Groundhog Day in the House: A Gift to Republican Freshmen, and Possibly Democrats Too

It was the 37th time since taking control in 2011 that House Republicans have voted to repeal or defund all or parts of the President's signature legislative achievement.

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Speaker of the House John Boehner at a news conference on Capitol Hill with a printed version of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare, in Washington, D.C., on May 16, 2013.

The House of Representatives voted Thursday to repeal Barack Obama‘s health-care reform law. You have read that sentence before. It was the 37th time Republicans have voted to repeal or defund all or part of the President’s signature legislative achievement since taking control of the House in 2011. Democrats still hold the Senate, and Obama was re-elected, so the bill is doomed to die. Republicans are well aware of this. “Obamacare is the law of the land,” Speaker John Boehner conceded after the President won a second term. So why bother to go through the rigamarole of passing a bill that has zero chance of becoming law?

As a sop to House GOP freshmen, mainly. Unlike the rest of the GOP majority, the three-dozen Republican rookies had yet to register a vote against the law. Nearly all of them blistered the health-care bill on their way to Washington, and they wanted an opportunity to live up to the rhetoric. The 112th Congress may have spent dozens of hours litigating the point, “but this is my first time,” said Tom Rice, a Republican freshman from South Carolina. “The constituents who sent me here want my vote recorded.” Republican leaders decided to throw him a bone. Many conservatives also expect the issue to be a boon on the campaign trail during the 2014 midterm elections, particularly if the law’s implementation is bumpy.

Democrats view it as a gift as well. They’ve spent the week slamming their opponents for squandering time and money on symbolic votes, noting the opportunity cost of devoting valuable time on the floor to a purely symbolic measure. “You can repeal it 37 more times, and it’ll be just as dead when it gets to the Senate,” scoffed Democratic Congressman Mike Doyle of Pennsylvania. “This is a waste of time…you should be ashamed of yourself.”

Just as Republicans believe they benefit from going on the record against a controversial law, Democrats are convinced the effort will boost their image with the very people the GOP are vying to court. In a recent national poll, Latinos favored the law by a margin of more than 2 to 1. For Republicans, harping on their opposition to Obamacare could mitigate any gains the party hopes to make with Hispanics through immigration reform. The Democratic Congressional Campaign used the vote to target vulnerable Republicans incumbents, spraying phone calls that highlight the law’s most popular provisions.

And so both sides slogged through three hours of theater: summoning outrage, denouncing each other, repeating the same arguments, hauling out charts and carting around towers of paper. The final vote was 229 to 195, with two Democrats supporting repeal and no Republicans voting against it. “An embarrassing spectacle,” Democrat Sander Levin called the  37th installment of the House’s crusade against Obamacare. (This was the third stand-alone repeal vote since 2011; smaller health-care changes have passed the Senate and been signed into law.)

But what better things are they doing? All year the House has been a legislative backwater, consigned to waiting as the Senate weighs issues like gun control, the budget and immigration. The 112th Congress was the least productive in generations. The 113th could be even worse.