'Job-lock' and the Republican dilemma over Obamacare

A day or so of careful reading and cogitation by the media has begun to turn the tide on what had been the Congressional Budget Office's most widely misunderstood finding about the Affordable Care Act.

It is now recognized that, no, the CBO didn't say that Obamacare would lead to job losses, but instead that it would allow many workers to voluntarily leave their jobs or retire without giving up health coverage.

Even House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) felt the need to get things straight at his hearing Wednesday on the CBO report. "Just to understand," he queried CBO Director Doug Elmendorf, "it's not that employers are laying people off?"

"That's right," Elmendorf replied.

But it's now becoming plain that the CBO finding creates a problem for Republican critics of the healthcare law. That's because relieving millions of Americans of "job-lock," which is what the CBO is talking about, is something the GOP has favored for years. In fact, it was a selling point of healthcare proposals they put on the table prior to 2010, when they decided to abandon the field of healthcare reform.

For example, listen to Ryan speaking in May 2009: "[The] key question that ought to be addressed in any healthcare reform legislation is, are we going to continue job-lock or are we going to allow individuals more choice and portability to fit the 21st century workforce?"

Here are a couple of Heritage Foundation analysts in 2008, praising a healthcare plan proposed by then-GOP presidential nominee John McCain: "Individuals who wish to take a better job, change careers or leave the workforce to raise a family or to retire early take substantial risks. ... This health insurance obstacle to labor mobility is some­times called 'job-lock.'" (Igor Volsky has more examples of conservative hand-wringing about job-lock here.)

That's exactly what the CBO projects to be a result of the Affordable Care Act. Relieved of the U.S. healthcare system's merciless link between employment and health insurance, more Americans will leave their jobs. They'll "choose to supply less labor" by working fewer hours or taking early retirement. To put it in the Heritage Foundation's vocabulary, many will "leave the workforce to raise a family or retire early." Until now, that meant losing health insurance. No longer.

The CBO said the reduction in hours worked will be the equivalent of 2.5 million full-time workers over the next decade or so, but that overall employment will still grow and, in fact, the unemployment rate will drop.

The only real option the GOP has for turning what is plainly a virtue for millions of Americans into a curse is to create their own picture of these departing workers. They're no longer people forced to hang on to soul-sapping, lousy-paying jobs merely for the health insurance, instead of raising kids or retiring after an arduous career.

Now they're slackers, taking a government handout as an easy way out. That's the subtext of another statement Ryan made during Wednesday's hearing. After Elmendorf explained that the healthcare law's premium subsidies made people "better off," Ryan declared:

"I guess I understand 'better off' in the context of healthcare. But 'better off' in inducing a person not to work who is on the low-income scale, not to get on the ladder of life, to begin working, getting the dignity of work, getting more opportunities, rising their income, joining the middle class, this means fewer people will do that. That's why I'm troubled by this." (See the video here.)

In Ryan's worldview, these people are incipient spongers, one government handout away from a life of permanent slobdom. It's a variation of the old conservative shibboleth about the "undeserving poor" so beloved of Ronald Reagan and the editorial board of the Wall Street Journal (which memorably labeled Americans earning too little money to pay federal income tax as "lucky duckies"). 

But it's hopelessly divorced from reality, as one might expect from someone making pronouncements about the working class from the comfort of a padded chair in a Capitol hearing room. Many beneficiaries of the Affordable Care Act will cut their hours or leave their jobs precisely because they want to help their children move into the middle class by giving them a more nurturing home life. Or because they appreciate that working an undignified job until you drop, simply because society doesn't deem you worthy of secure good health unless you do, has nothing to do with "the dignity of work." 

It shouldn't be forgotten that people in Ryan's cadre who mouth platitudes about the dignity of work have been doing their damnest to remove all traces of dignity from working-class employment.

Ryan is opposed to raising the minimum wage, surely a path to dignity at work. His 2011 budget proposal would have cut $99 million from the budget for the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. Republicans have for years waged a battle to eviscerate the National Labor Relations Board, which protects employee organizing rights. Ryan certainly didn't stand up for extending unemployment benefits for the long-term jobless, which helps keep them in the job market, when he cut his recent budget deal with Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) (Neither did Murray, more's the shame.)

But trying to recharacterize "job-lock," which the healthcare law defeats, as a virtue and a path to a dignified working life is something new. Can't the GOP get its story straight?

Reach me at @hiltzikm on Twitter, Facebook, Google+ or by email. MORE FROM MICHAEL HILTZIK

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