The Indefensible Process of Healthcare Repeal in the U.S. Senate

Let’s talk about legislative “process,” shall we? Throughout their attempt to repeal and replace Obamacare, Senator John Hoeven has continually attempted to defend the “process” his leader Mitch McConnell undertook. What we witnessed from the United States Senate over this last week was quite frankly despicable. It is indefensible. Zero hearings. Back room deals. Limited debate. Not knowing the content of the bill which will impact every American’s health care hours before they voted for it. The “process” was not normal.

We saw a near successful smear of the proud tradition of the United States Senate being the most deliberative body in the world. That tradition was defended by one vote. I’m not talking about the contents of the bill itself, I’m talking about changing the norms and practices of a legislative body. Those who participated and allowed this to take place don’t deserve to hold their Senate seat after their next election.

In a statement issued early Friday, Hoeven said he “voted for legislation to move forward the health care reform process.” He said reform efforts would involve more than just one bill and pointed to rising premiums under the ACA, commonly known as Obamacare. He repeated that sentiment this weekend in a letter published in the Bismarck Tribune. His votes for the unpopular legislation, “started a process” he claims. In doing so, he seems to ignore the irregular process that brought the secret bill before him.

What was that “process” on Thursday before the final vote on “skinny repeal?” A handful of Republicans in the U.S. Senate were pleading for assurance from the U.S. House to not just simply accept the secret health care bill they were attempting to pass hours after seeing the draft. The Senate didn’t even want their own legislation to become law! 49 of them voted for it anyway. They were crossing their fingers that it will lead to conference committee. Yet, there were no guarantees of a conference committee, regardless of what the Speaker of the House said. Unreal. The House could have accepted the Senate bill and passed it sending it to President Trump who was waiting, “pen in hand” to sign any healthcare bill that hit his desk. The “process” is better characterized as a “gamble.”

During my time in the North Dakota Senate, I learned that you make sure the bill before you is in the best possible shape before it leaves your chamber. Why? Because you have no input or control on what the other chamber will do. You need to try and make sure you’re comfortable with your vote becoming law as is. You may not get another chance to make it better before the Governor signs what lands on his desk.

There were numerous times North Dakota’s Senate Majority Leader Rich Wardner would tell us we should do something in our chamber with the assurances he got from his counter part House Majority Leader Al Carlson. That always made us uneasy. As you may know, Carlson isn’t always good at keeping his word. Sometimes, the Senate got burned.

I’ll give you a clear example of the House leadership not keeping their word and throwing the process into chaos. It was the end of the 2013 legislative session. Day 79 tensions were high regarding the K-12 education funding bill. The bill was passed by both chambers, but it rested in the House. Rumors began to swirl that Al Carlson would have his chamber reconsider the bill on day 80, the last day the Legislature is allowed to meet by law. But Carlson gave Wardner his assurance that wouldn’t happen, just rumors, and that we’d all be on our way home early the next day. The next morning, Senators walked across the Great Hall and watched Al Carlson and his loyal followers do exactly what Carlson assured Wardner he wouldn’t. They reconsidered and defeated the K-12 funding bill. Every public school, teacher, administrator, and student would be impacted. The Legislature held a marathon on the last day to put together something workable, that would do no harm.


While Hoeven attempts to defend the indefensible “process,” other Senators have called for a return to normalcy and tradition following last week’s defeat. Senator John McCain called for a “return to the correct way of legislating.” Meanwhile, President Trump has called for a change in the Senate rules. I side with McCain. Hoeven knows better. Perhaps this as an attempt to cover for his vote on an unpopular set of bills that would have had profound negative impacts on North Dakota.