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Speaker Boehner, Obamacare, and the Fiscal Cliff

During the upcoming negotiations over the so-called fiscal cliff, the President and leaders of Congress will each try to leverage the crisis they created to their advantage. One such lever is the fate of Obamacare, which the Speaker of the House has said will be on the table during the discussions.

In previous negotiations, Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) has quickly accepted the President’s intransigence on the issue. Whether Boehner intends to tie Obamacare repeal to some significant item desired by his opposition remains to be seen.

Public sector unions are running ads to put pressure on key legislators.

The fiscal cliff is a combination of tax increases and spending cuts that will happen on January 1, 2013, and shortly thereafter unless Congress and the President cooperate to intervene: 

  • The Bush tax cuts will expire — $200 billion
  • The Alternative Minimum Tax grab  — $132 billion
  • Payroll taxes will go back to normal — $120 billion
  • Unemployment benefits will expire — $34 billion
  • Spending cuts, half from defense — $86 billion
  • Doc Fix avoiding Medicare cuts — $25 Billion

All together, we see tax increases of about $450 billion per year, and spending cuts of about $120 billion per year, though the spending cuts are really just altered plans to increase spending, which Congress can undo at any time without much fanfare or controversy.

In addition, the government soon will bump up against its debt ceiling. Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner recommends doing away with the ceiling altogether.

But the debt ceiling gives conservatives a major point of leverage, if they were willing to use it.  Since raising the ceiling requires passage of a law, the full repeal of Obamacare could be attached to it, as could language defunding further implementation work. Let the President complain all day and night about his mandate. He would have the choice either to tell his minion Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid to pass the law to keep the government running, or not.

None of that is likely.  

Boehner wrote in an op-ed for the Cincinnati Enquirer that Obamacare must be on the table during negotiations,

The president’s health care law adds a massive, expensive, unworkable government program at a time when our national debt already exceeds the size of our country’s entire economy. We can’t afford it, and we can’t afford to leave it intact. That’s why I’ve been clear that the law has to stay on the table as both parties discuss ways to solve our nation’s massive debt challenge. 

But does that mean that Obamacare will be placed front and center during the fiscal cliff negotiations, and attached to real items of interest to Democrats, or will Boehner get only symbolic concessions for dropping the matter?

Further, Boehner’s language suggests that Obamacare might not be part of the fiscal cliff negotiations, but only part of the larger context of debt talks next year, along with Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid.

It seems pretty clear that Mr. Boehner sees himself as overseeing Obamacare’s implementation, rather than deciding whether the government spends money on it at all.

Over the past couple of years, I have noted there are essentially three major routes to repeal of the president’s law: the courts, the presidential election process and the congressional oversight process. With two of those three routes having come up short, the third and final one becomes more important than ever.

Congress ceded to the President and his appointees far too much power under the Obamacare legislation. Congress is supposed to make laws and authorize all spending. Given Obamacare’s continuing lack of public support, there seems to be little political risk in simply not allocating money to implement it.

Clearly, Mr. Boehner is content instead to nibble around the edges and adjust aspects of the law that his various constituencies find most objectionable — or that lobbyists like best.

And what, indeed, can Mr. Boehner get in exchange for dropping the threat not to fund Obamacare? None of the items considered part of the fiscal cliff appear important enough to President Obama to risk his signature legislation.

Perhaps the Speaker is merely throwing Obamacare opponents a bone by offering it up as “on the table”.

Obamacare supporters, meanwhile, have to worry: will Speaker Boehner tie Obamacare funding to making the Bush-era tax rates permanent? Raising taxes on the rich seems to be the only thing Obamacare supporters — especially its namesake president — really care about.

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