Of course, Republicans won't actually repeal health care reform.


Having promised to repeal "Obamacare" during the midterms, Republicans won control of the House and are preparing to vote on repeal next Wednesday, but there is zero chance that this single vote will nullify the new 1,016-page health care law. With a united GOP majority, the House will probably vote in favor of repeal, but unless Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and President Obama are usurped by bodysnatchers, repeal won't be approved by the Senate or signed by the president.

So, why even hold a vote? What's the point of empty symbolism?

As it turns out, Republicans are smart to hold this vote. Here's why:

  • It's (probably) the popular move. Opinion polling on repeal is a bit complicated, but the public may well support the GOP's goal. CNN poll respondents opposed the health reform law 54% to 43% as of late December, so the new law remains unpopular, as it was when Obama signed it in March. That's not the same, however, as supporting repeal, and the public remains split on the point as pollsters ask whether health reform should be repealed entirely, repealed partly, left alone, or expanded. Only 29% want to repeal the entire bill, according to a Dec. 9 - 12 ABC/Washington Post survey, but 30% want to repeal parts of it. If supporters of partial repeal would prefer, given the binary choice, to repeal the whole law rather than let it stand untouched, then Republicans have the public on their side. Some parts of the bill are popular, while others aren't. For instance, 60% oppose the individual mandate (the requirement to buy insurance), while 61% support forbidding insurers from dropping coverage when customers become seriously ill, according to CNN.
  • Republicans won on the issue before. Health care played a prominent role in the midterm elections--at least for Republicans. While the anti-incumbent wave probably did have a lot to do with the economy, as Obama has argued, GOP candidates relentlessly campaigned against health reform and succeeded in rallying their base against it. As Democratic voters failed to turn out, the GOP ultimately found health care to be a winning issue. By voting to repeal it, the GOP can force health reform back into the public discussion and replay a political fight they've already won.
  • They promised repeal. Perhaps the most important reason House Republicans must follow through is that they promised voters again and again, over the course of several months, that they would hold this vote. After nearly a full year of talking about "repeal and replace," they would look foolish if they didn't hold this vote. And, after so much campaign-season talk, their activist base would never forgive them for eschewing a vote that won't change policy. Leaders of national Tea Party groups have already voiced displeasure at congressional Republicans for, as they see it, acquiescing to Democrats in the lame-duck session of Congress, and they've pledged to hold Republicans' feet to the fire. "Is the GOP willing to play hardball too or are they going to fall back into their old pattern of just rolling over and playing dead," asked Judson Phillips of Tea Party Nation in a December e-mail to supporters. This isn't the time for the GOP to back away from promises.
  • The federal court ruling helps their case. Repeal was openly mocked as a pipe dream during the midterms, but Judge Henry Hudson gave a boost to Republicans by ruling, in a Virginia federal court last month, that the individual mandate is unconstitutional. Two other federal judges have upheld the health law, and many expect the law to stand. But the question of Obamacare's constitutionality is now being treated seriously by media analysts, and, after newspapers ran headlines declaring that Hudson had "overturned" health reform, the cognitive dissonance surrounding repeal has been softened. Once a quixotic notion, the idea of undoing health reform has been mainstreamed.
  • It's easy to sell a repeal of something that doesn't exist yet. In a sense, Republicans aren't calling for the health care law to be undone; they just want to stop it before it starts. Which involves less political risk than taking away benefits that people already enjoy. The most sweeping provisions won't go into effect until 2014, when insurance exchanges, the individual mandate, the rule against discrimination based on pre-existing conditions, and affordability tax credits will kick in. You can see the timeline here. 2010 saw the implementation of Medicaid funding, small-business tax credits, and other coverage expansions, but The Washington Post's Amy Goldstein reports that a high-risk insurance pool for already-sick patients is attracting fewer enrollees than expected. While it sounds unpopular to take away subsidies, rules ensuring that insurance will be available, and all the popular elements of health reform, the public has yet to enjoy many of those benefits, meaning Republicans will have a much easier time making their point.

We want to hear what you think about this article. Submit a letter to the editor or write to letters@theatlantic.com.