BOB GARFIELD: This is On the Media. I’m Bob Garfield.
Beyond the drama on the Senate floor Thursday night and into Friday’s wee hours, the effort on health care isn't necessarily over, although how it may be revived is a mystery. From the beginning, the Republican attempt to repeal Obamacare has been utterly opaque, to senators, to aides, to the White House and, certainly, to the press.
JULIE ROVNER: This is maybe one of the weirdest days in my entire career as a health reporter. We have only seven hours of the day left and there is no bill.
BOB GARFIELD: Julie Rovner is chief Washington correspondent for Kaiser Health News who spoke to us Thursday before the crucial vote. As of Friday, she says, repeal is in a medically—induced coma, perhaps to be revived by Republican leadership, perhaps not. Whatever happens, she is pretty sure her decades of experience with legislative procedure and gathering information from knowledgeable sources will do her very little good.
JULIE ROVNER: We’re so far beyond whatever happened in Schoolhouse Rock that you –
— you can’t even begin to explain this.
I'm just a bill.
Yes, I'm only a bill.
And I'm sitting here on Capitol Hill.
JULIE ROVNER: What is happening along the way is something that I have known for quite some time and a lot of health reporters have known for quite some time, which is that the Republican Party is as divided about what to do about health care as the Democratic Party is. You know, everybody talks about the Democrats are split between the single—payer people and the incremental people. Well, the Republicans are divided between the much more libertarian — the government shouldn't be involved in the health care system — and a much more sort of corporate, traditional Republican of health care is a big business and we want to support our friends in the business of health care. And those two things don't come together very well. This should not be a real new discovery but [LAUGHS] they have papered it over the last seven years by everybody standing up and saying, we hate Obamacare, we want to make it go away. The problem is they can't get to the next paragraph of, well, here's what we would like to do instead, because they can't agree.
BOB GARFIELD: If this were an ordinary legislative process, what would have happened, to this point?
JULIE ROVNER: What was supposed to happen is that the two Senate committees in charge of health care, the Finance Committee and the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee were supposed to go in and meet and devise and mark up and vote on their provisions for this Budget Reconciliation Bill. The Senate Budget Committee was supposed to put those things together into a bill. That was supposed to come to the floor and be debated. So it would have been debated in sometimes many, many days in committee. But everybody would have seen it. The Congressional Budget Office would have scored it. Everybody would have had some idea what it was going to do. You’d start the debate and you’d go 20 hours and then you have, at the end of this, this vote—a—rama, where you can vote on unlimited amendments until everybody gets too tired to vote anymore. That's not what's happening here.
BOB GARFIELD: And for a reporter, the job in the scenario that you just described [LAUGHS] is pretty straightforward. You talk to the sponsors of the bill, you talk to the opponents of the bill. You consider the amendments to it. You consider the testimony that's made at the hearings that presumably would have taken place. But now, you're in the dark with everybody else. How in the world have you covered this story in a complete vacuum of information about the legislation itself?
JULIE ROVNER: It's been extremely frustrating. I mean, normally what I like to do as I'm reporting to a general audience is that you want to tell them how it would affect them. The problem is we have four or five different possibilities floating around, all of which would affect different people in different ways, so it's impossible to answer the question of, you know, how does this affect me and my health care? That is just not an unanswerable question.
I think, to some extent, that’s the Republican strategy here, is to confuse reporters and, therefore, the public into what some of these things would really do because, according to most experts and including the now—embattled Congressional Budget Office, the public does not approve of most of the things that most of these bills would do.
BOB GARFIELD: If you can’t cover the substance and the process the way you ordinarily would, I will say this, you’ve had plenty of drama to cover.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: And what you see on your screen there is protesters being dragged out of the Capitol Building. They are protesting the Republican bill, which, of course, none of them has read yet.
BOB GARFIELD: There were reports that the capitol police were demanding that journalists surrender or delete photos of the protesters.
JULIE ROVNER: Yeah, that is extremely unusual and I would suspect something that would be unlikely to stand. I don't know that I see what's going on on Capitol Hill as being any kind of systematic effort to control the free press the way it might be, actually, in the White House.
BOB GARFIELD: So, can we wax philosophical for just a moment?
JULIE ROVNER: Sure. [LAUGHS]
BOB GARFIELD: Your job ordinarily is to see what's going on in the Senate on any piece of legislation, try to understand it and explain it to the folks.
JULIE ROVNER: Mm—hmm. [AFFIRMATIVE]
BOB GARFIELD: In the current circumstances, what part do you and the rest of the free press play, apart from just being the narrator of an absurd reality TV show?
JULIE ROVNER: It is, it's frustrating because I want to do my job. I want to be able to say, this is what they are doing and this is what it would mean, and that has been increasingly difficult. I mean, it's not my job to say whether or not it's good or bad but at least it's my job to say what it is, and I'm having an increasingly difficult time doing that.
BOB GARFIELD: One last question. It’s a simple one. What’s gonna happen?
JULIE ROVNER: [LAUGHS] I wish I knew. You know, this – we keep – all the health reporters keep referring to this as the “zombie bill” because it keeps dying and coming back to life. The tweet that I have pinned at the top of my profile right now says, I will believe the health bill is dead when I see it with an actual stake through it, and maybe not even then.
BOB GARFIELD: [LAUGHS] Julie, thank you very much.
JULIE ROVNER: [LAUGHS] You’re very welcome.
BOB GARFIELD: Julie Rovner is chief Washington correspondent for Kaiser Health News. Her reporting frequently shows up — on a little network called NPR.