Since the Democrats passed Obamacare in 2010, shoving it through in the face of clear public disapproval, Republicans have vowed to repeal it. They won a huge congressional victory in 2010 partly on the basis of that promise. But, they pointed out, they couldn’t repeal the law if they only controlled the House. In 2014, in another big mid-term congressional gain, Republicans regained control of the Senate. But they still couldn’t repeal Obamacare because they didn’t have enough votes to override a presidential veto.
Now Republicans are about to have control of the House, the Senate, and the presidency. There is nothing to stop them from dismantling Obamacare. So naturally they’re figuring out how to blow it.
Their new approach is called “repeal and delay,” which is to say that they’re going to repeal Obamacare but at the same time not really repeal it. The idea is to “repeal key parts of Obamacare in early 2017, but delay the implementation of that repeal until 2019 or 2020.” Why? Because Republicans don’t have an Obamacare replacement plan ready to go. After all, they’ve only had seven years to figure that out.
More to the point, they’re afraid that their replacement won’t be able to get the 60 Senate votes necessary to get past a Democratic filibuster. That’s funny. Democrats somehow managed to cobble together Obamacare after losing their 60th Senate vote. But Republicans can’t replace it without 60.
And it hasn’t even gotten difficult yet. One of the things the Democrats are counting on is that once a new government program is created, a vast encrustation of economic interests grows on top of it, and the moment anyone touches the program, all of those private interests scream. So as Republicans spend two or three years trying to come up with a replacement, the pressure will build for them not to destroy the structure on which these barnacles have grown but to amend it and only tinker with the details. Once again, Republicans will have fallen into the trap where Democrats are the benefactors showering benefits on the little guy, and Republicans are the penny-pinching killjoy accountants who do the unpopular work of reforming the Democrats’ entitlement to keep it running.
This is a sucker’s game, and there is a much simpler solution. If we’re going to repeal Obamacare, maybe what we should do first—wait for it—is to repeal Obamacare.
I would prefer a bill that is a single sentence, along the lines of “The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act of 2010 is hereby repealed in its entirety.” If you want to get wordy, I wouldn’t object to expanding it a little: “The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act of 2010, the name of which is a cruel joke, is hereby repealed in its entirety.”
No, it won’t be that simple. That kind of straight repeal would face a filibuster from Senate Democrats, who are still nowhere near recognizing what a political disaster Obamacare has been for them. So instead, Republicans will have to pass a de facto repeal which uses the power of the purse to defund all of Obamacare’s central functions. Under budget rules, this can be passed with a simple majority.
But this would create a huge disruption and millions of people could lose their health care plans. You know, it would be a real shame if people who liked their plans didn’t get to keep them. The party that made this promise and broke it would probably suffer some really bad electoral consequences. Oh wait, they already did.
But sure, if we need a delay to draft new legislation for a smoother transition away from Obamacare, then add a delay—but make it a really short one. Make it the equivalent of: “The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act of 2010, the name of which is a cruel joke, is repealed in its entirety effective May 1, 2017.” Aside from the droll irony of killing socialized medicine on May Day, this would require that any replacement must be part of the new president’s first 100 days.
Consider the effect such a short deadline would have, and how it would put congressional Republicans in a position of power. If Obamacare stays in place while everyone haggles for years over a replacement, then the default outcome is that Obamacare stays—and Washington, DC, sure does love the default outcome. Congressional Democrats, squishy moderate Republicans, industry lobbyists, and a hostile media would have every incentive to stall and disrupt the Republican replacement, knowing that if it gets bogged down, Obamacare is likely to stay.
But pass the repeal first, on a tight timeline, and suddenly the default is that Obamacare all goes away. Anyone who wants to keep some part of the existing system—which is to say, those same constituencies: congressional Democrats, industry lobbyists, the media—they have to make the case for keeping their pet parts of the system, and congressional Republicans get to decide which of those parts they can fit in to their preferred reform. Moreover, instead of facing months and years of the media wailing over how we just can’t get rid of Obamacare because of all the children and puppies who will be hurt, that discussion would all be over right away, and everyone will be forced to move on to the debate over what replaces Obamacare. Republicans can then put up some free-market ideas and make everyone haggle over the merits of their reforms instead of moaning over the dead old system.
