The Movement to Defund Obamacare, Explained

The activists pushing the latest Tea Party cause can't explain how their effort to stop health-care reform could ever possibly succeed. Will they shut down the government?
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The Tea Party has a new obsession: killing Obamacare by stripping the funding needed to implement the law. Thirteen Republican senators have signed on to the effort, which would likely lead to a government shutdown, since Democrats and President Obama are unlikely to agree to gut the president's signature domestic achievement.

Many Republicans are deeply skeptical of the idea, fearing it is yet another suicide mission by the far right that will hurt the party politically. Republican Senator Richard Burr, for example, called it "the dumbest idea I've ever heard of." The Beltway conventional wisdom is that this idea is doomed to fail.

But activist groups say their members are passionate about the idea, and they plan to keep the heat on politicians to join the fight. The groups include Heritage Action, which is spending $550,000 on online ads in Republican districts and holding rallies in nine cities; an event in Dallas featuring Senator Ted Cruz drew 1,000 attendees on Tuesday. The Senate Conservatives Fund is airing radio ads against three non-supportive Republican senators, including Burr. Meanwhile, two more national grassroots organizations, the Tea Party Patriots and ForAmerica, are teaming up on their own six-state tour and online ad campaign, which involves calling eight Republican senators "chickens" for refusing to support defunding.

Like many in D.C., I have struggled to understand what the endgame is of all this. To get some answers, I spoke to the campaign manager of ForAmerica's "Defund Obamacare" campaign, Scott Hogenson. This is an edited transcript of our interview.


What exactly is the point of this campaign?

What we're trying to do is raise awareness and get people to take action informing their members of Congress that they don't want to pay for Obamacare. We want to encourage Congress to listen to their constituents, who don't want to pay for this train wreck.

When you get outside the Beltway, people are really furious about what they're seeing happening. That's why we're taking this effort to the states where specific senators and congressmen are. The "Exempt America" tour will be going to six states starting next week -- Kentucky, Ohio, Texas, Mississippi, South Carolina, and Virginia -- and we're getting an awful lot of feedback from people saying, "How can I help?" The message for the lawmakers in those states is, people don't want to pay for this train wreck, and it's up to you to ensure that they don't.

And what would you like to see Congress do in response to that message?

Mind you, we don't advocate the passage or defeat of legislation or the election or defeat of individuals for public office. But what we would like to see happen is a continuing resolution passed that funds the entirety of the federal government, with the lone exception of Obamacare. It's broken, it's a train wreck, and people shouldn't have to pay for it.

What do you say to all the politicians and pundits who say that the president is never going to sign a measure that guts his biggest legislative achievement -- that this isn't realistic, that it just won't work?

Well, what will work? What will work? So much of the discussion of this has centered around the process. I haven't been in Washington that long, but one thing I've noticed is that people love to talk about process, they love to talk about tactics, and they tend to lose sight of the larger policy ramifications. We are already seeing the ramifications of Obamacare -- full-time employees being demoted to part-time, premiums going up -- this is a policy that was ill-conceived right from the get-go, and it's being implemented in a weird, destructive, ad hoc manner. It's pretty apparent it's a very bad thing.

It sounds like you're saying you have no idea, in practice, how this could actually get through Congress.

Well, anything can succeed, just like anything can fail. You have to at least try. It's up to the person in the arena. You know, if you're not in the arena, you're absolutely guaranteed to lose on a very important, critical issue. It's inevitably framed in Republican-and-Democrat terms. I get that. But in terms of real people, real lives, it's a big, big problem.

Another objection that's been raised is that this would only lead to a government shutdown or default, and Republicans would get blamed for that. Are you advocating that outcome?

The outcome we would like to see is that the American people don't have to pay for Obamacare, however that comes to pass. It's like driving from L.A. to San Francisco -- there's a million different ways to get there. We believe this approach is the last, best opportunity to prevent the American taxpayer from having to shell out the money and support Obamacare.

Think for a second. You're a taxpayer, an ordinary American working woman. You've got to pay for a health-care system that Congress is exempt from. You have to participate in a health-care system that big business, political cronies, congressmen and their staffs do not have to participate in. That doesn't sound like a democratic republic to me. That's what's got the grassroots upset. We are not serfs. We are citizens.

The House has had, what, 40 votes to repeal Obamacare, and what has that done? Besides given members of Congress a bloody shirt that they can wave on the stump back home and say, "I'm against Obamacare"? This effort to ensure right now that Americans don't have to pay for Obamacare is the best way to go about it. It's not just bloody-shirt-waving for the voters, it's an actual, working thing.

The Republican establishment seems to feel like all the Tea Party ever does is go after Republicans, which costs them elections they could otherwise win and hurts the party brand. Why take this approach? Why not be more constructive?

What we want to do is make sure elected Republicans listen to the public that put them in office. It's time to stop saying one thing back home and another when they get to Washington. Every single one of them says they're against Obamacare. Now we have an opportunity to make sure the American people don't have to pay for it. If somebody says they're against Obamacare but then they vote to fund it, I'm sorry, if you fund it, you own it.

Is there ever a time when one side of a policy debate has to admit they've lost? The vote was held, the other side won, and now it's the law of the land and it's time to move on?

That's an interesting argument, but if it really is the law of the land, why is the administration making side deals with Congress to exempt them? Why are they delaying the employer mandate? How come they're not putting the lifetime caps into place? How come the data hub is not yet secure? You can say this is the law of the land, but the implementations says otherwise. The implementation says, "We'll do whatever we want."

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Molly Ball is a staff writer covering national politics at The Atlantic.

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