Senators Ted Cruz and Mike Lee, among others, believe that Republicans ought to use Congress’s continuing resolution (CR) as an opportunity to defund Obamacare. The CR must be passed by Congress in order to keep funding the government. Cruz, Lee & Co. think Democrats will be so terrified of a government shutdown that they’ll be willing to vote to defund their signature legislative achievement.
It’s an interesting theory. But the opposite is far likelier: that a government shutdown will seriously harm Republicans in the midterm elections, ensuring Obamacare’s permanence.
These shutdown shock-jocks start with a fair premise: Once the government starts doling out Obamacare’s health-insurance subsidies on January 1, the law will prove difficult, if not impossible, to repeal. “We’re now approaching the last stop on the train before Obamacare kicks in with full force and fury,” said Lee in July. “September 30, when the continuing resolution expires . . . that will be our last opportunity to defund Obamacare.”
Desperate times, they reason, call for desperate measures. Despite the fact that the public is opposed to defunding Obamacare by a 20-point margin — and opposed to a government shutdown by a wider one — Republicans should fall on their swords and shut down the government, if necessary, because there is no other way to advance the cause of limited government.
This is untrue, on every level. There are ways to oppose Obamacare that are more consonant with public opinion. As Jeffrey Anderson has noted for The Weekly Standard, polling data indicates that a one-year delay of Obamacare’s mandates and subsidies is much more attractive to the public. A Rasmussen poll, for example, found that by a margin of 56 to 26 percent, Americans favored delaying the law’s individual mandate. By 86 to 8 percent, they oppose handing subsidies out on the “honor system” — exactly what the delay of the employer mandate will mean in 2014.
A one-year delay of Obamacare’s subsidies would be a win both for Obamacare’s supporters and its opponents. The subsidized insurance exchanges are far from ready.
The administration, for one, has stated that it will not enforce a number of the law’s provisions related to eligibility for subsidies, something that will encourage dishonest people to defraud taxpayers. In addition, the administration has thus far failed to ensure that data centers that feed into the exchanges are secure enough, such that Americans’ private financial and health records remain private. Michael Astrue, who served as Social Security Commissioner in President Obama’s first term, describes it as “the most widespread violation of the Privacy Act in our history.”
Red-state Democrats who support a one-year delay can genuinely say that they remain supportive of the law overall, but are first and foremost committed to the program’s integrity. And Republicans who oppose the law will gain one more year to persuade the public that the law should be repealed. Without the subsidies as a smokescreen, the degree to which Obamacare drives up the cost of health insurance will be even more apparent.
Lee, Cruz, and their compatriots have, for the most part, opposed this more sensible approach — claiming anything less than their strategy is complicitous with the president’s plan. “If you do vote for the CR that contains Obamacare funding, you’re supporting Obamacare,” asserts Lee. “Defund it or own it.” Does that mean that Lee “owns” every other line item in the budget except Obamacare? Come on.
Cruz goes even further. “I am perpetually frustrated by what seems to be the surrender caucus in the Congress,” he said to Sean Hannity, “the group that just wants us to give in, and who say, well, ‘President Obama will never give in on his top priority.’ Well, why is it that he gets to hold his principles, and it’s assumed that we have to roll over, when the American people are with us?” (As a reminder, President Obama got to pass Obamacare because his party controlled 60 seats in the Senate. Republicans, today, control 46.)
Republican Tom Coburn of Oklahoma is the Senate’s leader on health-care entitlement reform, and he has introduced at least a half-dozen serious bills on the topic. Paul Ryan’s credentials in this area need no introduction. Neither Ryan nor Coburn support the Lee-Cruz strategy. Does Cruz really think this makes them members of the “surrender caucus?” Does Lee think that Coburn and Ryan “own” Obamacare? It’s jarring to hear freshman senators — with no experience in entitlement reform — lecture the movement’s champions on their bona fides.
A path back to Republican unity was suggested over the weekend by former senator Jim DeMint, now leading the Heritage Foundation. On The Larry Kudlow Show, DeMint — a supporter of the shutdown strategy — agreed that a one-year delay would serve essentially the same purpose, because any continuing resolution that “defunded” Obamacare would only last for at most one year.
Indeed, a one-year delay would be superior to defunding Obamacare through the continuing resolution, because Obamacare isn’t just about taxes and subsidies. It’s also about a dramatic upswing in the federal government’s regulation of individual behavior and private-sector health care, something that a delay could address far better than a continuing resolution could.
Byron York, in Town Hall, reports that “some Republicans are exploring the possibility of trading some of the changes Democrats want in the sequestration spending cuts in exchange for an Obamacare delay.” Details matter, but a real one-year delay in Obamacare is worth exploring, if there are Democrats who might support it.
There can be little doubt that the apocalyptic approach of Cruz, Lee & Co. has animated a portion of the conservative base. But they’d do the movement a greater service if they walked back from the ledge and joined supporters of a one-year delay. Instead of hectoring Tom Coburn and Paul Ryan, Lee and Cruz would be well-served to learn from them.
— Avik Roy is a columnist for NRO and a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute. You can follow him on Twitter at @avik.