Since Congress gaveled in two months ago, the Republican Party has had one clear priority: to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act. But it has been rough going. There have been numerous false starts and internal squabbles among Republican lawmakers, and just last week a leadership proposal was leaked to Politico and drew immediate backlash from conservative members of the House and Senate, including the influential House Freedom Caucus.
On Wednesday, Rep. Chris Collins (R-NY) revealed that the Republican leadership is keeping the latest repeal-and-replace proposal under lock and key. Literally. Ahead of its consideration by a House energy and commerce subcommittee, beginning today, the new top-secret proposal will be made available, but only in a dedicated reading room and only to certain members. Members of the committee and their staff will be allowed to come in and take a look, but copies of the bill will not be permitted to exit the room.
From there, it seems, the committee is going to mark up and vote on the bill in short order, probably without a Congressional Budget Office score (a nonpartisan analysis of a bill’s fiscal impact). This morning, several lawmakers, including Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY), tried to get access to the bill and were told there was no bill available for them to see.
This level of secrecy sounds unusual, but it’s not. In my recent book, Legislating in the Dark, I show that on important and potentially controversial legislative proposals, congressional leaders often work in secrecy and keep even their own party’s members in the dark about the specifics of legislative proposals. In fact, the ability of leaders to restrict and manipulate other lawmakers’ access to information constitutes one of their most important sources of influence. It helps leaders manage the legislative process and make it harder for the other party and opponents outside of Congress to raise specific objections.
In the case of the ACA, opponents of repeal and replace will not be able to point out specific consequences for the quality or quantity of health care coverage stemming from the new proposal, as they have with previous proposals, because they don’t know what exactly is in it. They can only stay general and topline in their objections, which just isn’t as effective.
This also helps congressional leaders keep their own party in line. Members of Congress already have limited and declining resources to draw on to study legislation and do their jobs. Keeping the details of the bill under wraps, and only making them available to a few members and their staff in a secure environment for a short period of time, results in House Republican leaders being the only informed and credible source of information about the proposal.
With this authority, leaders can sell and frame the proposal in a way that encourages their members to support it. They can focus on all the ways the proposal achieves the broadly agreed-upon goals of the party and downplay or ignore aspects of the proposal that may be controversial. Then once the legislative train is rolling down the track, the leadership can put pressure on their members to get on board rather than risk derailing it and causing an embarrassing defeat for the party.
It doesn’t always work, but in today’s hyperpartisan political climate, this strategy helps leaders move bills forward that might fall apart under regular-order, Schoolhouse Rock–style, how-a-bill-becomes-a-law processes that provide political opponents with ample opportunities to attack and make members nervous about their support. In this instance, at least, it appears the Republican leadership has concluded it is their best shot.
James M. Curry is an assistant professor in the political science department at the University of Utah, and co-director of the Utah Chapter of the Scholars Strategy Network.