Politics & Policy

‘Repeal and Replace’ Becomes ‘Repeal vs. Replace’

House speaker Paul Ryan (Reuters photo: Jonathan Ernst)
The day of reckoning approaches, and Republicans had better be ready.

In the past few weeks, various articles summarizing Republican moves on health care have attempted to analyze the factions and dynamics driving the debate. Why, some reporters have asked, are Republicans struggling to draft a consensus alternative to Obamacare, given that the party had seven years to create such a plan?

Apart from the point that Democrats faced their own not-insignificant divisions on health care eight years ago, much of the debate within Republican ranks has its roots in fundamental disagreement about what an alternative to Obamacare should do. If two people or factions can’t agree about the ultimate goals of legislation, it shouldn’t be surprising to find them disagreeing on the policies to include in said bill.

For all the emphasis on the “repeal and replace” slogan since the day Obamacare passed Congress in March 2010, the current debate might be characterized as “repeal vs. replace.” Repealers focus more on eradicating the law, while replacers wish to make sure that an alternative does not leave many of Obamacare’s newly covered uninsured.

Repealers

The repeal faction generally comes from the conservative wing of the party. It wants every word of Obamacare repealed — lock, stock, and barrel — and, in some cases at least, is willing to consider blowing up the Senate filibuster (a.k.a. the “nuclear option”) to do it. Repealers generally do not want to maintain many, or any, federal regulations on health insurance, deferring to the states (as was largely the case prior to Obamacare).

When it comes to alternative policies, some repealers don’t care about “replacing” Obamacare at all and would content themselves with a return to the status quo ante. Other repealers would focus more on enacting reforms to lower health-care costs rather than expanding coverage or providing subsidies to previous Obamacare recipients. Some repealers would go beyond repeal to examine prior federal encroachments on health policy that preceded President Obama’s tenure.

Of particular import: Repealers believe that repeal means the elimination of all of Obamacare’s taxes and spending — and that these should go away, not to return. That directly contrasts with the approach of replacers, who focus on another policy objective.

Replacers

Whereas repealers want to eradicate the health law’s spending and taxes — to use the Washington lingo, they would return to the pre-Obamacare fiscal baseline — replacers focus on maintaining, or at least not eliminating, Obamacare’s coverage baseline. They would like an alternative to Obamacare to at least be competitive with current law when it comes to the number of individuals with health insurance — although for different reasons. Some replacers believe in the goal of universal health coverage, while others simply believe that an alternative, to be politically viable, must offer something to those currently covered by Obamacare.

Replacers focus on preserving coverage gains as an objective of any alternative legislation, whereas repealers focus solely on lowering health-care costs.

Coming from more moderate or establishment wings of the Republican party, replacers focus on preserving coverage gains as an objective of any alternative legislation, whereas repealers focus solely on lowering health-care costs. To preserve Obamacare’s expansion of coverage (albeit perhaps with reduced benefits), replacers would either preserve some of Obamacare’s tax increases, or repeal them all but institute new measures to raise revenue in their place.

Replacers also would maintain a greater level of federal oversight of health insurance than repealers. They would attempt to preserve policies such as Obamacare’s under-26 insurance mandate, ban on annual and lifetime limits, and the ban on preexisting conditions; repealers would either devolve these policies to the states or scrap them entirely.

As for the president, he has — as on many issues — given mixed messages. His public statements — “insurance for everybody,” “simultaneous repeal-and-replace” — tend to put him in the replacer camp. But candidate Trump’s platform on health care, with a minimalist approach focused largely on reducing health-care costs, emphasized the repealer elements of his agenda during the contentious Republican primaries last spring.

Rorschach Test

It is perhaps oversimplifying matters to view these two schools of thought as diametrically opposed. Members of Congress could agree with elements of both factions, depending on the specific issue.

But it does not oversimplify to say that the question of emphasis — who cares more about repeal, and who cares more about replace? — has driven much of the debate since the November 8 election results gave Republicans an opportunity to impose their will on health care. It explains why some replacers have argued in favor of keeping some or all of Obamacare’s tax increases, and it explains why conservative repealers have expressed opposition to replacing Obamacare’s subsidies with another system of refundable tax credits.

The New York Times recently profiled Josh Holmes, the former aide to Senator Mitch McConnell who coined the “repeal-and-replace” phrase when working for the Republican leader seven years ago. But while the phrase proved catchy among elected leaders, it did not solve the debate about which policies to include in an alternative plan. Instead, by creating a new Rorschach test, in which candidates could emphasize either the “repeal” or the “replace” elements depending on their political views and the audience of the moment, it effectively postponed the day of decision within the party.

With views on Obamacare alternatives not fully litigated during the 2016 campaign cycle (or, for that matter, the cycles preceding it), that day of reckoning has finally arrived. Whether and how Republicans resolve the conflict between the repealers and the replacers will help determine whether the catchy phrase “repeal-and-replace” gets dubbed with a catchphrase of its own: Too cute by half.

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