Is CBO Working with Budget Committee Staff to Hide an Illegal Obamacare Bailout?

It appears my recent article, which raised questions about whether the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) illegally manipulated the budget baseline to ease the passage of an Obamacare “stability” bill, hit a nerve. To borrow a current metaphor, if there were any more collusion between the House Budget Committee and CBO on this issue, Rod Rosenstein would need to appoint a special counsel to investigate.

Consider a series of questions asked by Rep. Diane Black (R-TN) at House Budget’s April 12 hearing on the new Budget and Economic Outlook. Black asked CBO Director Keith Hall about the agency’s treatment of the law’s cost-sharing reduction payments (CSRs), which President Trump cancelled in October.

  1. Black asked about this issue, and only this issue. After completing her exchange with Hall on CSRs, she yielded back more than half of the five minutes allotted to her for questions—an unusual occurrence. Think about it: How often have you seen members of Congress take two minutes to give a five-minute speech?
  2. Black began the exchange by asking Hall a very friendly, and some would argue leading, question: “Is CBO doing this [i.e., changing the budgetary baseline] in full compliance with” the law?
  3. In response, Hall looked down at his notes no fewer than seven times in a roughly 45-second response. Particularly during the seventh and final instance, Hall quite clearly appears to be reading from his briefing materials. Members of Congress often read questions at hearings, but in nearly 15 years of working on and around Capitol Hill, I can recall precious few times where witnesses read answers.

Based on these circumstances, it seems reasonable to conclude that the exchange was scripted well in advance. If that’s the case, it appears Black, and whomever wrote her questions, worked with CBO to choreograph an exchange designed to rebut one of my allegations, namely, that CBO violated the Gramm-Rudman-Hollings Act in making this budgetary change.

Mind you, the change does violate the law, Hall’s claims notwithstanding. CBO can claim that the budget baseline funds CSRs indirectly—via “higher premiums and larger premium tax credit subsidies”—only by assuming that Congress does not fund CSRs directly.

Later in the April 12 hearing, Rep. Gary Palmer (R-AL) also queried Hall on the circumstances behind this questionable change.

Palmer asked Hall: “Why did you change that [i.e., raise the baseline]?…You would have had to have gotten instruction to” make the alteration. Hall didn’t directly answer the question: He claimed CBO had the authority to make the change, but never said where his instruction came from.

But the budget committees already gave CBO instructions—which CBO suddenly chose to ignore. In an October estimate of Obamacare “stability” legislation, the budget office specifically said that “after consultation with the Budget Committees, CBO has not changed its baseline” to reflect the Trump administration’s cancellation of the CSR payments. Last week’s updated CBO document, which altered the budgetary baseline, said nothing about consultation with the budget committees—a break from the October precedent, and a direct violation of Hall’s promise in his January 30 testimony.

What changed? Did the CBO director just wake up one morning and decide to make a scoring change affecting $200 billion in taxpayer dollars? Or did someone pressure the CBO director to make that change—and if so, who?

If the House Budget Committee staff knows—and I’d bet they do—they certainly don’t want to say. At first my repeated e-mails to committee staff disappeared into dead air. Once I noted this radio silence on Twitter, I got a response, but not a substantive reply. The House Budget Committee’s communications director said my queries were within CBO’s purview, and sent me to them.

However, given the opaque and questionable way this budgetary change transpired, both CBO and House Budget have very clear reasons not to answer the question:

  • If House Budget admits that CBO did reach out to them about this scoring change, that places the fingerprints of House leadership on a heavy-handed attempt to strong-arm CBO and alter scoring rules in a way that favors an Obamacare bailout—the issue I first wrote about back in January.
  • If House Budget admits that CBO did not reach out to them about this scoring change, that means CBO “went rogue,” and increased spending on Obamacare subsidies by $194 billion without guidance or direction from the elected members of Congress who govern it. It also raises questions of whether Hall materially misled the Budget Committee (a felony offense) during his January 30 testimony.

Answering my question involves someone assuming responsibility for this mysterious occurrence. Because no one wants to assume responsibility for the chicanery behind this budget gimmick, apparently people think, or hope, that ignoring questions will make them go away. (I haven’t yet reached out to CBO for a comment, but anyone want to lay odds that their spokesman says, “I’m sorry, but we can’t disclose our communications with members of Congress”?) News flash: They’re not.