You know who else this move would put on the defensive? Pro-big-government, pro-welfare-state moderate Republicans—which, on this issue, includes the man who will soon be in the Oval Office.
Donald Trump has a history of squishy, big-government liberal views on health care. He has praised Canadian style socialized medicine, and even during last year’s campaign he made expansive promises to do most of what Obamacare already does, leaving some to wonder exactly what he would do differently if he had his chance to draft a replacement.
But he won’t be drafting the replacement. One big thing we should remember going into 2017 is that the Republican Congress also just won an election—and by a much bigger margin than Donald Trump. In the final tally, the president-elect squeaks by with a little more than 46% of the vote, which only adds up to a victory because the Electoral College gives extra weight to his core supporters in swing states. Democrats have no right to complain about this because it’s the American system, and because a lot of those same voters used to be theirs, and they lost them fair and square. But this does make for an interesting contrast to the other Republicans headed to Washington in January, almost all of whom will go there backed by an actual majority in their states and districts.
Congressional Republicans have a genuine mandate from the voters to repeal Obamacare and draft their own idea for what should replace it. Shutting Obamacare down with a short deadline would be an assertion of that mandate, and it would force even President Trump to go through them on this issue. It’s the smart solution, and it is also a bold one that gives the Republican Congress an opportunity, finally, to act from a position of strength.
Unfortunately, they haven’t been all that great in the past at being smart, strong, and bold.
Republicans seem to be afraid that Democrats will still stubbornly block any replacement, allowing Obamacare to lapse and then blaming Republicans for the fallout. But seriously, after seven years of winning on the issue of Obamacare, it is absurd for Republicans still to be running scared. What are they afraid of? Is repealing Obamacare a political loser? No, the evidence is overwhelming that defending Obamacare is the political loser.
I almost laughed out loud when I heard Chuck Schumer ranting that if Republican repeal Obamacare, “they will own it.” Let’s see. Since the Democrats shoved through Obamacare, they lost their House majority, they blew a 60-seat majority in the Senate, they’ve been gutted on the state level, they lost the presidency (and lost it to the guy they hated the absolute most), and they lost their best chance at a majority on the Supreme Court. I’m thinking that somebody already owns Obamacare. They’ve certainly paid full price for it.
More to the point, Republicans should be less afraid about what will happen if they repeal Obamacare and more afraid of what will happen if they don’t. Having promised to repeal that damned law for seven years, they now have no excuse for failing to deliver.
To put it more positively, they have an enormous, generational benefit they can achieve by a swift repeal: a chance to suppress Democrats for a very long time, even when or if they regain a majority. In 2006 and 2008, Democrats won a congressional majority by running a bunch of conservative Democrats in right-leaning states and districts. They then used those nominally conservative Democrats as cannon fodder to push through a far-left agenda. They were willing to sacrifice their majority in exchange for a massive new government entitlement for which they could claim credit until the end of time.
There is a lot of precedent for this. Democrats know that once they pass a massive new regulation or entitlement, it never gets repealed, and instead of rolling back the welfare state, Republicans will spend all of their time fixing it. But what happens if Democrats sacrifice their majority for a new entitlement program, and then the entitlement is repealed? Remember that Barack Obama got the Democratic nomination way back in 2008 because he promised to reject the timid incrementalism of the Clinton centrists. What if, after eight years, his crowning legislative achievement is nullified and his “legacy” is precisely nothing? That will make Democrats a lot less eager in the future to march off a cliff at the behest of the far left wing of their party.
To be sure, in the short term, judging from their reaction to the recent election loss, Democrats seem even more determined to lurch to the left and march off a lot of cliffs. But the elected Democrats who manage to survive a few more cliff drops will be the ones who finally learn some caution.
That’s the big prize: a generation of timid, cautious, compromising Democrats. Congressional Republican need to keep their eyes on that prize and roll back Obamacare by the method that is surest, most direct—and swiftest.