Try to think of the last time Congress did something the American public generally opposes, such as raising taxes on the middle class or cutting back government services. It’s an awfully short list, if you can come up with anything at all.
Yet the Republican-controlled Congress seems determined to do something that gets more unpopular by the day: replace the Affordable Care Act with something that would offer fewer protections to consumers and leave millions of Americans who are now insured without coverage.
The ACA, otherwise known as Obamacare, is a flawed program that needs help. But the GOP crusade to kill it is a white-whale obsession that cannot possibly lead to a happy ending for Republicans, or the country. For decades, Social Security was considered the “third rail” of politics: touch it and you die. Healthcare is now the third rail, and Republicans, remarkably, have wrapped their arms around this high-voltage career-killer.
The latest GOP plan would add 23 million Americans to the ranks of the uninsured within a decade, according to the Congressional Budget Office. In Washington’s bizarre logic, this is considered good news for backers of the plan, because a prior version of the bill would have raised the number of uninsured by 24 million. So the latest plan is marginally less terrible than the prior one. The latest bill would also save taxpayers $119 billion over a decade, because you save money when you stop paying for something expensive, such as healthcare. Budget hawks think it’s a worthwhile tradeoff, but they have not yet had to run for reelection while defending a decision sure to be demagogued as an attack on cancer patients and pregnant women stripped of coverage.
All of this parsing is big news in Washington, because the official analysis just published by the CBO is sort of like a fat Scarlet A tattooed on the GOP bill. Intrigue! But Washington shouldn’t even be talking about this, because of all the things Congress could be doing, revamping the healthcare system for the second time in a decade is about the most problematic, convulsive and implausible project to put at the top of the list during the new Trump administration.
Republicans are stuck, of course, because they have hollered for the repeal of the ACA since a Democrat-controlled Congress passed it in 2010. Since Republicans now control Congress and the White House, they must either honor their word or risk exposure as hypocrites unwilling to do what they demanded now that they have the power to do it. That has made the ACA repeal bill Exhibit A under Be Careful What You Wish For.
The ACA is more popular than ever
Americans don’t like Obamacare, but the rush to kill it this year has moved public opinion in the exact opposite direction that Congress is headed. The GOP attack on the ACA has literally made the law more popular than ever, with support rising from 42% last year to 55% this year, according to Gallup:
A Quinnipiac poll shows that 56% of voters disapprove of GOP plans to repeal the ACA, with only 17% in favor. So Congressional Republicans are going to spend the rest of 2017 fighting for a measure that less than one-fifth of voters support. No wonder Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell says he doesn’t see how he can get 50 votes for a ACA-repeal bill, even though Republicans hold 52 Senate seats.
Americans don’t expect much from Congress, so it might not matter if leaders of the House and Senate spend a year or two chasing bad legislation they secretly hope gets hacked into oblivion by the Russians. Except there are more important things Congress ought to be doing, and doing pronto. What should be at the top of the list is corporate tax reform that makes the US tax structure more competitive with other nations and encourages companies from everywhere to invest more in the Untied States.
We’ll get to it, GOP leaders say—right after we repeal the ACA. But that’s like saying you’ll declutter the garage right after you detach it from the house and place it on top of the attic. “Whichever party owns the health care issue regrets it,” writes analyst Greg Valliere of Horizon Investments. “The Republicans are caught in a Catch-22; they know that Obamacare is failing, but they cannot come up with a replacement.”
The longer Congressional Republicans—prodded by President Trump—pursue an Obamacare replacement, the more they imperil the parts of their agenda voters might actually support, such as tax reform and infrastructure spending. By making health care their top priority, Republicans have set themselves up for a giant comedown when Trump must either sign a law that will harm millions of Americans, or give up, saying, “well, we tried.” That will weaken the GOP’s hand on everything that follows. But at least 23 million uninsured Americans is less bad than 24 million.
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Rick Newman is the author of four books, including Rebounders: How Winners Pivot from Setback to Success. Follow him on Twitter: @rickjnewman