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Government: Why We Hate the Pig, But Love the Bacon

David Callahan

It's often said that Americans are ideologically conservative but operationally liberal. While we don't like big government in theory, we want all the services it provides -- and then some.

Obamacare may be the best illustration of this maxim yet.

Polls have consistently found the public sharply divided over the Affordable Care Act writ large -- with slightly more Americans against the law than for it. And polls have just as consistently found that Americans back the individual provisions of the law. 

Now it turns out that this contradictory stance doesn't just apply to ordinary people, but also to hardline Republicans -- officials who have bashed the law even as they've pleaded for new funds available through the ACA.

This is the finding of a new investigative piece by Lee Fang of The Nation, which used the Freedom of Information Act to obtain letters of Obamacare critics begging for Obamacare funds. For instance:

GOP Congressman Hal Rogers, who rails against healthcare reform as “socialistic,” wrote a letter asking for an Obamacare health clinic grant almost as soon as the money became available. Federal health centers provide a range of healthcare services regardless of a patient’s ability to pay. . . .

The National Republican Senatorial Committee warns of Obamacare that “as this awful legislation gets ever closer to going into effect, the negative consequences are only becoming increasingly clear.” But the NRSC’s chair, Jerry Moran, has hailed programs that exist because of it. In August, he attended a ceremony announcing a $4.7 million expansion of the Community Health Center of Southeast Kansas. A picture posted on Moran’s official Facebook page shows the senator in a suit with his foot on a shovel to break ground for the health clinic. . . .

Fang has a lot of fun with these letters, which seem like a delicious example of hypocrisy. But once we're done with our chuckle, we have to realize that that's actually a cheap shot that misses a deeper, more interesting story.

I'm sure most readers of The Nation, and Fang, would agree that those Republican state leaders who are rejecting funds for Medicaid expansion under the ACA are behaving reprehensibly. Whatever a public official's ideological views, they are remiss if they leave a bunch of money sitting on the table that could help their constituents. (Which is why liberal Democrats who favor lower defense spending also will beg the Pentagon to keep bases open in their state or weapons programs alive.) 

Oddly, Fang never mentions the billions of Medicaid dollars that Republican officials are rejecting, and one could see why: it contradicts Fang's story line. Because, of course, by Fang's logic, those officials are behaving honorably -- rejecting funds from a program they oppose.

Whatever the case, it is easy to see how government has gotten so large in a country that purports to distrust government so much. As Fang points out, once the ACA spigot starts running, people will love it and turning it off will prove to be no easy thing. Just look at how much Americans love Social Security and Medicare. This is what Republicans have feared about universal healthcare for decades.   

Alas, though, this same point holds for pretty much all government spending. Once people or interest groups get it, they don't want to give it up: defense spending, the home mortgage interest deduction, 401(k) tax breaks, farm subsidies, NASA research grants, Commerce Department export assistance, highway funds -- you name it.

And, yes, it's true: even politicians who oppose this or that program have little choice but to bring home the bacon.