Why the GOP Can’t Repeal Obamacare

I’ve written about this many times over the years, but let’s go over it again. There are many reasons why the Republican Party has developed as a skeptic of federal power, but the most important is that they spent most of the 20th Century as the minority party in Congress. When Franklin Delano Roosevelt won the presidential election in 1932, his Democratic Party took control of the House and the Senate, too. The Republicans were thereafter shut out of power in Congress until 1980 with two brief exceptions.

After World War Two ended, there was an economic contraction. Over in the United Kingdom, it cost Winston Churchill his job as prime minister. Here at home, it cost the Democrats control of both houses of Congress after the 1946 elections. It was expected that it would cost President Truman his job, as well, but the 80th Congress was proved so radical that Truman dubbed them the “Do-Nothing Congress,” ran against them, and won an upset victory in the 1948 election. The congressional Republicans had blown their chance after one term and were tossed out.

Their second chance came in 1952 when they were swept into power in the midst of the unpopular Korean War on the coattails of General Dwight D. Eisenhower. Once again, however, they demonstrated their inability to govern. In the 1954 elections, they lost both houses again.

It would be more than a quarter century before the Republicans won back the Senate in Ronald Reagan’s 1980 landslide. They would lose that majority as soon as those freshmen’s six-year terms were up in 1986. After the 1954 debacle, the House was lost to the GOP for fully forty years. Their turnaround was the so-called Gingrich Revolution of 1994.

Since 1994, the Republicans have controlled Congress more often than not, and given the demographic and geographical distribution of party support in this country, they should expect to control Congress more often than not far into the future. Over time, we should expect them to become less skeptical of federal power because they usually get to decide how to spend the money. We should expect them to get better at legislating, and to become protective of legislation that they’ve passed.

However, it has now been more than twenty years since the Gingrich Revolution and the Republicans seem to be moving in the opposite direction in every respect. They just lost Speaker John Boehner and Minority Leader Eric Cantor because the simple act of trying to pass a budget and pay our bills on time was too unpopular with their base. Rather than becoming skilled legislators, they’re always on the brink of shutting down the government or causing a national default.

During the Obama Era, they voted eleventy billion times to repeal Obamacare but now that they have the power to do it a right-wing rag like the Washington Examiner has to explain to them that their plan is stupid and foolish.

Congress must repeal Obamacare. It must also simultaneously replace Obamacare.

Repealing without replacing is an enticing strategy to many Republicans. But it would be error.

“Repeal and delay” is the name for the course of action many congressional Republicans favor. Under this strategy, within days or weeks of President Trump taking office, Congress would pass a bill repealing Obamacare on a future date, perhaps years down the line. Then, with the clock ticking, Republicans would try to force Democrats to go along with a replacement bill.

This is unwise for many reasons.

What’s the first reason that “Repeal and delay” is unwise?

Nobody who has followed Congress in the past 20 years should believe Republicans would win a test of congressional brinkmanship. Past journeys to the edge of disaster have always ended with GOP surrender, typically after heaping servings of scorn.

Gingrich-era government shutdowns, Tea Party government shutdowns, flirting with the debt limit: none of them were GOP victories.

Let’s revisit those GOP defeats for a minute. It’s true that Gingrich lost his epic government shutdown battle with President Clinton and that it helped Clinton recover from a rocky start and win reelection. But the congressional Republicans didn’t lose their majorities over it. The congressional Republicans basically lost their shutdown battles with President Obama, too, but they didn’t lose their majorities in 2012 and were massively rewarded for them in 2014.

The Republicans have had tremendous success with what they know best, which is being a very good minority party. They can counter-message and use procedural tools in obnoxiously innovative ways to obstruct. They can simply refuse to even hold hearings for presidential nominees or insist that those positions don’t even need to be filled. They excel at this stuff, but they do not excel at legislating or doing oversight of the federal government and its agencies.

Their plan here is the plan of a minority party. They want to force the Democrats to do something rather than figuring out a way to do it themselves. They have no idea how to replace Obamacare without blowing up the private insurance industry, costing hundreds of thousands of people their health insurance, and taking all the political blame. So, they’ll just try brinksmanship and maybe those clever law-writing Democrats will rescue them at the end of the day out of some bleeding heart do-gooder sense of decency.

But, as the Examiner points out, their plan to repeal Obamacare is another example of not being good at this legislating thing. They like that they can get around a Senate filibuster by using the Budget Reconciliation process, but the only things that can be included in a Budget Reconciliation bill are things that affect the budget. So, they can repeal the way revenues are raised in Obamacare but they can’t repeal the regulatory scheme that makes it tick.

And that leads to the third reason that the Examiner thinks the “Repeal and Delay” strategy is moronic. Creating this kind of uncertainty in the insurance market will lead to chaos, dropped plans and higher premiums, for which the Republicans will be blamed.

“The political firestorm that would ensue from several million people losing their insurance,” write Joe Antos and Jim Capretta of the American Enterprise Institute, “could be enough to force the GOP to reverse course and take steps to provide some kind of emergency insurance for this population, which could be even more costly than the ACA.”

Economically, repeal without replace could prove awful policy, too. Insurance is all about risk. If insurers have no idea what will happen in a year, but they know something big will happen, that increases their risk, which could further increase the premiums they charge.

There’s a substantive problem here, too, which is that the Republicans have lost the courage of their earlier conviction that people simply shouldn’t get any help buying health insurance. It’s morphed into the idea that Obamacare is a bad law because it’s constructed poorly. The GOP doesn’t have the balls to argue that people with pre-existing conditions should lose their insurance. They might be willing to get more stingy with subsidies for lower income people, but not to eliminate subsidies altogether.

The result is that they need a law that does what Obamacare does, but one that they can call something else.

My advice is to repeal Obamacare and then pass the exact same law and have Trump sign it.

Problem solved.

Martin Longman

Martin Longman is the web editor for the Washington Monthly and the main blogger at Booman Tribune.