Out With the Old

Is the beginning of the 112th Congress the end of Obamacare?

With trademark lachrymosity, Congressman John A. Boehner accepted the gavel of the House of Representatives Wednesday from outgoing Speaker Nancy Pelosi. Presiding over his maiden session in the “people’s House,” Boehner aptly expounded on “the people’s” will and the urgency of enacting it during the already-fleeting tenure of the 112th Congress. “The people voted to end business as usual,” the speaker said, “and today we begin carrying out their instructions.” More than empty rhetoric, Speaker Boehner leads an ambitious Republican constituency, which has already seized both horns of the national dilemma: the looming prospect of the unpopular healthcare legislation passed by President Obama and the previous Congress, and the unmanageability of federal spending. Both pit Republicans directly against the agenda President Obama has aggressively led for the past two years. This time around, however, no single party holds many trump cards.

A few hours after representatives were sworn into office, the now Republican-led House enacted a number of new rules to address spending and taxation. A Democratically-controlled House in 2007 instituted the “pay-go” policy, essentially requiring that new spending be offset by spending cuts or tax increases. Today’s Republicans have replaced this policy with what they call “cut-go,” or requiring spending cuts and prohibiting tax increases for new spending. Taxes, on the other hand, can be cut even without an offset in spending reductions elsewhere. This maneuver has prompted many on the Left to accuse Republicans of hypocrisy with respect to their seriousness toward reducing the deficit. This criticism, however, ignores the potential for diverting revenue to the deficit from desperately-needed government downsizing. As GOP leaders have frequently argued, “We don’t have a revenue problem. We have a spending problem.”

The talk of the town as of late has been the need to raise the federal debt ceiling, which proponents argue is needed to preserve America’s AAA credit rating. House Republicans are divided on this issue, with some staunch conservatives absolutely committed to voting “no” on an increase, while some suggest they will vote for the increase if it is accompanied by austerity measures. In any case, new House rules have mandated that the debt ceiling increase must be approved through an on-the-record vote, rather than through the annual budget process. This will make the increase more difficult to pass, or at least the subject of closer public scrutiny. Another House rule will require the bill (and all bills) to be posted on the Internet 72 hours before being brought to the floor for debate. This will be a sharp distinction to the secrecy of Pelosi’s House, where legislation was not uncommonly fashioned in the early morning hours and brought to the floor for a vote the following day.

Even before taking office, Republicans slated a vote on the repeal of President Obama's healthcare overhaul bill for January 12. The repeal is expected to pass comfortably in the House, but stall in the Senate. Yet Democrats in the upper chamber are notably weakened and the controversial “insurance mandate,” integral to the president’s healthcare plan, is quickly losing support. Six Democratic Senate seats were lost to Republicans in the midterm election, with a number of remaining Democrats, such as Claire McCaskill (D-MO) and Joe Manchin (D-WV), signaling that they will align with Republicans on a host of issues. McCaskill, who is noted as being close to the president, has said she is amenable to getting rid of the insurance mandate, which is highly unpopular in her state. Manchin disapproves of the mandate and has claimed he will vote for the repeal if it is not removed. Senators Ben Nelson (D-FL) and Richard Blumenthal (D-CN) have both indicated they will review the healthcare bill, especially apropos the insurance mandate.

House Democrats are still led by Nancy Pelosi, who was voted minority leader also on Wednesday. But a resolute constituency of nineteen moderate Democrats refused to vote for the embattled former speaker, opting instead for moderate Heath Shuler. This sends a clear message to both Pelosi and President Obama that the days of rank-and-file liberalism are over. House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Fred Upton (R-MI) has projected that if the vote to repeal Obamacare wholesale receives strong enough bipartisan support in the House, “it will put enormous pressure” on the Senate to do the same. At the very least, piecemeal repeal would stand a much greater likelihood of success.

This is especially true of the insurance mandate, which appears to be seriously imperiled at this time. It is highly unlikely that measures that are popular with the public, such those that allow children to stay on parental health insurance longer or that prohibit the termination of coverage due to pre-existing conditions, will be repealed. The paradox is, these practices, cruel as they are, unfortunately keep down the cost curve in a system plagued by state-government-created insurance monopolies, limited risk pools, and costly state regulations. If we are to avoid finding ourselves in exactly the same situation a few years hence, and if we are to truly stop “kick[ing] the can down the road,” as Speaker Boehner said in his Wednesday address, then we must hope that the 112th Congress is willing to be as bold with effective free-market solutions as the 111th was with statist ones. To “end business as usual,” there can be no other way.