Is Obamacare the GOP’s White Whale?

By :: September 17th, 2013

 “The White Whale swam before him as the monomaniac incarnation of all those malicious agencies which some deep men feel eating in them…All that most maddens and torments; all that stirs up in the lee of things;…all that cracks the sinews and cakes the brain; all evil…visibly personified …and made practically assailable in Moby Dick”

Moby Dick or, The White Whale Herman Melville

“We're going to have a whale of a fight."

House Speaker John Boehner, Aug 26, 2013 on the coming fiscal showdown.

No, Speaker Boehner is not Ahab, captain of Melville’s doomed whaling ship Pequod.  But to many in his caucus, Obamacare is the White Whale. It surely is all that most maddens and torments. And like Ahab, many House Republicans and their deep-pocket supporters seem willing to risk their ship and all hands to destroy it.

At least 54 GOP House lawmakers insist they will refuse to fund the government past Oct 1 unless the Affordable Care Act is defunded until 2015. Many of them will likely refuse to extend the debt limit (which will be reached in mid-October) unless the health law is defunded. On this ship, it is not the captain but a passionate and mutinous minority of the crew that holds the tiller.

They feel a real urgency since people will begin buying insurance under the ACA in just two weeks. They know it will be very tough to eliminate that coverage once it begins on Jan 1.

That is one reason why Democrats will never agree to defund the health law now. And it is why the very demand risks locking both parties into dangerous and uncompromising positions.  My Urban Institute colleague Donald Marron will testify tomorrow to the Joint Economic Committee on the economic risks of debt limit brinksmanship.    

As long-time Washington budget watcher Stan Collender notes in his blog, the obsession with Obamacare fundamentally changes the dynamics of Washington’s fall fiscal ritual—which is tiresome but mostly predictable. Usually, the partisans argue over mere dollars. Democrats want to spend more, Republicans want to spend less, and, in the end, they settle on a number in between.

But as long as the House GOP insists on defunding the Affordable Care Act, there can be no middle-ground. Democrats won’t hobble the president’s signature legislative accomplishment just before it begins to benefit millions of uninsured people. Will they give up something else instead—maybe agree to fund federal agencies at somewhat revised sequester levels for another year?

That will be a tough sell. Remember, liberals are feeling a bit frisky themselves these days—having sunk the nomination of Obama favorite Larry Summers as Fed chairman and having helped walk back the president’s vow to attack Syria.

Where does this leave us? Maybe, at the last moment, this cadre of Republicans will finally abandon their Obamacare obsession.  Maybe, at the last moment, Boehner will save the ship by pulling together a coalition of pragmatic Republicans and Democrats. They might agree to some additional modest spending cuts as the price of another year of relative budget peace, but leave the ACA intact. The ensuing mutiny of the committed could cost Boehner his speakership, of course.     

Or maybe this year’s fiscal showdown ends like the Melville classic, with the Pequod sunk with all souls lost save Ishmael, who is left adrift in the vast Pacific, on a coffin.    






  1. Jack B  ::  5:57 pm on September 17th, 2013:

    The Pequod is going down. Obama’s white whale will shiver her timbers but according to the latest CBO statement, it will be unsustainable debt that will send her to the bottom.

  2. AMTbuff  ::  6:05 pm on September 17th, 2013:

    Considering the special favors and procedural tricks that Democrats used to enact the law, ramming it through without a single Republican vote (after losing a Senate seat in ultra-liberal Massachusetts over this very issue!), why would Republicans agree that Obamacare was passed fair and square. It was an overreach by the Democrats. Had the Republicans done this on one of their pet initiatives, say a flat tax, there would be no talk that Democrats should simply accept it as final and permanent. The battle would continue, as it should.

    Each party should defend its principles as best it can. One party cannot overreach and then complain that the result is precarious. When overreach you risk a fall. It’s called democracy. For a current example, see this poll:

    Incidentally, I wonder how many polling points advocates lost when they changed their terminology from ACA to Obamacare. It’s odd that advocates tried so hard for 2 years to dissociate the law from its prime mover yet they now embrace the link even as the law continues to lose public support. The advocates must believe that the public will finally approve of the law after its consequences are fully felt. That viewpoint ignores human nature. We hate financial losses much more than we appreciate wins. Even if the wins slightly exceeded the losses, people would still experience the change as a net loss.

  3. Leslie  ::  9:17 pm on September 17th, 2013:

    I just cannot imagine Boehner floating on a coffin in the vast Pacific.

    Weeping as he sweeps out a bar, yes, that.

  4. Michael Bindner  ::  10:59 pm on September 17th, 2013:

    I suspect that the sequester will be cut in half and the bill will be passed by consent in the Senate and waiving the Hastert rule in the House. At least I hope they are that smart.

  5. Ralph H  ::  9:31 am on September 18th, 2013:

    Obamacare as Mr Biden said is a “Big F****** Deal” that was forced on us and likely we will have to live with. The winners are poor people. The rest of us are losers and this will become more apparent as the charges come in and our company’s plans increase in cost. For instance we now have to identify smokers so they can get increased premiums. And its perverse that one of my tax paying employees get worse coverage (with deductibles) than a freeloader who pays no taxes.

  6. Michael Bindner  ::  12:56 pm on September 18th, 2013:

    Poor people have Medicaid, which will improve with higher pay rates attracting more doctors.

  7. Gideon Fraenkel  ::  1:14 pm on September 18th, 2013:

    People are forgetting that the uninsured are still seeing their doctors albeit inefficiently and often too late. The rest of us are paying for hem out of taxes and inflated insurance premiums. Further, with more of the population insured medical care will be more efficient, there will be less use of expensive emergency rooms and fewer people will be transmitting their poorly treated infectious diseases to the rest of us. All of this will lower the overall cost even though there will be subsidies. Nobody puts a number on it but surely a healthier population translates into a healthier economy. Obamacare is not different from the Romneycare which the Republicans loved. Needless to say the current healthcare system is broken and getting worse. Obamacare will be an overall improvement. Single payer insurance would have been even better. Our politicians could have saved themselves allot of time and money by looking at how other countries manage healthcare and in so many ways. Our leaders just are too stubborn for their and our own good.

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