The Obamacare Fight May Not Be Over

Yesterday, Steve Benen wrote a post titled, “ACA repeal crusade over, ‘delusional folks notwithstanding’.” Here’s part of it:

Last year, Republican officials up and down the ballot argued the 2012 elections were the party’s last chance to derail the Affordable Care Act. Once they lost those elections, Republican officials declared, “Never mind what we said before; this budget fight really is our last chance to derail the Affordable Care Act.” And now they’ve lost this round, too.

There won’t be a third. The repeal crusade was a flop.

Sure, it’s possible congressional Republicans will vote a few more times to gut the law — at last count, I think we’re up to 46 repeal votes in the House — but it’s slowly dawning on the party that their dream will not be realized.

They can try to go through the motions in the months and years ahead, but it’s more likely to create eye-rolling than results.

I’m so tempted to agree with Benen. The law has been through so many challenges the past couple of years that it is just about set in stone. But I see one more possibility for how Republicans could derail it:

We’re two weeks into the open-enrollment period for Obamacare. This period lasts until March 31 and it’s the time when individuals can sign up for health insurance on the exchanges. On January 1st, Obamacare goes live and those health plans kick in. That’s when the law really starts. Right now, we’re still in the sign-up phase. So far, that sign-up phase has been an unmitigated disaster. If you’re an Obamacare supporter, you should be very, very concerned. By all accounts, the flaws in the online exchanges aren’t a result of traffic overload or glitches. They are much more systemic and widespread and will require a huge amount of work to get them operating properly. The Administration still has a lot of work to do.

In addition, the government shutdown has masked these problem. Some people think the problems are actually a result of the shutdown, which isn’t true. Once we’re past these fiscal fights, the media’s attention will turn to the mass problems with the exchanges. People will start realizing that there are serious issues here.

The question is how long they will last. If December comes and there are still issues, the Administration should become very worried that people will start seriously turning against the law. Of course, it will have nothing to do with the policy behind Obamacare, but a technical failure can still switch public opinion fast. If people lose faith that the government has the capability to implement it. they may give up. Imagine January 1st coming and people still having trouble signing up on healthcare.gov. That would be a colossal failure.

Two weeks after that, the continuing resolution in the Reid-McConnell plan expires. This would give Cruz and Co. yet another chance to try to spur grassroots support and demand a delay in Obamacare in exchange for funding the government. That plan blew up in their faces the last couple of weeks, but the Tea Party would have a lot more support this time around. Independents may start looking at those demand as reasonable if the exchanges are still having major troubles.

This is the final challenge for Obamacare: does it work? For months, the focus has been on rate-shock and whether the policy would help most Americans. Few people wondered whether the exchanges would actually function correctly. Now, that question is at the forefront of the debate. Under normal circumstances, a Democratic president and Democratic Senate would ensure that the law has plenty of time to work out its kinks, well past January 1st if necessary. They would accept the bad media coverage and keep working on healthcare.gov until they got it right. But the McConnell-Reid deal presents a potential opportunity for Cruz and the Tea Party to mount a grassroots effort that really could force the president to reexamine his greatest legislative achievement. It’s timed perfectly for Republicans to mount a serious challenge to defund or delay the law on legitimate grounds. The Administration ultimately controls the viability of this challenge, but the McConnell-Reid makes it possible. The Obamacare battles never seem to end.

Americans Reject Using A Government Shutdown To Legislate

Yesterday evening, President Obama gave a short speech where he urged Congress to pass a continuing resolution to prevent a government shutdown and criticized Republican leaders for attempting to extract concessions from him without giving anything up themselves.

“[O]ne faction of one party in one house of Congress in one branch of government doesn’t get to shut down the entire government just to refight the results of an election,” Obama said. “Keeping the people’s government open is not a concession to me. Keeping vital services running and hundreds of thousands of Americans on the job is not something you give to the other side. It’s our basic responsibility.”

