In two ways, the new-look Republican effort to undermine Obamacare, analyzed by The New York Times and Politico, isn't actually new. First, it's been around for a few weeks. Second, pouring committee hearings and press conferences into the administration's wounds has been the Republican playbook basically since January 2011. But it's still tactically savvy.
At issue, of course, is the "glitchy" (if you're President Obama) or "disastrous" (if you're a Republican) launch of the Healthcare.gov site. The site's failures — nearly complete at first, largely just annoying now — gave opponents of the plan something concrete to point to. And so they're pointing. Here's how the Times describes the new strategy.
Emboldened by the intense public criticism surrounding the rollout of the online insurance exchange, Republicans in Congress are refocusing their efforts from denying funds for the health care law to investigating it.
In changing tactics, Republicans hope to tamp down the continuing public criticism of their previously fruitless attack on the Affordable Care Act, one that led to a 16-day government shutdown, by focusing on the problems with the law that they say they have warned the nation about, unheeded, for three years.
There's a lot to chew on in those paragraphs. But the key point, buried a bit in the "problems with the law" that "they have warned the nation about," is that the Republicans at last have something to point to. When Texas Sen. Ted Cruz spoke for 21 hours in September about how damaging Obamacare was for America, he was well out over his skis. The Affordable Care Act (Obamacare's official name) hadn't yet kicked in — it still hasn't, largely — and his rhetorical assertions about the laws' negative effects were easily dismissible. (See: Politifact.) Had he waited a week, he could have pointed to Healthcare.gov.
But that finger-pointing only did take a week. On October 8, during House Republican leaders' then-daily press conferences after speaking with their members, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor made one of the first links between the flawed website and the problems with the website. "In our last effort to fully fund the government," he said, "we said if you're having a hard time using Obamacare's broken website, you shouldn't be penalized for not signing up this year. Very simple. That's all we were asking for." This isn't true; the "last effort" that included a delay of the individual mandate was passed at 1 a.m. on October 1 — only an hour after Healthcare.gov went live, and before the glitches became apparent.
To use a medical analogy, what Cantor was doing then (and what Republicans are increasingly doing now) is a bit hypochondriacal. At first, the party claimed that the body of Obamacare wasn't well: it had intangible ailments, headaches, numbness — the "problems with the law" the Times notes Republicans complaining about. Then, when the Healthcare.gov rash erupted, it was seized upon. "We said it was sick!," the argument goes. "This is clearly a symptom of cancer."
So the Republicans, beginning Thursday, are using the oversight powers given them in the House to attack that rash. From Politico:
Since the 16-day shutdown fight, Boehner is beginning to focus on oversight — using the tools afforded to the majority to expose what he considers the Obama administration’s missteps. On Wednesday, Boehner said “the biggest part of Congress’s job is to provide proper oversight of the executive branch of government.”
This isn't a new tactic, either; at least not for non-Obamacare issues. Since the Republicans regained control of the House in 2011, California Rep. Darrell Issa has used the House Oversight Committee as a truncheon, as other committee chairs have as well. As various administration stumbles and scandals have erupted, each has been pored over in hearing after hearing, hour after hour. You can list the series as well as we can: Fast and Furious, the IRS/Tea Party, Benghazi, the NSA. There are more, but you get the point. So many rashes!
It's important to note, though, that relegating Obamacare to the by-now-standard level of congressional hearings is a tactically important one for Republicans. A month that began with a government shutdown prompted by a push to completely eradicate the program will end, next Wednesday, with testimony from Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius about why a website didn't work right.
As the Obamacare roll-out continues — particularly on January 1, when insurance coverage begins, and at the March deadline for enrollment — there will be other glitches, more or less disastrous. The Republican retreat to hearings is just that, a retreat, a stepping-back-to-gather-strength. Where Cruz's September overreach only made Obamacare more popular, party leadership can expect that building a baseline of opposition from scratch will allow them to build up a steady litany of complaints. Not all poisons act quickly; some build up over time. That, it seems, could be the new Republican plan.