Are House Republicans Wasting Their Time With Obamacare Repeal Votes?



This evening, the House of Representatives will vote, once again, to repeal the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act—otherwise known as Obamacare. The House has already voted more than 30 times to repeal the health law, but is going ahead with yet another vote partly in response to new GOP representatives clamoring for a chance to officially vote against the law. Today's vote is as likely to lead directly to full repeal as any of the previous votes. 

So are House Republicans just wasting their time on meaningless, go-nowhere votes new members? Maybe not.

When the House first began holding these repeal votes back in 2011, I described them as "symbolic," and on the most important level, that's still true: No repeal bill is going to pass in the Senate any time soon, and even if it did, President Obama would not agree to sign a repeal of his signature law.

Yet that doesn't mean that these votes have no effect at all. For one thing, as The Washington Post's Sarah Kliff notes today, they can help bolster public opposition to the law:

The uncertainty that these repeal votes have created can have real consequences for the Affordable Care Act. There's fairly comprehensive literature that suggests that when regulations seem like they might get repealed, people resist them aggressively. When the new restriction appears to be set in stone, however, the reaction seems to be rationalization: Trying to think through why the regulation isn't, in fact, all that bad.

And although the major components of the health law remain in place, Congress has managed to alter or kill some of its provisions:

In the course of nearly 40 repeal votes, Congress has also managed to change the Affordable Care Act in some substantive ways. It repealed a small-business tax reporting requirement that legislators in both parties derided as onerous. Congress changed the way income gets counted under the Affordable Care Act in determining who receives a tax subsidy to purchase health insurance coverage.

Congress has cut off funding to a program that was meant to fund new, nonprofit health plans in all states. It also cut into the Prevention and Public Health Fund, which pays for everything from primary care residencies to healthy corner store programs.

This sort of thing is bound to annoy the health law's supporters, but it suggests that the repeated votes to repeal the law have been effective—not, obviously, at taking the law down, but at changing the way it works, and at creating political conditions that might be more amenable to repeal at some point in the future. With the Senate and the White House controlled by Democrats, Republicans opposed to the health law are limited in the ways they can move the ball on the goal of full repeal. But they're not entirely powerless. The repeal votes are not only a symbolic way of expressing opposition to the law, they're also a way of helping to preserve the (admittedly small) possibility that they might have the power and political will to fully repeal the law at some point in the future.