In fact, Democrats have already agreed to a deal with Republicans where they are giving up something and the GOP isn’t. It’s the clean CR that keeps sequestration. Democrats are giving billions in budget cuts to Republicans, who are giving up nothing. Yet, a small, but powerful group of conservative House Republicans won’t even consider that deal and House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) won’t bring up the bill out of fear of them. If he did take the political risk and bring the clean CR to the floor, it would pass with a large majority, the Senate would pass it and the government shutdown would end, all with a bill in which Democrats make concessions and Republicans don’t.

Now, imagine if Republicans were looking to cut spending beyond sequestration ($986 billion in discretionary spending) to the level laid out in the 2014 Ryan Budget ($967 billion). Under this scenario, the Republicans starting position would still be absurd as the Senate Democrats original 2014 budget set spending at $1,058 billion. The sequester has already trimmed that to a $986 billion. Reducing it all the way to the levels of the Ryan Budget would be an outrageous demand. But at least that demand would have to do with levels of federal spending. There would be a very clear, logical connection between the government funding and the Republican position. But Republicans aren’t asking for anything related to federal spending right now. It’s all about finding ways to undermine Obamacare. That’s what sets this government shutdown apart from previous ones.

This is the 18th government shutdown in U.S. history. Here’s how the causes of them breakdown (thanks to Wonkblog’s Dylan Matthews for the great roundup):

  • 9 were caused by disagreements over spending levels on certain programs, projects, departments or the entire government (1976, 1978, 1981, 1982 #2, 1983, 1987, 1990, 1995, 1996)
  • 4 were caused by disagreements over whether Medicaid dollars could go towards abortion (1977 #1, 1977 #2, 1977 #3, 1979)
  • 2 were caused by disagreements over Civil Rights legislation and a couple of projects (1984 #1, 1984 #2)
  • 1 was caused by disagreements over labor contracts and welfare expansion (1986)
  • 1 was caused by negligence (1982 #1)

In nearly every shutdown, the two parties disagreed on issues related to levels of funding or how federal spending would be used. These were differences of opinion directly related to budget negotiations. In almost every situation, there was an actual negotiation and each side compromised to find a solution. It required a government shutdown, but the structure for negotiations always existed as the initial starting positions for each party were related to federal spending.

There were a couple of occasions where that was not the case, such as when Democrats attempted to enact a Civil Rights law in 1984 and ensure that the FCC enforced the “Fairness Doctrine” in 1987. However, the party looking to use a government shutdown to legislate always lost. Democrats eventually relented on the Civil Rights legislation and the “Fairness Doctrine.” This doesn’t mean that it’s impossible to enact legislation unrelated to federal spending during a government shutdown, but it has never succeeded before. The main reason for that is that negotiations over funding the government are supposed to be just that. They aren’t supposed to be a place where one party can extort the other.

Yet, this is what House Republicans are trying to do. They are trying to force the Administration to delay or defund Obamacare in order to fund the government at a level that everyone agrees on. When a final agreement is reached (or Republicans relent), the CR will almost certainly be set at $986 billion. Republicans aren’t concerned about spending levels. They are using the government shutdown to legislate. This is exactly what President Obama said in his remarks earlier today as well.

“No, this shutdown is not about deficits,” he said. “It’s not about budgets. This shutdown is about rolling back our efforts to provide health insurance to folks who don’t have it. It’s all about rolling back the Affordable Care Act.”

Fortunately, Americans seem to be well aware of what Republicans are trying to do and are wholeheartedly rejecting it. A Quinnipiac Poll today found that 72% of respondents disapprove of Congress using a government shutdown to block Obamacare. Just 22% approve of the tactic. This is in stark contrast to the overall approval rating of the law, which sits at -2% (45% in favor, 47% opposed). That demonstrates that Americans disapprove of the Republican’s tactic of using a government shutdown to legislate.

If the numbers were reversed, Democrats would face political pressure to adjust the law. It would alter the dynamics of government spending negotiations forever – allowing the party not being blamed for the shutdown to enact legislation via extortion. That’s not a proper way for our government to function. By overwhelmingly rejecting the Republican’s strategy, Americans are sending a message loud and clear: using a government shutdown to legislate is not acceptable. Hopefully, Republicans get the message soon enough.