When the histories of our era are written, expect to see many an epigraph furnished by Republican Senator Richard Burr, whose candid admission about health care deserves perpetual infamy: “It doesn’t concern me. As I said, I’ll vote for anything.” While other Republicans expressed similar sentiments (Sen. Ron Johnson announced Monday that “I don’t have a clue what we’re going to be voting on”), Burr’s remark is distinguished by its sheer breeziness, as if North Carolina’s senior senator had been possessed by the let-it-be spirit of a carefree surfer dude bent on snatching away Americans’ health care, but willing to leave the details up to the universe. On Tuesday afternoon, Trumpcare—a bill whose contents are a total mystery—passed its “motion to proceed” vote in the Senate, despite the fact that lawmakers don’t know what it is, don’t know how it would affect America’s health-care system, have not received a CBO score, have held no hearings on it, have made no attempt to sell it to the American public, and have no clear path to actually reconciling it with a House health-care bill in some workable form. As one longtime health-care reporter put it—in what, incredibly, is still an understatement:
I'm in the Senate,
Vote is less than an hour away, and NO ONE KNOWS WHAT THEY ARE VOTING ON! #insane
— julie rovner (@jrovner) July 25, 2017
Today’s vote, while not the end of the Trumpcare fight, is a clear signal that we have entered uncharted waters in more than a few respects. Much will be said about the unbelievably secretive and careless approach to governance that took us to this point, and there will undoubtedly be myriad policy horrors to contemplate once we actually know something about the substance of the bill. But what I want to draw attention to is the way in which our normal conceptual frameworks—our ways of thinking about what our representatives do—are proving disturbingly unfit for this new reality.
We have a reasonably well-developed toolkit of ideas for thinking about the behavior of political representatives—most famously the distinction between the delegate and trustee models of representation. There’s a reasonable debate to be had about whether representatives should channel the will of their constituents, or whether they are present in government to exercise their own judgment about the proper course of action. Perhaps a legislator acts sometimes as a trustee, and sometimes as a delegate, depending on the complexity of the issue, the impact it has on her district, the intensity of public feeling, or some other factor—but in any case, we have a vocabulary that helps us express our sense of when our representatives have either served us well or failed us.
What’s amazing about the Trumpcare fiasco is how much it circumvents this basic model for understanding and evaluating how members of Congress behave. It stands, so to speak, outside our categories. If the public knew what was in this legislation, citizens would be empowered to contact their representatives and tell them how they want them to vote. On this point, it’s important to remember that many of the likely consequences of a hypothetical GOP law, including higher premiums and cuts to Medicaid, are things that Trump specifically promised not to allow. That we expect average citizens to understand the difference between what Trump says versus what “Trumpcare” is likely to contain is merely proof that we have already substantially normalized the incredible mendacity and cynicism of this Administration.
Of course, the public doesn’t know what’s in the bill, so the public can’t form views on its substance. As a result, representatives can’t act according to the delegate model. If you were a strong supporter of the trustee theory of representation, this might be a regrettable situation, but not a dealbreaker: In principle, even a secret deal worked out among well-meaning representatives could still serve the public interest. (This is, more or less, the thinking behind public acceptance of the classified activities of legislators dealing with intelligence and national security issues.) But notice, that in this case, the trustee model also doesn’t apply, because Republicans themselves have no earthly idea what they’re being asked to vote for. In spite of everything, they voted for it anyway. The process is so far gone that it even outstrips our normal resources for thinking about the basic issues involved with representative government—a new world in which decisions about huge, life-and-death matters can move forward in the Senate with neither the public nor their lawmakers having any knowledge about what is going on. Who said the Republicans wouldn’t lead us into new frontiers?