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Entitlements Are Never Repealed

This is what allows historic legislation to become historic — it achieves broad support, is passed without parliamentary tricks, and becomes the broadly accepted law of the land. Tomorrow’s vote — even if House Speaker Nancy Pelosi squeezes out 216 Democrats to pass the legislation — will not be historic. It will not “end” a century-long struggle over health care. The issue will be revisited in November 2010 and in the next Congress and in November 2012.

And I predict the great majority of what passes tomorrow — if it does, and that’s by no means a given — will never become settled law or public policy. Instead, its passage will intensify a great debate over the size and scope of government that could well result in public policy, in health care and other areas, moving, in the coming years, in the opposite direction. ~Bill Kristol

One might note at this point that Kristol has an unusually bad record of predicting things, and he has probably just added to his already extensive list of wrong guesses. One of the major problems we face as a nation is the complete inability to dismantle an entitlement once it is established. Every entitlement typically creates a constituency that benefits from it and is forever dedicated to its defense. The most electorally significant resistance to the current legislation has come from Medicare loyalists who wish to preserve it just as it is, and it may be that even this is not enough. While Republicans have been able to tap into the fear that Medicare will have to be cut, a repeal effort will tap into a much smaller electoral base that never wanted health care legislation of any kind passed.

A better argument against comparing the health care bill with the Civil Rights Act is that from a liberal perspective the latter was the correction of a systematic injustice being done to a large number of citizens. As its supporters saw it, it was an attempt to secure civil rights that these citizens should have had all along. While some progressives may see health care in similar terms, there really is a major difference in legislating to end state-sanctioned denial or curtailment of civil rights for some citizens and creating federal legislation that effectively grants a right that a large portion of the country doesn’t think exists for anyone.

Large-scale change naturally provokes anxiety, uncertainty, fear and resistance, which is inevitable and as it should be. It does not follow that the later backlash against large-scale change will be great enough to undo the change. The Medicare prescription drug benefit was not passed by large margins in the House, and its eventual passage was the product of some significant arm-twisting, maneuvering and vote-buying. It was also unfunded and therefore incredibly fiscally irresponsible! It was phenomenally bad policy! That doesn’t mean that there has been a groundswell of outraged voters ready to support its repeal. As far as I know, no one on the mainstream right, least of all the editor of the magazine that once championed big-government conservatism, has even proposed repealing it. After all, it is their monstrosity. It has become part of the structure of our unsustainable, disastrous entitlement system, and no politician with any self-preservation instinct would so much as suggest eliminating a benefit that millions of likely voters enjoy receiving.

Kristol’s discussion of the Civil Rights Act is quite amusing. He mentions that it received substantial support from both parties, but seems disinclined to acknowledge the ideological diversity that used to exist in both major parties. To oversimplify a bit, conservative and Southern Democrats and some conservative Republicans voted against the Act, while Northern liberals and moderate-to-progressive Republicans voted for it. There were significantly more of the latter. Obviously, there was enormous dissatisfaction with the passage of the Act among Southern Democrats and many conservatives generally, and this led to a significant flight of Southern Democrats to the GOP banner, at least as far as presidential elections were concerned, that was followed in the last twenty years by a movement of Southern Democrats towards Republican candidates for Congress as well. There was tremendous backlash to and resistance against the Act and its implementation. Everyone knows this. Despite the backlash and resistance, there has been no successful movement for its repeal. Indeed, were such a movement ever to emerge we can be fairly sure that Bill Kristol and his allies would be among the first to condemn it. Since the above-mentioned realignment, the parties have tended to become much more ideologically uniform, which has made debates over large-scale social legislation into much more straightforwardly partisan struggles. One could no more have broad bipartisan support for major pieces of legislation today than one could summon up the old traditions of Congressional comity and bipartisan cooperation. These were products of an era when ideological and partisan lines matched up much less frequently.

Of course, it could be that health care legislation will not create a big enough entitlement that benefits enough people to secure it against the inevitable backlash, and it could impose enough costs on other blocs of voters that they would react strongly against it and support a repeal movement. However, whether or not this will happen is tied up with the substance and effects of the legislation, which Kristol does not bother to discuss at all. He is concerned entirely with process and the size of the majorities in Congress that support the bill. These tell us nothing about the nature or extent of the political backlash to the legislation, and they also tell us nothing about the effectiveness of that backlash in repealing the measures contained in the legislation.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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