House Republicans kicked off the 118th session of Congress by fulfilling a campaign pledge to defund the Internal Revenue Service (IRS), apparently in order to undermine the agency’s ability to audit the complex tax filings of millionaires and billionaires. The move that may well empower tax cheats is an opening gambit to what will likely be a years-long Republican effort to claw back the $80 billion appropriated in last year’s Inflation Reduction Act to modernize the IRS and empower it to efficiently collect tax revenue.
It seems the GOP’s larger ideological goal is to cripple the function of government in order to empower the wealthy few. And if history is any guide, Republicans will use every tool at their disposal to achieve it over the next two years.
Following the passage of the Affordable Care Act (also referred to as ACA and ObamaCare) in 2010, Republicans deployed this very strategy to prevent the government from effectively functioning by undercutting the implementation of health care reform.
In an effort to cripple the law, Republicans in both chambers of Congress introduced legislation to deny the IRS funds to hire new agents to implement the law, seeking to undercut its ability to determine which Americans are eligible for subsidies to help purchase private health care coverage . Some even wondered if IRS agents “will deny or delay access to health care” to conservatives.
Before efforts to repeal the Affordable Care Act ultimately failed during the first half of former President Donald Trump’s presidency, Republicans would go on to try and legislatively repeal, modify, or otherwise curb the law in whole or in part at least 70 times.
Conservative attorneys general and their allies filed countless lawsuits challenging the law — appearing multiple times before the Supreme Court. They shut down the government over funding for its implementation and launched hours-long talking filibusters. They are threatened to default on the nation’s debt unless President Barack Obama agreed to a one-year delay of the health care law. Congressional committees led investigations into officials responsible for implementing the law and community-based groups that received government grants to help uninsured people enroll in coverage. Officials in GOP-led states refused to enforce the Affordable Care Act’s most basic — and popular — consumer protections and insurance market reforms. And on and on it went.
Throughout this time, I worked within a broad coalition of advocates, patients and health care providers seeking to fight the cynical efforts to undermine reform.
We invested in public campaigns dedicated to educating Americans about the benefits and consumer protections included in the law. We drove accountability campaigns that pushed back against the wave of misinformation (remember the GOP’s fearmongering of so-called “death panels?”) conjured up to replenish campaign coffers and turn out conservative voters. We worked tirelessly to humanize the law by telling stories of individuals whose lives were saved as a result of new coverage. And, we quantified the costs of repealing the law and ensured that Americans understood the implications of simply starting over.
Looking back at our ultimately successful efforts, I wish that we would have done more sooner. An analysis of advertisements about the ACA aired between 2010 and 2013 found that the health law’s critics spent a whopping $400 million on television spots criticizing the law — over five times the $75 million that the law’s supporters spent promoting it.
The facts on the ACA ultimately prevail, with over 35 million people enrolled in coverage and more than half of all Americans supporting Obama’s health care reform. Republicans have even stopped campaigning on its repeal. But the attacks took their toll, as early opinion polls reflected low public confidence in the law and confusion about reform provisions slowed signups. In fact, popular opinion is still driven by partisanship, with a majority of Republicans holding unfavorable views.
The last decade of “repeal and replace” holds important lessons about the importance of combating cynical and opportunistic campaigning — even lies — in smart and strategic ways. Those of us who believe that the government can and should help Americans live healthy and prosperous lives must ensure that Republicans don’t run the ACA playbook against the IRS. Modern governments require modern tax agencies to adequately collect the revenue we need to pay for our democratic society, help businesses compete, ensure families can succeed, as well as build trust and confidence in the ability of the government to function. This shouldn’t be a political issue. But if Republicans continue to cling to it, we must be prepared to fight back.
Igor Volsky worked to help shape, pass and defend the Affordable Care Act at the Center for American Progress from 2008 to 2018.