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Ernest Istook Headshot

The "Untouchable" $23.6 Billion

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Untouchable. That's the treatment being given to the $23.6 billion being spent right now to implement Obamacare.

This $23.6 billion is part of the $105.5 billion appropriated by the last Congress to fund Obamacare. The remainder (Think of it as post-dated checks for the other $81.9 billion.) automatically becomes available between now and FY2019.

None of this is to be confused with an additional $115 billion authorized for additional appropriation to Obamacare--but which the current Congress is unlikely to provide.

The most pressing question, however, is whether any of the current $23.6 billion will be rescinded as part of the spending reductions being pursued in Congress.

Despite campaign promises to defund Obamacare, it isn't being done. Why not?

The excuses are flimsy. Claims that it "cannot" be done under House rules are wrong and misleading. The House has constitutional authority to package legislation however it wishes. Self-imposed rules of the House should be no barrier to action, either. Those same rules were waived repeatedly to permit defunding of other programs in the series of continuing resolutions (CRs) that are being used to keep the full federal government open.

In the first full-year CR, the relevant rule (House Rule XXI) was waived to permit 123 previous appropriations to be rescinded. But Obamacare funding was not touched. Perhaps doing the same thing for the 124th time was considered going too far?

Congress waived the rules again in the second two-week CR. But Obamacare funding still went untouched.

In the latest three-week CR, the rules were waived once more, and again Obamacare funding was not touched.

To its credit, the House Energy and Commerce Committee is pushing legislation to eliminate portions of the $81.9 billion to be spent on Obamacare in future years. But the Committee's proposal would do nothing to stem the $23.6 billion front-end money flowing into the program already.

Unfortunately, that bill faces the same fate as the House's previous (and praiseworthy) legislation to repeal all of Obamacare outright. The Senate leadership has no intention of letting the proposal pass. And even if the Senate approved the bill, President Obama would most certainly veto it.

This is why the only meaningful method for defunding Obamacare is to package the spending cuts with must-pass legislation that has other things--like spending--that President Obama and his team desire. There is no other way to apply political leverage.

Another approach--which likewise would need to be packaged and leveraged--is to delay all Obamacare funds until we have a final decision from the U.S. Supreme Court on the law's constitutionality. The 11th Circuit is expediting its handling of the Justice Department's appeal of Judge Roger Vinson's landmark ruling that the entire law is unconstitutional. In the meantime, why should tens of billions of taxpayer dollars be spent to implement a measure that is unconstitutional?

This is the approach taken in the Save Our States Act. In the House, Representatives Tom Graves (R-Ga.) and Kevin Brady (R-Texas) have filed HR 663 to create this moratorium on implementing Obamacare. In the upper chamber, Senators Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas) and John Barrasso (R-Wyo.) have filed the companion version, S.281.

The savings would certainly be in the billions. The entire $23.6 billion of current front-end funding has not yet been spent, although the remaining balance has not been determined.

Congress is in recess the week of March 21-27. Many lawmakers will return home; some will hold public meetings. It's an important opportunity for public meetings and feedback.

Perhaps then they can explain to citizens why Obamacare's funding--especially the $23.6 billion they're already spending--is being treated as untouchable.

Ernest Istook, a distinguished fellow at The Heritage Foundation, was a 14-year Congressman, member of the House Appropriations Committee, and subcommittee chairman.

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