No Women, No Problem for GOP Health Policy Group

Republican leaders in the Senate have been criticized for not naming any female members to the working group tasked with crafting a health-care bill to replace the Affordable Care Act. The New York Times called the creation of the all-male group “a move to placate the right.” Democrats pounced on the opportunity to reprise their reliable Republicans-hate-women refrain while simultaneously excoriating the House-passed bill. This only demonstrates that the left continues to misunderstand conservative women.

A left-leaning woman might look at the health-care working group and see a bunch of old white men making ignorant decisions about policies that affect women. It’s a talking point that writes itself.

In contrast, it wouldn’t necessarily occur to most right-leaning women to be offended that the group lacked a female member. Republican women don’t consider having a vagina a prerequisite for crafting the health-care policy they would like. They care more about qualifications and ideology than checking off the correct gender box. If the members of this group have the right credentials, the lack of female members would be seen as the type of oversight that can occur when members are thinking more about the problem than optics.

In putting together this working group, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and his lieutenants were focused on two things: tapping the conference’s most qualified legislators and signaling to the base that the Senate is taking this issue seriously. McConnell has had a contentious relationship with the Tea Party wing of the GOP, who tried to unseat him with a primary challenger in his 2014 re-election. Many of the people who voted for President Trump view McConnell with suspicion.  (Disclosure: I worked for Sen. McConnell in his Kentucky and majority whip’s offices.)

Consequently, the composition of the working group communicates a lot about the mindset of Kentucky’s senior senator. He knows that Republicans are teed up now to own whatever happens with health care. After all, President Obama’s signature domestic accomplishment became an albatross around the neck of the Democratic Party. Republicans made sure of it.

It seems safe to assume that the majority leader won’t take any chances with whatever ends up being the Senate version of a Republican fix for Obamacare. Every senator in the group is there for a strategic purpose, starting with the top. (Rather than comment, McConnell’s office referred me to his informal remarks made last week at a press stakeout where he denied denying women membership in the group based on gender.)

Senior members of GOP leadership occupy four of the 13 slots. This includes McConnell himself, as well as Majority Whip John Cornyn of Texas, conference Chairman John Thune of South Dakota and Republican Policy Committee Chairman  John Barrasso of Wyoming. Cornyn and Thune are both members of the Finance Committee, while Barrasso has been described as the party’s point man on health care.

Three more seats are filled by the chairmen of the Finance, Budget, and Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) committees, the most pertinent in the upper chamber to creating and passing health-care legislation. Those three are Orrin Hatch of Utah, Mike Enzi of Wyoming and Tennessee’s Lamar Alexander.

Four of the remaining senators in the group are from states that expanded Medicaid under Obamacare: Tom Cotton of Arkansas, Colorado’s Cory Gardner; Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania, and Rob Portman of Ohio. The latter is not only a member of the Finance Committee but he served as President George W. Bush’s director of the Office of Management and Budget, the Cabinet-level job that puts together the executive branch’s yearly governmental budget proposal. Tea Party darlings Ted Cruz of Texas and Mike Lee of Utah round out the group.

With the possible exception of Cotton, Cruz and Lee, the credentials of most of these men would satisfy objective observers. Their biographies do not show any particularly germane qualifications for the task at hand. From the standpoint of experience, Sen. Lisa Murkowski would have been a stronger choice given her seat on the HELP Committee, and the fact that her state also expanded Medicaid under Obamacare.

But in our Manichean political environment, neither Murkowski nor Susan Collins of Maine, the other female Republican member of the HELP Committee, could be included in the working group. Collins has been working on her own bill to fix Obamacare, an effort that has conspicuously failed to garner GOP support. Both Murkowski and Collins have reputations as moderates who have spoken out in support of continued federal funding of Planned Parenthood, a non-starter for the folks who put Donald Trump in the White House. McConnell and the rest of the leadership clearly do not want their fingers anywhere near the pie he and the others are trying to bake.

The necessity of avoiding the optic of potentially caving on federal funds for abortion, a hot-button issue on the right, led to a worse one: looking like they were excluding women instead of just moderates. That’s now been fixed. West Virginia’s Shelley Moore Capito was invited to the first meeting of the working group after the controversy erupted.

Although not including Capito (or either of the other female senators in the GOP conference — Joni Ernst of Iowa or Nebraska’s Deb Fischer) was a misstep, it appears to have been easily rectified by Capito’s late addition, especially if she elects to remain permanently.

Rather than care about the gender makeup of a policy group, conservative women are concerned about regaining some of the freedom that was taken away under Obamacare. That starts with more choices for coverage instead of the government unilaterally deciding what a plan should include, regardless of the monthly cost. Federal dictates on coverage have been a major reason that premiums have risen steadily even as the number of plans from which to choose have shrunk. Young women on the right may want the option of forgoing health insurance altogether in the lean years of early professional life after college, without this calculated risk triggering a financial penalty (inventively described as “a tax” by the Supreme Court) as is the case with Obamacare. Many religious conservative women want the system to stop violating their consciences with provisions requiring employers to pay for contraception, which is fundamentally discretionary spending by an individual, or tax dollars facilitating what they consider to be murder. In general, conservative women tend to favor paring down federal interference with state health-care decisions.

In other words, when it comes to health-care policy, conservative women share the same philosophy as conservative men: the less government involvement, the better.


Anneke E. Green is a RealClearPolitics columnist and senior director at the White House Writers Group. She served in President George W. Bush’s speechwriting office.

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