Whoops! Did Senator Collins inadvertently strengthen Obamacare?
Senator Susan Collins is widely and rightly being lauded for jump-starting the compromise that saved the day — or at least kicked the can — and averted default on the nation’s debt while reopening the government. By spearheading a bipartisan group of 14 senators that crafted the end of the crisis, Collins’s game-changing negotiation is one for the history books, and could be a career-changer as well. When Republicans next control the Senate, she could be chosen to lead powerful committees. Rocketing to prominence at a time when the right wing of her party is under a cloud, could she be tapped to run on the ticket in 2016 as vice president — or even seek the presidency? These are exciting times for Maine.
Though the final legislation that solved the nation’s dilemma did not embrace her starting position, it did embody the tried and true principle of face-saving by incorporating a tiny change to Obamacare, a law Republicans seek to repeal. It could even be said that Collins outflanked a president who refused to negotiate, a president who in the end was driven to sign legislation that required income verification for those seeking subsidies for health insurance. That’s a stretch — President Obama is widely regarded as having won. But the fact remains, she won something where others failed.
Except the concession she wrought works to strengthen, not weaken Obamacare. How could this be? After all, the move follows a tried and true technique for those who want to weaken legislation: add hurdles that make it harder for people to exercise their rights. America has a long tradition of making it difficult for those seeking assistance, from welfare to food stamps (or the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, SNAP, as it is formally called). And laws that have collectively been termed “voter suppression” have become a favored tactic of Republicans eager to make it harder to vote under the guise of preventing fraud. Our own Governor LePage tried to prevent same-day voter registration, an effort stopped by referendum. And he recently spent $700,000 investigating welfare fraud. In this upside-down stance, new regulation and surveillance, long abhorred on principle by Republicans, becomes a critical tool for combating programs they disdain.
But the new requirement of income verification for those who need help buying health insurance under Obamacare is different. Registering to vote or signing up for SNAP is voluntary; if regulation is onerous, some will simply decide it is too much to bother with.
However, Obamacare is mandatory — virtually every American must obtain health insurance one way or another, or eventually pay fines if they do not. Thus anyone discouraged by the need to verify their income — or rather, their lack of income — will still wind up buying insurance, or sadly paying a fine they may not deserve. Unlike obstacles to voter registration, which could alter the outcome of election contests and change history, fining a few people who cannot afford insurance yet will not or cannot verify that they qualify for a subsidy may be unjust, but it has no broad impact. The new law does little or nothing to reduce the number of people buying insurance through Obamacare.
The net effect of the new law, then, is only to reduce fraud; it can’t act as an impediment to enrollment because people are obligated to sign up in any case. Reducing fraud is a good thing. The law therefore mitigates one potential complaint of Obamacare’s critics: they won’t be able to claim people are abusing subsidies, at least not plausibly. Income verification makes this law function better, and in doing so it becomes harder to attack.
In a total rout, not only did President Obama succeed without negotiating, the law widely heralded as his main legislative legacy was strengthened. And Senator Collins, along with other legislators, accomplished this for him and for the country under the confused belief that they were helping Republicans save face.
Greg Bates is a writer, editor and publisher in Monroe, Maine.