Americans awoke Tuesday to the fact that nearly half the federal government has shut down, and to a certainty that one-sixth of the U.S. economy will be profoundly altered via Obamacare.
We mention these two points together because House Republicans want a one-year delay on new health provisions before they'll approve a new federal budget. Democrats refuse.
Result: Hundreds of thousands of "nonessential" government workers may be idled for hours, days, weeks. Many federal offices will be closed, workers furloughed while Congress tries to unknot itself. (Essential services _ cutting Social Security checks, patrolling the border, keeping airports safe _ will continue.)
But even a government shutdown won't stop the Obamacare rollout. This is the largest health care expansion since the passage of Medicare in 1965. It is here, now. Millions of Americans must obtain coverage or pay a penalty.
On Tuesday, the new online marketplaces are expected to open for business. That means some of Obamacare's mysteries will be solved: What will coverage cost? What will plans cover? How much will copays and deductibles be?
Federal and state officials have scrambled for months, blowing deadline after deadline, to make the system ready. They've encountered bugs: A few days ago came reports that the software was miscalculating the federal subsidies available to low-income people who seek to buy coverage.
We all know the people who crouch in front of their computers, ready at the stroke of midnight to buy the latest iPhone or sign up for the Next Big Internet Thing. In this case, however, you may want to wait for a few days (weeks?) to let the feds work out the kinks.
What's certain is that Obamacare health care changes will ripple through every American's life. Doctors, hospitals and insurers have invested large sums to gear up for the law's complex requirements. They'll treat many new patients.
Employers are scrambling to make decisions: Hire? Fire? Cut workers' hours? Even those that now provide health care may shunt employees into new, privately run exchanges. That's a rapidly evolving alternative to today's employer-managed insurance system and to Obamacare: Employers pay a set amount for employees, who then choose from among multiple plans on a private exchange.
Millions of Americans stand to gain or lose from this law and its consequences, intended and unintended. And now, as if to compound all the controversy that Obamacare has provoked, it's caught up in an epic battle over deficits and debt. House Republicans gamble that Americans won't blame them for hanging a "closed" sign on national parks and monuments or for stalling applications for small business loans or delaying an Internal Revenue Service audit.
The Republicans argue that Obamacare's mandates are so unpopular that Americans will understand a shutdown. We think they instead should be focusing their attack on the unsustainability of all major entitlement programs. Obamacare, which stands to become a huge and profligate federal spending spree, is but one of those entitlements: If too few young, healthy people sign up for insurance, the program will likely become even more expensive for taxpayers.
We've backed a delay in the law because it isn't ready for launch. But we wish the effort to kill Obamacare hadn't outpaced larger concerns about existing programs _ Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security _ that already risk insolvency.
Once Republicans and Democrats stop grandstanding and blaming each other for the current crisis, we think there's an easy solution to this impasse: Don't force individuals to sign up for coverage this year. Suspend that mandate for a year, just as employers were relieved for a year of their mandate to provide insurance.
A broader delay wouldn't end the law. But it would put employers and employees on equal footing. A year's delay could allow both major political parties to declare victory. Better, it would allow millions of Americans who obtain coverage under Obamacare, and many who don't, to see how this system works.