The Constraints on Republicans

by Ramesh Ponnuru

Charles Lane isn’t the only commentator who’s doing this, but he is the one I just happen to have finished reading. He has a column arguing that the Republicans’ health-care bill is similar to Obamacare because they don’t have better ideas and think their bill represents “the maximum progress House Republicans think they can make toward free-market health care without committing political suicide.” And it’s certainly true that aspects of Obamacare are popular, or popular within important subgroups of voters, and that these political facts have affected the bill Republicans wrote.

But the words “filibuster,” “reconciliation,” “Byrd rule,” and even “Senate” do not appear in Lane’s column. And the desire to avoid a Democratic filibuster has also powerfully influenced this bill. It’s the main reason the bill leaves so many Obamacare regulations in place. It’s the main reason the bill includes a mandatory 30 percent surcharge for people who let their insurance lapse and then try to buy a new policy. (Modifying Obamacare’s regulation on pre-existing conditions would arguably make the bill subject to a filibuster, so the House Republicans’ bill doesn’t modify it. Leaving it in place while removing the individual mandate necessitated some other way to encourage healthy people to stay insured. This is what they came up with.)

One of the downsides of letting fear of Senate parliamentary rulings drive the content of the legislation is that it creates a major messaging problem. The vast majority of conservatives who are disappointed in this bill, I’d wager, are unaware of this. A lot of them think that Lane has the basic story right: Republicans are acquiescing to much of Obamacare just because of fear of political backlash if they go further. This is one reason that I think House Republicans would have been better off, and would still be better off, choosing an option Yuval Levin mentions in his post from earlier today: “House Republicans could decide that it is not their job to solve procedural problems in the Senate and proceed with a bill that aggressively rolls back the insurance regulations in Title I of Obamacare and then enacts a different approach—returning insurance regulation to the states and subsidizing catastrophic coverage. That would leave it to the Senate to decide how much of such a bill to retain and in what form, whether on the floor in response to Democratic challenges under the Byrd Rule or in preparing a wraparound amendment in advance.”

Republicans would then at least be in the position of entering the debate arguing for legislation in which more of them genuinely believe.

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