In a speech that fell right smack in the middle of the nation’s debate on Syria, former President Bill Clinton urged Congress to revise a number of issues he has with the Affordable Care Act instead of focusing on defunding it.
The former chief executive—who President Obama jokingly called “the Secretary of Explaining Stuff” last year—delivered the Wednesday morning address from his presidential library in Little Rock, Ark. His speech came less than a month before one of the biggest components of the law—the exchange markets—are set to open for enrollment Oct. 1.
Clinton said he agreed to join the White House’s cheerleading efforts because he was shocked by the lack of knowledge and understanding of the new law. But his remarks were not limited to addressing the concerns of critics.
“The benefits of reform can’t be fully realized, and problems certainly can’t be solved, unless both the supporters and the opponents of the original legislation work together to implement it and address the issues that arise whenever you have a system this complicated,” Clinton said.
He called on Congress to tackle problem areas of the law that need solving. Among them, he listed a gap in small-business tax credits, which do not cover all employees or all firms. He said it should be expanded.
Another issue is the gap in subsidies for dependents. Workers who receive employer coverage are ineligible for tax subsidies in the exchange. Some employers don’t cover families and those families’ inability to receive subsidies, which make the exchange affordable, is an “unintended consequence” of the law, Clinton said.
His concerns are real—but the chance that anything gets done about them is slim. Patrick Griffin, associate director of American University’s Center for Congressional and Presidential Studies, served as Clinton’s director of congressional affairs during his first term. He said the “Defund Obamacare” movement poses a “great diversion” that will undermine the effort to improve the law.
“There are substantive concerns that Clinton was speaking to that ought to be addressed,” Griffin said. “Whether they’ll get a fair examination under the current circumstances is hard to imagine given the current effort focusing on defunding it entirely.”
Some conservatives said they were unmoved by Clinton’s remarks. Chris Jacobs, senior policy analyst at the Heritage Foundation—a supporter of the Defund Obamacare initiative—said the problems Clinton highlighted would require expensive solutions.
“There’s the philosophical concern that we want the law repealed altogether,” Jacobs said. “But the practical concern is that he has no way to pay for these solutions. It will likely mean more tax increases.”
Which Jacobs said brings them back to square one: the philosophical concern that the taxpayer shouldn’t be footing the bill for big government initiatives.
Griffin said he thinks the defund efforts are “just as unrealistic” as the chances of bringing reform measures to the floor.
“I think [Clinton] presented an aspirational goal,” he said, “but the debate has got a ways to go.”
Both parties could be at fault if the proposed reforms don’t see daylight. Don Stewart, a spokesman for Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, said he doesn’t think revisions to the Affordable Care Act are likely to be brought up in the Senate.
“I haven’t heard Senator [Harry] Reid say since the bill passed that he’d bring up any changes to the bill,” Stewart said.
Reid’s office could not be reached for comment.
Whether Clinton’s call to action sways this fall’s Congressional agenda remains to be seen when both houses return from summer recess Monday.