health care symbol.1294265913

GOP Victory on Unemployment Benefits Challenges Idea They Can’t Repeal Obamacare

Obamacare by from Washington Examiner, November 17, 2014

It’s treated as an immutable law of politics that once any constituency is receiving government benefits, no political party can take them away. This assumption is built into the prevailing view that Republicans can never repeal President Obama’s healthcare law now that it has millions of beneficiaries. But there’s a recent policy fight that offers a different lesson.

Around this time last year, the news was full of stories about how millions of people stood to lose their unemployment insurance benefits after Christmas if House Republicans didn’t agree to another extension. Democrats, liberal activists, and their allies in the media hammered the issue hard.

“This is so unconscionable, it’s practically at the level of immoral,” House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., declared last December.

A headline at the the liberal Huffington Post read, “Congress’ Christmas Gift To Unemployed America Makes Lumps Of Coal Look Good.”

According to a widely cited study from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities from last year, 1.3 million people were to lose their unemployment benefits after Christmas week and a total of 4.9 million were to miss out at some point in 2014 if the benefits weren’t extended.

Liberals spoke about how Republicans were being pummeled back home and Democrats and activists used every scare tactic in the book to ramp up pressure on House Republicans to pass an extension.

On Dec. 11 of last year, liberal Washington Post blogger Greg Sargent wrote about the “intense pressure” Republicans would be under to pass an extension. He wrote, “It looks to be turning into a very resonant issue in local media in states where many thousands of residents will be directly impacted by it. (Dems have created an interactive map showing how many people in each state stand to lose benefits.)”

In a post on the same blog, George Zornicktouted an ad titled “Bad Santas” taken out by Americans United for Change. “With polls already showing a potential voter backlash and local news outlets giving the story serious play, advocates are ratcheting up the pressure even further by taking out television ads depicting Republicans as heartless Scrooges for stripping benefits from the jobless during the holidays,” he wrote.

In the end, Republicans did not cave into the pressure campaign. Nor should they have. Unemployment insurance is supposed to be a temporary program, but under Obama, it was repeatedly extended on an “emergency” basis — with individuals even receiving benefits for as many as 99 weeks, or nearly two years. Republicans let the benefits expire and remain expired, and resisted calls to have them restored retroactively, arguing that extending them indefinitely was creating a disincentive to work.

Not only did they not suffer politically for this — as this month’s historic Republican election victory attests — but the controversy fizzled so quickly that Democrats didn’t even bother making it a campaign issue. House Republicans let unemployment benefits expire, and by the time all the races are finalized, they are expected to have won their most House seats since 1928.

I’ve been arguing that if the Supreme Court declares Obamcare’s insurance subsidies illegal in 36 states next year, Republicans should firmly resist calls to clean up the mess by amending the healthcare law, which would allow hundreds of billions of dollars of subsidies to flow. Instead, they should use such a ruling as an opening to advance an alternative healthcare vision and work toward completely dismantling Obamacare.

To be sure, there are reasons to believe this wouldn’t be applicable to Obamacare. Unemployment insurance is supposed to be temporary anyway, and even after emergency extensions, the benefits were expected to go away eventually. The issue is also a far less prominent one than the widely-debated healthcare law, and one that was tricky for Democrats to raise, because it would have just reminded voters of the slowness of the recovery.

That having been said, it’s worth considering the example of unemployment insurance as a counter to the assumption that Republicans will be punished whenever people lose government benefits under their watches. This past year has demonstrated that this clearly isn’t always the case.

© 2014 by the Washington Examiner. Reprinted with permission.