The GOP's Alamo for Obamacare

It appears that many right-wing Republicans are dead serious this time about defunding Obamacare. Utah Senator Mike Lee is circulating a letter among his colleagues that would threaten a government shut-down unless all funding for Obamacare is removed from the continuing resolution that must be passed by September 30.

If Republicans in both houses simply refuse to vote for any continuing resolution that contains further funding for further enforcement of Obamacare, we can stop it. We can stop the individual mandate from going into effect.

Signers of the letter include the No. 2 and No. 3 Republican senators, John Cornyn of Texas and John Thune of South Dakota, as well as Marco Rubio, who is desperately trying to get back in the good graces of the GOP base after the immigration-reform fiasco.

In the House, it's North Carolina Representative Mark Meadows who is spearheading the defunding effort:

We have 64 of my colleagues on this letter and we’re asking the leadership not to bring anything to the floor that has funding for ObamaCare in it.

Can it be done? Perhaps a more pertinent question is, should it be done?

Why is it the position of so many on the right that blowing up the government will accomplish something? It doesn't cut spending nearly enough. It doesn't shrink government. It only gives the opposition the chance to demagogue against the irresponsibility inherent in putting so many who are dependent on government at risk. It's a needless irritant that causes voters to question the seriousness of Republicans when it comes to governance.

In short, it's crazy. And doing it in order to defund Obamacare is a fool's errand.

The right wing doesn't like to hear it, but the Affordable Care Act is the law of the land. It can't be repealed as long as Obama sits in the White House and Democrats control the Senate (or nearly so). The law is very unpopular, but not overwhelmingly so. The latest Fox News poll shows a 53-40 split for repeal, with most other polls showing a plurality in favor of getting rid of it. There is no great public drumbeat for repeal.

That may change once the full, detrimental effects of Obamacare are felt by individuals and businesses, and when it becomes apparent what a drag the law is going to be on the economy. But Obamacare is always going to have its supporters too, as Byron York points out:

On the other hand, a lot of thoughtful conservatives are looking beyond Oct. 1 to Jan. 1, the day the law (except for the parts the president has unilaterally postponed) is scheduled to go fully into effect. On that day the government will begin subsidizing health insurance for millions of Americans. (A family of four with income as high as $88,000 will be eligible for subsidies.) When people begin receiving that entitlement, the dynamics of the Obamacare debate will change.

At that point, the Republican mantra of total repeal will become obsolete. The administration will mount a huge public relations campaign to highlight individuals who have received government assistance to help them afford, say, chemotherapy, or dialysis, or some other life-saving treatment. Will Republicans advocate cutting off the funds that help pay for such care?

There has never been an entitlement that, once implemented, has ever been repealed. This is the sad history that Republicans have to deal with. Once that cash starts to flow -- Medicaid expansion too -- a constituency for the law will form. Along with that constituency will come lobbyists, advocates, PACs -- the whole rotten Washington infrastructure of influence all geared toward protecting the entitlement.

How will defunding Obamacare by shutting down the government stop that? One alternate plan being advanced would have Republicans agreeing to fund most government functions, but not appropriate any funds for Obamacare implementation. Even if Senate Democrats went along with this scheme, President Obama would veto any such plan that reached his desk and the government would shut down anyway.

There is no doubt the ACA is a horrible piece of legislation for all the reasons with which you're familiar. But the government has already spent $3.8 billion in implementing it, and expects to spend $5 billion by October 1 when the official rollout of the insurance exchanges occur. The government can't write that $5 billion off like a business would write off a loss. The money has already been spent, mostly on infrastructure for the state insurance exchanges. And the Republicans are on the hook for approving those appropriations because they voted for previous continuing resolutions containing the implementation funds.

Regardless, the GOP is playing into the hands of Democrats by pursuing this course of action. Republicans are dreaming if they think that they won't be blamed for a government shutdown. And by trying to defund Obamacare, it is likely that they will be blamed for all the ill effects that implementation of the law will bring.

Norm Ornstein writes in the National Journal:

For three years, Republicans in the Senate refused to confirm anybody to head the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, the post that McClellan had held in 2003-04—in order to damage the possibility of a smooth rollout of the health reform plan. Guerrilla efforts to cut off funding, dozens of votes to repeal, abusive comments by leaders, attempts to discourage states from participating in Medicaid expansion or crafting exchanges, threatening letters to associations that might publicize the availability of insurance on exchanges, and now a new set of threats—to have a government shutdown, or to refuse to raise the debt ceiling, unless the president agrees to stop all funding for implementation of the plan.

Of course, almost all of the problems with Obamacare have nothing to do with Republicans blocking implementation of the program and everything to do with the way the law is written, and what's in it. But who is going to make that case? Which Republicans have the credibility and can command the attention of the nation? This will be especially difficult because many of the problems engendered by Obamacare won't present themselves immediately. Explaining why the government must be shut down in order to save the economy or prevent the loss of jobs will be a hard sell when the dislocations caused by Obamacare are not immediately apparent.

There are many on the right who see the vote on the continuing resolution as the last stand against Obamacare. This is an illusion. Shutting down the government will not prevent the state exchanges from working. It won't prevent the individual mandate from being enforced by the IRS -- unless the GOP wants to permanently shutter the government. Nor will it prevent the subsidies from eventually flowing.

Simply, it's not going to work unless Republicans are prepared to shut down the government until after the 2016 election when they might possibly win control of the government. Since that is not going to happen, shutting down the government now looks more like a fit of pique rather than the actions of principled legislators.

And voters don't reward politicians for throwing tantrums.