If CBO and House Budget are completely blameless, and everything about this budget change occurred in an above-board manner, they seem to have a funny way of going about proving their innocence—sidestepping questions. Not two months ago, Hall testified before the House Budget Committee about the ways CBO will improve transparency surrounding the budget process. If he wants to follow through on his promise, then Hall (to say nothing of House Budget) should start by disclosing exactly who ordered CBO to make this change—the sooner, the better.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

New Precedent Allows Congress to Dismantle (Some of) Obamacare

What does a ruling about automobile financing have to do with Obamacare? As it turns out, plenty.

This week the Senate acted to repeal a piece of regulatory guidance the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) issued back in March 2013. As a Politico report Wednesday noted, that precedent allows Congress to nullify other regulatory actions the federal government took years ago—including those on Obamacare.

1996 Law Allows for Expedited Process

Until this week, Congress has generally enacted CRA resolutions of disapproval following a change in administration, when one party controlled both houses of Congress and the presidency. In 2001, Republicans passed, and President George W. Bush signed, a resolution of disapproval negating an ergonomics rule promulgated in the waning days of the Clinton administration. Last year, the Republican Congress passed and President Trump signed 14 resolutions of disapproval undoing Obama administration actions.

Action on CRA resolutions of disapproval undoing Obama administration actions had largely ended last year. The CRA provides that Congress can consider resolutions of disapproval under expedited procedures only within 60 legislative days of the rule’s “submission or publication date.” Because the Obama administration’s final regulatory actions occurred early in 2017, the 60 legislative-day clock ran out last year—or so it appeared.

However, as the Heritage Foundation’s Paul Larkin has argued for many years, the CRA contains a big catch. According to the law, the expedited procedures apply for the 60 legislative days following “the later of the date on which” Congress receives a required report on the regulatory action, or the action is published in the Federal Register. If an administration never officially submitted a report to Congress, the 60 legislative-day clock never began, and the current Congress can still pass a resolution of disapproval under the CRA-expedited procedures.

Because the Obama administration did not consider the CFPB document a “rule,” it never submitted it to Congress, as required by the CRA. The 60 legislative-day clock never expired, because the Obama administration never started it by submitting the document to Congress. That meant the Senate could, and did, pass a resolution of disapproval negating the CFPB guidance this week, more than five years after CFPB first issued it.

Now Congress can do the same thing regarding Obamacare.

This Opens Lots of Doors for Obamacare Regs

To be sure, Congress cannot pass resolutions of disapproval regarding Obamacare rules that the Obama administration officially submitted years ago, which is most of them. But in some cases, the last administration may not have formally submitted sub-regulatory guidance, giving Congress an opening to repeal at least part of Obamacare’s regulatory structure.

I wrote early last year that the Trump administration should unilaterally revoke that guidance, but unfortunately, it has not done so yet. However, if the Obama administration never submitted that guidance to Congress, then Congress—using the precedent set this week—can pass a resolution of disapproval negating it. Alternatively, Congress can consider starting action on a resolution of disapproval, to get the Trump administration off the proverbial dime in revoking the guidance themselves.

The CRA precedent set this week also serves as a cautionary tale for the Trump administration, a warning to act thoroughly with its own regulatory actions. For instance, the guidance to state Medicaid programs issued earlier this year regarding work requirements likely meets the definition of a “rule” for CRA purposes. If the Trump administration never submits that action to Congress, a future Democratic administration and Democratic Congress could—and if given the chance, certainly would—act to undo the guidance, and thus the Medicaid work requirements.

But even as the Trump administration should act to cement its own regulatory legacy, Congress can act to negate portions of Obamacare through resolutions of disapproval. I know from experience that staff in Congress, and during the transition, compiled lists of rules that they can use CRA to target. During my time on Capitol Hill following Obamacare’s passage, staff kept a spreadsheet containing all the rules and notices the law generated—the source of the “Red Tape Tower” that used to appear around the Capitol.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

Debunking the Government’s Pro-Medicaid Report

Louisiana’s Medicaid expansion helped far too few people obtain good, affordable health coverage and actually cost Louisiana desperately needed jobs. But a taxpayer-funded report released by the Louisiana Department of Health on April 10 claims that the state’s Medicaid expansion – by opening the program to able-bodied adults – will generate billions of dollars in economic activity and thousands of jobs. The report’s flawed perspective cannot mask the state’s poor track record at growing the economy and jobs the past few years – an environment which current proposals for tax increases would only further undermine.

