JACK SPENCER: A miscalculation and its ramifications

A couple of weeks ago, House Speaker Jase Bolger, R-Marshall, made what now appears to have been a major blunder. He allowed a vote to be taken on the Medicaid expansion bill (HB 4714) for which House Democrats supplied 48 of the 56 'yes' votes required for passage.

If a majority of House Republicans had backed the bill, Bolger's decision to let the vote take place would have made sense. But that wasn't the case. Only 28 House Republicans voted “yes,” while 30 voted “no.”

Politically, it is extremely risky for a legislative leader to use votes from the opposition party to override the majority position of his or her own caucus. To do so with an issue of the magnitude of Medicaid expansion multiplies the danger. As things turned out, the move seems to have backfired with rapidity.

Medicaid expansion is the top issue facing state lawmakers involving Obamacare this year. It is “the top political issue” of the moment in Michigan. In the final week prior to the legislative summer break, only a small handful of other issues were addressed at the Capitol. Usually, the weeks just before a summer break are busy, with so much legislation moving that keeping track of it is difficult. Not this year. Medicaid expansion was so dominate that nearly nothing else happened during the final session days.

There are basically three views regarding Medicaid expansion on Michigan's political landscape.

Democrats support the expansion, which would be a major step toward the implementation of Obamacare in Michigan. One of the largest thorns in the sides of the Obama administration has been the many states that refuse to expand Medicaid. That's why Michigan, the nation's eighth largest state, has become a key battleground for the issue.

Gov. Rick Snyder opposes Obamacare but apparently doesn't believe states like Michigan should (or can?) fight it. He wants to take the hundreds of millions of dollars the Obama administration is offering to states that agree to the expansion and bank the money for future use.

Meanwhile, the conservative base believes the fight against Obamacare should continue. They see the problems the federal government is having with implementation of Obamacare as an opportunity to force Washington D.C. to alter aspects of the law. They're resisting anything — such as Medicaid expansion — that would make the implementation easier to accomplish.

Ironically, the current summer break for GOP legislators would probably be a lot more pleasant if Michigan had a Democratic governor. If that were the situation, it would be easier for the Republican House and Senate to stand firmly with the conservative base and refuse to do the expansion. However, with the Republicans' own governor asking them to expand Medicaid, the situation is much tougher and far more complicated.

Initially, House Republican leaders introduced a version of HB 4714 that virtually dared the Obama administration to say “no” to a list of Medicaid reforms, including health savings accounts and a 48-month cap of coverage for able-bodied adults with no children. The key to this legislation was that it was written in a manner that would prevent the expansion from taking place unless the federal government committed to letting the state go forward with these reforms.

Then, just four short weeks later, House Republican leadership allowed the bill to be amended. Yes, there were still reforms in the legislation, but the language forcing the Obama administration to agree to those reforms ahead of time was softened. This opened up the likely prospect of the expansion happening while the federal bureaucracy delayed its decision on the reforms.

Under the amended version of the bill, future Michigan lawmakers would be placed in the almost impossible position of trying to reverse the expansion after it had been established. In other words, the Obama administration could get the expansion and, after a long period of delays, finally reject the reforms. This would create a scenario under which future Michigan lawmakers could blame the situation on the current legislature and almost surely decline to undo the already existing expansion.

It now seems clear that this new version of the bill was what Snyder and House Republican leadership were aiming for all along. But their handling of the situation was very clumsy. So clumsy, in fact, that it now appears that achieving their goal could be tougher than ever.

Once the first version of the bill had been announced, House Republican leaders should have stood pat and let the summer wear on. Eventually, after a few months, they would have been in a better position to make the change. At that point, they could have said they'd tried everything to get the initial version of the bill passed, but failed in the effort.

When House Republican leadership allowed the bill to be watered down after just a few weeks, they tipped their hand too soon. It is likely this miscalculation took place because Speaker Bolger gave in to the Snyder administration's push to move quickly.

Here's the point — allowing the new version of the bill to pass with 48 Democrats supporting it and more than half of the GOP caucus opposing to it should have been a card Bolger held in reserve. Instead, he played it on June 13, with more than three months remaining until the Oct.1 deadline.

Bolger's action enraged the conservative base — which he most certainly expected. It was the kind of move that should be calculated to take place just once and only after all other avenues had been exhausted. The fact the he did it in June, instead of September, is baffling.

Then the real surprise came -— although to some it wasn't such a surprise — when the bill arrived in the Senate, the needed GOP support couldn't be mustered. To anyone who understands legislative politics this means just one thing — somebody really screwed up.

Now the bill will sit in a Senate work group, where it will likely undergo changes. What's probable is that Speaker Bolger's only choice will be to eventually try to get enough votes for concurrence with whatever the Senate comes up with. There's no way he could take the risk of trying to alter the legislation; not even a whisker. And he probably won't even be able to get enough votes for concurrence unless what the Senate comes up with is something House Democrats can


In the meantime, the 30 House Republicans who oppose the expansion can potentially organize. They could prepare amendments aimed a derailing the legislation when it's sent back to the House. The wording of those amendments isn't difficult to imagine.

If Speaker Bolger does end up using House Democrats to pass a version of Medicaid expansion, it will be the second time he's done so. In addition, he might potentially have to procedurally “run over” members of his own caucus to get the bill passed. What was surely planned as just one politically-ugly step will become a second step that is even uglier.

If the Senate's version of the bill is something House Democrats don't like, Bolger and Snyder might not be able to do anything. For example — it will now be very difficult to convince the 28 House Republicans who supported the new version to vote for the expansion a second time.

Those members have already walked the political plank once and are sure to hear angry words from their constituents because of it. At this point, some of them might already be rooting for the expansion to never happen.

Ultimately, Bolger must bear responsibility for the miscalculation. But it's a sure bet that others contributed to it. First and foremost among these are probably those in the Snyder administration. There can be little doubt that Snyder's team thought they could get the votes needed for passage in the Senate. Perhaps there were also voices in the Senate that echoed that assurance.

It is likely that Bolger was also told all of the usual reasons for moving quickly, rather than waiting.

“It won't get any easier Mr. Speaker,” they probably said. “Your members will go home for the summer and hear from their constituents. You'll probably lose 'yes' votes if you wait.” It is also likely that Bolger became convinced that 28 was the maximum number of his own members he could hope to get to support the bill.

Yet, while all this was being said, those who oppose the expansion were worrying about just the opposite — lobbyists talking more members into voting yes.” over the summer.

Meanwhile, the far more experienced Senate Majority Leader Randy Richardville, R- Monroe, has publicly pledged never to pass legislation unless he has a majority of his GOP caucus supporting it. Richardville knows the deadline is Oct 1, not the beginning of the summer break.

Apparently Richardville knows something else as well — how to say “no, not now” to the Governor.

Jack Spencer is Capitol Affairs Specialist for Capitol Confidential, an online newsletter associated with the Mackinac Center for Public Policy (MCPP). MCPP provides policy analysis. The political analysis represented in this column does not necessarily reflect the views of the Mackinac Center.