No Mandate

Obamacare by from The Weekly Standard, October 10, 2013

Contrary to many pundits’ expectations, congressional Republicans seem to have zigzagged their way to a reasonable position in the ongoing budget battles. To be sure, their clumsy manner of getting there has helped to obscure this conclusion. Nevertheless, the GOP has the better argument in the battles over funding the federal government and raising the debt limit.

Perhaps the strongest testament to this is the dogged determination of the Obama administration and congressional Democrats to misrepresent the Republican position. Treasury Secretary Jack Lew alleges that Republicans have offered “this ridiculous choice where either you repeal the Affordable Care Act”​—​i.e., Obamacare​—​“or you shut down the government or default on the United States.” House minority leader Nancy Pelosi says that while President Obama has been “extending the hand of friendship over and over,” ungrateful Republicans have responded by saying that “we will only open [the] government if you eliminate the Affordable Care Act.” Senator Chuck Schumer claims that House speaker John “Boehner said on TV .  .  . ‘Repeal Obamacare or we’re not dealing with the debt ceiling.’ ”

In fact, Boehner said nothing of the sort. House Republicans are not making a budget deal (or a debt-limit increase) contingent on repealing Obamacare. They are not making it contingent on defunding Obamacare. They are not even making it contingent on delaying all of Obamacare. Rather, they are making it contingent upon delaying, for one year, the highly unpopular individual mandate​—​and eliminating the lawless Obamacare congressional carve-out. House Republicans passed legislation that would fund the government under those conditions, and they did so before the shutdown.

One can understand why the Obama administration doesn’t want the Republicans’ actual position to come to light. For the more that the American people understand what the Republican position actually is, the more likely they are to side with the GOP in this standoff. That, in turn, means it’s important for Republicans to emphasize their position more consistently and assertively than they have to date.

Of all of the unpopular aspects of the 2,700-page behemoth that is Obamacare, the individual mandate has long been the most hated. Set to kick off on January 1 (Happy New Year!), the individual mandate commands Americans, for the first time in the country’s history, to buy a product or service of the federal government’s choosing, merely as a condition of living in the United States. The Democrats claimed that their unprecedented mandate was constitutional under Congress’s power to regulate interstate commerce​—​a claim that would have transformed that clause into a power to compel commerce. The Supreme Court rejected that argument. The mandate survived only because the Court ruled​—​in a 5-4 vote​—​that the mandate could be construed as a novel tax of sorts (which Obama had emphatically denied that it was) and could therefore be upheld under Congress’s taxing power. Mitt Romney​—​who once famously said, “I like mandates”​—​didn’t press the issue during the presidential campaign. But the mandate is now back in the public eye, and the public appears to loathe it as much as ever. For the individual mandate is the aspect of Obamacare that makes its architecture of coercion most evident to ordinary Americans.

If the looming implementation of the individual mandate weren’t already objectionable enough, Obama announced on the cusp of the July 4 weekend​—​via an underling’s blog post​—​that he was delaying Obamacare’s employer mandate for a year. Obama had no legal authority to do this, yet he did it anyway. House Republicans responded by passing a bill to delay the individual mandate​—​lawfully​—​and were joined by 22 Democrats. The bill passed by a margin of 77 votes, or 70 more than the margin by which House Democrats passed Obamacare. But Majority Leader Harry Reid has refused to bring the bill to the Senate floor, and Obama has said he’d veto it.

Obama then pushed the Office of Personnel Management to carve out an exception to Obamacare for the benefit of congressional members and their staffs. Under this exception​—​a lawless departure from Obamacare’s written text​—​those in Congress will be the only Americans who will get to use employer health care contributions to buy insurance through Obamacare’s regular exchanges. Staffers making in excess of $150,000 will thus get their Obamacare-based insurance subsidized by taxpayers, while (according to Kaiser Health’s Obamacare calculator) a typical 30-year-old making $35,000 in, say, Ohio, won’t get a penny’s worth of subsidies. (Of course, that 30-year-old could always rectify this by going to work on Capitol Hill.)

In response to these Obama-initiated developments, Republicans passed legislation on September 30 that would fund the federal government in the new fiscal year, delay the individual mandate for a year, and end the illegal congressional carve-out. Senate Democrats and Obama have subsequently refused to negotiate, and Obama insists he “will not negotiate” over the debt ceiling.

In the meantime, the Obamacare exchanges opened on October 1 with an embarrassing clunk. So the Democrats are requiring Americans to buy insurance that the Obama administration isn’t prepared to sell.

Polling by Rasmussen Reports indicates that Americans favor a delay of Obamacare’s individual mandate by 56 to 26 percent. A poll conducted by GEB International for Independent Women’s Voice says that Americans oppose preferential treatment for Congress under Obamacare by 94 to 4 percent. Meanwhile, CBS polling shows that only 23 percent of Americans agree with Obama that the debt ceiling should be “raised without conditions,” while 75 percent think it should either be raised in connection with spending cuts or else not raised at all.

In light of all this, why won’t Obama and the Democrats go along with the Republicans’ rather moderate proposal, or at least negotiate in response to it? The answer is that much of Obamacare cannot function without the individual mandate​—​its coercive core. Accordingly, Obama and his fellow Democrats think that even a one-year delay would be too dangerous​—​because it might open the door to further delays, and to further questioning of the whole structure of Obamacare.

The administration has been clear about this in the past. Here’s what Stephanie Cutter once wrote on the White House blog:

The Affordable Care Act .  .  . bans insurance companies from discriminating against people with pre-existing conditions. However, unless every American is required to have insurance, it would be cost prohibitive to cover people with pre-existing conditions.

Here’s why: If insurance companies can no longer deny coverage to anyone who applies for insurance​—​especially those who have health problems and are potentially more expensive to cover​—​then there is nothing stopping someone from waiting until they’re sick or injured to apply for coverage since insurance companies can’t say no. That would lead to double digit premiums increases​—​up to 20%​—​for everyone with insurance, and would significantly increase the cost [of] health care spending nationwide. We don’t let people wait until after they’ve been in a car accident to apply for auto insurance and get reimbursed, and we don’t want to do that with healthcare. If we’re going to outlaw discrimination based on pre-existing conditions, the only way to keep people from gaming the system and raising costs on everyone else is to ensure that everyone takes responsibility for their own health insurance.

In other words, the individual mandate is one piece of Obamacare that can’t be removed. Without it​—​by the administration’s own admission​—​Obamacare would become “cost prohibitive.”

This means Americans ultimately have two choices: learn to live with the unprecedented mandate, or repeal Obama-care. The individual mandate is Obamacare’s cornerstone, and Obama is desperate to put it in place. That’s why Republicans should keep pushing as hard as they can to fend it off.

© 2013 by The Weekly Standard. Reprinted with permission.