Massive Resistance

Is the multifront Republican strategy to undermine Obamacare working?

President Obama
The Obama administration announced a delay in the implementation of the employer mandate portion of Obamacare. Republicans are responding as you’d expect.

Photo by Jewel Samad/AFP/Getty Images

When the word came down that the employer mandate portion of Obamacare had been delayed by one year, Republicans reacted like high-school football coaches getting doused with Gatorade. “This announcement means even the Obama administration knows the ‘train wreck’ will only get worse,” said House Speaker John Boehner. “This further confirms that even the proponents of Obamacare know it will hurt jobs,” said House Majority Leader Eric Cantor.

That was the appetizer. On Wednesday, the House Energy and Commerce Committee sent letters to the relevant agencies, asking why they’d failed and lied and failed about the employer mandate. The committee’s Republicans wanted, among other things, “all documents and communications, including e-mail, between administration officials and any individuals, companies, or organizations discussing the requirement that employers provide coverage to their employees.” They wanted this within two weeks. Got it? Thanks!

As high-profile where-are-the-bodies investigations go, this one’s fairly promising. Republicans are right: The administration oversold the ease with which businesses employing more than 50 full-time workers could comply with a health care mandate. That’s about 4 percent of all businesses, and HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius juggled waivers for the holdouts but otherwise promised that all was well.

The Obama Treasury Department delayed the mandate because it knew Congress wasn’t going to fix it. Republicans don’t want to tweak the law as much as they want to bind it in chains and set it on fire, like some jargon-filled Necronomicon. Their strategy in 2009 and 2010 was to stop it from passing. Their strategy in 2011 and 2012 was to win an election and repeal the law.

Their strategy today is both to win an election and repeal the law, and to have it collapse in failure. Today’s GOP is approaching TED levels of innovation in undermining the law. In June, for example, Mitch McConnell and John Cornyn, the party’s leader and whip in the Senate, sent letters to the NFL, NHL, NBA, PGA, and NASCAR asking them to please, please not help the administration advertise the Affordable Care Act. Sure, the Red Sox had helped advertise “Romneycare” in Massachusetts – but this was different. “Just this week, a Gallup poll showed that a majority of Americans disapprove of Obamacare,” wrote McConnell to Roger Goodell. “The Massachusetts law was adopted by large bi-partisan majorities in a Democratic legislature and signed by a Republican governor. Obamacare was passed on a party-line vote, using extraordinary legislative gimmicks and widely ridiculed political favors to win passage.”

Now, was there some American whose opinion of Obamacare would be totally changed during the Packers-Giants game? Probably not, but that’s not the point: Republicans have taken every chance to shrink the Obamacare PR campaign. They deleted the law’s PR budget, then raised hell about the administration moving around money and asking for help from private firms to promote it

And that’s just the undermining of the publicity for the law. The multistate rebellion against the law’s Medicaid expansion money (the Supreme Court decision that saved the ACA made the Medicaid buy-in optional) is undermining the law itself. Any conservative will tell you that the states refusing the money are trying to make the law impossible to enact. “Texas will not be held hostage to the Obama administration’s attempt to force us into this fool’s errand,” said Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who, according to polls, could still be governor through 2018.

If Republicans have 51 votes in the Senate come 2015, they’ll try to repeal the taxes in Obamacare in their first budget. Since any such vote would need to be scored as deficit reduction, that might not be possible, but hey, maybe the ascension of President Chris Christie in 2017 will fix that. Look at how successful they’ve been in Wisconsin or North Carolina, where total control of the legislature has undone decades of labor and civil rights laws.

If this seems nihilistic, please, pay more attention. Every high-level Republican strategy comes down to “just stop the Democrats and win later.” There’s a growing conservative consensus to stop immigration reform because Democrats can’t be trusted in the conference committee. “I think some of us who think it’s a bad bill should probably do a little work to make sure it stays dead, dead, dead,” said Bill Kristol last week. “Here in Washington, these bills can emerge, zombie-like, you know?” The appetite for replacing the cuts of sequestration is pretty well gone, to the surprise of Democrats.

None of this is crazy. It’s practically the duty of the out-party to make a lame duck president limp as soon as possible. Some Republicans think they did that when their Senate minority denied an up-down vote on gun control, and more of them think that the president is now too plagued by scandals to pressure them in their states and districts.

But he’s still the president. Promising not to make any deals with him doesn’t shrink the size of government. Government keeps growing, and the president’s the only player who can influence it. Sequestration consisted of random cuts, so agencies cut conferences and gave days off instead of actually restructuring. There’s no chance of a climate bill coming out of this Congress, so the president’s just rolled out more carbon regulations. Republicans criticize these “power grabs,” and they plan to campaign against them, but they don’t actually stop them.

They haven’t even stopped the employer mandate. It’s still alive, and McConnell spokesman Don Stewart didn’t indicate that Congress might fix it by changing the threshold for number of employees or tying the mandate to payroll.

“Tying it to any threshold guarantees that many employers make that their ceiling,” said Stewart in an e-mail. “We’ve already seen hours cut to keep people under 30 and jobs cut (or not added) to keep payrolls below 50. It hasn’t taken effect yet and it’s already costing jobs (weird, it’s almost like we predicted that).” Republicans were right, so they get gloating rights, but for now, nothing else.