I. The Louisiana Department of Health’s report is factually inaccurate. The Louisiana Department of Health’s pro-Medicaid report discusses “net federal money” gained from the state’s Medicaid expansion, but in reality, it only looks at Medicaid-specific dollars. This perspective ignores the fact that people were dropping Obamacare Exchange coverage to enroll in the Medicaid expansion – and losing federal subsidy dollars in the process.

Over the past two years, subsidized enrollment on Louisiana’s health insurance Exchange has fallen nearly in half—from 170,806 in March 2016 to 93,865 earlier this year. The dramatic drop in enrollment illustrates that many individuals qualified for federal Exchange subsidies prior to expansion taking effect, and then switched to Medicaid.

The report’s discussion of “net new federal dollars” inaccurately ignores the substantial funding in federal Exchange subsidies that at least some expansion enrollees gave up by enrolling in Medicaid. In 2012, CBO noted that, for similarly situated low-income individuals, Exchange subsidies would average about $9,000 per year, but Medicaid coverage would cost $6,000. For those individuals who would have qualified for discounted Exchange policies, their Medicaid coverage may have actually cost Louisiana additional federal dollars – and jobs – because Medicaid could cost less than federal insurance subsidies.

Moreover, the Legislative Fiscal Office in 2015 assumed that approximately 20 percent of the enrollees in expansion would give up other private coverage to enroll in Medicaid. If Medicaid enrollees dropped employer-sponsored coverage to enroll in expansion, the supposedly “new” federal subsidy dollars would instead supplant existing coverage subsidies provided by the employer. The report does not acknowledge this trade-off.

II. Money doesn’t grow on trees – and tax hikes caused by Medicaid expansion actually cost Louisiana jobs. The report only examines federal spending on Medicaid, and not the tax increases used to finance that federal spending. Those tax increases cause job losses, but the report makes no attempt to count them. However, as others have noted, Christina Romer, one of former President Barack Obama’s chief economic advisers, believes that, on an economic impact basis, tax increases used to fund federal spending far outweigh that federal spending.

III. Medicaid creates a disincentive for work. The Congressional Budget Office concluded that Obamacare would, as a whole, reduce the workforce by the equivalent of 2.5 million jobs; Medicaid expansion provides some of the reason for that net job reduction. CBO analysts note that, because an extra dollar of income would cause individuals to lose Medicaid eligibility – subjecting them to sizable premiums and deductibles for Exchange coverage – expansion “effectively creates a tax on additional earnings” that “reduces the incentive to work.”

IV. Health care is not a jobs program. Those words come from none other than Zeke Emanuel, a former White House adviser who helped craft Obamacare. In a 2013 article in The New York Times, Emanuel noted that “the more we can control health care costs, the more Americans will prosper.” Other researchers from Harvard University have made the same point: “It is tempting to think that rising health care employment is a boon, but if the same outcomes can be achieved with lower employment and fewer resources, that leaves extra money to devote to other important public and private priorities.”

Taking the Governor’s report to its logical conclusion, to maximize the generous federal match rate for Medicaid expansion, Louisiana should, for instance, start paying doctors $5,000 for a simple office visit. That added Medicaid spending would create even more jobs and economic growth—as would a government program paying individuals to dig ditches and fill them in again. But, as the Harvard researchers note, neither approach would represent the most efficient use of taxpayer resources. And the report makes little attempt to argue that Medicaid expansion represents the best and most efficient source of economic activity.

V. Asking Washington for more funding isn’t a solution. The report argues for more reliance on federal dollars to support Louisiana, even though, according to the Pew Charitable Trusts, the state budget remains the most dependent on spending from Washington. As of 2015 – even before Medicaid expansion took effect in Louisiana – fully 42.2 percent of the state budget came from Washington. With the federal government facing a $21 trillion (and rising) debt, making Louisiana even more dependent on Washington’s largesse represents a recipe for fiscal ruin.

VI. If Medicaid is a job creator, why is Louisiana still down jobs year over year? If Medicaid expansion has created so many jobs, why has Louisiana lost a net of 200 jobs in the past year? According to the most recent Bureau of Labor Statistics data, the Louisiana workforce shrank from February 2017 to February 2018. With a shrinking workforce, the second-lowest economic growth rate in the country, and the largest decrease in incomes nationwide in 2016, if Louisiana receives any more “prosperity” from Medicaid expansion, the current malaise in the state could turn into a full-fledged economic crisis.

