In the three years since Obamacare — the legislative darling of the president’s first term — was signed into law, it has grown from an adorable 2,700-page binder full of rules and kickbacks into a towering 7-foot-3-inch, 300-pound behemoth totaling more than 20,000 pages of byzantine mandates and regulations. When House speaker Nancy Pelosi (D., Calif.) infamously said, “We have to pass the bill so you can find out what is in it,” she wasn’t kidding.
Now, thanks to some enterprising staffers in the office of Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell (R., Ky), the American people can finally see what their elected officials created. The so-called Red-Tape Tower became an instant hit on social-media sites after McConnell’s press office tweeted a photo on March 12 (hashtag #redtapetower) of all 20,000-plus pages of regulations that the administration has released since Obamacare became law. The tower was stacked neatly in a corner of the Capitol building and adorned with a red satin bow that a staff member found at a stationary shop in nearby Union Station. The photo has been shared by tens of thousands on Facebook and Twitter.
“It’s a very effective visual way of dramatizing the impact of this bill and what we’ve been predicting would happen for three years,” explains one McConnell aide. “We can talk about it all we want, but actually showing people all the regulations printed out is very powerful.”
This “monument to liberalism,” as McConnell described it in his March 15 address at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), has become a Stanley Cup of sorts for GOP lawmakers and conservative tourists on Capitol Hill. Republican senators hav enlisted its services for a series of press conferences this week marking the law’s three-year anniversary. This usually requires a “team of interns” to lug the cumbersome beast about the Capitol, with the help of a heavy-duty red dolly typically used to transport desks and filing cabinets. Dozens of tourists have stopped to take pictures next to the tower; on at least one occasion, a visitor remarked: “Hey, is that the thing from Facebook?”
The idea for the tower was born following the administration’s “Friday dump” of more than 700 pages of new health-care regulations on March 1. McConnell aides mulled the idea of printing them out to use as a compelling visual prop for the upcoming anniversary “celebration.” Then one staffer suggested: “What if we printed out all of them?” So they did. The request to the Senate printing office went out on March 7; the tower was not completed until March 13.
Due to the restrictions governing the use of props on the Senate floor, staffers decided that McConnell’s CPAC speech would be a more suitable venue to publicly unveil the tower. Three aides carted it to Gaylord Hotel the night before the 9 a.m. address, and with the help of several event staffers, they practiced rolling it out on stage in order to get the timing down and comport with CPAC’s tight speaking schedule.
When McConnell took the stage the next day, dwarfed by the stack of papers, he declared that Obamacare “should be repealed root and branch.” Thunderous applause ensued. “If you think that’s bad,” he said, pointing at the tower, “wait until they try to fix it.”
Afterward, the Red Tape Tower made its way to the main hall, where CPAC attendees lined up to take photos. “They weren’t sure whether to smile or frown when they got their pictures taken,” a McConnell aide recalls. “It may have been the most popular guest at CPAC,” jokes another. “If it had been on the straw-poll ballot, it probably would have gotten a handful of votes.”
In an interview with the Tea Party News Network following his speech, McConnell said that the law’s passage was the “biggest disappointment” of his tenure as minority leader. “But also it was the beginning of the comeback of our party in the 2010 election,” he added, and reiterated his commitment to full repeal. Earlier that week, Republicans had unanimously supported a measure to defund Obamacare. Additionally, the continuing resolution that has already passed both chambers of Congress did not authorize the administration’s request for roughly $1 billion in extra funding to implement Obamacare.
That fight continues, and props like the Red Tape Tower (which continues to grow by the day) are part of a broader GOP effort to “brand” the law as the bulk of its onerous regulatory regime begins to come online, and as the American public begins to feel the law’s consequences. Senate Republicans have set up a website devoted to “three years of broken promises,” and Paul Ryan and other House leaders have predicted that once the true impact of the law becomes known, Obamacare will “collapse under its own weight.”
“The more people find out about this law, the more they’re not going to like what it does,” says a GOP aide. “It’s amazing how quickly public perception can change.”
— Andrew Stiles is a political reporter for National Review.