President Obama and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid are continuing to, as they would say, hold the country hostage. Republicans have, at this point, adopted utterly reasonable positions. They are willing to raise the debt limit. They are willing to fund the federal government at current levels. All they want in exchange are certain tweaks to Obamacare. These tweaks are meant to address a couple of the most undesirable features of president Obama’s health care reform, the most transformational piece of legislation ever to have passed on a razor-thin party-line vote.
Let’s focus on the debt ceiling first. A failure to raise the debt limit would have terrible consequences for everyone involved. It is commendable that Speaker Boehner appears willing to lift the limit in exchange for a discussion of the country’s long-term fiscal outlook. Such a discussion is overdue, and it would be extraordinarily helpful if the looming cost explosions associated with the growth of Medicare and Social Security were addressed now. Postponing entitlement reform would reduce the set of feasible solutions and make transitioning to alternative social insurance schemes significantly more painful.
Raising the debt limit, albeit temporarily, is something I would support even without any kind of concession from the Democrat side. It would allow Congress and the President to focus on the ongoing budget negotiations. In those negotiations, again, the latest movement on the Republican side has been focused on reaching agreement, not on racking up political victories or spouting vile vitriol that portrays the duly elected, peacefully assembled representatives of about half the population as arsonists, jihadis, and terrorists.
What Republicans are asking for right now in exchange for a new continuing resolution, in a proposal put together by Senator Susan Collins (R-ME), is fairly straightforward, and is limited to two things.
One, they ask for a two-year delay in the medical device excise tax included in the Affordable Care Act: not an unreasonable proposal, both because the tax would bring in only limited amounts of revenue and because it was only included to make Obamacare look artificially affordable to begin with. (No one is seriously arguing that medical devices produce unbearable negative externalities or that in an ideal world all medical devices would be banned.)
Two, the Collins proposal demands that incomes be verified before Obamacare subsidies are paid out to those claiming to be entitled to them. This, again, is not an unreasonable request. If you are going to have a massive income redistribution as a part of your health insurance system, you should certainly make sure that the subsidies you are handing out go to the right people.
It is important for Congress to force the administration to be more transparent and accountable for its payouts, particularly in the aftermath of the Pigford scandal. In Pigford v. Glickman, African-American farmers alleged that they had been discriminated against by the federal government when it came to awarding USDA farm loans. These legitimate grievances were, as the New York Times reported earlier this week, exploited by political appointees in president Obama’s Department of Justice to start writing $50,000 checks indiscriminately to a wide variety of Democrat-preferred constituencies, without any kind of checks or control. One could argue that the Department of Justice would not be in charge of writing Obamacare checks. Yet, as we learned from the IRS’ targeting of conservative organizations, the Department of Justice is not the only part of the executive branch that puts partisan political goals ahead of taxpayer interests.
How have the President and Senate Democrats responded to this Republican desire to reach agreement? So far, by refusing to accept Republican offers, including the Collins plan. This cannot go on. President Obama is not the Emperor of Austria-Hungary: he needs to be willing to compromise and recognize the legitimate role the minority in the Senate and the majority in the House of Representatives play in running the country. Especially when they come up with proposals that are good public policy for him.
Republicans, at the same time, should not cave. They need not worry about the electoral consequences for now, despite what polls show: even Nate Silver believes that their control of the House of Representatives is nowhere near in danger, and that is before they have reaped the payoff from using this standoff to accomplish some of the things they ran on in 2010 and 2012. If they give in to the president’s demands for a continuing resolution designed by and for himself, they undermine the system of checks and balances the Constitution so carefully constructed.