Conclusion

At a time when Louisiana faces its own “fiscal cliff,” the Department of Health should have better things to do with taxpayers’ hard-earned dollars than commission what amounts to a misleading propaganda campaign claiming that more government can grow Louisiana’s economy. Rather than spending time growing the public sector, policy-makers should instead focus on giving businesses the tools they need to create jobs in the private sector.

This post was originally published by the Pelican Institute.

This American Life Doesn’t Understand This American Government

The most recent episode of NPR’s “This American Life” continues a line of liberal laments that the legislative process does not work, and blames most of that ineffectiveness on a single source: Donald Trump. (Shocker there.)

But the idea of removing Trump to Make Congress Great Again doesn’t hold up to scrutiny. Even if it did, such a development would not comport with the Framers’ design of our government, which put the “deliberative” in “deliberative process” far more than the modern-day Left would prefer.

“This American Life” correspondent Zoe Chace laments that the popularity of DACA—which covers individuals brought to the United States illegally as children—has impeded its enactment into law. She thinks lawmakers have used its popularity

as a spoonful of sugar to make tougher immigration measures easier to swallow—stuff like border security, restricting visas, or on the Democrat side, legalizing even more immigrants. That’s the curse of DACA. The most valuable thing about it, on Capitol Hill anyway, is the possibility that it could be used to pass other stuff. So even though we’re a democracy, even though 80% of the country wants DACA, the country doesn’t get what it wants because there’s no incentive for Congress to just put it to a straight up or down vote.

Having castigated Congress for using DACA “to pass other stuff,” Chace spends much of the episode highlighting Flake’s attempts to use “other stuff”—namely, tax reform—to pass DACA.

Looks Can Be Deceiving

Chace calls Flake “the most powerful senator in Congress right now.” Having announced his retirement, Flake has no political constituency to appease. That dynamic, combined with the current Senate split of 50 Republicans and 49 Democrats—Republican John McCain is recovering from cancer treatment in his home state of Arizona—at first blush gives Flake significant leverage.

Second, to pass the Senate, DACA requires not 50 votes, but 60, as most legislation needs a three-fifths majority to overcome a potential filibuster. The tax legislation, enacted under special budget reconciliation procedures, stands as an exception that proves the general rule that would apply to any DACA bill.

Third, by favorably viewing Flake’s attempt (which he privately admits to Chace is a bluff) to tie his tax reform vote to a commitment from leadership to take up DACA legislation, Chace supports the very problem she criticizes—namely, lawmakers using one bill or issue to “pass other stuff.”

Chace’s criticism of the legislative process therefore comes across as inherently self-serving. She doesn’t object to senators using unrelated matters as leverage. For example, she applauds Flake for threatening to hijack the tax bill over immigration, so much as she objects to senators using other matters as leverage on her issue: passing DACA. That double standard, coupled with an ignorance of basic constitutional principles, leads to some naïve misunderstandings.

Let’s Review Some of Those

That principle leads to the “other stuff” dynamic Chace described, because lawmakers have other competing priorities to navigate. Some might support DACA, but only if they receive something they perceive as more valuable in exchange—border security, for instance, or a broader immigration deal.

Occasionally lawmakers take this concept too far, but the system tends to self-correct. As the episode notes, Democrats’ tactics led to a partial government shutdown in January, as Senate Democrats refused to pass spending bills keeping the federal government operating unless Republicans committed to enact a DACA measure with it—“other stuff,” in other words.

But although most Democrats support DACA, they divided over the hardball, hostage-taking tactics that tied passing spending bills to enacting an immigration measure. That division and public pressure over the shutdown led them to beat a hasty retreat.

In 2007, under President George W. Bush an immigration bill famously failed on the Senate floor, in part because then-senator Obama and other liberals voted to restrict the number of guest workers permitted into the United States—a key provision necessary to win Republican votes.

Consider a Case Study in Virginia

To view the immigration debate in a nutshell, one need look no further than Rep. Eric Cantor (R-VA). Or, to be more precise, former Rep. Eric Cantor. In June 2014, Cantor lost his Republican primary to an upstart challenger in Dave Brat. Outrage over the possibility that the House might pass an immigration bill the Senate’s “Gang of Eight” muscled through in 2013 helped Cantor go down to primary defeat, and ended any debate on immigration in the 113th Congress (again, well before most people thought Trump would run for president, let alone win).

The way Cantor’s 2014 defeat changed the landscape on immigration in Congress illustrates that, while not a direct democracy, the American system remains responsive to democratic principles, even if they resulted in an outcome (i.e., inaction on immigration) Chace would decry. Chace might argue that a June primary election where only 65,017 Virginia residents voted—only about one-sixth the number who voted in that district’s November 2016 general election—should not determine the fate of immigration legislation nationwide.

