On a Wing and a Prayer: Why “Defund Obamacare” Efforts are a Bad Idea

Earlier this week, the Coalition to Reduce Spending published a guest post by Institute to Reduce Spending Research Director Jordan King entitled “Reality Check: CR Defunding Won’t Work.” In the piece, King argues that since the continuing resolution (CR) doesn’t affect most of the funding for the Affordable Care Act (ACA), trying to defund it via the CR is, ultimately, “severely misguided.”

Dustin Siggins of Tea Party Patriots took issue with King’s argument, first in a Facebook thread and then in a TPP blog post on the issue, “Why Delaying Obamacare Can’t Wait.”

We at the Coalition agree with Siggins on that point: delaying the increased spending likely to come with the ACA is, on its face, extremely valuable. Unfortunately, that’s not what this debate is about.

Far more is at stake than “defund” advocates like to admit; in fact, there is a lot to lose. Recent gains on spending reform are at risk of being sacrificed on the altar of a rhetorical long shot.

It’s not often that we get meaningful spending reform. But, recently, that’s what has happened — as a result of rules laid out in the Budget Control Act of 2011. Writing in the Washington Times,  Brandon Arnold of the National Taxpayers Union says that although the BCA is imperfect, “The one aspect . . . that has been successful thus far is the creation of discretionary-spending caps . . . These caps do not provide all of the far-reaching fiscal discipline that we need to address our long-term debt crisis, but they are an effective curb on the growth of discretionary (i.e., non-entitlement) spending.”

And they’re working. As Stephen Moore writes this week in the Wall Street Journal, spending has fallen to $3.537 trillion in FY2012, and is set to fall below $3.45 trillion by the end of this fiscal year. “The $150 billion budget decline of 4% is the first time federal expenditures have fallen for two consecutive years since the end of the Korean War.”

The political fiasco that was the sequester standoff has quietly faded into the most impactful spending reform in quite some time. And unsurprisingly, the big spenders are pushing back. Arnold notes: “The president has already intimated that he will veto spending bills that fail to undo the Budget Control Act cap, and the Senate Appropriations Committee is moving legislation as if the caps do not exist.” Being distracted by the “defund” debate vastly increases the odds of a rollback of these critical reforms.

Even worse, Club for Growth recently noted “rumblings” of a potential leadership-led deal actively agreeing to end sequester cuts in exchange for a temporary delay, a truly awful idea if we’ve ever heard one.

It’s our view that those who care about the budget should be focused like a laser on making sure sequestration-level spending is maintained, not be caught up in a sideshow that is doomed to failure. When it comes to “defund” efforts, there are a few facts that can’t be ignored:

  1. The continuing resolution affects discretionary spending only. Most of the Affordable Care Act will be funded through mandatory spending. The CR itself, therefore, cannot “defund Obamacare” unless a separate provision, or “rider,” is attached.
  2. A CR with a defund rider is almost certain to fail, causing a government shutdown.
  3. If the government shuts down, the bulk of the ACA remains funded.
  4. In the extremely small chance that a CR with a rider passes Congress, President Obama would have to sign Obamacare defunding into law.

That’s right. These efforts’ only actual chance at success is if the President himself signs a law defunding his own legacy program. Do these chances sound good enough to jeopardize the only real spending reform we’ve seen in years, arguably decades?