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A Dialogue on Defunding

by Ramesh Ponnuru

Should opponents of Obamacare be willing to shut down the government?

So why are all the Republicans in Washington, D.C., yelling at each other right now?

A bill, called a continuing resolution, has to be enacted for all the operations of government to be funded. Without it, there will be a partial government shutdown. One group of Republicans, led by Senators Ted Cruz (R., Tex.) and Mike Lee (R., Utah) and including a minority of House Republicans, thinks that Republicans should refuse to pass any such bill unless it takes funding away from Obamacare. They argue that if they hold firm long enough, they will win. Most Republicans say that it won’t work: The public will hold a shutdown against Republicans, they won’t be able to sustain their position, and the battle will end with Republicans discredited and Obamacare more entrenched than ever. The defunders call the Republicans who disagree with their strategy the “surrender caucus.”

Can a budget bill defund Obamacare like that?

Yes. Some opponents of the strategy, early in this debate, argued that Obamacare funding keeps going even if there’s no budget bill, because a lot of its funding does not depend on yearly budget bills. Senator Tom Coburn (R., Okla.) even commissioned a report from the Congressional Research Service to buttress this argument. It’s right but also beside the point. There’s no doubt that Congress has the power to attach an amendment to the budget law that says no funds may be used to implement Obamacare. (For that matter, they could attach an amendment that repeals the law altogether.) The defunders know that Obamacare does not need a budget bill to keep going. They think that voters want the government to stay open and want Obamacare to go away, and that by tying these outcomes together they can force Democrats to accede.

Is it true that voters want to get rid of Obamacare?

Polls consistently find that more Americans oppose it than support it. More people think it will raise health costs than think it will reduce them. Most polls find, however, that opposition to the law runs ahead of support for repealing it. Some polls find a small majority for repeal; others do not, especially when they add the option of modifying the law.

If most Republicans are against the defunding strategy, why did House Republicans vote for a defunding bill?

Three groups of Republicans voted for that bill. The first group are the 15 to 20 Republicans who believe in the strategy. The second are the 20 to 25 who are afraid of being called pro-Obamacare if they don’t support the strategy. The third group voted for the bill because they wanted to show that a world without Obamacare is the outcome they would prefer, and also because they realized that the first two groups were not going to vote for a budget bill unless it defunded Obamacare: This third group is a large majority of House Republicans, but it is not large enough to pass a bill through the House. If 7 percent of House Republicans won’t vote for a bill and neither will almost any of the Democrats, nothing can pass.

Why couldn’t the majority of Republicans just leave out the defunding language from their bill? Wouldn’t they get enough Democratic support to make up for those lost Republicans?

No. The Democrats don’t just want to keep Obamacare going. They want higher spending levels, too. And they want to see Republicans fight one another and to make it as hard as possible for them to pass anything.

The Republicans who want to avert a shutdown: What have they been doing about Obamacare instead?

The top House Republicans, John Boehner and Eric Cantor, have had Republicans reaffirm their opposition to Obamacare by holding votes on bills to repeal it, bills that have passed the House. They have also held votes on delaying the individual mandate, to show that even Democrats have serious concerns about the law. (Twenty-two of them voted with the Republicans.) And they tried to take other steps to weaken the pro-Obamacare coalition but failed. They have not, however, articulated an overall strategy against the law. One reason the defunders are enjoying some success is that they have something that appears to be one. They say that what the Republicans have done up to this point is just hold “show votes,” which are “meaningless” and “symbolic.”

What makes them meaningless and the defunders’ ideas meaningful?

The difference the defunders see is that Obama and the Democrats had no reason ever to sign a repeal bill, but will have a reason to go along with defunding—keeping the government open. They say, as well, that anyone who votes to let the government keep spending money on Obamacare doesn’t really oppose it.

Aren’t they right?

Not according to any principle that can be generalized. Senator Rubio, for example, has said that Republican leaders who let funding bills go forward without the Obamacare-defunding language are complicit in the program. He has not said that any budget bill has to include language getting rid of funds for Planned Parenthood. Is he therefore complicit in subsidies for an abortion provider, and not a real pro-lifer? Is he obligated to start a fight over this issue that might involve shutting down the government, regardless of his judgment about the likely consequences of such a fight? No, he isn’t.

What do the Republicans who oppose the defunding strategy suggest as an alternative now?

