul­ture. Over the week­end, Vice Pres­i­dent Mike Pence called Ken­tucky a text­book case of Obamacare’s fail­ures.” In fact, the per­cent­age of the state’s unin­sured fell from more than 20 per­cent in 2013 to under 8 per­cent in 2016.

The GOP’s burn­ing itch to dis­man­tle Oba­macare and reverse even the mod­est progress made in the pro­vi­sion of health­care fits with the big-pic­ture pat­tern of Don­ald Trump’s first weeks in office and of U.S. con­ser­vatism in gen­er­al. That pat­tern is to leg­is­late like there’s no tomorrow.

The hos­til­i­ty of the admin­is­tra­tion toward envi­ron­men­tal pro­grams and invest­ments in green ener­gy are prime exam­ples. The pay­offs aren’t pure­ly mon­e­tary, and they extend across years or decades. Trump and his con­ser­v­a­tive sup­port­ers don’t see the point.

Pay­ing the piper

Take the case of water. Trump aims to dra­mat­i­cal­ly restrict the fed­er­al government’s author­i­ty to pro­tect the wet­lands and small streams that con­nect to larg­er bod­ies of water and are thus impor­tant to the qual­i­ty of drink­ing sup­plies. He also report­ed­ly wants to essen­tial­ly kill the Great Lakes Restora­tion Ini­tia­tive, which is crit­i­cal to efforts to clean up Lake Erie, the source of drink­ing water for about 11 mil­lion peo­ple. Its sit­u­a­tion is espe­cial­ly pre­car­i­ous. Haz­ardous algae blooms” are becom­ing more com­mon and more potent in Lake Erie, in part because of runoff from fer­til­iz­er used on near­by farms. Toledo’s water has been so con­t­a­m­i­nat­ed in the past that pub­lic health offi­cials told res­i­dents not to drink it. Ohio has received about $200 mil­lion in fed­er­al fund­ing through the Great Lakes Restora­tion Ini­tia­tive since 2011, and part of the fund­ing has gone toward teach­ing farm­ing prac­tices that use less fer­til­iz­er. Killing such pro­grams will mean more con­t­a­m­i­nat­ed water, and it will mean pour­ing mon­ey into fix­ing a prob­lem, down the road, that could have been prevented.

The pat­tern is the same across just about every sec­tor. The con­ser­v­a­tive agen­da sac­ri­fices the future for near-term sav­ings that will wind up cost­ing more than just address­ing the prob­lem in the first place. That’s true in count­less ways with the GOP’s health­care agen­da. One telling exam­ple is that its pro­posed bill would slash the expan­sion of Med­ic­aid in some 30 states, and gut the require­ment that state Med­ic­aid pro­grams pro­vide basic men­tal health and addic­tion ser­vices. If that hap­pens, an esti­mat­ed 1.3 mil­lion peo­ple would lose access to addic­tion treat­ment. Every day, about 1,000 peo­ple are treat­ed in emer­gency rooms for mis­use of pre­scrip­tion opi­oids. In 2015, more than 15,000 peo­ple died from over­dos­es involv­ing pre­scrip­tion opi­oids. We will pay lat­er for the hav­oc wrought by drug abuse, in oth­er words, rather than pay up front to pre­vent it.

The short haul

It’s no secret that humans are ori­ent­ed toward imme­di­ate sur­vival more than long-term invest­ment. It’s some­thing of a mir­a­cle we occa­sion­al­ly do man­age to think long term on a big scale, and it usu­al­ly takes a major jolt — the depres­sion that inspired the New Deal, for exam­ple, or angst about Sovi­et sci­en­tif­ic advances that inspired the mis­sion to the moon.

Leg­is­lat­ing like there’s no tomor­row isn’t exclu­sive to Repub­li­cans, in oth­er words, but the party’s coali­tion has good rea­sons not to invest in the nation’s future. They don’t see them­selves as part of it. They are often wealthy, dis­con­nect­ed from any par­tic­u­lar place and free to roam, with their cap­i­tal, to wher­ev­er they care to call home. And some are evan­gel­i­cal Chris­tians, with the belief that Jesus will soon take them to heav­en and make all the hand-wring­ing about the health of the plan­et irrelevant.

If the GOP’s health­care plan isn’t good pol­i­cy, it is at least an impor­tant clar­i­fy­ing moment. There are count­less ways to frame the dif­fer­ences between con­ser­v­a­tive and pro­gres­sive visions of pol­i­tics, but the most fun­da­men­tal one is per­haps this. For pro­gres­sives, demo­c­ra­t­ic gov­ern­ment is the best tool that humans have devised to stitch togeth­er and pur­sue a notion of our com­mon, long-term inter­ests. The results are sus­cep­ti­ble to all kinds of cri­tiques. Gov­ern­ment is often mad­den­ing and cor­rupt, and it almost always falls far short of the ide­al. But that ide­al serves as a stan­dard to mea­sure how far the sys­tem falls short.

Con­ser­v­a­tives often claim to favor lim­it­ed gov­ern­ment and free­dom,” but that isn’t quite right. In truth, they favor a gov­ern­ment that enrich­es the cor­po­ra­tions and peo­ple who already have the wealth and pow­er. They have lit­tle con­cern for the long term and no vision of a com­mon good. There is only the blind pur­suit of short-term gain. Leg­is­lat­ing is about serv­ing and pro­tect­ing the win­ners of the game; the future be damned. That’s the evi­dence of Trump’s agen­da so far, and it’s the mes­sage sent, clear­ly and pow­er­ful­ly, by the GOP’s health­care bill. 

Theo Ander­son is an In These Times con­tribut­ing writer. He has a Ph.D. in mod­ern U.S. his­to­ry from Yale and writes on the intel­lec­tu­al and reli­gious his­to­ry of con­ser­vatism and pro­gres­sivism in the Unit­ed States. Fol­low him on Twit­ter @Theoanderson7.
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