While we like a good party now and again, the fact that House Republicans held no official gala to celebrate their accession to the majority in the new Congress reflects both becoming modesty and the accurate understanding that it is time to get to work. John Boehner, now speaker, acknowledged on Election Night that in modern America the president, for the most part, sets the agenda. His job — and that of Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell, and of their Republican colleagues — is to work with President Obama where constructive cooperation is possible, and to begin making the case for starting on a better agenda than his in 2013.
Undoing Obamacare must be near the very top of that agenda, and House Republicans were right to announce that they would hold a vote on repeal in their first days on the job. The law weakens our economy by adding to the cost of employment. It threatens our already-parlous fiscal condition by creating a new entitlement and only pretending to pay for it. It staves off real Medicare reform by relying on price controls. It impedes upward mobility by raising effective marginal tax rates on low- and middle-income workers. It promises to retard medical innovation. And it is flatly inconsistent with the constitutional design.
The health-care legislation is also an integrated plan that cannot be fixed piecemeal or more than modestly improved. Republicans should not be intimidated by polls that appear to show that this or that aspect of the law is popular. Those features of the bill are inseparable from its least popular provisions, the package as a whole remains unpopular, and there is no reason to expect that to change any time soon. The ban on insurers’ taking account of sickness when offering policies and setting rates is popular in isolation, for example, but in order to work, it requires making the purchase of government-approved insurance compulsory.
Senate Democrats and the president will block full repeal, but Republicans should not let the struggle end there. Republicans should next attack Obamacare’s sources of funding. They could offer legislation to repeal the bill’s taxes on medical devices, for example, and make up for the lost revenue by delaying Obamacare’s subsidies. Another bill could undo Obamacare’s cuts in Medicare Advantage and recoup the money the same way. Still another could bar Obamacare from funding abortions (an amendment to that effect passed by a large margin in a heavily Democratic House in 2009, but did not make it into the final law). These bills would put supporters of the health-care law in a very tough spot. They would also keep the controversy over Obamacare from fading. What opponents of the law have to fear is not that it will become more popular but that the public will become resigned to it — that it will come to be seen as inevitable, like death and taxes. Republicans ought to keep hope (for repeal) alive.
On spending in general, the Republicans have to favor repeal as well. Non-security discretionary spending increased 24 percent over the last two years, not counting the stimulus. The run-up in the budget of federal departments has been spectacular: Since 2007, the Department of Labor is up 340 percent, the Department of Commerce 158 percent, the Department of Energy 90 percent, the Department of Agriculture 68 percent, and so on. House Republicans are committed to taking this portion of the federal government back to 2008 levels. It is only a $500 billion slice of a $4 trillion budget, but cutting that slice by 20 percent will be a significant, nay unprecedented, accomplishment. Every inertial force in Washington will resist this effort, not least the United States Senate.
Conservatives will have two points of leverage in the spring, but should be careful to use them with care. The debt ceiling must be raised — since there is no chance that the deficit is going to be brought down to zero in short order — and a new spending bill must be passed to keep the government from shutting down. It will be tempting to use these must-have pieces of legislation to bend the federal budget to conservatives’will in one fell swoop. But one lesson from Newt Gingrich’s battles with President Clinton in the mid-1990s is that whichever side seems most eager to risk default or a shutdown will lose. Limited-government conservatism only recently recovered from that earlier defeat. But getting nothing in return for passing these bills would also be a mistake. Our preference would be to couple them with caps on discretionary spending that last several years.