Yesterday afternoon, the newly Republican controlled House took its first shot against Obamacare.
In a 252 to 172 vote, the House voted down the health law's 30-hour workweek, which as part of the employer mandate requires businesses with 50 or more workers to provide coverage to employees who work at least that many hours in a week. In its place, the House adopted a 40-hour week.
For many Republicans in Congress, the vote was seen a way of easing the pain the 30-hour rule has caused on workers and employers. Many employers were adamantly against the provision, saying the requirement adds a significant benefit expense; workers say their hours have been cut or capped in order to keep them under the 30-hour threshold.
The requirement is widely disliked. Most legislators on the Hill, from both parties, have heard from constituents about problems related to the rule. There was hope that, as a result, the bill might garner significant Democratic support. In the end, it picked up just 12 Democratic votes.
Beyond mitigating the damage done by the provision, Republicans understand the change as illustrative of their new approach to Obamacare. It's intended as a way to show that the GOP can fix the health care law, making small changes to improve the way it works in addition to the radical opposition the party has demonstrated for the last several years.
The problem is that, far from being a practical improvement, the change the Republicans have chosen makes the health law worse.
For one thing, it would make it more expensive. By rewriting the rules so that businesses no longer have to cover individuals working between 30 and 40 hours a week, the change would shift roughly a million people off of employer coverage. About half would then end up enrolled in coverage either through Medicaid or Obamacare's subsidized exchanges. The public, in other words, would be picking up the tab. According to the Congressional Budget Office, the change would increase the deficit by about $53 billion by 2025.
In addition, it would probably not end the cutting or limiting of work hours in response to the law. Instead, it would shift the point at which the cutting and capping is done. Rather than capping employees who might otherwise have worked, say, 30 or 32 hours, employers under this provision would have an incentive to cap hours for employees who work roughly 40 hours each week. That's an awful lot of workers. As Yuval Levin noted at National Review Online last November, one study found that, amongst the large employers affected by the requirement, about 29 million work between 40 and 44 hours a week. Just seven million work between 30 and 39 hours.
The change, in other words, would make the law even more expensive and create even greater incentives for disruption of the workweek.
Or it would, at least, if it were to go into effect. It hasn't passed in the Senate yet, but it won't really matter whether it does. President Obama issued a veto threat yesterday, saying that he would refuse to sign onto the change.
This is the reality of the situation now for Republicans hoping to alter or tear down Obamacare. Yes, they control both chambers of Congress, but President Obama still wields the veto, and Democrats will continue to back him. Any real change that Republicans hope to make to the health law will have to receive Obama's blessing. He's likely to agree to very little.
In addition, the law is set for another major challenge at the Supreme Court this year, with a ruling likely before the end of June. Republicans, then, are better off waiting until after the Supreme Court hands down its decision, at which point the ground may have substantially changed.
In the meantime, those in Congress who wish to oppose the law would be best served by continuing to highlight its weaknesses while attempting to build the case for health policy changes that go beyond wholesale repeal. The biggest opportunity at this point is for laying the groundwork for larger changes to come.