- - Thursday, March 27, 2014


I suggest it is time to import to America a newly minted term from the world of British politics. The word? Omnishambles.

Omnishambles is a neologism drawn from the Latin prefix “omni,” meaning “all,” and the word “shambles,” meaning “a situation of total disorder.” If you are looking for a synonym, think Obamacare — technically, but also euphemistically, known as the Affordable Care Act.

If there is any aspect of Obamacare that is working as intended, it is as hard to find as a moderate legislator in today’s Congress. In fact, the lack of a sensible center in Congress may well explain why Obamacare was poorly designed and why it remains unpopular.

Passed on a party-line vote, Obamacare represents a break with historic precedent. It stands as a rare example of a major policy enactment that lacked any support from the minority party.

In previous decades, significant legislation has almost always carried bipartisan support. For example, the National Defense Highway System during Dwight Eisenhower’s presidency; civil rights, voting rights and Medicare during Lyndon Johnson’s years; and immigration and tax reform during the Ronald Reagan era. In sum, big policies and programs are typically strengthened when crafted with bipartisan input, and public acceptance of these laws is similarly enhanced by that bipartisanship.

Shambles appropriately describes the “disorder” that accompanied passage of Obamacare in 2010. Regular legislative procedures were bent and stretched to the breaking point, while side deals like the “Louisiana Purchase” and the Nebraska “Cornhusker Kickback” were crafted in an effort to secure just enough Democratic votes — while also destroying any prospect of bipartisan cooperation.

Creative political terms such as omnishambles have frequently found their way into common usage. Some remain in use today, while others have faded from use over time.

“Gerrymandering” is one of the lasting terms. The word emerged in the early 1800s when Gov. Elbridge Gerry of Massachusetts presided over the artful drawing of legislative boundaries designed to benefit his political party. One of those legislative districts ended up with the shape of a salamander, hence the gerrymander.

With the advent of computer technology, drawing legislative-district boundaries is now an easy process — and using electoral data to gerrymander for partisan advantage has also become easier. As a result, today there are very few districts that are truly competitive, resulting in a Congress dominated by hyperpartisans.

Later in the 19th century, the term “mugwump” came into use. Mugwump refers to Republicans who bolted their party to support the presidential candidacy of Democrat Grover Cleveland. Subsequently, mugwumps were derided as fence-sitters who had no political integrity, as in, “their mug sits on one side of the fence with their wump on the other.”

We no longer use the term mugwump. Activists in both of the major parties, though, continue to deplore those who do not toe the line, often denying these moderate candidates party endorsement and interest-group support. Accordingly, and not surprisingly, this is another reason the moderate middle is hard to find in today’s Congress.

The political term “filibuster” is assigned to the senatorial privilege of talking nonstop as a way of delaying a vote on an issue. The phrase “talk an issue to death” is an apt description of the purpose of a filibuster.

Just a few decades ago, fewer than 10 percent of major issues were subject to the filibuster. Today, that number has escalated to 70 percent, and gridlock is the result.

That brings to mind another word — though not one that has a political etymology; namely, “balderdash.” Balderdash is defined as “stupid or illogical talk” (which may, in fact, make it synonymous with filibuster).

Four years after the implementation of Obamacare, we are now witnessing the omnishambles surrounding the law. As we all know, the Obamacare website launch was a shambles of the highest order — despite three years in the making and nearly $400 million in expenses. Disorder persists in both the federal and state exchanges as enrollment falls well short of goals and technology glitches continue.

President Obama falsely promised that “if you like your insurance plan, you can keep it,” leading Americans to think that Obamacare would not disrupt their current health coverage. However, it has disrupted their health coverage. We now know that millions in the individual market have seen their plans canceled owing to Obamacare mandates.

In fact, to date, more people have lost coverage as a result of Obamacare than have gained coverage. We also now know that these mandates will soon significantly raise insurance costs for many millions more who receive health coverage through their employer. All of this disorder is a direct consequence of Obamacare.

In response to the understandable public backlash, the administration has added to the disorder by issuing numerous and arbitrary delays of various mandates. In effect, the law is being rewritten by executive fiat as the White House, not Congress, decides which provisions to implement and which to ignore.

Obamacare is an omnishambles, and I am afraid the disorder will only get worse.

Timothy J. Penny is a former Democratic member of the U.S. House of Representatives from Minnesota.

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