Don’t Worry, Democrats: The GOP Has Your Back

August 20, 2013 Current Commentary 2 Comments
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Democrats have good reason to be alarmed as the Affordable Care Act – or at least the pieces of it deemed ready for prime time – moves toward a rocky rollout.

But the folks who passed Obamacare, and therefore ought to own the political consequences, have found a powerful if unwitting ally in the Republican Party. The GOP is senselessly setting itself up to take the blame if and when the president’s signature policy vehicle blows up on the launch pad.

How else can you explain 40 – 40! – attempts in the GOP-controlled House of Representatives to repeal or defund Obamacare? There was no chance that any such legislation could ever get past the Senate or a presidential veto, so the votes were purely symbolic. Most of the public doesn’t pay attention to that level of Washington detail, however. In much of the country, people are likely to believe that these House votes actually made the implementation of the new law more difficult, even though the votes changed nothing. Nothing, that is, except the eventual assignment of blame when things go wrong.

A noisy Republican faction now wants to raise the ante by threatening to halt the congressional budgeting process, which could lead to a partial government shutdown when the new federal fiscal year begins on Oct. 1. Not coincidentally, that is the day the ACA’s new health insurance exchanges are scheduled to open for business. Opponents of the health care law want Obamacare defunded as the price for letting the rest of the government continue to function.

It’s a nonsensical position. Barring the government from spending any money to implement the law won’t change the law; it will just guarantee that millions more people will be confused, inconvenienced or financially injured. Is this supposed to help congressional Republicans win elections? It won’t, which is why most of the GOP’s leaders on Capitol Hill are trying to cut this movement off. But the position has support among noncongressional Republicans like Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal and former Rep. Rick Santorum, as well as some Republicans in Congress like Sens. Ted Cruz, Rand Paul and Marco Rubio. The common feature among all these kamikaze politicians is that they aspire to win the GOP presidential nod in 2016, so they are trying to appeal to the extreme elements of the party’s base that decide early nominating contests in otherwise politically unimportant places like Iowa and New Hampshire.

This is an almost classic case of trying to fight the last war. Except that the party that tries to fight the last war is normally the one that won it. Republicans might recall that they lost the last presidential election. The people backing the defund-at-all-costs measure are the least responsible, least constructive members of the party. I hope they are reminded of this when they call on their potential big-money donors.

Still, if Republicans appear to be clueless about the political consequences of their behavior, President Obama and other Democrats certainly are not. The president made much of the GOP shutdown threat in his weekly broadcast and Internet address last week.

“A lot of Republicans seem to believe that if they can gum up the works and make this law fail, they’ll somehow be sticking it to me,” Obama said Saturday. “But they’d just be sticking it to you.”

On this point, even Republicans ought to be able to see that the president is right. Why do they want to put him in a position to argue that if Obamacare fails, it is Republicans’ fault?

Republicans ought to give the law every chance to succeed precisely because they believe it is structurally, irredeemably flawed. Future voters would then know exactly who is responsible for the mess. GOP obstructionism clouds the issue.

And Obamacare is undoubtedly a mess. The administration has already put off enforcing the employer mandate for one year, until 2015. The IRS, which just opened its own ACA Web page, has likewise delayed efforts to verify which taxpayers qualify for federal subsidies. Roughly half the states have refused the law’s invitation (it was a mandate until the Supreme Court overturned it) to expand their Medicaid programs to cover millions of additional beneficiaries. Officials trumpeted an initial decrease in insurance cost in places like New York, a state whose premiums were already among the nation’s highest because state law included many features that are built into Obamacare. In other places, premiums are rising and are likely to go higher still in the years ahead. Ohio recently announced an 18 percent increase in small business insurance rates, with projections of individual rates rising up to 41 percent; Democrats challenge some of the assumptions in those figures and say consumers should focus on the smaller amounts they will pay if they qualify for subsidies.

Yet the problems keep on coming. The administration recently went to linguistic extremes to determine that members of Congress and their office staff, who are required under the ACA to get their health insurance on new exchanges (typically open only to individual or small-business customers), can still qualify for generous government subsidies even though their incomes are too high to qualify normally. Beyond the D.C. Beltway, school districts across the country are looking at cutting hours for classroom aides and substitute teachers to avoid having to pay for insurance when the employer mandate kicks in. Unions covering workers in both the public and private sectors are becoming nervous about a new tax on “Cadillac” health plans that takes effect a few years from now.

All this has got lots of Democrats worried, and it should. Being the authors of a highly unpopular health plan ought to be hazardous to their own political health. But Republicans, who have no coherent health care plan of their own, may yet provide the cure for Democrats’ political ills by shouldering a big share of the blame for Obamacare.

Maybe the GOP could get some psychotherapy under Obamacare. It’s better than nothing.


2 Responses to “Don’t Worry, Democrats: The GOP Has Your Back”

  1. Jon Healey says:

    Re: subsidies for congressional staff — You’re conflating two unrelated things. The law forces members of Congress and their staff out of a group health plan and into the exchanges. They’re the only employees treated that way by the law. That threatened the equivalent of a huge pay cut, because it would require most of those workers to directly pay the entire cost of their healthcare premiums — they pay part of it now directly, and part of it indirectly through their employer’s contributions. The move by OPM wasn’t designed to unjustly enrich these folks, it was designed to hold them harmless.

  2. Larry Elkin says:

    Mr. Healey is correct that the point of the Office of Personnel Management decision to defray congressional staff’s health care costs is to “hold them harmless.” But the point of including a provision in the ACA to require that these policymakers get their insurance via the exchanges was NOT to hold them harmless; it was to put them in the same position as other Americans who would henceforth be required to obtain coverage via the exchanges (including those who would have preferred not to purchase insurance at all).

    Federal employees are entitled to the same subsidies on the exchanges as other Americans, as long as they fit within the income limits — but members of Congress and their senior staff do not fit. They knew this when they passed Sen. Grassley’s amendment. They were making the point, politically helpful at the time, that they would not enjoy better and cheaper coverage than other citizens who are in similar economic circumstances.

    Now, however, it appears that Congress is prepared to eat its own cooking only as long as it doesn’t have to pay for the food.

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