The developing narrative, whether on talk radio or in these pages and other publications, about the shutdown fight — who was on what side, what the options were, and what was gained or not — often starts from incorrect premises, based on incomplete or erroneous assumptions. Since we need to understand how we got here if we want to do better, as a team, next time, it’s important to lay out some of the unpublished history.
2010: Three Strategic Camps
The ACA passed Congress without a single Republican vote. After it became law, Republicans were essentially unified in their opposition to the law and in their oft-stated desire for repeal. Nonetheless, Republicans fell essentially into three strategic camps on how to go forward.
1. Fixers: On the center-to-right portion of the spectrum (since there are no longer any Rockefeller Republicans, who might well have approved of the ACA), the most moderate/centrist were the “fixers,” who thought that the law, if not repealed, could be repaired. Many conservatives initially feared that much of the GOP establishment and leadership lay in this camp. But in the wake of the 2010 election, any advocates for this strategy completely disappeared; the post-shutdown conversation, however, might bring them back.
2. “Win elections, then repeal”: On the far right (not in the establishment, as has been alleged), led by then-senator Jim DeMint, was the “repeal only” camp — no delay, no defunding, no relief from any provisions in the law. The idea was to allow the deployment of Obamacare in full force, with all the horribles it entailed, then to win the election in 2012, and repeal it at that point. Anything short of that was deemed a “fix” that might weaken the coalition favoring repeal. It was pointed out that this strategy depended on winning the presidency and the Senate in 2012, but those who advocated this approach believed a 2012 win was certain — so they saw no need for a backup plan.
3. “Impede, inform, repeal”: I run Independent Women’s Voice, which created the Repeal Pledge in the summer of 2010, and the Repeal Coalition in the wake of the 2010 elections. Our coalition includes people both inside and outside government, and it now has more than 200 participants. The strategy of this third camp is embodied in our Repeal Pledge: We have sought full repeal all along, but recognized that this could be a long and uncertain fight that needed a broader coalition, because Republican votes were not likely to be enough. So along the way we have supported whatever would impede the deployment and metastasis of Obamacare (e.g., delay, defund) but not “fix” the law (which would weaken the coalition and create the delusion that ACA can be made to work). This strategy also emphasizes educating people about the fact that ACA is not the compassionate panacea it purports to be, so that they too will seek repeal.
Those who sought to impede the law did get some things accomplished in 2011 and 2012. They were restricted, though, by not wanting to do something that might impair the pending Supreme Court case, and they were frustrated by the leadership’s repeated efforts to quash any tactic that might have even a remote chance of provoking a shutdown. In the 2012 election, many Obamacare opponents were troubled to see the law pushed to the back burner, at a point when it could have become a galvanizing issue — and they grew more determined than ever to take action.
Spring 2013: The Sebelius Slush Fund and Strategy
Despite the 2012 elections, the “repeal only” advocates initially continued their strategy unchanged. This became clear when Representative Joe Pitts of Pennsylvania proposed a bill that would have permanently abolished HHS secretary Sebelius’s annually recurring billion-dollar slush fund (which will eventually ratchet up to $2 billion per year, indefinitely). The fund is nominally used for preventive care, but in this year’s budget (which is public) it was funneled to promoting Obamacare, with a presidential-size advertising campaign; supporting the exchanges; and disbursing hundreds of millions of dollars to community groups to help recruit voters. . . . I mean enrollees. (The enrollment form asks whether you are registered to vote, and the process is designed to additionally enroll applicants for any subsidy for which they might be eligible.)
The Pitts bill (the Helping Sick People Act) would have used the money reclaimed from Sebelius’s slush fund to both pay down the debt, and (making it hard for Democrats to vote against it) provide funds to cover the 40,000 individuals with legitimate preexisting conditions who had been shut out of the over-budget temporary high-risk coverage created under ACA.
This seemed like a smart trade to many: remove billions from the promotion and entrenchment of Obamacare and from HHS permanently, pay down the debt, and help people who were qualified under the existing program but denied because the administration preferred politics to people. It was something it seemed all conservatives could endorse, and it might also have garnered significant Democratic support while making the public aware of the administration’s true preferences. But then Club for Growth and Heritage Action told their members it was a “fix” and threatened to “key vote” against it.
A key vote is one that a non-government organization uses to calculate its rating for every member of Congress, and those ratings are powerful things to voters. They hear that someone got a poor score from a conservative group or didn’t do the “conservative” thing, and become inclined against that legislator, particularly in a primary. The member of Congress knows that it can be difficult, if not impossible, to explain to supporters why his approach was conservative; he knows he will reach, never mind persuade, only some of them. So lawmakers froze, and the vote on the Pitts bill never took place.
Many were stunned at this outcome, so they launched a renewed discussion about strategy: The problem with waiting for full repeal and salvation through elections, they noted, was that implementation would occur before the next election; and as hideously designed as Obamacare was, once the entitlement, however grim, took root, its recipients would be reluctant to give it up.
Eventually the “repeal only” adherents came to share that view. “Fix” became more precisely defined, and an increasing number of conservatives came to accept the strategic importance of doing whatever might impede Obamacare, primarily through delay or defunding. With this change of perspective, after the president decided (illegally) in July 2013 to delay the employer mandate for a year, conservative groups that had initially viewed mandate delays as counterproductive “fixes” agreed that they would not oppose delaying the employer mandate and the individual mandate; the proposed delays were seen by most other groups, however, as not only fair and a step in the right direction, but as a useful mechanism for minimizing harm and building momentum for repeal.
Proving the potential bipartisan appeal of “delay,” the House in July passed both H.R. 2667 (the Authority for Mandate Delay Act, delaying the employer mandate) and H.R. 2668 (the Fairness for American Families Act, delaying the individual mandate). On the employer-mandate vote, all but one Republican voted for the bill, while 35 Democrats — one-sixth of Nancy Pelosi’s caucus — joined in supporting it. On the individual-mandate vote, all but one Republican voted for the bill, while 22 Democrats voted in support. (The Republican was Representative Morgan Griffith of southwest Virginia.)
Having one-sixth of the Democratic Caucus vote against the president is remarkable, especially when you stop to consider that the administration issued a Statement of Administration Policy declaring that President Obama would veto the legislation — even though H.R. 2667 merely codified into law his already-announced unilateral declaration that the employer mandate would be delayed by a year.
In addition, Tennessee representative Marsha Blackburn’s bill to delay all of Obamacare for a year, for example, started to garner signatures as repeal strategists came to understand that many Americans and most Democrats still thought the law on balance was a good thing, though they could agree that it shouldn’t be implemented if not ready.