As the autopsy on the Republicans’ failed run at repealing Obamacare continues, it is important to recognize that what played out, and the way it played out, were simply signs of business as usual in Washington.
The blame game is in full swing, with ire being cast at the speaker of the House, the president, the conservative Freedom Caucus, and even the Democrats. While they all deserve some blame, the problem is in the swamp.
Everyone rails on the need to drain the swamp. But to truly transform how Washington works (or more correctly, doesn’t work), we must root out “the way of the swamp” — the culture and approach both political parties deploy to maintain the status quo of power.
In the swamp, political power comes first, last and always. The American people and sound policy are left to fend for themselves.
The rollout of the American Health Care Act (AHCA) was textbook “way of the swamp.” The way of the swamp includes: a fatal false premise, creating the bill behind closed doors, no debate or amendments, a fake fight, and an artificial deadline driving a false choice.
First, the entire process was established on a fatal false premise. The Senate majority leader convinced the House speaker and the president that there was an incredibly limited amount of Obamacare that could be changed under the Senate’s rules. (The Washington Examiner and National Review later reported that the Senate parliamentarian had confirmed that much more could be done to undo Obamacare than what was included in the AHCA bill.)
Second, the bill was created behind closed doors with few people in the room. There clearly could have and should have been more people involved in the early stages. Backrooms, darkrooms and smoke-filled rooms — in Washington, these rooms are the breeding ground for the swamp, preventing the kind of light and transparency required to produce good policy outcomes for the American people.
Third, when the bill was made public, leadership declared that because the bill was so fragile — due to the false premise of restrictions under Senate rules — there would not be an opportunity to have debate or offer amendments. Real debate and actual amendments are what foster compromise and collaboration. (Real debate is not one member of Congress giving a floor speech to an empty chamber, as is usually the case. If C-SPAN pulled the camera back, you would see that most speeches are delivered to the young, and usually bored, pages and security guards.)
Fourth, the classic D.C. fake fight was in full swing. These artificial swamp battles come complete with high drama, hair on fire, and the ever-present fear-mongering by groups on both sides — all so they can raise millions of dollars. The people that never lose in the way-of-the-swamp world are the fundraisers.
Fifth and finally was the artificial deadline that drove the decision to a false choice — the choice being “you either have to accept this bill as is or grandma goes over the cliff, the sky falls and we crash into the end of the world as we know it.” The swamp loves a false choice.
That is the way of the swamp, and we have seen Democrats and Republicans alike deploy it over the past decade. Both sides have used it, often in collusion, on issues including health care, immigration, fiscal cliffs, debt ceiling increases and funding the government. By perpetually following the way of the swamp, the culture ensures the status quo of the swamp continues — those with power, money and influence continue to have all the power, money and influence.
For those that rule the swamp, the side benefit to the culture is that it prevents members from planning ahead and strategically working on better, more collaborative solutions. I was in Washington a few weeks ago and was amazed that no one was working on plan B, plan C or plan D for health care reform. (When it comes to politics, I have always said I was going to write a book titled “Starting With Plan Z.”) It was stunning after the health care bill was pulled and reporters asked politicians about plan B or what they would do next. There was simply a lot of shoulder shrugging and “I don’t know” responses.
The American people are told that this is just the way things work in Washington. Sadly, in choosing the way of the swamp, no one talked about health care outcomes for hardworking Americans. Swamp dwellers and special interests ruled the Potomac marshlands once again.
As citizens, we must demand some responsible shoulder squaring, fewer sophomoric swamp battles and much more forward thinking from our elected officials. Rather than following the way of the swamp, there is a much better way to govern. It is called the American way — honest, inclusive and open debate with real choices that benefit “we the people.”
Boyd C. Matheson is president of Sutherland Institute, a conservative think tank that advocates for a free market economy, civil society and community-driven solutions.