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Is the Tea Party Really Clever? Or Really Dumb?

Although I’m not part of the Tea Party movement and I don’t share its values, I usually understand what its followers are trying to do. But their latest gambit on health care has me genuinely baffled.

The idea is to oppose the Affordable Care Act not in the Congress or the courts, where they’ve been fighting so far, but in the state legislatures. As you may recall, the Act calls upon states to create the new “exchanges,” through which individuals and small businesses will be able to buy regulated insurance policies at affordable prices. The simplest way to do that is for state legislatures to pass laws creating exchanges that conform to the Act’s standards. Several states have started that process already--and a few, like California, are well along in their efforts.

But Tea Party activists have been lobbying state lawmakers to vote against such measures and, in a few states, it looks like they’re succeeding. Politico’s Sarah Kliff has the story:

In South Carolina, tea party activists have been picking off Republican co-sponsors of a health exchange bill, getting even the committee chairman who would oversee the bill to turn against it.
A Montana legislator who ran on a tea party platform has successfully blocked multiple health exchange bills, persuading his colleagues to instead move forward with legislation that would specifically bar the state from setting up a marketplace.
And in Georgia, tea party protests forced Gov. Nathan Deal to shelve exchange legislation that the Legislature had worked on for months.

It's a great idea for blocking the law, except for one small problem: The Affordable Care Act anticipates that some states might not create adequate exchanges. And the law is quite clear about what happens in those cases. The federal government takes over, creating and then, as necessary, managing the exchanges itself. In other words, if state lawmakers in Columbia, Helena, and Atlanta don't build the exchanges, bureaucrats in Washington are going to do it for them.

I realize that blocking the exchange votes may have certain symbolic value--and, at least in the early going, it could complicate implementation simply by generating more chaos. (Georgia lawmakers, as the article suggests, had already put in a lot of time on theirs.) I also gather that some Tea Party activists believe that blocking state exchanges will strengthen the constitutional case against the law. Still, if even part of the law withstands both congressional repeal and court challenges, as seems likely, the long-term effect of this Tea Party effort seems pretty clear: It will mean even more, not less, federal control.

The irony here is that, throughout the health care debate, liberals like me wanted federal exchanges, in part because we feared states with reluctant or hostile elected officials would do a lousy job. That's the way exchanges were set up in the House health care reform bill and, in January of 2010, many of us hoped the House version would prevail when the two chambers negotiated the final language in conference committee. But the conference negotiation never took place, because Scott Brown's election eliminated the Democrats' filibuster-proof majority. The House ended up passing the more conservative Senate bill, which had state exchanges, and that became the law.

Of course, not all Republicans agree with the Tea Party's approach. In a previous article, for Politico Pro, Kliff interviewed several state officials who said they were setting up exchanges, notwithstanding their opposition to the law, precisely because it is the surest way to keep out the feds.

Len Nichols, the health care policy expert at George Mason University, thinks that approach makes a lot more sense, given their priorities:

Ironically, the only way to make PPACA a "federal takeover" is for states to do nothing. There is much state flexibility in the law, and much more could be sensibly negotiated and amended before 2014, but the strategy of repeal, do nothing and "get the government out of health care" will have exactly the opposite effect in those states that follow this path.

Maybe the Tea Party activists know something that neither Nichols nor I do. My bet, though, is that this effort is the policy equivalent of a temper tantrum, one that opponents of federalizing health care may come to regret.