People can argue endlessly about the nature of the American founding. Today, we contest the religious aspects of it. Were the founders Christians or enlightenment deists? Yesterday, the debate had mostly to do with the economics. Is a Marxist reading of the intent of the founding generation appropriate? The reality is that our founding emerges from a collaboration of different points of view. We were fortunate to benefit from a providential synthesis once the ink dried on paper.
But one thing seems certain, the majority of the individuals who put our constitution together were generally suspicious of collective action at the national level. As a result, they made it very difficult to pass major legislation. Checks. Balances. Division of powers.
For a long time now the American left has hoped to complete its efforts in the New Deal and the War on Poverty by making health care available to all. The effort was long stymied by the lack of alignment of the political stars needed to produce the power that would be required to achieve the goal. But in 2008, the stars did align in the person of a potentially transformative political figure named Barack Obama. He wielded powerful majorities in both houses of Congress and had won a significant electoral victory, himself. Health care (provided more broadly than for just the poor or seniors), the holy grail of the American left, was within reach.
And yet, with all the stars lining up, it was still a close thing for the president and his party to accomplish the goal. While the jubilance that accompanied passage of the Affordable Care Act was real, it has resembled the artificial high of a buzz that turns into a headache the next day. The law turns out to be so complicated as to fulfill Hayek’s prophecy of a regulatory state so complex that self-government is in real danger. At the same time, it has created incentives for employers to do whatever they can to avoid the strictures of the law. The technocratic authors of the bill seem not to have realized that rational individuals (and organizations) will act rationally. Avoidance is the choice of those with resources to understand the law. Others simply wallow in the kind of uncertainty that kills job growth.
Administratively, Obamacare (the name the president embraces) has turned out to be a minefield. The agencies of the federal government are not truly ready to implement it. Neither are many in the private sector ready to receive it. Though the legislation had an on-ramp of a few years prior to most provisions taking effect, the government has not worked out problems sufficiently to match even that lagging start. A cynical person might believe the law was not designed to take place until the advent of a second term for a reason.
Obamacare slipped through the dragnet the American constitutional architects created because of a magical moment in political time. The law cleared the hurdles and managed to cross the finish line before a gathering crowd of voters could repudiate it. Indeed, the voters of Massachusetts went so far as to send a Republican to the senate in a last ditch effort at derailment. Political opportunity made it imperative that the bill be passed quickly. After all, there would be time to fix it. But it isn’t fixed.
The answer is not for the opposing party to defund the signature act of a two term president. The answer is for the two parties to refuse to move on in terms of domestic policy until the current law is rationalized and improved. The president was determined to transform the health care system for the better. He has a responsibility to leave the American people with something better than the status quo. At the moment, that issue is very much in question. He needs to move fixing the bill to the top of his agenda and to work with the Republicans in a true spirit of compromise. They, in turn, have a responsibility to meet him in that same spirit. Political accountability demands no less. We need statesmen and not bare-knuckled political brawlers in this moment.