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Defunding Obamacare: Much Ado About A Shutdown

Defunding Obamacare: Much Ado About A Shutdown

"Defund it or own it.  If you fund it, you’re for it.”

Commentary by Hans A. von Spakovsky, a Senior Legal Fellow, and Kyle McCollum, a member of the Young Leaders Program at The Heritage Foundation.


If Republicans try to defund ObamaCare, it will spell political suicide for the GOP in 2014.  Or so some pundits would have us believe. But their reading of political history is wrong.

When Republicans last stood up for conservative principles—in the 1990s—they didn’t lose.  Instead, they achieved a balanced budget and welfare reform, even though it took a government shutdown to get there.

Recently, a small band of conservative senators – led by Mike Lee of Utah and Ted Cruz of Texas – have called on Congress to pass a year-end spending bill that would keep government going, but bar spending anything to implement Obamacare.  Common wisdom holds that the president would veto any measure denying funds to his “legacy” achievement, thereby triggering a government shutdown.  Common wisdom also holds that Republicans would be blamed for the shutdown, and a resentful public will punish them for it at the polls.

That’s certainly the narrative being spun by the Administration and many pundits of the left.  And it even has some adherents among the ranks of GOP officials and consultants. House Deputy Whip Tom Cole (R-OK) calls the defunding effort a “suicidal political tactic.” Sen. Richard Burr (R-NC) calls it “the dumbest idea” he has ever heard.

But would a determined push to defund Obamacare really destine doom for its backers?  Or is it time, once again, for conservatives to translate their principles and promises into action?

The defund=doom predictions stem from an erroneous reading of the 1995-1996 government shutdowns,  when a GOP-controlled Congress faced-off against a Democratic White House.  Commentators frequently cite the “political fallout” from that confrontation as reason enough to avoid another shutdown scenario.

But the fallout wasn’t what many think it was.  The notion that Republicans paid a steep price for the Clinton-era shutdown simply doesn’t reflect reality.  It’s like the line from the great John Ford western, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance:  “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”

In the 1996 elections – the first election following the shutdown – Republicans suffered a net loss of only eight seats in the House.  This was hardly the kind of backlash one might expect to occur after the GOP had been blamed for the shutdown and during a presidential election year where a Democrat was reelected to a second term in the White House.  Indeed, it was the first time in nearly 70 years that Republicans carried a House majority over into the next Congress prior to 2012.

On the Senate side, Republicans gained two seats.

A political Armageddon it was not. When the electoral dust cleared, Republicans had kept their majority in the House and strengthened their Senate majority.  More importantly, by sticking to their principles, conservatives managed to win a balanced budget agreement and a reformed welfare system from a most reluctant White House.

Moreover, a vote to defund Obamacare is by no means a vote to shut down the federal government.  Let’s presume that the House passes a Continuing Resolution (CR) that forbids spending a dime on implementing Obamacare but keeps the rest of the federal government up and running.  The measure would then cross over to the Democrat-controlled Senate, putting the onus to act on the other party.  The decision on whether to shut down the government over a single issue – implementing an unworkable, unfair, and unpopular health insurance law—would reside with the Democrats.

Now suppose enough Democratic senators, not wanting to take heat for valuing Obamacare above all other government programs combined, join their Republican colleagues to pass the CR. Should President Obama then choose to veto the measure, any responsibility for a resulting government shutdown would be on him – not on Congress.

President Obama – through his unilateral decisions to delay the employer mandate and exempt Congress from participating in the program – has already demonstrated just how unworkable and unfair his signature achievement truly is.  But once the law’s provisions and subsidies are fully implemented, it may be even more difficult to dismantle them.

The bottom line is that if lawmakers want to go home to their constituents and truthfully proclaim they did all they could to avert the Obamacare “train wreck,” they need to back up their words with principled action. Refusing to show up for the fight is not an option.

And as Senator Lee aptly stated, “We don’t have to vote to fund something with which we fundamentally disagree…. Defund it or own it.  If you fund it, you’re for it.”


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