The Republicans in power are insisting that their epic failure to destroy the Affordable Care Act (which they’d been promising to do the instant they got in charge) and replace it with the tax-cuts-for-the-rich bill Donald Trump apparently thought was “really terrific” on Democrats. They just wouldn’t support it (well, they got that part right.)
But the Trumpcare debacle (or miracle, depending on your point of view) had many causes: 1) the president knows and cares nothing about health care, public policy or the mechanisms of government, 2) the GOP is essentially a captive of its extreme right-wing, even for them, Freedom Caucus, and 3) Paul Ryan and his cronies were so drunk with what they thought of as new unchallenged power that they hastily threw together and ill-thought-out law and then tried to slip it past even their own party, just to name a few.
But another factor that had a huge, and perhaps decisive impact, lies much closer to home.
U.S. Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen (R-11), who as head of the House Appropriations Committee pretty much controls the nation’s purse strings, eventually had to step up to the plate and announce, publicly, that he would not support Trumpcare.
Two hours after Frelinghuysen’s announcement, the GOP scratched the vote on the bill and a chastened Ryan conceded that “Obamacare is the law of the land.”
Frelinghuysen, whose district includes the Sussex County communities of Byram, Hopatcong, Ogdensburg, Sparta and Stanhope, has steadily moved to the right throughout his 12-term career, and for the past few years has been in lockstep with every anti-progressive, anti-Obama and pro-Trump, pro-corporation policy of his party.
That voting record, and a refusal to state where he stands on specific issues, caused his constituents to demand face to face meetings for an explanation; Frelinghuysen, however, refused to meet with groups at his office or at Town Hall style meetings throughout his four-county district, instead holding “telephone town halls” with preselected voters at inconvenient times. His staff said they had no idea what the congressman’s position on the issues were.
Enter New Jersey 11th for Change, a nonpartisan group formed after the election that grew by leaps and bounds and kept up pressure on Frelinghuysen to be held accountable. Its supporters rallied outside his offices (bringing cookies to emphasize their non-threatening nature); they set up Town Hall meetings for him and held them anyway when he didn’t show up. They wrote; they emailed; they called.
He never responded.
And yet they persisted.
In a testament to that persistence, Frelinghuysen, who as late as Wednesday was planning to vote for repeal, by Friday had packed it in.
Although in his statement on Friday Frelinghuysen said he’d come to realize the repeal would hurt too many New Jerseysans, it strains credulity to believe he was struck by a bolt of lightening on his way to the Capitol.
Much for likely is that he realized his constituents, in the forefront being NJ for Change, are deadly serious about holding him accountable and are not going to go away.
And now noticing that we haven’t stopped being a democracy yet, and not only does the GOP House/Senate/White House triumvirate not have unlimited power, it’s no match for the power of the people when the people are willing to stand up to them.
It’s not clear, however, that Frelinghuysen has totally let that message set it. By Friday it was clear that voting for repeal would be akin to buying a ticket for the Titanic, and Frelinghuysen is too much of an experienced politician to risk angering a large, vocal and active constituency for what was sure to be a major fail.
Mostly, he admitted during one of his “telephone town halls” said that he votes the party line no matter what the issue is: “There's what you think and there's how you vote and those are two separate things.”
For example, he said, he believes that Donald Trump should have to release his taxes, but he voted against demanding that because that is what his party chair wanted.
So Americans can take little comfort in his statements that he’s against eliminating the EPA, or that he has some doubts about the proposed border wall.
It appears that until voters can replace Frelinghuysen in 2018, we need to keep up the pressure, or he will be a rubber stamp for whatever the GOP demands.