There is a giant scandal in Washington this week—and it’s not the one blaring from your television screen. Largely without media scrutiny, the United States Senate is quietly getting ready to pass their version of the House bill to repeal the Affordable Care Act. If it looks anything like the legislation the House passed last month—and by most accounts, it does—the bill could take away health care coverage from millions (the House-passed American Health Care Act would take away health insurance from 23 million people in 10 years).
The Senate’s stealth strategy here should come as no surprise: They learned from the House. After the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) found that 24 million people would lose health care under the initial version of the AHCA bill, constituents responded by flooding House offices with phone calls. Paul Ryan and Republican leadership were forced to cancel a vote in mid-March, because the public opposition to the bill made it impossible to secure the votes they needed. The House then went back to their members and passed a new version, with no CBO score or media coverage, in order to mask the effects of their bill.
That handed Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell the playbook he needs to get his bill passed. The Senate companion to the House bill is being crafted under lock and key, foregoing committee hearings, mark-up, or any public debate. McConnell went as far as kicking all non-leadership staff out of secret discussions last month to prevent them from disclosing information about the bill to the public. Even rank-and-file GOP Senators—who control the chamber and will likely be tasked with sending the legislation to the president’s desk—claim not to know what’s in it. According to Axios, the bill will not be released publicly even once it is complete. Instead, Mitch McConnell plans to send the completed text to the Congressional Budget Office for review, without any public scrutiny.
What’s shocking is not that the Senate is attempting to pass this bill under a shroud of secrecy; it’s that the strategy is working. As Vox’s Jeff Stein has been chronicling, most mainstream media outlets have either ignored the Senate health care discussions or downplayed their urgency.
Scanning the front webpages of the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, and CNN on Monday revealed no mentions of the health care bill—and the same was true for much of last week. Even politics-focused outlets like Politico and the Hill have largely relegated their coverage of the health care fight to specialized newsletters or paywalled content.
Another day without a SINGLE frontpage story on the Senate's bill to take health care from millions. Like living in an alternate universe. pic.twitter.com/bQeYQoTv54
— Jeremy Slevin (@jeremyslevin) June 19, 2017
Not one mention of health care vote on front page of any major news outlet. PAY ATTENTION, MEDIA. pic.twitter.com/uCEgJiTWAy
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— Jeremy Slevin (@jeremyslevin) June 16, 2017
Instead, lead stories focus almost exclusively on the Trump-Russia investigation. Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ testimony before the Senate Intelligence Committee last week dominated national news coverage. Later in the week, news that the FBI was investigating the president himself—and the president’s histrionic response on Twitter—crowded out any discussion of the health care bill.
The media have their excuses. Without senators willing to discuss the plans publicly, reporters have found it difficult to break news on the topic. Cable news has no compelling soundbites to play for their viewers because Republican Senators are not holding public hearings, committee mark-ups, or press conferences on the bill.
There has been little public outcry because there has been little sunlight on the Senate’s process
But, as newsworthy as Russia’s interference in the 2016 election is, a bill to take away health insurance from millions is, at the very least, equally worthy of public attention. The legislation Senate Republicans are currently discussing is likely to reinstate annual and lifetime benefit limits—even for employer plans outside of the ACA exchanges. This could be a death sentence for people who get sick and require expensive care to stay alive. Recent analysis from the Center for American Progress (full disclosure: TalkPoverty.org is a project of the Center) revealed that up to 27 million Americans could face annual limits. And the Senate is planning to go beyond repealing the Medicaid expansion—which was part of the ACA—by imposing deep cuts to the traditional Medicaid program that helps seniors, kids, and people with disabilities in every state.
What the Senate is doing is an affront to democracy, but there has been little public outcry because there has been little sunlight on the Senate’s process or underlying legislation. For the public to hold their representatives accountable, they need to have accurate—or at least basic—information on what Congress is doing. Just as dogged journalism has revealed some of most critical details of the Russia investigation, it is the responsibility of the press to draw out the contents of the Senate’s health care bill—before it is too late.