No matter how much we hear about gridlock, our elected leaders are largely in harmony because government budgets keep growing, taxes keep increasing and few politicians, Democrat or Republican, can ever say “no.”
Take for instance the expansion of ObamaCare. It would collapse without Medicaid Expansion. Republicans in the House of Delegates “oppose” expansion while our Democratic Governor and Democratic-controlled Senate favor it. It appears Virginia is headed for an epic Washington-style government shutdown scenario, right?
Wrong. What if I told you “Stone Cold” Steve Austin wasn’t really as worried as he looked as Vince McMahon entered the ring to his theme song “No Chance in Hell” booming through the arena?
A wrestling fan site laid out the following formula for an epic match. First, the fans need to know who is fighting so take your time building the rivalry. In one corner we have Governor Terry McAuliffe (aka “T-Mac”), who is just looking out for the little guy and believes bigger government will fix anything. In the other corner is Speaker Bill Howell (aka “The Gentleman from Stafford”), a legislative veteran who has vowed to not become “entangled in Obamacare.”
The build up to the big match started last year when Governor Bob McDonnell was determined to cement his legacy with a transportation package that would address years of neglect of critical road infrastructure.
The goal was worthy but the execution was sloppy, and predictably, politicians diverted much of the resulting revenue for other uses. The Governor mismanaged the rollout and despite Republicans controlling all three houses of government, Democrats successfully demanded a path to Medicaid Expansion in order to seal the “historic” transportation deal—and an historic tax increase. Wisely, Democrats even had Governor McDonnell put in writing that the “agreement on Medicaid would be contained in budget language.”
But how would Republicans protect their flank from their own base in their next election and maintain their conservative credentials? Simple: call it something other than Medicaid Expansion and make sure the voters never know the full truth.
As the main event gets closer, employ professional wrestling’s second principle: get your allies and your enemies involved, even if it means they sometimes switch roles. The beauty of a budget is you can make the language so gray you have plausible deniability, and can slip in almost anything without the people even knowing what you did. That requires certain skills and bipartisan cooperation among budget conferees and leaders.
Outgoing Governor Bob McDonnell’s 2013 budget, the House of Delegates’ budget and Governor Terry McAuliffe’s budget are exactly the same if you compare the body of the bills side-by-side, except for amendments that McAuliffe tacked on, which call for Medicaid Expansion. The amendments can easily be “de-coupled” from the budget when you already achieved your goal in last year’s budget deal and strengthened it within the body of this year’s bill.
Forcing members to vote before reading the budget is critical when pressuring legislators to pass it, so roll it out minutes before the vote. Odds are, many won’t catch the language that pays for expansion by appropriating the funds, “for such costs as may be incurred to implement coverage for newly eligible individuals” under the Affordable Act, thus “entangling” Virginia in Obamacare expansion and paying for the “coverage gap.”
As they buildup to the big smackdown, roll out principle number three: keep us guessing. Will they resolve this “the Virginia Way” (by the way what exactly is the Virginia Way)? As we watch the carefully choreographed moves, the suspense builds so the performers employ principle number four: keep the action at a maximum.
Back in the ring, “T-Mac” storms out of his corner declaring Medicaid Expansion or nothing, even if it means a shutdown. “The Gentleman” hops out of his corner stiffening his resolve to de-couple Medicaid Expansion from the budget and not hold our teachers and firefighters hostage.
The last and most crucial principle for a royal rumble: TALK, TALK ,TALK. As some promoters have said, “The promo work is more important than what goes on inside the ring.”
And we sure get a lot of talk. But for those who have ringside seats, it quickly becomes obvious that those punches didn’t really land and the script has already been written.
Entertainment can be fun but this isn’t “just politics” for those whose healthcare coverage could mean life or death. This fake fight causes unnecessary stress and anxiety because the end result will be ObamaCare Expansion. It’s simply a question of whether the Governor expands using the authority the General Assembly protected in the budget, or whether both sides agree to call expansion something else.
The political party bases won’t know any better. Democrats will be happy because ObamaCare expanded. Republicans will be satisfied because they believe their elected leaders fought a valiant fight. The politicians win because they can be re-elected and the big business cash keeps right on flowing into campaign accounts. Everyone wins, except the average Virginian who works hard, raises their family and foots the bill– all without even getting a ticket to the main event.
Originally published April 2, 2014 in the Fredericksburg Free Lance-Star.