The limits of Speaker Ryan’s high-mindedness

Yesterday’s CBO report on the House GOP Obamacare replacement plan caused me to wonder: What kind of a political party front-loads reform legislation with pain — in this case, higher premiums — and backloads it with benefits — here, lower premiums and budgetary savings?

The answer is, a political party led by Paul Ryan. The Speaker believes in legislating to fix problems in the long-term and, while waiting for the long-term, letting the political chips fall where they may.

We saw this with the entitlement reform Ryan pushed after Republicans gained control of the House in 2011. Ryan’s reforms had no chance of being enacted into law because Democrats controlled the Senate and the White House. That being the case, I asked one of his aides why Ryan was so intent on passing legislation that might injure the GOP’s prospects in 2012.

The aide told me that Ryan was aware of the political problem, and worried that he might be doing serious injury to the Party, but felt obligated to do the right thing — pass legislation that could fix a major problem (but had no chance of becoming law).

I admire Ryan for this. One can argue that, in a better world, all legislators would focus single-mindedly on fixing big problems without regard to political consequences.

In this world, though, Republicans need to ask themselves whether it’s a good idea to pass legislation that will, in important respects, make Obamacare worse before making it better and, in the process, inflict severe harm on the Party. I say it is not. High-mindedness has its limits.

But even if one adopts Ryan’s high-minded approach to legislating, his Obamacare replacement legislation should be rejected. Why? Because by making things worse in the short-term, it almost ensures that there will be no long-term for his legislation.

As Sen. Tom Cotton told Hugh Hewitt today, “I suspect that the political consequences of those near term changes [contained in Speaker Ryan’s bill] mean that the long term will never actually arrive.”

The Republicans have only two rational options on Obamacare: (1) use reconciliation to enact a bill that overturns the Obamacare regulations that are driving up premiums, reversing any ruling by the parliamentarian that stands in the way of getting this done or (2) push such a bill but allow the Democrats and the parliamentarian to kill it, let the death spiral continue, and have it be the Obamacare death spiral not the Trump/Ryan death spiral.

Legislators who are high-minded in practice, rather than theory, should press ahead with option (1).