But by making it difficult to enact legislation, the American system of government accounts for intensity of opinion as well as breadth of opinion. In the case of Cantor, a group of 36,105 Virginia residents who voted for Brat—many of whom cared strongly about stopping an immigration bill—sent a message on behalf of the hundreds of thousands of Virginia residents who didn’t care enough to vote in the Republican primary election. (Virginia conducts open primaries, in which voters can choose either party’s ballot, so any resident could have voted for or against Cantor in the Republican primary.)

That outcome might resonate with a former resident of Cantor’s district, Virginia’s own James Madison. In Federalist 10, Madison wrote of how a geographically diverse country would make it difficult for any one faction to command a majority, and impose its will on others. In Federalist 51, Madison returned to the topic of limiting government’s power by separating its responsibilities among co-equal branches: “Ambition must be made to counteract ambition.”

The stalemate on immigration and DACA would likely prove quite satisfactory to Framers like Madison, who feared government’s powers and purposefully looked to circumscribe them. To the modern Left, however, a constitutional government with limited authority seems an antiquated and inconvenient trifle.

‘Slow Government’ Complaints Are Way Older than Trump

Although Chace’s report claims that congressional dysfunction “has changed in ways that are very specific to Donald Trump,” liberals have criticized government inaction for decades. In “The System: The American Way of Politics at the Breaking Point,” Haynes Johnson and David Broder use their seminal analysis of the rise and fall of “HillaryCare” to decry a Washington “incapable as a nation of addressing the major long-term problems facing the society:”

At no point, we believe, has the cumulative assault on the idea of responsible government been so destructive of the very faith in the democratic system as now. A thoroughly cynical society, deeply distrustful of its institutions and leaders and the reliability of information it receives, is a society in peril of breaking apart.

Again, these words far precede any Trump administration. Broder and Johnson wrote them in 1996, while the tycoon looked to rebuild his empire following several corporate bankruptcies.

As “This American Life” notes, Trump has proved more indecisive legislatively than most presidents did. The episode highlights how Trump went from supporting any immigration bill Congress would send him to imposing major new conditions on same in the matter of hours. That series of events illustrated but one of Trump’s many reverses on legislation.

For instance, Trump famously called the American Health Care Act “mean” in a closed-door meeting weeks after Republican representatives voted to approve the legislation, and Trump publicly praised them for doing so. But presidents prior to Trump have also engaged in legislative U-turns or ill-conceived maneuvers.

In his 1994 State of the Union message, Bill Clinton threatened to veto any health-care bill that did not achieve universal coverage. As Johnson and Broder recount, that was a major tactical mistake that Clinton later attempted to undo, but ultimately contributed to the downfall of “HillaryCare.” And of course, Clinton himself might not have become president had his predecessor, George H.W. Bush, not made then violated his infamous “Read my lips—no new taxes!” pledge—the “six most destructive words in the history of presidential politics.”

While Trump undoubtedly has introduced more foibles into the legislative process, he has not changed its fundamental dynamic—a dynamic “This American Life” criticizes yet does not understand. Chace says “we’re a democracy,” but she means that she wants a Democratic—capital “D”—form of government, one in which Congress passes lots of legislation, enacts big programs (more funding for NPR, anyone?), and plays a major role in the lives of the American people.

Yet Madison and the Constitution’s Framers deliberately designed a lower-case “r” republican form of government, one with limited powers and a deliberative process designed to make enacting major legislation difficult. That reality might not suit the liberal dreams of “This American Life,” but it represents how American democratic principles actually live and work.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

Mixed Messages on Paul Ryan’s Entitlement Record

Upon news of House Speaker Paul Ryan’s retirement Wednesday, liberals knew to attack him, but didn’t know exactly why. Liberal Politico columnist Michael Grunwald skewered Ryan’s hypocrisy on fiscal discipline:

Ryan’s support for higher spending has not been limited to defense and homeland security. He supported Bush’s expansion of prescription drug benefits, as well as the auto bailout and Wall Street bailout during the financial crisis…Ryan does talk a lot about reining in Medicaid, Medicare, and Social Security, for which he’s routinely praised as a courageous truth-teller. But he’s never actually made entitlement reform happen. Congress did pass one law during his tenure that reduced Medicare spending by more than $700 billion, but that law was Obamacare, and Ryan bitterly opposed it.