They want to use legislation over the debt ceiling—the federal government is about to hit the limits of its borrowing authority—to delay the implementation of Obamacare. To get Republicans to acquiesce to raising the debt ceiling, they hope, Democrats will agree to this delay.

What’s the difference between delaying Obamacare and defunding it?

There isn’t much of one. If you defund Obamacare for the duration of a budget, you’re delaying its implementation. In polls, though, the public seems to like “delaying” more than “defunding.” Maybe it sounds more like an acknowledgment of its problems than a partisan attack on it.

If the budget bill doesn’t give Republicans the leverage to defund Obamacare, why would the debt-ceiling bill give them the leverage to delay it?

Good question. People want the government to stay funded, and don’t like raising the debt ceiling. But the consequences of hitting the debt ceiling are generally considered to be worse than a partial government shutdown. Economists think that by raising the risk that the federal government will default on its debts, hitting the debt ceiling will rattle the stock market, credit markets, and consumer confidence. That doesn’t sound like a happier scenario than a shutdown for Republicans. If Republicans aren’t willing to provoke a shutdown, they probably won’t be willing to see a default either.

It sounds like you’re saying that neither of these bills gives the Republicans much leverage.

That’s right. In the aftermath of the government shutdowns of 1995 and 1996, Republicans concluded that they do not help congressional conservatives advance their goals. They started pushing for a law that would automatically continue government funding at a steady level even if Congress did not enact a new funding bill. As memories of those days have faded, the theory that shutdowns can be a useful backdrop to negotiations has made a comeback. The Heritage Foundation, which in the years following the last shutdowns wanted automatic-funding legislation, is now a leading voice for defunding.

Earlier this year, most House Republicans voted for legislation to make it less likely that a default would happen. That legislation stipulated that even if the federal government hit the debt limit, it could borrow more to pay interest. The passage of that bill by the House could be said to constitute an acknowledgment that the threat of default does not give them leverage. It gives the president leverage.

Didn’t the Republicans force President Obama to cut spending by refusing to raise the debt ceiling in 2011?

That’s right: That was the origin of the sequestration that has been starting to take effect this year. That episode, though, illustrates how little leverage this kind of tactic creates. First, Republicans had to give the Democrats more than just a debt-ceiling increase. They also had to agree to defense cuts most Republicans disliked. Second, the cuts were nowhere near as momentous a change as a halt to Obamacare would be. The country is not going to look much different in 2035 because of the sequestration. It would look a lot different if Republicans were able to delay Obamacare indefinitely or repeal it (which would be the point of getting a one-year delay now). Third, that was a few months after Republicans had picked up a lot of seats in the House and the Senate. This time they’re negotiating after an election in which Democrats gained seats in the House and Senate.

Republicans didn’t get much last time, and this time they’d be asking for more with less political momentum.

So the Republican leaders’ real problem with the defunding strategy is its brinksmanship, not defunding per se. Then aren’t they undermining their own argument by talking up their own brinksmanship, and making a distinction between delaying and defunding Obamacare?

Yes. Some of the defunders have noticed this.

So can Republicans get anything out of the debt-ceiling or budget bills?

Maybe. If the Democrats want relief from the sequestration badly enough, maybe some more spending can be traded for a delay in the most unpopular part of the health-care law: the fine for not buying health insurance. Delaying that would make the law much harder to implement, strengthen the impression that the law is not set in stone, create a precedent for future delays, and highlight an unattractive feature of the law. Democrats might go for it anyway, convinced as they are that history is on the side of their health-care law.

Are they right? If defunding is unlikely to work, are we stuck with Obamacare?

Democrats seem to think that once people start receiving benefits from the law, it will become unrepealable—and some Republicans agree. That’s the fear behind the defunding strategy: Even if it is unlikely to work, it’s the only way to stop the subsidies from flowing before 2014. Subsidies put in place never expire, goes the theory.

Obamacare may be different, though. The polls have consistently found public opposition to it. It may raise premiums for more people than it reduces them. It has the potential to destroy insurance markets as people act on the incentives it creates to go without coverage. The subsidies it provides go to insurers, not their customers, and do not make most medical services free to patients. (The Congressional Budget Office projects that these subsidies will go to only 2 percent of the population in 2014 anyway.) All of these features suggest that the law will continue to be vulnerable for some time.

How is it that you have such pat answers for all my questions?

Because you’re a journalistic device. You don’t really exist. Sorry about that.

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