There is an important difference between the current crisis in Congress over funding for “Obamacare” and the previous crises over the budget at the end of last year and in the summer of 2011. This time, the right wing of the Republican Party isn’t even pretending to be reasonable. In the past, they established various negotiable bargaining positions, and President Obama and the Congressional leadership were able to trade concessions on different aspects of the budget and ultimately reach a compromise. The process wasn’t particularly elegant, but at least both sides appeared committed to a negotiation. By contrast, the current Republican demand — that appropriations for the health-care law be terminated — is not even theoretically negotiable. Neither side could conceivably suggest eliminating, I don’t know, three fifths of the funds in the Affordable Care Act. That would mean going back to the drawing board on the entire program. The Republican position precludes a compromise.
Some on the right think that the optimal health-care policy would require repealing Obamacare and replacing it with some entirely new system. “The law is flawed in its conception and basic design, not just in some of its provisions, and blocking its worst effects would require a rewrite rather than modest modifications,” Yuval Levin wrote earlier this year. If you are a lawmaker who believes that, then it is impossible for you to negotiate with the president on the issue of health care. His policy and what you would prefer are fundamentally opposed.
Still, that would not give you an excuse to threaten to shut down the federal government to force your preferred policy into law (and I don’t mean to suggest Levin supports this negotiating strategy). Republicans control one chamber of Congress, which in our system of representative government gives them the power to demand concessions on some issues, as they have done. Where no concessions are possible, though, they will have to accept the majority’s position.
Let’s imagine that the G.O.P. tactics were successful, that Obama and the Democrats capitulated and terminated funding for the Affordable Care Act. The Republican victory would not be due to anything other than the fact that they are dangerously irrational and their opponents are not. Their current strategy really is no better hostage-taking.
That was at least less true in the previous two crises, when Republicans actually had certain clearly defined and achievable policy objectives. I think their insistence on reducing the deficit was airheaded, and Ben Bernanke agrees with me. Nonetheless, there was some semblance of good faith during the negotiation. Both sides wanted to accomplish something positive. Now, conservative Republicans aren’t interested in negotiating, or in getting anything done. They just want to play chicken.
The rest of us will suffer as a result of their approach, not just because the government might be temporarily shut down. There are also ways in which the Affordable Care Act could be improved if Republicans didn’t insist on trying to scrap it. The employer mandate, which requires businesses with 50 or more workers to provide health insurance, could be rewritten or eliminated, since it is redundant and discourages employment. Everyone would be better off, particularly the “job creators” that the Republican Party claims to represent.