Leonard E. Burman / What if it were Romneycare?

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Enrollment in the new health care exchanges began this week and the government is partially shut down in protest -- never mind that Obamacare funding is largely immune to the shutdown.

The Republicans in the House appear to be getting most of the blame for the shutdown because they insist that continued government funding be tied to at least a temporary delay in the implementation of the president's health care law, a nonstarter in the Democratic-controlled Senate and the White House.

I wondered how the debate might be different if 2008 had produced a President Mitt Romney rather than Barack Obama. That year, candidate Romney would have campaigned on the success of his newly enacted Massachusetts health reform, arguably his greatest accomplishment as governor. The system of subsidies, mandates and a regulated health insurance marketplace were the model for Mr. Obama's Affordable Care Act.

If we had Romneycare, the White House and Republicans would be trumpeting the remarkable success of the free (but regulated) market in providing a wide range of choices of insurance plans in most markets and pushing prices down. That is what choice and competition do! (And, exactly what seems to be happening now under Obamacare.)

Democrats might complain that many of the affordable health insurance plans have high deductibles that could create significant hardships for middle-income families if they get sick. Republicans would remind us that high deductibles help constrain medical spending by making health insurance consumers cost conscious. (In the alternative reality that is Obamacare, Republicans bemoan the high deductibles and Democrats mostly remain silent.)

Democrats chafing under Romneycare would hate the individual mandate and the burden it puts on middle-class workers unlucky enough to work for an employer who doesn't provide health insurance. Republicans would call it individual responsibility; people should be discouraged from eschewing insurance only to put the burden of paying for their care on others when they get sick. Conservative think tanks would point out that the mandate is the lynchpin of any free market solution.

Republicans might not have included the employer mandate -- they are more hesitant to put new burdens on businesses -- but Mr. Obama suspended the mandate for a year and it's likely an area where the two parties might find common ground if they were on speaking terms. Unions would howl in protest that, without a mandate, employer-sponsored insurance might go the way of the dodo bird. Republicans would say "good riddance;" companies should focus on producing better products and services and leave health insurance administration to others.

The surtaxes on those with high incomes probably wouldn't be in Romneycare. But they will help pay for President George W. Bush's historic expansion of Medicare to cover prescription drugs, which he had left largely unfunded.

So a key difference is that Republicans really hate the new taxes. As is often the case, what seems to be a fight about spending is really much about taxes.

But another difference is that absent a landslide victory in Congress, President Romney would have needed a significant number of votes from Democrats to pass health reform since many Republicans don't believe the federal government should be in the health insurance business. A bipartisan bill surely would have muted Democratic criticism.

The bottom line is that the main problem many Republicans have with the Affordable Care Act is that it is Obamacare rather than Romneycare. (Well, actually, it is Romneycare.) They're not invested in the law since it passed with only Democratic votes. And they really hate the taxes.

opinion_commentary

Leonard E. Burman is a fellow at the Urban Institute and directs the Urban-Brookings Tax Policy Center in Washington, D.C. (taxvox.taxpolicycenter.org).


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