Could a new GOP majority win a government shutdown battle over defunding the national health care law? From our July-August issue.
One of the most popular debates in Washington these days is whether this year’s midterm elections will be a repeat of 1994, when Republicans rode a wave of anti-big government sentiment to retake Congress, delivering a blow to a young liberal president. But the natural follow-up question is whether a new Republican majority could produce an encore of 1995.
When the Republican majority set out to slash government spending that year, it encountered stiff resistance from the White House that ultimately triggered a government shutdown.
Ever since Democrats rammed through President Obama’s overwhelmingly unpopular national health care law, conservatives have been grappling with ways to undo it. One problem is that the strategy of repealing the law isn’t viable until 2013, when there’s a chance to inaugurate a Republican president. In the meantime, other conservatives are pinning their hopes on a successful legal challenge to the law’s mandate forcing all Americans to purchase government-approved health insurance policies. But however strong the constitutional arguments may be, that strategy leaves ObamaCare’s fate in the hands of judges who have already discarded federalism and stretched the Commerce Clause to the point of meaninglessness.
With tremendous uncertainty surrounding both these avenues, another strategy is emerging that would give the GOP an opportunity to deliver a more immediate blow to the health care law. Should Republicans regain control of Congress, they could theoretically use their new power of the purse to deny Obama the funding needed to administer his signature accomplishment. This prospect is already gaining steam among opponents of the law. The new group DeFundit.org has gotten more than 90 candidates and current members of Congress to sign a pledge supporting stripping ObamaCare of money.
There are a lot of scenarios for how a defunding push could play out, especially based on whether Republicans gain control of one or both chambers of Congress. But in the end, such a strategy could result in a replay of late 1995, when a budgetary standoff led to a government shutdown.
Newt Gingrich, who as House Speaker was a central figure in the standoff leading to that shutdown, has been one of the most vocal proponents of the defunding strategy, and he presented the idea during an April breakfast hosted by TAS.
“A simple majority can refuse to fund,” Gingrich said. “So if [John] Boehner is Speaker and Mitch McConnell is majority leader, all you have to do is write it into the appropriations bills. If the president vetoes the appropriations bills, you repass them. The president has got to go to the country and convince the country…to spend money on a program that has a 20 percent margin of disapproval.”
He continued, “So the president has to somehow make it into a positive political issue to veto the appropriations bills. The only person who can close the government is the president. If you’re determined to pass the appropriations bills, he has to decide to veto a bill you have passed.”
The idea would be to gut ObamaCare by denying the money needed to implement its sweeping provisions. “There are 159 new offices, agencies, and commissions in this new bill,” Gingrich explained. “All you say is, we’re not gonna fund them. And you have in effect, stopped the project.”
REP. TODD TIAHRT OF KANSAS is the ranking member on the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education. The spending bill that emerges from his committee would ultimately be the one that would include the funding associated with the new health care law.
Shortly after the signing of the new law, Tiahrt called for House-Senate talks on how to defund the legislation. In a phone interview with TAS, he agreed it was theoretically possible to stop ObamaCare in its tracks through the appropriations process. Even spending that is considered “mandatory” still needs to be implemented by an agency.
“If there’s no money to administer it, nothing gets done,” Tiahrt said, echoing Gingrich. “If the money is not there to write the regulations, the regulations won’t be written.”
Logistically, a member could offer an amendment to the committee that targeted a provision of the law, adding the language, “No funds shall…” The amendment would have to pass out of committee to be included in the bill that goes before the larger chamber. Tiahrt said he used this method last year to strip the Environmental Protection Agency of funding needed to regulate live-stock emissions, which he said would have crippled cattle production.
While he said he supports presenting an amendment that would defund the law in its entirety, his comments suggested it would be more likely that Republicans would target specific aspects of the bill.
In May, the Congressional Budget Office released a new analysis estimating that $115 billion in discretionary spending has been authorized under the new law for the next decade. But the office cautioned that it couldn’t issue a more thorough estimate because in many cases the legislation simply says that Congress shall allocate whatever sums it deems “necessary” to implement given provisions, without specifying how much those sums would be. One Republican staffer on the Hill described discretionary spending as the “low-hanging fruit” for defunding.
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