By Grant D. Bosse
As originally published in the Concord Monitor
Obamacare is an awful law. It’s falling apart under its own weight, and President Obama has already been forced to waive key provisions several times to prevent the law’s disastrous consequences from fully hitting us. Repealing Obamacare is a good idea, and Congress should do everything it can to get rid of it. Unfortunately, the push to de-fund Obamacare through the appropriations process just won’t work.
Utah Sen. Mike Lee is gathering allies who promise to oppose any continuing resolution to keep government operating unless it defunds the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, known as Obamacare. Federal programs are authorized and defined in statute, but zeroing out federal funding has the effect of repealing that statute, since there is no one being paid to administer or enforce it. House Republicans voted repeatedly to repeal the law wholesale last year, and once again this year, but Majority Leader Harry Reid will never let such a repeal come to a vote in the Senate.
I’ve covered Reid’s complete failure to run the Senate before, but it’s worth mentioning again because it’s the reason why Congress has been unable to pass the appropriations bills that fund the federal government. Instead, the House and Senate have agreed to a series of short-term continuing resolutions to keep the government running.
Lee in one of 11 senators, along with 60 House Republicans, who have said they won’t approve another continuing resolution unless it defunds Obamacare, even if that means a government shutdown like 1995.
Repealing Obamacare outright, defunding it, or simply waiving its requirements like the president did for the employer mandate are worth pursuing. But Lee’s strategy is both short-sighted and politically foolish.
First of all, failure to pass a continuing resolution won’t shut down Obamacare. As New Hampshire Sen. Kelly Ayotte pointed out, the law is funded through mandatory spending, not the year-to-year discretionary spending covered under appropriations bills. A shutdown would close national parks, but the Health and Human Services employees implementing Obamacare so badly would still get paid.
So why are Lee, and Senate firebrands Rand Paul and Ted Cruz, threatening a last stand against Obamacare that is doomed to fail? I blame George W. Bush.
It’s become cliché for the left to blame all manner of problems on the former president, and the current administration certainly isn’t shy about pointing fingers toward the ranch in Texas five years after taking office. But we can trace the origins of the current push by some Republicans to defund Obamacare or shut down government to the Bush administration.
Bush’s first budget to Congress was pretty good, and the Bush tax cuts in 2001 and 2003 helped speed an economic recovery that led to booming federal revenue. But in the aftermath of 9/11, Bush deferred almost entirely to Congress to make budget decisions. Appropriators turned to unprecedented amounts of earmarks to push through unprecedented spending that rose even faster. Deficits skyrocketed, and spendthrifts like Nancy Pelosi and Barack Obama were able to campaign as stewards of fiscal responsibility.
Despite some vocal opposition from House conservatives such as Jeff Flake and John Shadegg, and Senate efforts to curb wasteful spending from the likes of John McCain and John E. Sununu, congressional Republicans lost credibility with their base. (Disclosure: I was Sununu’s legislative staffer tracking the Senate budget debate at the time.) By 2010, discontent with bailouts, boondoggles and deficits fueled the Tea Party movement.
Without credibility, many Tea Party voters seek purity. They want senators like Lee, Paul and Cruz to hold the line, no matter what. In this case, they’re holding the wrong line. It doesn’t help that conservative organizations are eager to raise money on the false promise of ending Obamacare.
Oklahoma Sen. Tom Coburn, the Senate’s most hard-line fiscal hawk and leading Obamacare critic, recognizes that blocking a continuing resolution won’t get rid of the law.
If the Senate were to vote on defunding the law, it’s conceivable that a few shaky Democrats would take the opportunity to distance themselves from the disaster they created. But without the president’s support or two-thirds of the House and Senate, such a road would leave much of the federal government shut down and Obamacare fully funded.
I’ve not been shy about criticizing Reid and New Hampshire Sen. Jeanne Shaheen for their willingness to ignore the rules and traditions of the Senate. I’m just as willing to chide Lee and his colleagues for their failure to understand how the Senate works. Senate Republicans should demand an up-or-down vote on Obamacare repeal, and Reid and Shaheen should be branded as the real obstructionists for refusing to allow one. But refusing to fund federal programs in order to repeal an unrelated law doesn’t make sense.
Daniel Webster, then a New Hampshire congressman, tried to end the War of 1812 by defunding it. The backlash stymied his presidential ambitions for the rest of his life. Webster paid a heavy price for his futile effort. Lee, Paul and Cruz may learn that same lesson.