For the record, Ryan opposed Obamacare because, as he repeatedly noted during the 2012 campaign, the law “raided” Medicare to pay for Obamacare. (Kathleen Sebelius, a member of President Obama’s cabinet, admitted the law used Medicare spending reductions to both “save Medicare” and “fund health care reform.”)

Compare that with a Vox article, titled “Paul Ryan’s Most Important Legacy is Trump’s War on Medicaid”: “[Paul] Ryan’s dreams are alive and well. Through work requirements and other restrictions, President Donald Trump could eventually oversee the most significant rollback of Medicaid benefits in the program’s 50-year history.” It goes on to talk about how the administration “is carrying on Ryan’s Medicaid-gutting agenda.”

Which is it? On fiscal discipline, is Ryan an incompetent hypocrite, or a slash-and-burn maniac throwing poor people out on the streets? As in most cases, reality contains nuance. Several caveats are in order.

First, Ryan’s budgets always contained “magic asterisks.” As the Los Angeles Times noted in 2012, “the budget resolutions he wrote would have left that Medicare ‘raid’ in place”—because Republicans could only achieve the political goal of a balanced budget within ten years by retaining Obamacare’s tax increases and Medicare reductions.” The budgets generally repealed the Obamacare entitlements, thus allowing the Medicare reductions to bolster that program rather than financing Obamacare. The budgets served as messaging documents, but generally lacked many of the critical details to transform them from visions into actual policy.

Second, to the best of my recollections, Ryan never took on the leadership of his party on a major policy issue. Former GOP House Speaker John Boehner famously never requested an earmark during a quarter-century in Congress. Sen. John McCain’s “Maverick” image came from his fight against fellow Republicans on campaign finance reform.

But whether as a backbencher or a committee chair, Ryan rarely bucked the party line. That meant voting for the Bush administration’s big-spending bills like the Medicare Modernization Act and TARP—both of which the current vice president, Mike Pence, voted against while a backbench member of Congress.

Third, particularly under this president, Republicans do not want to reform entitlements. As I noted during the 2016 election, neither presidential candidate made an issue of entitlement reform, or Medicare’s impending insolvency. In fact, both went out of their way to avoid the issue. Any House speaker would have difficulty convincing this president to embrace substantive entitlement reforms.

In general, one can argue that, contrary to his image as a leader on fiscal issues, Ryan too readily followed. Other Republicans would support his austere budgets, which never had the force of law, but he would support their big-spending bills, many of which made it to the statute books.

On one issue, however, Ryan did lead—and in the worst possible way. As I wrote last fall, Ryan brought to the House floor legislation repealing Obamacare’s cap on Medicare spending. This past February, that repeal became law.

Ryan could have sought to retain that cap while discarding the unelected, unaccountable board Obamacare created to enforce it. As a result, Ryan’s “legacy” on entitlement reform will consist of his role as the first speaker to repeal a cap on entitlement spending.

Primum non nocere—first, do no harm. Ryan may not have had the power to compel Republicans to reform entitlements, but he did have the power—if he had had the courage—to prevent his own party from making the problem any worse. He did not.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

Paul Ryan Shares Responsibility for Republicans’ Obamacare Failure

On the last day of 2016, I sent the editing team at The Federalist a draft article that predicted events in the coming Congress. If those events came to pass, then it could publish, along with a notation indicating that I had written it months (or years) previously.

The piece described a scenario in which cross-pressures over repealing-and-replacing Obamacare led Paul Ryan to resign his speakership. Even then, before the 115th Congress officially convened, I envisioned conflicts between the “repeal” wing of the Republican Party and the “replace” wing, making success on health care unlikely and Ryan the likeliest “fall guy” in any such scenario. Even though Wednesday’s retirement announcement by the speaker officially rendered this outcome moot, I can’t help but reflecting on the prediction.

A Party Proves It Has No Idea How to Lead

A few months after I drafted that prediction, the worst-kept secret among Republican circles became the fact that House leaders didn’t start drafting health-care legislation until late January 2017, around the time of President Trump’s inauguration. On one level, the delay made some sense. After all, no one expected Donald Trump to win the presidency—not even Donald Trump.

But on the other hand, members and staff should have immediately sprung to work the morning after the election, to begin assembling options and drafting legislation. Congressional leaders had 72 days between November 9, 2016 and January 20, 2017 to develop both a coherent strategy and a bill. They certainly didn’t do the latter, and they probably didn’t do enough of the former. Those failures ultimately lie at Ryan’s feet.

