Win the Argument: How the GOP Can Get the Upper Hand

Published October 2, 2013

The Weekly Standard

The congressional GOP has finally taken a position in its budget struggle with the Obama administration that maximizes its chances for a decent outcome.  Unfortunately, it only got there after going through several other steps first, a process that may have jeopardized the advantage they should be now enjoying.

On Monday, the House passed a GOP-written continuing resolution (CR) to keep the government open, with two Obamacare-related amendments attached to it that the public strongly supports.  The first would delay the individual mandate for a year.  The second would override the Obama administration’s lawless rule giving Congress and its staff special treatment in the Obamacare exchanges.

The Senate promptly rejected the House-passed CR in a strictly party-line vote on Monday evening.

That’s right.  No Senate Democrats supported the latest version of the CR passed by the House — not one.  In the House, nine Democrats supported its passage.  This CR doesn’t defund Obamacare, or even delay it for a year.  All it does is delay the individual mandate for a year and restore the originally-intended treatment of Congress under Obamacare.  In other words, every Senate Democrat – including several from conservative-leaning states who are up for re-election — would rather shut down the government than give working Americans the same one-year break from Obamacare that big businesses have gotten from the administration, or be treated like other Americans under Obamacare’s rules.

These are not popular positions to take, to put it mildly.  In polling, about four out of five Americans support getting rid of the individual mandate.  And there’s even stronger support for making Congress and its staff go into the Obamacare exchanges like other Americans who lose their employer plans.

Unfortunately, for the moment at least, the focus isn’t on the incredibly unpopular positions that the Senate Democrats are taking in this fight but on the fact that much of the federal government is now shut down.

Though regrettable, it’s not surprising that the media is covering the story the way it is.  It was never a good idea to try to use the threat of a break in government funding to pressure for changes in Obamacare, and it was an even worse idea to telegraph to the world that this was your intention.

But here we are.  Because the GOP has now staked out positions that are strongly supported by voters, they have a good chance of regaining the upper hand despite previous missteps.  But they need to make the right tactical moves in the coming days and weeks.

The first step should be to signal reasonableness on re-opening the government.  It is wrong to assume that the GOP must be ready to shut down the government to gain leverage in this struggle.  The GOP has something that the president and his team want, which is some level of budgetary certainty for the executive branch in 2014.  The Obama administration does not want to live indefinitely with short-term CRs.  That would make it nearly impossible to govern effectively, and certainly would disrupt major spending decisions within the agencies.

Consequently, despite assertions to the contrary, it is almost inevitable that the administration will want, at some point, to negotiate with the GOP leaders in Congress – at least on how to settle appropriations for the coming year.  That’s the only way the issue will get resolved.  And in those negotiations, the administration will push for spending levels that exceed the amounts that would be available under the Budget Control Act (after the sequester).

GOP leaders, therefore, should be confident that the Obama administration needs and wants something from them, and that they can agree to short-term, clean CRs (like, for two weeks) to keep the government open without giving up this leverage.

But having negotiating leverage is no guarantee of success.  The GOP also has to win the public argument over who is right on the merits.

The political and substantive case for a delay in the individual mandate is compelling.  On a political level, what politician wants to defend giving a one-year break to corporate America but not to the little guy?  That’s exactly the position Democrats are now in, and the GOP can swing public opinion their way by making this the central theme of their public case.  In the coming days and weeks, there will be no shortage of opportunities for GOP members and Senators to go on TV, and they should use every chance they get to pound the message home with voters that the Democrats are the ones protecting businesses but not workers.

Substantively, the case is just as strong.  The administration has delayed enforcement of the employer mandate for a year, which means some workers will not get an offer of coverage at their place of work.  Because the individual mandate is still in place, they will have to go into the exchanges to get insurance or pay the uninsured tax.  In two states, New Hampshire and West Virginia, there’s only one plan being offered in the exchanges.  In other states, there are very few choices.  Is it really fair to force American to buy insurance from one insurance carrier, or limit their choices to even two or three plans?  The administration says it will start enforcing the employer mandate in 2015, which means many workers who were forced into the exchanges in 2014 will be forced out of them in 2015 when they get offered employer plans.  Does disrupting insurance like this make any sense?  The GOP should make these points to show that a delay of the employer mandate necessitates a commensurate delay of the individual requirement.

Obamacare’s supporters will argue that, if the mandate is delayed, the entire law will fall apart.  But that’s not what the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) has said.  Its cost estimate for a delay of the individual mandate shows lower costs and fewer people getting coverage for a few years, but not total collapse of the program.  Moreover, who would want to support a plan that depended so heavily on coercion anyway?

The case for rescinding the Obama’s administration’s rule providing special treatment for Congress is just as compelling.  A Politico story posted today makes it clear that the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) initially concluded that there was no legal authority in Obamacare for the government to continue making contributions for health insurance for Congress and its staff.  It was only after immense political pressure from the White House and Democrats in Congress that OPM reversed course and authorized continued payments of premiums by the government.  The GOP should expose the blatant abuse of power at work here as many times as possible in the coming days and force Democrats in both chambers and in the White House to try to defend the indefensible.

The GOP should also keep in mind that this struggle is unlikely to get settled quickly, and that a negotiation is all but inevitable at some point.  Among other things, in less than a month, Congress and the White House will have to address the debt limit again, which will mean revisiting all of the same arguments and tensions at work in the CR fight.  And before the year is out, several other provisions (like the Medicare “doc fix”) will have to be addressed to avoid implementation of policies that neither party supports.  Both sides, therefore, are likely to have an interest in sitting down to negotiate a short-term truce, but probably only when the calendar is running short of additional days for delay.

When that time comes, the GOP can and should press for the changes in Obamacare they have already passed through the House.  If they do so, and if they use the time available while this debate takes place to explain why the changes are both fair and necessary, they have a decent chance of winning some major concessions from the Democrats.  And that could lay the groundwork for even more significant changes in the years ahead.

James C. Capretta is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center and a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.


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