The Politics of Halbig

by Ramesh Ponnuru

Jamelle Bouie is one of many arguing that the D.C. Circuit decision on Obamacare creates political peril for Republicans:

In Arkansas, where Republican Rep. Tom Cotton is running a tight race against the Democratic incumbent Sen. Mark Pryor, 40,000 people have paid premiums for health insurance on the federal exchange. If Halbig went into effect today, about 34,000 of those Arkansans would face huge increases in their premiums, given a national average increase of 76 percent, according to one study. That’s an unlikely outcome, but it shouldn’t (and likely won’t) stop Pryor from hitting Cotton as hostile to middle-class families and anyone else who needs health insurance.

I wouldn’t be so sure it works out that way. If tax credits suddenly get withdrawn and people have to pay a larger share of their premiums as a result, red-state Democrats probably will blame Republicans for causing the mess. But Tom Cotton neither wrote the flawed legislation, nor recklessly sent out tax credits in violation of it, nor filed the lawsuit against it. Wouldn’t he just parry by saying, “Obamacare has caused mess after mess”? Arkansas voters—who still dislike Obamacare—might well accept that version of events.

When Obamacare has run into difficulties before, its proponents have tried to blame those difficulties on Republican sabotage. The program would be working better, they have said, if Republicans had set up exchanges in the states or expanded Medicaid. None of that seemed to work beyond the liberal base. Maybe it wouldn’t work this time either.

I would also take with a grain of salt the prediction that in a post-Halbig world states will all rush to adopt exchanges to keep the tax credits flowing. Maybe they will. But there will be a strong other side of the argument: that putting exchanges in place will trigger the employer mandate and, for many people, the individual mandate too.

Of course all of this is conditional on the result in Halbig holding up, which may not happen. [Update: I should note as well that Bouie is not saying that any of this would happen this year. In the Arkansas race, for example, the whole argument would be about possible future events.]

As for Slate’s repeated claim that Obamacare is getting more popular, take a look at this poll average. Net disapproval is higher than it was at this point in February, March, April, or May.

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