The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Republicans’ dilemma: How aggressively should they sabotage Obamacare?

Placeholder while article actions load

Here’s a question to keep an eye on when the Obamacare exchanges go live later this year: How many Republican lawmakers will take the most basic of steps a lawmaker can take, and help their constituents benefit from — or even understand — the law?

I’m not talking about whether Republicans will continue arguing against Obamacare or calling for its repeal. Those are actual policy positions, and Republicans obviously are free to advocate for them (though at a certain point the endless repeal votes would seem to become counterproductive). I’m talking about whether Republican lawmakers will do the absolute minimum when it comes to making the law work for their own constituents — whether they will offer basic assistance navigating the law as it goes into effect.

Take GOP Rep. Lee Terry of Omaha, Nebraska. He is as diehard an Obamacare opponent as many of his colleagues. But it was recently revealed by the Nation that he requested under the law — and received — a federal grant of $2.5 million to the local health department designed to reduce deaths and disability by cardiovascular and lung disease, obesity, and other health problems.

The Omaha World Herald asked a spokesman for Terry to square the grant request with his opposition to Obamacare, and got back this welcome answer:

“Congressman Terry believes that it’s unfortunate Obamacare even exists, but he takes seriously his responsibility to represent the people of Nebraska’s 2nd District. This is an issue of fairness, and while Congressman Terry doesn’t agree with this law, it’s his job to make sure the law works for the 2nd District.”

There you go! Congressman Terry will continue to press for repeal, but while Obamacare remains in place, he’ll “make sure the law works” for his constituents. That’s a no brainer, right? Actually, no.

It turns out some House Republicans disagree with this approach. For instance, GOP Reps. Tim Huelskamp and Jason Chaffetz have flatly declared that they will not help constituents who call their offices looking for assistance with the law.

However, some Republican officials, such as Senators Ron Johnson and Mike Johanns, have said they will assist constituents with the law, and some Republican Congressional staffers have been participating in calls with Obama administration officials to get guidance on how to do that.

The point is that there appears to be some disagreement among Republican officials over whether to play the most basic of roles: Assisting their own constituents who want help understanding and benefiting from a law that is currently in place — indeed, one that survived challenge before the Supreme Court and was relitigated in a national election that Democrats won by a comfortable margin.

Of course, putting aside this basic level of implementation, some Republican officials continue to block the law on other levels in a way that amounts to a multi-faceted, concerted, party-wide campaign. Steve Benen has a good post giving you the rundown on all of that right here. Jonathan Bernstein has also done nice work detailing how this strategy is supposed to work over the long haul. All of this can have a serious impact. As Jonathan Cohn notes in another must read, the decision by GOP state officials not to opt into the Medicaid expansion risks denying health coverage “to some of the neediest people in the country.”

But it’s hard to imagine something more fundamental than the question of how lawmakers will respond when their own constituents want help with the law. And, as administration officials and Obamacare proponents are quick to note, there is a precedent here: The Democrats’ handling of the Medicare prescription drug program under George W. Bush in 2003. Karen Tumulty put it this way in a good piece the other day:

After initially denouncing the drug program and vowing to repeal it, Democratic lawmakers ultimately embraced it, and even devoted town hall meetings to helping constituents sign up for it.

Will Republican lawmakers do the same in any meaningful numbers? Seems like it might be a good idea to get more of them on record on this point.