April 26, 2013

Yesterday, a good chunk of Washington was up in arms over a proposal that would — according to early reports — exempt Congress from key provisions of the Affordable Care Act. As reported by Politico, “Congressional leaders in both parties are engaged in high-level, confidential talks about exempting lawmakers and Capitol Hill aides from the insurance exchanges they are mandated to join as part of President Barack Obama’s health care overhaul.”

It soon became clear, however, that this was much ado about nothing. Here’s Wonkblog’s Ezra Klein with the explanation: “[A] Republican amendment meant to embarrass Democrats and a too-clever-by-half Democratic response has possibly created a problem in which the federal government can’t make its normal contribution to the insurance premiums of congressional staffers.”

In other words, this isn’t a big deal. Still, it feeds into ongoing anxiety over the Affordable Care Act and its implementation. As the New York Times reports, several House and Senate Democrats are worried they will pay a political price if mistakes are made and voters begin to see new costs. Senator Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire notes that small businesses in her state are unsure of how to comply with the law, while Tom Harkin of Iowa is upset with the decision to direct funds away from public health prevention programs and toward efforts to promote the law.

If the Affordable Care Act had buy-in from Congress as a whole — and not just Democrats — this wouldn’t be a problem. Everyone would worry about the politics of implementation, and to avoid problems, everyone would work to ensure a smooth transition. As it stands, however, Republicans are still looking for ways to undermine and derail the law, hence the failed attempt this week to direct $4 billion from implementation to fund high-risk insurance program that even Republicans admit isn’t particularly good.

The GOP’s idea is that Democrats will take the blame for any hiccups in Obamacare, even if they’re the result of Republicans’ policy choices. It’s a sound plan: Voters aren’t concerned with the details of process, they just want to know that something works.

The unfortunate fact is that there was no real way to avoid this outcome. Republicans aren’t just opposed to the Affordable Care Act; they disagree with the whole notion of universal insurance, and health care as a right, not a privilege. There’s no possible configuration of health care reform that could have preempted Republican attempts to repeal the law, and barring that, undermine its implementation.

For the short-term, at least, Republicans will work to derail the Affordable Care Act, and Democrats will likely take the blame for the problems it creates. If there’s any good news, it’s that if Obamacare works, Democrats will reap the benefits of that as well.

Jamelle Bouie is a staff writer at The American Prospect, where he writes a blog.