Some may argue that congressional leaders’ initial support for a repeal-first approach—also called “repeal-and-delay,” for it would have postponed the repeal’s effective date to allow for enacting a replacement—justified the lack of action on a “repeal-and-replace” measure. After all, “repeal-and-replace” didn’t become the preferred option until the month of Trump’s inauguration. But Republicans were always going to need some type of “replace” legislation eventually, and delaying work on drafting that bill qualifies as legislative malpractice.

Hiding Your Heads In the Sand Isn’t a Plan, Guys

Once they did release their bill publicly, House Republicans didn’t hold hearings on the legislation before marking it up, leaving many members to defend their votes for legislation whose full implications they didn’t necessarily comprehend.

The fast timetable meant House leaders passed the bill in committee, and on the House floor, without final Congressional Budget Office scores. One staffer called this tactic a game of Russian roulette—a hope that final CBO scores would not blow up in members’ faces after they voted for the bill. These procedural shortcuts led to understandable concerns among the public about the rush to pass a bill, not to mention justifiable arguments of hypocrisy over how Republican critics of Obamacare’s lack of transparency used an even more secretive process.

Second, once they did draft a bill, time pressures contributed to Ryan’s initial take-it-or-leave-it strategy with his own conference. In part, House leaders’ talk of “binary choices”—“Either support the Republican plan as-is, or support Obamacare”—stemmed from their desire to pre-empt a rightward drift that might hinder the bill’s chances in the Senate. But it also came from their absurd prediction—which I called absurd at the time—that Congress could introduce, and pass, legislation remaking much of the nation’s health sector within six weeks.

The Party’s Mess Isn’t Ryan’s Fault, But Leadership Lack Is

To be clear, the Republican Party faced internal fissures on health care that Ryan could not have resolved by himself. Immediately after the election, I considered stalemate the likeliest option, and so it proved.

But had House leaders crafted a bill sooner, they could have 1) guaranteed a more open process, alleviating some member concerns and preventing bad headlines about the lack of transparency, or 2) discovered the intractable nature of the debate at an earlier stage in 2017, and pivoted away from health care sooner (perhaps to come back to it at some later date). Either option would have proved far preferable than the events of last spring and summer.

To sum up: House leaders’ failure to plan, and draft Obamacare legislation well in advance, led to members taking tough votes—votes that could cost members their seats in November—without either all the information they needed to make an informed choice or a process they could publicly defend. And it squandered the entirety of what little honeymoon President Trump had with voters last year.

In his first letter to the Corinthians, Saint Paul asked, “For if the trumpet give an uncertain sound, who shall prepare himself to the battle?” At the time when Republican Washington needed a path toward action on health care, another Paul proved to be a far from certain trumpet, with disastrous consequences for his party. It will stand as part of his legacy.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

Is the CBO Director Breaking the Law to Help Paul Ryan Bail Out Obamacare?

Why would an ostensibly nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office (CBO) director violate the law and the word he gave to Congress only a few short weeks ago? Maybe because Paul Ryan asked him to.

In late January, I wrote about how the House speaker wanted CBO to violate budget rules to make it easier for Congress to pass an Obamacare bailout. At the time, House leadership aides dismissed my theories as unfounded and inaccurate speculation. Yet buried on page 103 of Monday’s report on the budget and economic outlook, CBO did exactly what I reported on earlier this year—it changed the rules, and violated the law, to make it easier for Congress to pass an Obamacare bailout.

The Making of a Budget Gimmick

Because of the interactions between the (higher) premiums and federal premium subsidies (which went up in turn), the federal government will likely spend more on subsidies this year without making CSR payments than with them.

Therein lay the basis of the budgetary gimmick Ryan and congressional leaders wanted CBO to help them accomplish. House staffers wanted CBO to adjust its baseline and assume the higher levels of spending under the “no-CSR” scenario. By turning around and appropriating funds for CSRs, thereby lowering this higher baseline, Congress could generate budgetary “savings”—which Republicans could spend on more corporate welfare for insurers, in the form of reinsurance payments.

The Problem? It’s Illegal

As I previously noted, the House’s scheme, and CBO’s actions on Monday to perpetrate that scheme, violate the law. Section 257(b)(1) of the Gramm-Rudman-Hollings Act (available here) requires budget scorekeeping agencies to assume that “funding for entitlement authority is…adequate to make all payments required by those laws.”

