The Buck Stops Somewhere Else

President Obama blames everyone but himself for health care reform's problems.

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(AP)
President Barack Obama pauses as he speaks during the daily news briefing at the White House, Friday, July 19, 2013, about the fatal shooting of Trayvon Martin.

Haven't we seen this act before?

This week, President Obama denounced Republicans in Congress who were trying, he said, to destroy Obamacare by mucking up its implementation. You've got to admire the president. A man of many gifts – intellectual, rhetorical – but none of his gifts matches that of passing blame.  

Harry Truman may have said, "The buck stops here."  With this president, that peripatetic dollar bill doesn't encounter so much as a speed bump as it shoots through the Oval Office, untouched by the occupant's hands.

For in this administration, passing the buck is what you do when your signature legislation – the bill you bent every effort and resisted every plea for compromise in order to ram through Congress and that with great fanfare you signed into law – turns out to be "unworkable.

Unworkable isn't my term. Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal used it this week in an op-ed that catalogues only the most recent problems to have surfaced in implementing the multi-thousand-page law.

[See a collection of political cartoons on Obamacare.]

For example, the administration itself has delayed the employer mandate by a year. No one knows why implementation next year will be any less damaging to the economy (the administration's apparent reason for the current delay) than this year, other than that the mid-term elections will have passed. They have made no secret of their ambition to take back the House next time around. But for the moment, their actions say that, for this part of the Affordable Care Act, at least, they agree with the two governors. It is unworkable.

Last week, three major unions – the Teamsters, the United Food and Commercial Workers and UNITE-HERE (a service and textile industries union) – told the House and Senate Democratic leadership that the full-time worker mandate would wreak havoc with their membership. The ACA defines a full-time workweek at 30 hours, not the standard 40. So, in a development that every student of public policy has seen countless times, employers who cannot afford the mandated coverage are taking that floor as a ceiling and cutting back worker hours to stay under the threshold.

Instead of protecting these workers and providing a much-heralded path to the middle class, Obamacare is building a wall around middle-class status, cutting the pay of many marginal workers by a quarter and much more when they are eligible for overtime. For these unions and many others, that provision is unworkable.

[Read the U.S. News debate: Should Congress Repeal the Affordable Care Act?]

As the 30-hour week conundrum illustrates, thresholds in laws almost always spawn unintended consequences.  Years ago I catalogued a number of these and discussed the problems they create. I am sure I am not the only one to have done so. The 50-employee limit is another threshold in this law. Under it, an employer who qualifies and does not provide health care coverage is exempt from penalties. So, of course, many employers are already halting their companies' growth at 49 workers – and wouldn't you, too?

You are about to hire employee number 50. Let's see: salary, $40,000; the payroll tax and benefits, an additional 25 percent, $10,000; new Obamacare penalties or premiums or taxes (I am not sure any more what to call them), $2,000 per employee x 50 = $100,000, which to many employers means priceless. So for those employers and their employees, the legislation is unworkable.

Then there is the hapless federal software development supervisor charged with designing the ACA's online insurance exchange. He declared in March that his team had given up on creating" a world-class user experience." "Let's just make sure it's not a third-world user experience," he lamented. For those in charge of the nuts and bolts of implementation, the program is unworkable, too.

As it will be for millions more. Not long ago, the Congressional Budget Office announced that a key promise of the law could not be delivered. The president had pledged that if you wanted to keep your current employer-provided health insurance, you could under Obamacare. But according to the CBO, that will not be true for at least 7 million workers who currently receive coverage. Thanks to one detail or another of the law, they will be thrown out in the cold.

And some reports have it that CBO didn't account for the most devastating detail. If your provider changes a single line of your policy, it and your employer will come under federal supervision, and the policy could be thrown out, just like that. For every now-covered employee who loses his or her health insurance, Obamacare will also be unworkable.

[Check out our editorial cartoons on President Obama.]

I haven't even touched on Obamacare's unworkability for the states. According to Govs. Walker and Jindal, federal guidance to the states has been "inconsistent, arbitrary and frustrating." Instead of approaching the states as partners, "the administration has treated the states with mistrust." The result: the states are denied flexibility that might enable them to make the law even a little more workable.

Throughout his first term, whenever Obama met with a setback, he blamed it on President Bush. In his second term, he has blamed House Republicans. Isn't it time to drop this tiresome act and accept blame for himself?

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