Can We “Set Aside Politics,” Progress from “Last Year’s Battles,” and “Move Forward” On Obamacare?

September 9th, 2014

New HHS Secretary Sylvia Matthews Burwell gave an address today at GW that urged us to move past “last year’s battles” and “move forward.” She repeated this message several times throughout her remarks. Here are some of the higlights:

What’s central to all this is not politics. It’s progress: setting aside the back and forth, and instead choosing to move forward.

I can tell you that what I’ve been hearing over and over – whether it’s from friends who I talk to back in West Virginia, to business leaders, to elected leaders, to my new colleagues at HHS – it is “enough already with the back-and-forth on the Affordable Care Act. We just want to move forward.

So what I’ve told my team at HHS, is that we’re not here to fight last year’s battles, we’re here to fight for:affordability, access, and quality.

Lets move beyond the back and forth, let’s move forward, together.

A much bigger question, is can we move on as a society? I am doubtful. While discussions of something as important as health care should be grounded in policy debates, the ACA–passed along a party-line vote against massive political opposition–seeded the law in deep partisan opposition for the foreseeable future. My comment in Unprecedented from 2013 seems more apt today than when I wrote it:

The ACA’s party-line vote was unprecedented for such a major law. Not a single Republican in the House or Senate supported this law. Forty-nine percent of the House of Representatives opposed it, hardly a mandate (no pun intended) for transformational change. These sentiments reflected those of America as a whole—polling data from 2009 to 2012 consistently showed that the mandate was widely unpopular, and remains so today. Legislation is always a compromise, especially in a state of gridlock exacerbated by recalcitrant Republi- cans. However, the president and leaders in the Congress forced this law thorough with full knowledge that there would be no bipartisan support and that they would lose members of their own caucus.

The (seemingly) simple lesson to be learned here is that the “pass it at any cost” mentality may seem like a good idea in the short term, but in the long term, it is a poor plan. It is not a productive way to pass monumental, transformative legislation. The ACA was from the start mired in a political grudge match and will remain so for the foreseeable future. It was prepared to fail before it even was born. This is a lesson the president will have to heed in his second term in office, when he will simply lack the votes to enact laws on party lines. Indeed, this is a lesson for any future president—don’t try to change the nation when 49 percent of Congress opposes it. This was a sign that America as a whole wasn’t quite ready for this kind of law.

With this history, I don’t know if it is that easy to simply move forward.