Determined House Republicans have found a new, savvier, line of attack against the Affordable Care Act.
Congressional Republicans have been in the policy doldrums ever since Obamacare’s rocky launch stabilized earlier this spring. They’ve been unsure what to do next in their four-year-long quest to dismantle the controversial health law.
This week, they hit upon a new tack. And this one has the feel of a “win-win.”
Obamacare has a weakness: its individual mandate, which compels most Americans to purchase government-controlled health insurance or pay a tax penalty. It’s the law’s linchpin. Repeal it, and the whole scheme quickly unravels. It’s also unpopular – correction: extremely unpopular. Two-thirds of Americans oppose it. This holds true of every known demographic except card-carrying Bolsheviks over 80. The mandate is, in short, Obamacare’s thermal exhaust port.
None of this, of course, is news. Everyone has known about the mandate’s special role, and unique vulnerability, for years. What’s new is the Republicans’ new way of attacking it. I think it may be their savviest gambit yet – one that might even avert or at least soften the coming “GOP health care crack-up” that I’ve been predicting.
According to a report in Wednesday’s Washington Examiner, Appropriations Committee Chairman Hal Rogers, R-Ky., has added to the IRS appropriations bill for Fiscal Year 2015 (which will be taken up this week) a provision to defund the agency’s implementation of the mandate. The IRS would be barred from enforcing it.
The provision only lasts for one year, though, making it a delay rather than a true repeal.
What’s so savvy about that? It’s savvy because it doesn’t repeal Obamacare, doesn’t take away anyone’s Obamacare subsidies, doesn’t touch any of the law’s more popular mandates and doesn’t threaten to provoke a government shutdown. In short, it avoids all of the big pitfalls that impeded last year’s tea party drive to “defund” Obamacare.
At worst, the new provision will cause a temporary shutdown of the IRS. (Throw me in that briar patch!)
From the House Appropriations Committee’s bill summary (emphasis added):
ObamaCare – The bill also includes provisions to stop the IRS from further implementing ObamaCare, including a prohibition on any transfers of funding from the Department of Health and Human Services to the IRS for ObamaCare uses, and a prohibition on funding for the IRS to implement an individual insurance mandate on the American people.
The IRS is the only agency that can legally enforce the individual mandate. It collects the penalties. Should the foregoing language become law, the agency’s hands will be tied. Americans will be free to flout the mandate with impunity. Obamacare will be weakened. And perhaps in a permanent way, if politicians follow normal behavioral patterns.
Of course, the Republicans’ language is unlikely to become law, thanks to the Democrats’ fervent fidelity to their hard-won health care handiwork. But the debate over a delay should, if anything, help the GOP heading into this year’s midterm elections. (The party is already expected to do well.) Simply by focusing its fire on the mandate, the GOP can refocus the larger health care debate around it, and thus elevate its importance in the campaign.
That’s smart politics. Health care is now firmly at the top of voter’s minds, according to research by The Polling Company for FreedomWorks. (Full disclosure: I helped conduct this research.) Voters usually name “health care” as one of their “top 10” issues. But right now it’s one of the “top three,” along with “jobs / economy” and “government spending.” An unpublished January poll by Heart-Mind Strategies for the Heritage Foundation is even more striking, finding health care to be in the “top one” – that’s right, the No. 1 issue on voters’ minds.
It gets better. The Polling Company research finds a solid majority of voters in every category – including the law’s supporters – support a delay of the whole law, not just the mandate. Sixty percent say they favor a delay “to make sure the law is fair and workable for everyone.”
Recent surveys suggest voters are tiring of the all-or-nothing sound of “repealing” Obamacare, preferring a more soothing message of “fixing” it. But the individual mandate is so unpopular, it seems safe to regard its elimination as a politically acceptable “fix.” At least, the burden of proof is on the mandate’s defenders to say why not. Voters’ willingness to support a delay would be even higher, of course, as I’ve written elsewhere, if Republicans were offering a better alternative. But that’s a whole other story.
Would a delay increase the deficit? No. Federal receipts would go down a bit, to be sure. But outlays on Obamacare and Medicaid subsidies would go down even more. The ledger would show single-digit billions in costs and double-digit billions in savings. The Congressional Budget Office has verified this.
A skeptic might ask: Wouldn’t a delay fight just lead to another politically risky government shutdown? Answer: It need not. There could, again, be an IRS shutdown. But there’s no reason to expect a full-blown, government-wide one. So the worst that would happen is tax filing season would be delayed a bit, as happened after last year’s shutdown. (Did you notice? Me neither.)
In short, the new Republican strategy places Democrats on the horns of a dilemma: They can either forsake their favorite mandate for a year or close their favorite agency for a few days or weeks. I expect they’ll choose the latter. In which case, Republican candidates can tell voters: “There you have it. My Democratic opponent supports the mandate and I oppose it. I thinks it’s unnecessary and he thinks it’s indispensable. I think it’s unfair and he thinks it’s just swell. In other words, I trust you to do the right thing for you and your family, and he does not. Which raises a question: If he won’t trust us with our choices, why would we entrust him with our vote?”
Strikes me as a pretty strong message, in view of the polling.
Dean F. Clancy, a former senior Republican official in Congress and the White House, writes on U.S. health reform, budget and constitutional issues. Follow him at deanclancy.com or on twitter @deanclancy.