The Anti-Obamacare Hostage Taking Will Damage Future Policymaking

The attempted retroactive repeal of Obamacase will lead to more rapid, sloppy policy implementation in the future

Unsurprisingly, there were human and computer glitches on the first day that Americans could sign up for insurance through Obamacare. Preparing for the launch of a large, complex federal government program takes time, and the implementation problems would certainly have been much, much worse if the law had gone into effect immediately upon being passed. But the Tea Party Republicans’ anti-Obamacare hostage-taking makes it more likely that a pell-mell rush to implement new legislation — however wastefully and sloppily — will become an enduring feature of American politics.

In prior eras, neither party would have tried to undo the signature legislation of the other party and its President just because they garnered more seats (though not in this case of 2012, more votes) in one house in the ensuing election. With no need to worry about retroactive repeal, complex legislation could therefore be implemented slowly and thoughtfully.

Tea Party Congressional Representatives have destroyed this governing norm by trying to undo Obamacare through a government shutdown and threatened debt default. As a result, whichever party is in power in the future will probably not risk any delay in implementing the laws they pass. If Obamacare had been implemented immediately upon passage, it would have been a mess in policy terms. But politically, it would now have millions of beneficiaries who would have vehemently resisted the current retroactive repeal effort.

Millions of federal employees without paychecks in the middle of a wobbly economic recovery is the most visible current damage of the Tea Party Republicans’ hostage taking. But even deeper damage may become evident over time if public policy implementation becomes a panicky, haphazard race to beat the closing of the next election’s polling booths.

Author: Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is the Esther Ting Memorial Professor of Psychiatry at Stanford University and an Honorary Professor of Psychiatry at Kings College Lonon. His research, teaching and writing have focused on addictive disorders, self-help organizations (e.g., breast cancer support groups, Alcoholics Anonymous), evaluation research methods, and public policy related to health care, mental illness, veterans, drugs, crime and correctional systems. Professor Humphreys' over 300 scholarly articles, monographs and books have been cited over ten thousand times by scientific colleagues. He is a regular contributor to Washington Post and has also written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Monthly, San Francisco Chronicle, The Guardian (UK), The Telegraph (UK), Times Higher Education (UK), Crossbow (UK) and other media outlets.

26 thoughts on “The Anti-Obamacare Hostage Taking Will Damage Future Policymaking”

  1. In prior eras, did either party pass major economy altering programs by a bare majority party line vote, and immediately lose their majority in one chamber over it? Perhaps the genesis of the problem is the belief that even a momentary, slight majority entitles you to do absolutely anything.

    1. Well, OK.
      You would have a valid point, in the New Order, if the (R)s were able to take the Presidency and Senate.
      But they failed both those, so they don’t have a slight majority.

      P.S. The Democrats had MORE than a ‘slight majority’ in both the House and Senate, in 2009. And ‘immediately’ is not so correct either.

    2. By doing “absolutely anything”Brett of course means passing a bill that creates a system that originated in the other party. And was first implemented by a governor of said other party, who then became that party’s Presidential nominee. Oh, the mono-partisan horror!!!

    3. What I find appalling in American politics is how parties (probably both, though the sick examples I can think of are all Rep) who get a slim majority in a state immediately redraw all the electoral districts to their own advantage. How can Americans talk to anyone outside their country about the rule of law with a system like this? Normal democracies turned the design of electoral districts over to non-partisan groups decades ago.

    4. In the first place, the fact that one party controlled three of the four political branches by substantial enough majorities to pass such important legislation on a strict party line vote is itself both unusual and a very good clue as to why the Republicans can’t stop the Democratic Party’s core policy initiatives by normal political means but are forced to resort to hostage taking. The country has pretty thoroughly repudiated the Republican Party in every election since 2010, and even that GOP victory in the House wouldn’t have been possible if they hadn’t pretty thoroughly trashed the norms about redistricting. Even today, the Democrats control two of the three popularly elected branches of government which ought to trump the party that controls only a single elected political branch.

      In the second place, you shouldn’t watch Fox News for the election results. The last election wasn’t actually very close and the result was that Obama was reelected by a good margin, there were Democratic gains in the Senate and even in the House. Indeed, most expert analysis of the election results indicates that were it not for some amazing gerrymandering, the Republicans would have lost control of the House, too.

      What’s more, when you are talking about fundamental changes or major policy initiatives such as Keith is talking about, it would be one thing if the next election resulted in a huge rout for the party that had just launched such a new policy but that wasn’t even remotely the case here. The Democratic Party kept the White House, increased its seats in Congress and won the popular vote overall. By contrast, it is the GOP zealots who are the ones seeking to derail such a policy initiative not by harnessing the popular will but rather by unfairly exploiting structural advantages enjoyed by the Southern states and rural areas generally to actually thwart the will of the people.

      I think the time has come to see the GOP for what it has become. It is now a “revolutionary power” that cannot be appeased or dealt with as a normal political power. They are the Bolsheviks of the 21st century. You can either submit to them totally or you can oppose them totally.

    5. “…the belief that even a momentary, slight majority entitles you to do absolutely anything…”

      That’s two lies in one sentence, Brett:

      It wasn’t a slight majority; it was the super majority which is now standard in the Senate.
      It wasn’t ‘absolutely anything’, it was compromising and accepting the House bill as the end result,
      rather than going through reconciliation.

  2. I think this is outrageous too, but I also have to say, I think the president fed this monster several times before, so is it a surprise when it came back for more? He keeps handing them things every time they throw a tantrum.

