Congressional Democrats appear to have meandered into a cul-de-sac. Ostensibly, the federal government shut down last week during an impasse over whether to make the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) permanent this month or next. Democrats had threatened to shut down the government over DACA recipients before but backed off amid mounting objections from the party’s moderate governing wing. As public polling has confirmed, Americans are in favor of legal status for this deserving set of illegal immigrants who suffer that status through no fault of their own, but voters do not believe that outcome is worth a government shutdown. It’s therefore reasonable to expect that Democrats will soon shift gears, leaning into the other ostensible reason why the government shut down: lapsed funding for the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP). Yet here, too, the Democrats and their allies in media are playing a double game.
The tale of how CHIP became a political football is the story of congressional dysfunction in microcosm. Like DACA, CHIP is a program with bipartisan support that few lawmakers want to see expire. The federal funding for the program, which provides insurance for approximately 9 million children and hundreds of thousands of pregnant women, lapsed on September 30, 2017, but the majority of states had enough funds in reserve (supplemented by their own state-level funding mechanisms) to maintain the program into 2018. In the interim, it was hoped, the stalemate over how to continue funding for the program would be worked out.
Negotiations continued throughout October. Proposed solutions ranged from charging Medicare recipients earning over $500,000 annually higher premiums to decreasing from 90 to 30 days the grace period for people who file to pay their ObamaCare marketplace premiums. Yet another proposal would have redirected funds from the Affordable Care Act’s prevention and public health fund to community health centers, which provide care to as many as 27 million Americans. All the while, Democrats balked at these compromises. They argued, as one Democratic aide put it, that CHIP’s funding “has become a vehicle to sabotage the Affordable Care Act.”
“I reject the notion we have to rob Peter to Pay Paul,” said Michigan Democratic Rep. Debbie Dingell during a debate over a five-year extension of CHIP in November, “or, in this instance, jeopardize Medicare.” In the end, however, that extension did pass the House with 242 votes. Only 15 Democratic members voted with the majority. That bill, which conflicted with a Senate compromise, stalled in the upper chamber, but that did not seal CHIP’s fate. On December 8, the House narrowly passed a stopgap government funding bill that maintained CHIP and authorized the Department of Health and Human Services to shift funds internally to keep the program going. Eighty-one Senators affirmed that bill and the president signed it. Finally, on December 21, Congress passed and the president signed another bill to prevent a government shutdown, which allocated another $2.85 billion to keep CHIP running.
This brings us to last Friday when Democrats were presented with a short-term deal to fund the government for three weeks while funding CHIP for another six years and repealing some of the Affordable Care Act’s most unpopular taxes. That bill did not, however, provide legal status for hundreds of thousands of DACA recipients. Democrats declined the compromise.
Democrats will insist that their objection to the compromises offered by the GOP was righteous. Their recalcitrance preserved some of ObamaCare’s most imperiled provisions. What’s more, they might say, if Republicans are so eager to extend CHIP’s funding, they could have put forward a bill that does that and only that, absent any offsets or unrelated provisions. But Democrats are not in the majority and they do not control the process. If securing long-term financing of CHIP is a cause burning with moral urgency, as Democrats say it is, they’ve taken every opportunity available to demonstrate that their priorities are elsewhere.
In the interim, the Democratic Party’s supporters in media have allowed the emotionality of children’s health care to overtake their capacity for reason. Retiring Senator Orrin Hatch, one of the original authors of the CHIP program and a sponsor of a bipartisan bill that would have saved CHIP’s funding prior to September 30, became the target of an egregious smear campaign for, essentially, elaborating on conservative philosophy. Late night comedians like Jimmy Kimmel alleged that Republicans have turned on the program in order to offset revenue lost due to tax code reform—a conflation of two distinct issues that earned the comic a thrashing from ombudsmen like the Washington Post’s Glenn Kessler. That embarrassment hasn’t led to any introspection or humility from Kimmel. On Friday, the comedian accused Republican leadership in Congress of using CHIP “as a bargaining tool” and “children’s health as leverage.”
If Democrats have any strategic objective they intend to achieve as a result of this shutdown, it is a closely guarded secret. Right now, the party’s message is muddled—negotiations broke down over DACA recipients, children’s health, President Trump’s flighty negotiating style, Republican recalcitrance, and any number of prevailing conditions Democrats resent. Meanwhile, the party’s own members are itching to end the standoff, which has put children’s health in the balance—precisely what Democrats have long said they alone hoped to avoid.
For weeks, the conventional wisdom in Washington has held that a government shutdown was a low-stakes engagement for Democrats because, as the majority party, the GOP would get the blame no matter what. Democrats may have been misled.