To pare down the cost of President Biden’s social spending bill, Democrats were forced to make a number of their new programs temporary. Their hope — and conservatives’ fear — is that once the programs are put in place and develop dependents, that even a future Republican Congress would feel compelled to extend them. While there is ample precedent to support this theory — most recently, with Obamacare — there is reason to believe that Biden’s social transformations could prove more short-lived than past liberal expansions of the welfare state.
To review, among the most significant expansions of social programs in Biden’s proposal are:
— An extension of payments to families of up to $3,600 per year per child (one year)
— An expansion of Obamacare’s health insurance subsidies (four years)
— Universal pre-K and subsidized child care (six years)
It’s quite possible that Democrats will be in charge when it comes time to renew these programs and they will have the power to make them permanent. But if Republicans are in charge, I think the programs are less likely to be sustained than Obamacare.
The reason why Obamacare was different was that it was a permanent piece of legislation. This meant that when Republicans got in control, they had to actively pass a bill to repeal it, which also put pressure on them to come up with some sort of replacement. Getting Republicans on the same page on health care policy, especially with narrow majorities, was not a simple task. So, while it came as a grave disappointment that Republicans broke their pledge on repeal, it should not have come as a massive surprise.
Imagine, however, an alternate reality in which Obamacare would have expired at the end of 2017 had Republicans not passed legislation to extend or replace it. Suddenly, Republican disagreement and dysfunction would have worked in favor of conservatives, because if nothing passed, it would have effectively repealed the law. Not only that, but it would have completely flipped the leverage enjoyed by the various Republican factions. In 2017, Sens. Susan Collins, Lisa Murkowski, and John McCain could ultimately live with Obamacare remaining intact if nothing got passed. So they had no reason to compromise with Sens. Ted Cruz, Mike Lee, and the Freedom Caucus types in the House. But if Obamacare were set to expire, suddenly the leverage would have shifted to conservatives. If they refused to vote for anything, it would have led to the full repeal of Obamacare. So suddenly the Republican centrists would have had to rally around some sort of free market replacement that would have been acceptable to conservatives were they to get anything.
If Republicans are in control in the future, it won’t ultimately matter whether some Republicans, or even leadership, believes it would be better politics to extend childcare and universal pre-K subsidies. As long as a critical mass of Republicans won’t vote for such extensions, they won’t happen.
While Republicans have given conservatives good reason for skepticism due to their reluctance to shrink the welfare state, I am more bullish about Republicans when shrinking government programs involves simply doing nothing.