We've just been through a nasty political campaign season, and we're reeling still from the tragic attacks in Tucson on public servants—and by extension, democracy. One would think Congress could take a breather before starting the 2012 campaign.
Instead, the new Republican House majority went ahead as threatened and voted to repeal the healthcare reform law. It's a symbolic move, and they know it's a symbolic move. The measure isn't going anywhere in the Democrat-controlled Senate, and would be vetoed anyway by President Obama, even if a repeal bill were to miraculously pass the other chamber. But the vote wasn't really meant to change policy; it was meant to collect votes nearly two years from now by appeasing an impatient and sometimes irrational public. [Take the poll: Should healthcare repeal be GOP's top priority?]
Irrational, because Americans who are not in a position to study an issue in great detail, as members of Congress and staff must do, sometimes find it hard to see the big picture. Ask them if they want their taxes cut, and the answer is a near-unanimous "yes." Ask them if their schools should be well-equipped, or their crumbling infrastructure repaired, and they want that too. They just have a hard time, sometimes, acknowledging that they'll either have to pony up for government services or go without.
The same is true with healthcare. The mandatory insurance requirement has many people upset and nervous, but it's hard to keep costs down without universal coverage. And the reality is that already-insured people are paying for the uninsured, anyway, with higher premiums and co-pays that subsidize those who must get primary care in expensive emergency rooms. Some of the provisions are very popular—such as allowing people with family insurance plans to keep their adult children on their plans until the younger patients reach 26, or banning insurance companies from denying coverage or raising rates because of so-called "pre-existing conditions." But it's onerous to demand that of insurance companies unless virtually everyone is insured. [Check out a roundup of political cartoons on healthcare.]
There are surely parts of the healthcare law that need tweaking; that's been true of many sweeping pieces of legislation. But voting to repeal it wasn't about improving the law at all. The tag-team parroting of the political term "Obamacare" by GOP members made it clear what the target really was in this week's debate. House lawmakers in both parties should be commended for ratcheting down the rhetoric a bit; the dialogue was far more civil than it was last year. But continuing to campaign, instead of legislate, keeps Congress from doing the job it was sent there to do.