The CHIP Debacle Shows Democrats Need to Put the Government on Autopilot

Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer present posters during a press conference on Capitol Hill.
A project for Chuck and Nancy. Win McNamee/Getty Images

As I’m writing this post, the federal government appears to be hurtling toward a shutdown, largely because Democrats and Republicans have been unable to come up with a deal on immigration. [Update: It’s official.] Unfortunately, this means that funding for the critical Children’s Health Insurance Program is once again stuck in limbo, as the GOP has decided to hold the program hostage as part of its negotiation strategy, hoping that they can convince the public that Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi are putting the needs of undocumented immigrants over those of kids.

The situation is both immoral and absurd. About 9 million typically lower-income children rely on CHIP for their health coverage. At the moment, the program is operating on a temporary appropriation that expires in March, and several states could run out of funding before then, in which case, children could start losing their insurance. Nobody thinks that would be a positive outcome. Meanwhile, the Congressional Budget Office believes that reauthorizing CHIP for a full 10 years would actually reduce the deficit by a few billion dollars, meaning there’s no need to even negotiate over how to offset its cost. There is not a single good reason why Congress shouldn’t simply pass a clean bill renewing the law for a good, long time—except that the GOP has decided to use it as a political bludgeon.

Hopefully, this whole grotesque episode will be resolved before kids start getting booted off their health plans. But in the meantime, Democrats should think about how to make sure it never happens again once they eventually retake power. Whenever the party takes power in Washington again, it needs to take steps to guarantee that CHIP, and other essential pieces of the safety net like food stamps, can keep running on autopilot without an occasional reset from Congress, the way, for instance, Medicare payments or Social Security checks keep rolling out pretty much no matter how things break down in Washington. That’s the only way to prevent the GOP from either sabotaging the programs, or turning them into bargaining chips (no pun intended).

The idea behind requiring Congress to reauthorize major social programs every so many years is that it gives lawmakers an impetus to examine what’s working about them, what isn’t, and then pass reforms as necessary. “If you set things and forget them, you reduce some of Congress’ incentive to kind of revisit the programs and give them the scrutiny that you might want to give them,” Molly Reynolds, a Brookings fellow who focuses on governance studies, told me. But that assumes we have a functioning Congress where both major parties are interested in making constructive policy changes in a somewhat bipartisan manner. Suffice to say, that does not describe Capitol Hill in 2018, where Republicans are dominated by a tribe of anti-tax, anti-government nihilists. We have one party that would like to keep the government running and another that wants to burn the whole thing down.

The need to reauthorize or regularly appropriate new funding for key programs gives the arsonists a built-in advantage. Remember when Donald Trump tried to sabotage the Affordable Care Act by halting some key subsidy payments to insurers? He was able to do that because Republicans refused to appropriate money for those subsidies, as Obamacare required. If Democrats had just properly set the subsidies to get paid out automatically, that wouldn’t have been a problem. When food stamps came up for reauthorization (along with the rest of the farm bill) in 2014, Republicans forced president Obama to swallow an $8.7 billion cut to the program, costing hundreds of thousands of families much needed assistance. (It’s worrisome that food stamps are coming up for renewal once again this year, just as Republicans like Paul Ryan are promising big cuts to the welfare state.) It would be easier to defend these programs, or keep ones like CHIP from being taken as political prisoners, if their funding was set to run indefinitely based on a formula, the way Social Security Disability Insurance works, for instance.

There is nothing sacred about the way Congress funds various federal programs. Lawmakers have legislated spending in different ways at different times, depending on the needs of that particular era. Right now, with partisan rancor and bad faith ruling the day, the government would work far better if, on programs that people depend on for essentials like food and health care, we could just set it and forget it.