Close Readings: Republicans will shut down gov’t unless Obamacare defunded

Senator Mike Lee (R–UT) describes the big city shortly before breaking into song.

Senator Mike Lee (R–UT) describes how a filibuster works, shortly before breaking into song.

A group of Republican senators led by Mike Lee have signed an open letter promising to vote down any continuing resolution that contains funding to implement the Affordable Care Act. Essentially, they’ve threatened to shut down the federal government unless Obamacare is repealed, or at least defunded. Besides Lee, Marco Rubio (R–FL) and John Thune (R–SD) have signed the letter, along with an undisclosed but ostensibly large number of fellow conservatives in the Senate. The putative reason for this scorched-earth opposition is the delay of the employer mandate, which Lee et al see as proof that the Affordable Care Act cannot work as written. That delay in enforcing Obamacare was too much for the senators who are committed to repealing Obamacare, apparently. Full text of the letter after the jump.

Dear Leader Reid:

We view the Obama Administration’s recent decision to delay Obamacare’s employer mandate and eligibility verification for the individual exchanges as further proof the law is a failure that will inevitably hurt businesses, American families, and the economy.

In light of this admission, we believe the only way to avert disaster is to fully repeal Obamacare and start over with a more sensible, practical approach to reforming our healthcare system.

However, if Democrats will not agree with Republicans that Obamacare must be repealed, perhaps they can at least agree with the president that the law cannot be implemented as written. If the administration will not enforce the law as written, then the American people should not be forced to fund it.

This is a matter not only of fiscal prudence, but of fundamental fairness as well. The president cannot seriously expect to waive Obamacare’s onerous mandates on large businesses, while simultaneously forcing individuals and families to pay to implement an individual mandate the public has opposed since before the law was even passed.

For these reasons, we will not support any continuing resolution or appropriations legislation that funds further implementation or enforcement of Obamacare.


From a rhetorical standpoint, the letter is a masterwork of insinuation. Besides the felicitous “Dear Leader” at the beginning, notice how the delayed employer mandate is “proof” that Obamacare has failed in the first paragraph, but becomes “this admission” by the second. With that simple act of nominalization, Lee converts his own claim into a point that someone else—presumably the president—has already conceded. The argument that delaying the employer mandate proves the Affordable Care Act has failed is tenuous at best. By paragraph two, though, it has become an admitted fact.

This tactic—presenting his own argument as the president’s, and his own threat as a prudent response to that argument—is Lee’s central strategy in the letter. It is most evident in the sentence “if Democrats will not agree with Republicans that Obamacare must be repealed, perhaps they can at least agree with the president that the law cannot be implemented as written.”

Probably, the president does not believe that the Affordable Care Act cannot be implemented as written. He’s kind of a booster, which is why they call it “Obamacare.” That conceit is necessary, however, to make the delay in enforcement the occasion for this letter. You would think that a group of senators opposed to Obamacare would welcome any delay in its implementation. That’s essentially what the letter demands. But Lee et al have to present the delay as a disaster, in order to have a pretext for their threat.

Make no mistake: the real occasion for this letter is the upcoming continuing resolution, which will be necessary to fund operation of the federal government in absence of an agreed-upon budget by September 30. You can’t begin an open letter with “we’ve noticed an opportunity to improve our bargaining position,” though. Even a blackmail letter requires some pretext of reason, in both senses of the words, and Lee’s reason is the delay in the employer mandate delay. Never mind that he is almost certainly in favor of that delay, as he is in favor of indefinitely delaying the entire Affordable Care Act.

It’s all feints and rolls, though, until he can get to the hook: “For these reasons, we will not support any continuing resolution or appropriations legislation that funds further implementation or enforcement of Obamacare.” First of all, he only has one reason. Second, “any continuing resolution or appropriations legislation” means that Lee and his fellow undersigned are taking a hostage.

The Affordable Care Act is passed legislation. It is built into the budget, which means any continuing resolution will necessarily contain money for it. In short, unless Obamacare is repealed or otherwise rendered inert, a coalition of Republican senators will block funding for the entire federal government.

In the context of the letter, the declaration is impressive in its bluntness. There’s no “we regret that our consciences force us to take this action” or anything like that. It’s just the simple presentation of a threat in causal terms, like a ransom note. In the context of the Senate, however, it is insane.

The Affordable Care Act passed three years ago. It was not an executive order or some other circumvention of the legislative process, but a bill that made its way, however gradually, through both houses of Congress and was passed. We voted for it. Granted, we voted for it through our elected representatives after a lot of wheeling, dealing and complaint, and it is probably the most controversial piece of legislation in recent memory. But it passed.

To refuse to fund the continued operation of government until a specific law is repealed sets a terrifying precedent. What could 40 senators not do by the same mechanism? If Lee’s threat works, a cabal of conservative senators will have overruled the will of the American people. If it doesn’t work, we won’t have a functioning federal government. If he’s bluffing we will be okay, but it’s hard not to think that comity will suffer. Lee’s letter is a repudiation of allegiance to anything but party politics.

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  1. But of course, such threats and political tactics are routine and casual. If there has ever been a budget negotiation which did not involve someone threatening to shut down the government, I don’t know about it. So, calling that hostage taking is a bit disingenuous, because it’s just the norm. Certainly, shutting down the government is a race to the bottom, but it’s a rare outcome in the perennial game. The playing of the game is completely normal and everyday though.

    In fact, it may be intentional that Congress essentially refuses to pass the national budget by it’s deadline every year for, at least, the last several years. One clerk in the Senate Finance committee told me he thought the concept of not passing the fucking national budget by the deadline–egregious to common sense Americans–as fairly amenable to legislators because it provided multiple rounds of continuing authorization. More chances for such political maneuvering in the future, rather than having to actually settle those political demands before the start of the next fiscal year.

    Budgets are due by October because the year fiscal year starts then. You can track see the progress of the national budget–a collection of several bills, here:

    If you go to the 2013 fiscal year, which we are operating in, you can see its budget is not finalized. In about two months we’ll begin 2014 fiscal year, which is not done either.

  2. I believe that only in recent times is the practice of threatening government shutdown a part of passing a budget. Pretty bold to use a specious premise to claim Dan is being disingenuous.

  3. The more important point is that the behavior and thinking represented in this letter is not cool, whether that behavior started today, with Gingrich’s responses to Clinton, or at the dawn of civilization.

  4. Dear Elected Officials:

    We view the expressed intention of refusing to fund the government until already passed law is repealed as an admission that this body no longer intends to work for the American people and is, in fact, a failure.
    For this reason, we can no longer support or fund any further appropriations for Senate salaries, healthcare, or pensions.

    This is not only a matter of fiscal prudence, but of fundamental fairness.
    You cannot seriously expect us to continue to fund your privileged lifestyles when you have waived any pretext of serving the interests
    of those who put you in office.

    Sincerely disgusted……

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