Why Democrats Aren’t Falling for the GOP’s Obamacare Pitch

Because it’s a trap! They know that delaying implementation carries many more risks than rewards.

Man's finger caught in mousetrap. 
National Journal
Ben Terris
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Ben Terris
Sept. 26, 2013, 4:10 p.m.

It sounds like the most reas­on­able thing in the world — like life in­sur­ance, or rust­proof­ing. Re­pub­lic­ans say all it will take to avoid the calam­ity of a gov­ern­ment shut­down is for an itty-bitty delay of Pres­id­ent Obama’s health care law. What’s the big deal? He’s already pushed off the man­date for em­ploy­ers to provide cov­er­age by a year, and 22 House Demo­crats even voted for a sim­il­ar stay of the in­di­vidu­al man­date.

“The pres­id­ent knows this law’s not ready; that’s why he delayed it for big busi­ness,” said Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, at a press con­fer­ence last week. “Every­one knows this thing is not ready.” Cer­tainly, Demo­crats could be per­suaded that the rol­lout could use a little more time to iron out the kinks — maybe give the pub­lic more op­por­tun­ity to rally around the law. Win-win, right?

“Ab­so­lutely, pos­it­ively not,” House Minor­ity Lead­er Nancy Pelosi, D-Cal­if., said on CNN later when asked wheth­er a delay would be ne­go­ti­able. Demo­crats aren’t stu­pid. They know what hap­pens when you give a mouse a cook­ie.

Any delay to Obama­care — wheth­er it’s push­ing back the in­di­vidu­al man­date or strip­ping fund­ing for a year — would only open the door to dev­ast­at­ing con­sequences for the law. Once Obama shows he is will­ing to ne­go­ti­ate on his sig­na­ture piece of le­gis­la­tion — and, by im­plic­a­tion, sig­nal­ing that the law may have deep, fun­da­ment­al prob­lems — there will be no end of try­ing to tear it down, with op­pon­ents per­haps gar­ner­ing an­oth­er 41 House votes to de­fund it in the pro­cess.

“It’s not worth dis­cuss­ing, be­cause it’s not go­ing to hap­pen,” Demo­crat­ic Rep. Chris Van Hol­len of Mary­land told Na­tion­al Journ­al. “We’re more than happy to work with Re­pub­lic­ans to fix some of the glitches. But they’re not in­ter­ested in mak­ing ad­just­ments; they’re simply try­ing to wipe it out com­pletely.”

This is no secret. For Re­pub­lic­ans to even im­ply that a delay would be good for the White House (“I ac­tu­ally be­lieve the pres­id­ent wants to delay Obama­care, be­cause it’s such a mess,” said con­ser­vat­ive Rep. Raul Lab­rador of Idaho. “It’s just not work­ing for them.”) is spe­cious. The GOP wants to kill this law, and tran­quil­iz­ing it is just an at­tempt to put it down in hopes that it nev­er wakes up. Se­cure a post­pone­ment to next year, and maybe if the Sen­ate flips, the dy­nam­ic changes. Delay it long enough, and even­tu­ally a Re­pub­lic­an pres­id­ent might be able to help fin­ish it off for good.

In­stead, the open­ing that Re­pub­lic­ans see is largely rhet­or­ic­al. They say the Demo­crat­ic mes­sage isn’t match­ing up with the cold, hard real­ity of im­ple­ment­a­tion. “The delays the ad­min­is­tra­tion has been forced to im­ple­ment in the health care law have giv­en us a golden op­por­tun­ity to talk about fair­ness: ‘If big busi­ness gets re­lief from the pres­id­ent’s health care law, fam­il­ies and small busi­nesses should, too,’ ” Speak­er John Boehner has been fond of say­ing.

Nat­ur­ally, it’s not that simple and, past the boil­er­plate, few on either side ar­gue with that. The in­di­vidu­al man­date and the em­ploy­er man­date may sound like equal com­pon­ents of the Af­ford­able Care Act, but the re­quire­ment that all con­sumers pur­chase in­sur­ance has a much more far-reach­ing ef­fect. “Only one [man­date] has a sub­stan­tial ef­fect on be­ha­vi­or­al de­cisions,” said Linda Blum­berg, a seni­or fel­low at the Urb­an In­sti­tute. “Only one has broad im­plic­a­tions for re­form and for the chances of achiev­ing the ob­ject­ive of the law.”

Delay­ing the em­ploy­er man­date, Blum­berg ar­gues, has merely cost the gov­ern­ment some rev­en­ue from pen­al­ties. Moreover, the reach of that man­date is min­im­al: Most large com­pan­ies of­fer health care cov­er­age, and many small ones are ex­empt from do­ing so. Delay­ing the in­di­vidu­al man­date, con­versely, would pro­foundly destabil­ize the law.

Obama­care is of­ten thought of as a three-legged stool. To bal­ance the cost of mar­ket re­forms such as al­low­ing those with preex­ist­ing con­di­tions to ob­tain in­sur­ance cov­er­age (the first leg), the in­di­vidu­al man­date (the second leg) forces health­i­er people to pay in­to the sys­tem. To help low-in­come con­sumers pay for the cov­er­age, the gov­ern­ment kicks in sub­sidies (the third leg). Lose any of the three legs and you end up with a use­less piece of fur­niture.

There’s an­oth­er reas­on it makes no sense for Demo­crats to delay the law: It’s not grow­ing any more pop­u­lar with the pas­sage of time. In a re­cent ABC News/Wash­ing­ton Post poll, only 42 per­cent of re­spond­ents said they ap­proved of the law — a num­ber that has been con­sist­ent since en­act­ment. The only way to sig­ni­fic­antly change the pub­lic’s view is for the law to work. An­oth­er delay means an­oth­er year of prom­ising be­ne­fits that re­main out of reach.

Again, Re­pub­lic­ans know this, which is why they’re ratchet­ing up the pres­sure on Demo­crat­ic mod­er­ates who have to face the voters next year, such as Sen. Mark Be­gich of Alaska. Bet­ter that someone like Be­gich has to stand for reelec­tion with the law’s vir­- tues still un­cer­tain than with it pro­du­cing tan­gible res­ults.

Be­gich isn’t tak­ing the bait. “This eco­nomy needs to keep mov­ing for­ward. To jeop­ard­ize it over a po­ten­tial shut­down would be a huge mis­take,” he told NJ.

Ac­tu­ally, the Re­pub­lic­ans agree com­pletely. It’s in the defin­i­tion of jeop­ardy that the two sides part ways. “If you want to write a story about how we want to shut down the gov­ern­ment, that’s your fault,” Lab­rador told a re­port­er last week. “If Harry Re­id and the pres­id­ent want to shut down the gov­ern­ment — be­cause what we are ask­ing for is a simple delay of Obama­care — then I hope you write your story that way.”

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