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Ernest Istook Headshot

Another Good Swing at Defunding Obamacare -- But Not a Hit

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Once again the U.S. House plans to take another whack Tuesday at defunding Obamacare -- although the Senate and White House are poised to protect the funding.

The bill scheduled for a vote, HR 1213, would repeal the automatic funding that Obamacare provides for federally-dictated insurance exchanges, the mechanisms to sell the re-fashioned and federally-approved insurance policies. The bill does not, however, repeal the requirement that each state either establish such an exchange or have the feds do it for them.

Billions of taxpayer dollars could be saved if the House bill had a chance to become law, however. The Congressional Budget Office estimates savings of $14.6-billion over ten years, but the amount is inexact because Obamacare placed no limit on how much would be spent. The Secretary of Health and Human Services was given a blank check for that purpose. It's just one part of the overall $105-billion slush fund in automatic spending under Obamacare.

The merit of defunding Obamacare bit by bit is that it removes some of the damage by denying funding for it and thereby saving billions of tax dollars. Defunding differs from the pitfalls that would come from repealing only portions of Obamacare, because piecemeal repeal would relieve pressure for the full repeal that's needed. Denial of funds removes only some of the immediate harm; full repeal of Obamacare is needed to prevent the overall harm it causes to America.

Like other targeted defundings of Obamacare, HR 1213 is a stand-alone piece of legislation, meaning it is not packaged with any other measure to provide political leverage. Only if it were combined with other measures desired by the Senate or by President Obama could such defunding have a chance to become law. Without such leverage the bill is an important expression of intent, but won't actually defund or repeal any part of Obamacare.

The House Energy and Commerce Committee intends for HR 1213 to correct a key part of the unlimited spending power that Obamacare gives to bureaucrats. As the committee describes the portion it tries to repeal:

Section 1311(a) of PPACA provides the Secretary of Health and Human Services (HHS) a direct appropriation of such sums as necessary for grants to states to establish exchanges and facilitate the purchase of qualified health plans. The size of the direct appropriation is solely determined by the Secretary. The Secretary can determine the amount of spending and spend the funds without further Congressional action. The proposed legislation would strike the unlimited direct appropriation and rescind any unobligated funds.

The Congressional Research Service's (CRS) American Law Division confirmed these facts in a February 7, 2011 memo, stating that, ''the total amount of money the Secretary may expend for grants to the states under this section is indefinite.'' CRS further stated that, ''This section thus comprises both an authorization and an appropriation of federal funds and as such, it does not require any further congressional action to constitute an effective appropriation

Grants under this language can be used to ''facilitate enrollment'' into exchange plans. However, this term is undefined in the statute and could allow the funds to go towards any activity the Secretary determines could ''facilitate'' enrollment. The vague definition of ''facilitate'' is especially troubling in light of the unlimited appropriation provided to the Secretary."

HR 1213 is a commendable effort to correct some of Obamacare's abuses even if its prospects of becoming law are nil. It's another good swing; but it's not a hit.

Former Congressman Ernest Istook is a distinguished fellow at The Heritage Foundation. First appeared at www.foundry.org.