Republicans have a problem with mandates. As in, are they for ’em or against ’em? Most Republicans in Congress oppose the federal mandate for health insurance coverage that’s at the heart of the Democrats’ Affordable Care Act. Michele Bachmann called the law a “social engineering playground of the Left.” When it comes to other issues, though, Republicans aren’t as bothered by the idea of government telling people what to do. In December the GOP-controlled House passed a bill that would allow states to require people to take a drug test as a condition for getting unemployment insurance. The measure, the Middle Class Tax Relief and Job Creation Act of 2011, also required applicants either to have a high school diploma or be enrolled in a program to earn a GED. Those are … mandates. Yet only 14 Republicans voted against the bill (and only 10 Democrats voted in favor).
That stand may prove to be mostly symbolic, for now, because this week Republican leaders dropped their demand to include GED classes as a condition for extending emergency jobless benefits through the end of 2012. They still want to let states drug-test, but only if there’s cause for suspicion. It wasn’t a change of heart that caused Republicans to back away. The retreat was tactical, part of a tentative deal between congressional negotiators that would also extend the payroll tax cut and the Medicare “doc fix.” That means the conundrum—when are mandates good and when are they bad?—remains very much a live issue for the GOP as it tries to distinguish itself as the party that wants to get government out of your way.
Republicans did not always take such a resolute stand against mandates. As President Barack Obama never tires of noting, the notion that the government should require individuals to carry health insurance was first pushed by Republicans, encouraged by the conservative Heritage Foundation, and adopted by Mitt Romney when he was governor of Massachusetts. Romney now says he favors the mandate only when it’s imposed by states, not the federal government. Others in the party oppose it entirely on the grounds that it’s an unwarranted government intrusion into private decision-making. They implicitly reject the pro-mandate argument Republicans once embraced, which is that it’s unfair for people to “free ride”—to skip coverage to save money—knowing if they get sick they’ll be able to throw themselves on the mercy of society.
Yet free-riding is precisely the problem that Republicans are trying to combat by requiring—or letting states require—drug tests and school as a condition for unemployment insurance. The argument is that people who are uneducated or using drugs will have trouble finding work, and it’s unfair for them to impose costs on society by drawing jobless benefits. Representative Kevin Brady of Texas, who has led the Republican effort to tighten unemployment insurance eligibility, says it makes perfect sense to support those conditions while opposing the individual mandate for health insurance. “I don’t see any similarity” between the programs, he says. Brady argues taxpayers deserve a say in unemployment benefits because they pick up a big share of the cost. On health insurance, Brady says, Republicans want to “reach the goal of coverage not from a mandate but tackling the factors that drive up health-care costs.”
Some old-school Republicans aren’t so sure about that logic. George Voinovich, the former Ohio governor who was a U.S. senator until 2011, says it’s wrong to block jobless benefits for people who contributed to the program through payroll deductions. “You kind of give them a little bit of oxygen. You can keep them alive until the point where the economy recovers and they can find work again.” With talk like that, does Voinovich consider himself a moderate? “I used to be a conservative Republican,” he says. “But the dial has moved.”
Aside from philosophical concerns, there are some practical problems with placing conditions on payment of jobless benefits. There aren’t enough seats available in GED classes for all the people who would be mandated to attend them. And drug testing is expensive: $25 to $75 for the initial test, plus the cost of follow-up tests and administration. Texas estimates it would cost the state almost $30 million a year to implement. It’s also insulting. “It would be laughable if it wasn’t so horrible,” says Daniel Keating, 27, of Nashua, N.H., who is drawing $175 a week in benefits after losing a job in construction. “It’s literally criminalization of people who have been affected by the economic crisis. If you want to start drug testing, you could start with the executives of the banks who got bailouts.”
The Republicans’ problem is that they are torn: They are philosophically opposed to social engineering but don’t want government checks to fund bad behavior. One way out of the mandate/no-mandate box would be to make unemployment benefits a fully funded insurance program with no taxpayer subsidy. There would be little or no government interest in monitoring who gets paid if the program were self-sufficient. But that would mean not boosting the duration of payments during times of high unemployment like now—which would not only harm the long-term jobless but lessen the program’s ability to stabilize the economy.
On health insurance, likewise, there would be no need for a coverage mandate if Americans were willing to ignore the health-care needs of people who don’t pay for it. That also seems unlikely. Democrats have their own conflicts over how far government should go to influence behavior. But the Republicans, with their strong objection to mandates in one case and support for them in another, show how difficult it can be to get the balance right.