Between now and the end of the calendar year, congressional Republicans and the Obama White House will engage in a protracted struggle over fiscal matters. The pile-up of must-do budgetary items now on the agenda makes that certain, starting with the need for stop-gap funding before October 1 to keep the government open and running. From there, Congress will need to increase the debt limit by November (according to the Obama administration’s projections) to allow the U.S. Treasury to continue financing the large deficits that no conceivable budget plan will eliminate in the short-term. And before January, Congress will again be pushed to eliminate the nearly 30 percent cut in Medicare physician fees required next year under current law—just as it has done every year for the past decade—and to pay for these added Medicare costs with offsetting spending cuts.
Such must-do budgetary items present a prime opportunity for Republicans. Legislation addressing these matters cannot get to the president’s desk without going through the Republican-controlled House. Moreover, the Obama administration cannot effectively run the executive branch using stop-gap funding measures. Such measures don’t provide enough certainty for agencies to make significant spending decisions, which means chaos for governance. At some point, therefore, the president will want to cut a deal with House and Senate Republican leaders to take budget uncertainty off the table for at least one year.
So the question is, when that time comes—probably in the days leading up to the holiday season in December—what should be the top priority of the GOP? Both for substantive and political reasons, Republicans should make it clear that their main objective is to delay as much of Obamacare as possible.
Conservatives want to preserve the spending restraints secured in the last round of budget negotiations (although most would prefer that the brunt of them not be borne by the military). But the importance of those cuts pales in comparison to Obamacare. Obamacare is a massive, trillion-dollar entitlement program that will shift nearly total control over the health sector to the federal government. It will undermine our long-term fiscal solvency, our health-care system, and our liberty. There is simply no other policy concern that approaches Obamacare in importance. Anything that can be done to roll back or delay it, therefore, is far more important than preserving spending restraints that squeeze but don’t fundamentally alter the size or scope of the federal leviathan.
Fortunately, there are new signs that GOP leaders and rank-and-file members are coalescing around the view that Obamacare should be their primary target—and that delaying it should be their principal short-term goal.
This is a very welcome development. For the past month, Republicans have been engaged in an intramural squabble over whether or not a defund—rather than a delay—strategy would work. Defunding Obamacare would achieve essentially the same result as delaying it, as each would temporarily prevent the overhaul from going into effect.
But there are big differences between the two strategies from a political perspective. For starters, the president has already unilaterally and lawlessly delayed major parts of the law. In July, he delayed the law’s employer mandate for a year because the cost of enforcing it was prohibitive and because its definition of full-time work (more than 30 hours per week) is pushing millions of workers into part-time status. The president also delayed its mandated caps on out-of-pocket health costs and postponed the ability of small businesses to offer multiple insurance options to their workers in the “exchanges.” Moreover, the administration has announced that some of the basic information needed to test eligibility for subsidies on the exchanges will be based on the “honor system.”
In the wake of these highly publicized actions, the public already has a sense that this law is not ready for prime time—by the administration’s own admission. A push for a full-year delay of other major provisions is thus seen not as an unusual and politicized concept but rather as a reasonable response to the reality on the ground. A recent Kaiser poll asked whether Obamacare’s opponents “should continue trying to change or stop it, so it has less impact on taxpayers, employers, and health care providers,” or “should accept that it is now the law of the land and stop trying to block the law’s implementation.” By a 20-point margin—53 to 33 percent—respondents said that Obamacare’s opponents should keep trying to impede its implementation. In other words, Americans don’t think Republicans should just sit by and watch Obamacare go into effect.
What’s more, a recent Rasmussen poll found that, by a margin of more than 2-to-1 (56 to 26 percent), Americans favor delaying the foundation of Obamacare—the individual mandate, which taxes citizens who do not purchase government-approved insurance. So, if Republicans push to delay the individual mandate, they will have public opinion firmly on their side. And without the mandate, Obamacare will be poised to topple.
The notion of defunding Obamacare gets a very different public reaction. While essentially every poll taken over the past three-and-a-half years has shown that Americans want to see Obamacare repealed, they don’t want to see it defunded. Rather, polls show that Americans oppose defunding Obamacare by large margins—ranging from about 20 to 30 percentage points. Over the past two-and-a-half years, Kaiser has taken eight polls on defunding. On average, those 8 polls have shown 29-point opposition to defunding—61 to 32 percent. A CBS News poll that showed 18-point opposition to Obamacare (51 to 33 percent) showed 20-point opposition to defunding it (55 to 35 percent).
Americans seem to think that defunding sounds like foul play. One Kaiser poll actually asked those who opposed defunding why they opposed it, offering four potential reasons. The most commonly picked reason (and also the most commonly listed “major” reason) was this: “The appropriate way to stop a law is by voting to repeal it. Using the budget process to stop a law is just not the way our government should work.” Almost four in five people (79 percent) who were opposed to defunding gave this as a reason for their opposition, while 59 percent of them listed this as a “major” reason.
Meanwhile, Republicans have already passed a bill, with the support of 22 Democrats, to delay the individual mandate. They have already passed another bill, with the support of five Democrats, to delay Obamacare’s exchanges until such time as the inspector general can certify that they won’t be an open invitation to fraud. Republicans would be wise to make these House-passed bills the centerpiece of their push in the budget battles ahead.
If all or crucial parts of Obamacare are delayed, then the signature legislation of Obama’s presidency will look anything but inevitable—and if it can be delayed once, it can be delayed again and again, and then repealed. President Obama, therefore, will not go along willingly. But if Republicans play their cards right and turn up the political heat on Senate Democrats, especially over the individual mandate, then the president’s coalition could begin to break apart. At that point, he may not have any choice but to go along with delaying major parts of Obamacare.
James C. Capretta is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center and a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. Jeffrey H. Anderson is executive director of the newly formed 2017 Project, which is working to advance a conservative reform agenda.