  3. Brett thinks that 60 (sixty!) votes in the Senate is a “bare majority” because Brett is … well, he claims to be an engineer, so he can’t be innumerate exactly.


    1. Back in 1787 “equally divided” meant 60-40. The President Pro Tem of the Senate is the 61st vote.


      1. That “equally” meant “60-40” in 1787 is…surprising. I suppose any evidence for this assertion is out of the question. Would your assertion change if it were pointed out that the filibuster is an historical accident, and required 2/3 majority until it was reformed later?

        Not to worry. The R’s will scream that the filibuster is being abused and has to be reformed or eliminated….just as soon as they’re in the majority and it’s used against them.

        1. Followup… It’s possible that my irony detector was just malfunctioning. In which case, disregard the above…

          1. Keeping in mind that the Senate is two seats per state, not 100 seats, and that the 60-vote standard is a modern invention (post-WWII; 1960-somthing, if I recall), yes: irony was intended.

        2. well, all men are created equal, at least in big O notation. You can adjust by constant factors (3/5s) just don’t change the exponent on the polynomial.

    2. Brett thinks that 219 to 212, with 34 Democrats joining Republicans in opposing the ACA, was a bare majority. It was the House where you had a bare majority, and achieved it only by making it a party loyalty vote.

      1. That’s a bit rich given that it was your fellow traveller Newt Gingrich who introduced the “50% + 1” standard of voting into the House. Once it was agreed that the ACA had a majority Speaker Pelosi made agreements with the party leaders (both!) to release Reps who needed to vote no for electoral reasons. That’s the difference between being a Speaker for the (whole) House and the Nation (Pelosi) vs a Speaker for the Republican Party and its radical factions.


      2. Can anybody here think of any recent bills that passed in the House by a “bare” majority? Perhaps the 225-204 vote (all D’s voting no, all but a handful of R’s voting yes) that was the proximate cause of the shutdown on Sep 30th was a “clothed” majority, in Brett’s idiom, eh?

        This “bare majority” wingnut meme is getting shop-worn. Especially since we never quite get a definition of what “bare” means. If the wingnuts will not accept a “bare” majority, shouldn’t they have the balls to tell us how much over 50% a majority must be, in a democracy?


        1. = = = This “bare majority” wingnut meme is getting shop-worn. Especially since we never quite get a definition of what “bare” means. = = =

          It also completely ignores how the Speaker-Minority Leader dynamic works in the modern (post-Gingrich) House. Pelosi has on several occasions collected and released to Boehner just enough Democratic votes to pass a bill that Boehner (and the nation) really needed passed. Pelosi, being a patriot, is willing to do that, but neither she nor the Democratic caucus are under any obligation to give the hard Radical Right Republicans the cover of a “bipartisan vote” that they love to crow about (but never participate in).


  4. The simple solution would have been to make Medicare available to everyone. Lots less glitches, proven popularity and it would have improved the ballance sheet. But NO ’cause DFHs! Oh yeah, the DEMs would have kicked some butt in 2010, I’d bet. But Obama and the Dems had this fantasy of reasonable GOPers and all that singing and swaying to Kumbaya from Capitol Hill all the way down Pennsylvania Avenue to the grand reception in the Rose Garden. Oh it woulda been so beautiful. Sigh. But just keep giving the GOPers what they want and they will one day see the light and appreciate all that good will and stuff. Right?

    1. Oh, FFS. The Dems needed 60 votes, including such brave crusaders for progressive goals as Ben Nelson and Connecticut-For-Lieberman. The latter in particular torpedoed a Medicare-For-All proposal he had himself written, once it seemed to be gathering momentum. The ACA is compromised and unlovely not because Obama and Pelosi want to make you, personally, sad – but because it was the best they could get through Congress. That’s not (or not just) a result of Obama fantasizing he could get Republican support; it’s his doing what was necessary to round up the last few Blue Dog asses he needed – and, remember, a lot of Obama’s efforts to court Republican support were more to placate those Blue Dogs he needed than they were in the service of any delusional goal to actually get Republican Congresspeople to back health care reform.

      1. Warren is of course correct. None of the health care policy options that some people are convinced Obama “traded away” commanded more than a handful of Democratic senate votes.

  5. I think the late Dr. James Q. Wilson–although he spoke of crime–can add a little perspective to the current state of the U.S. Congress. Dr. Wilson, in what has become known as the “Broken Windows Theory,” details a norm-setting effect that I think is somewhat relevant. Dr. Wilson, along with Dr. Kelling, writes:

    “Consider a building with a few broken windows. If the windows are not repaired, the tendency is for vandals to break a few more windows. Eventually, they may even break into the building, and if it’s unoccupied, perhaps become squatters or light fires inside. Or consider a pavement. Some litter accumulates. Soon, more litter accumulates. Eventually, people even start leaving bags of refuse from take-out restaurants there or even break into cars.”

    Much in the same way that urban residents ignored the few broken windows, inadvertently signaling to criminals that theirs was acceptable/condone-able behavior, there can be little doubt that the U.S. electorate has, for the last 3 or 4 years, negligently condoned–and in some Congressional districts in this country, out-right encouraged–the destructive obstructionism from tea party radicals. It should come as no shock then, if the “Broken Windows Theory” is to be believed, that what once amounted to minor obstructionism has developed into a full-scale hostage situation with respect to the U.S. economy. In a sadly ironic sense, we seem to have brought this upon ourselves.

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