The expected finally happened on Tuesday: the federal government shutdown. Partially, that is: essential tasks of the federal bureaucracy, like mailing out Social Security checks, feeding pandas and constructing barricades around monuments, are still being carried out.
Democrats and their allies in the media have been frantically blaming Republicans in the House of Representatives for the failure of a continuing resolution (CR) to materialize. Republicans, they argue, are not willing to negotiate in good faith, and they should stop attempting to change the Affordable Care Act (ACA) as a byproduct of these funding negotiations. They are “reckless and irresponsible,” “arsonists,” and “terrorists,” and their tactics are those of suicide bombers, waging “jihad” on Americans.
This remarkably civil discourse is, of course, meant to maximize Democrat political gains from the fallout over the shutdown, to gear understandable public discontent toward their opponents, and to justify their own unwillingness to negotiate over any of the CRs the House has passed. How do Democrats justify using such terms, terms that they themselves, until quite recently, claimed led to violence and assassination attempts? They do so in a variety of ways. Let’s have a look at the four most important ones.
Obamacare is the law of the land
The first line of argument is as follows: The ACA was passed by a previous Congress, and signed into law by the president. Republicans have to accept this, and the ACA is now the immutable sine qua non of anything resembling an orderly society governed by the rule of law. This, of course, is nonsensical. Congress after Congress has made significant changes to any and all previously enacted legislation. That is why we have a legislative branch of government: to amend legislation that is no longer seen as optimal, and to pass new legislation to address new concerns. Think for example of the statutorily defined limit on the federal debt: only two years ago, a broad bipartisan coalition in both houses of Congress agreed that the federal debt should not exceed $16.7 trillion. Should Congress reconsider this limit now that has almost been reached? Yes. And promptly. Keeping the law of the land in place would be extraordinarily costly and risky. There is no reason why the same wouldn't apply to the ACA.
Obamacare has nothing to do with the budget, and never before have budget resolutions been tied to nonbudget items
Last week, in the Rose Garden, President Obama said that "no Congress before this one has ever—ever—in history been irresponsible enough to threaten default, to threaten an economic shutdown, to suggest America not pay its bills, just to try to blackmail a President into giving them some concessions on issues that have nothing to do with a budget." This is a deeply dishonest claim, for two reasons. First of all, of course Obamacare does have to do with the budget. It affects both revenue and spending, and it was pushed through the Senate on a party-line vote under reconciliation, a legislative procedure explicitly designed for budgetary measures that is immune to filibusters. It is also untrue for a second reason: Congress has threatened shutdowns and used debt-limit increases many a time to strong-arm the opposing party into making nongermane concessions. A great example comes from 1973, when the political grandfather of Obamacare, Ted Kennedy, attempted to thwart a debt limit increase to force President Nixon to sign campaign-finance legislation.
A small fraction of House Republicans keeps the country hostage with its unreasonable demands
It is simply a matter of fact that House Republicans have moved much farther from their ideal policy goal than have Democrats and the president. House Republicans, of course, would like to repeal Obamacare in it entirety, and that was their opening position. Since then, they have backed down very significantly from that demand, and are now willing to fund the government in exchange for two minor tweaks to aspects of the program. All they would like to see Democrats agree to is a one-year delay of the largely symbolic $95 annual tax on individuals who do not purchase health insurance, and, for example, repeal of the excise tax on medical devices, which is only expected to raise about $3 billion a year in revenue. On the other hand, during the current round of budget fights Senate Democrats and the president have refused to make any alterations to Obamacare whatsoever. (Of course, before the budget fights started, they were happy to give big business a temporary reprieve of Obamacare’s employer mandate while not offering any relief from Obamacare to less-politically-connected individuals.) Indeed, the House of Representatives has made major concessions; it is the Senate that shown a complete unwillingness to negotiate over even minor tweaks to Obamacare.
The people have spoken on Obamacare
They have indeed—but not in the way the media claim they have. Before the ACA was enacted, Democrats controlled the White House, and both chambers of Congress. A grassroots storm of popular discontent, driven to a large extent by the ACA, changed that in 2010. Republicans have dominated the House of Representatives since. It is only logical that when the people give control of half of the legislative branch of government to a party, largely in response to a still-unpopular law, that the views of that party be reflected in legislation and policy.
So there we go. At this point, the reasonable voices in this debate come from the right. It is time for the Senate to show its willingness to negotiate. They should recognize that they have overplayed their hand. The fact that House Republicans have managed to turn an overly extreme strategy of full repeal that looked like it would backfire politically into a sensible and responsible strategy deserves applause. Now would be a moment time for President Obama to show leadership. Not by trying to score cheap political points and poisoning the public debate, but by accepting responsible policies and reasonable compromises.
Stan Veuger is a resident scholar at AEI. His academic research focuses on political economy and applied microeconomics.