Failure to Repeal Obamacare Could Stymie the Republican Agenda

On a couple of occasions recently, I’ve suggested that failure to repeal Obamacare would put the entire Republican congressional agenda at risk. Perhaps it would be helpful to outline both the policy and political reasons why that is the case.

From a policy perspective, it is important to note that, as Jonathan Cohn demonstrated back in 2013, Obamacare is a massive redistribution policy aimed at providing benefits for poor and working class Americans which are paid for primarily via increased taxes on the wealthy and the health care industry. John Wagner and Abby Phillip point out that this is why the next item on the Republican agenda – tax cuts – is dependent on repealing Obamacare.

Republicans are taking up health-care legislation first in part because other parts of the president’s agenda hinge on elements of the tax code that would be altered by the law. Without those changes, tax cuts sought by Trump and House leaders become much harder to implement.

“It’s not just the momentum and fulfilling our promises; there are policy implications,” said one House leadership aide, who requested anonymity to speak candidly.

“There’s a sequencing that is important,” the aide said. “Without that, it makes tax reform extremely difficult, if not impossible.”

Tax reform (read: tax cuts for the wealthy) is the holy grail right now for both Trump and Congressional Republicans. That agenda item relies on repealing the tax code elements in Obamacare.

Beyond that, most of Trump’s agenda after that involves huge spending increases for things like border walls, infrastructure and increased military spending. Repealing Obamacare is the only one of all these items that comes with the possibility of reducing spending (CBO projects that the Republican plan would reduce the deficit by $337 billion over 10 years) by eliminating benefits for poor and working class Americans.

On the political side, Wagner and Phillip point to what failure to repeal Obamacare would say about Trump’s leadership.

…Trump’s effort to shepherd it through Congress is shaping up as a pivotal test of an un­or­tho­dox president’s ability to wield influence in Washington, a growing number of Republicans say…

But falling short on a marquee campaign promise — when both chambers are controlled by the president’s party — would almost certainly sap momentum for Trump’s agenda.

Wagner and Phillip go on to suggest that a failure would negatively impact the possibility that Democrats would work with Trump and Republicans on their subsequent agenda items. That rings pretty hollow to me. There is not much bipartisanship likely under these circumstances and where the possibility exists, it would probably be more hampered by repealing Obamacare than a failure to do so.

Where the real risk lies is in the possibility of empowering groups like the Freedom Caucus and the Republican Study Committee to rebel against Republican leadership. That is likely to grind the gears of governing to a halt and make it impossible for legislation to pass Congress if Republicans can’t agree among themselves. We’re already seeing an effort on the right to challenge Speaker Ryan’s leadership. Failure to follow through on the signature Republican issue right out of the gate will only intensify those efforts.

It is important to keep in mind that even if all this were to happen, Trump still holds the keys to the executive branch and can do tremendous damage via executive orders and a rollback of regulations. That will make the battle a legal one (as we see with the travel ban) rather than legislative – which is where Democratic governors, state attorneys general, and our friends at places like the ACLU come into play.

Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly.