What does it say when the wonky policy genius of the Republican Party has to cheat and tell outright falsehoods to barely pass his signature piece of legislation?
At long last, Paul Ryan got his way, jamming a stupendously cruel health care reform bill through the Republican-controlled House on Thursday by a razor-thin margin. God only knows how many nights over the past seven years the Speaker lay awake dreaming of this moment, or how many gritty early-morning circuit-training sessions he fueled with a burning desire to repeal President Obama’s signature legislative achievement, or how many frat parties he instantly ruined once upon a time by loudly telling bewildered sorority girls about gutting Medicaid as they frantically shot “SAVE ME FROM THE WEIRDO” glances at their sisters. Truly, yesterday’s vote is a tribute to the indomitability of the selfishness of the human spirit.
As bafflingly disastrous on substance as Zombie Trumpcare is—think, for a moment, about how wild it is that two hundred seventeen elected officials decided yesterday that it was a good idea to support a bill that nonpartisan budget analysts predict will result in 24 million of their constituents losing health insurance—the process by which Ryan slipped it through the House is equally galling. This is because the most vociferous critic of that process, if you had asked him about it just a few short years ago, would have been Paul Ryan himself.
Here is the esteemed Speaker in 2009, when he was just another middling congressman whose penchant for P90X had barely entered the public consciousness, complaining about the proposed Affordable Care Act by plaintively arguing that the House should not vote on “bills that we haven’t read [and] we don’t know what they cost,” pleading, “Let’s have an honest debate.”
During the first two years of the Obama administration, Ryan’s party brayed loudly and frequently about the dangers of legislation that members of the House hadn’t read. A certain then-congressman had some hilarious snarky jokes to make about the ACA on this subject, while then–House Minority Leader John Boehner, God rest his career’s soul, said this about a similar 1,200-page energy bill that the GOP also fought tooth and nail:
“No one—not one single member of Congress—has read the bill that Democratic leadership is bringing up for a vote today,” his spokesman, Michael Steel, said in an e-mailed statement. “We expect it may take a while, but members of Congress, and—more importantly—the American people have a right to know what the House is voting on.”
As the ACA picked up steam, House Republicans jeeringly questioned whether then-Speaker Pelosi would wait for the all-important Congressional Budget Office verdict on the bill’s projected costs before she brought it to the House floor. (She did.)
In the eyes of the Republican Party in which Paul Ryan rose to power, the Democrats were a lazy, smug, and irresponsible collection of big-government liberals who loved setting money on fire and cutting corners in order to do so faster. When the GOP leveraged a wave of
thinly-veiled racism Tea Party–fueled anti-Obama sentiment to seize control of the House in 2010, its members solemnly signed a “Pledge to America,” promising that if voters put them in power, their Republican-controlled legislature would be a government of transparency and accountability and common sense. Ryan, as it so happens, was all in. From the Pledge:
We will ensure that bills are debated and discussed in the public square by publishing the text online for at least three days before coming up for a vote in the House of Representatives. No more hiding legislative language from the minority party, opponents, and the public. Legislation should be understood by all interested parties before it is voted on.
This commitment to being a principled parliamentarian, it turns out, lasted until the instant Paul Ryan realized that he couldn’t pass an idea as unpopular as Zombie Trumpcare while still playing by his own rules. And so, after seven years, the Speaker junked his fraudulent promises with the cheerful abandon of a man who understands that there are no longer consequences for even the most outrageous of hypocrisies. House Republicans posted the bill online less than 24 hours before it was scheduled for a vote. A befuddled GOP congressman admitted he hadn’t read the bill, while another added that he didn’t think any of his colleagues had done so. And sure enough, Ryan, the Republicans’ loudest deficit hawk and the spiritual leader of his party’s blind obsession with militant fiscal conservatism no matter the human cost, held a vote on the bill without looking at its price tag, a move that a former CBO director scornfully called “absurd” and a “terrible mistake.”
Donald Trump is a habitual liar who will freely abandon a position and then angrily swear to you that he never said otherwise. But his particular brand of dishonesty stems from simple vapidity, not calculated malevolence. The president has no fixed ideology or coherent set of beliefs, which means that his occasional astonishing flip-flops are best understood as further evidence of his profound intellectual bankruptcy.
Ryan is different. His self-righteous platitudes were never about any meaningful commitment to transparency or a genuine fealty to process. For years, the Speaker carefully crafted his image as a fair, judicious, and deliberate policymaker who Did Government the Right Way. The win he eked out yesterday, though, exposed him for what he is: an opportunistic charlatan who was willing to abandon his code the moment he determined that it was no longer politically expedient.