Following my January post, Rep. Dave Brat (R-VA) asked CBO Director Keith Hall about this issue at a House Budget Committee hearing. Hall noted that CBO had been treating the cost-sharing reductions “as an entitlement, so it’s”—that is, the full funding of CSRs in the baseline—“remained there, unless we get direction to do something different. We’re assuming essentially that the money will be found somewhere, because it’s an entitlement.”

In a separate exchange with Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-IL) at the same hearing, Hall went even further: He said, “We’ve treated the cost-sharing reductions actually as an entitlement, at least so far until we get other direction from the Budget Committee.”

Then Comes the Flip-Flop

Yet Monday’s document on the budget outlook did exactly what Hall said mere weeks ago that CBO would not. A paragraph deep in the section on “Technical Changes in Outlays” included this nugget:

Technical revisions caused estimates of spending for subsidies for coverage purchased through the marketplaces established under the ACA and related spending to be $44 billion higher, on net, over the 2018–2027 period than in CBO’s June baseline. A significant factor contributing to the increase is that the current baseline projections reflect that the entitlement for subsidies for cost-sharing reductions (CSRs) is being funded through higher premiums and larger premium tax credit subsidies rather than through a direct appropriation.

In the span of a few weeks, then, Hall and CBO went from “We’re assuming essentially that the money [i.e., the CSR appropriation] will be found somewhere” to the exact opposite assumption. Yet the report mentions no directive from the budget committees asking CBO to change its scorekeeping methodology, likely because the committees did not give such a directive.

In analyzing the status of the Medicare trust fund, which CBO projects will become exhausted in fiscal year 2026, Footnote A of Table C-1 notes how the baseline “shows a zero [balance] rather than a cumulative negative balance in the trust fund after the exhaustion date”—because that’s what Gramm-Rudman-Hollings requires:

CBO may try to make the semantic argument, implied in the passage quoted above, that it continues to assume full funding of CSRs, albeit through indirect means (i.e., higher spending on premium subsidies) rather than “a direct appropriation.” But that violates what Hall himself said back in late January, when he laid out CBO’s position, and said it would not change absent an explicit directive—even though the budget report nowhere indicates that CBO received such direction.

It also violates sheer common sense that the budget office should assume “funding for entitlement authority is…adequate to make all payments” by assuming that the administration does not make all payments, namely the direct CSR payments to insurers.

Coming Up: An Embarrassing Spectacle

During his testimony before the House and Senate Budget Committees this week, Hall may make a spectacle of himself—and not in a good way. He will have to explain why he unilaterally changed the budgetary baseline in a way that explicitly violated his January testimony. He will also have to justify why CBO believes Gramm-Rudman-Hollings’ direction to assume full funding for “all payments” allows CBO to assume that Congress will not make direct CSR payments to insurers.

Conservatives should fight to expose this absurd and costly budget gimmick, and demand answers from Hall as to what—or, more specifically, whom—prompted his U-turn. If Hall wants to transform himself into the puppet of House leadership, and break his word to Congress in the process, he should at least be transparent about it.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

Conservatives Have Themselves to Blame for Ominous Omnibus

Several years ago, I kvetched to a friend about various ways I found myself unhappy with my life. My friend listened attentively, and when I had finished, responded calmly and succinctly: “Well, what are you going to do about it?”

Conservative members of Congress face a similar dilemma this week, as they return to Washington for the first time since Congress passed a massive omnibus spending bill just before Easter. Politico last week highlighted senators’ concerns about a closed process in the Senate. Sen. John Kennedy (R-LA) went so far as to say the floor process, and the lack of amendment votes, “sucks.”

Consider the floor process in the House. The morning after Congress passed the omnibus, a staffer bragged to me about how his boss voted against the sprawling spending legislation. But my follow-up query spoke volumes: “Did your boss vote against the rule allowing for consideration of the bill?” The staffer hung his head and said that he hadn’t.

Therein lies the problem. Fully 210 Republican members of Congress voted to approve a rule that allows the House of Representatives to vote on a 2,232-page bill a mere 16 hours after its public release. In so doing, they blessed House leadership’s tactics of negotiating a budget-busting bill in secret, springing it on members without time to read it, and ramming it through Congress in a take-it-or-leave it fashion.

Or, to put it another way, those 210 Republican members of Congress signed their judgment over to the Republican leadership, which made all the decisions that mattered regarding the bill. Conservatives complained that, for the rule governing debate on the omnibus, House Republican leaders gaveled the vote to a close too quickly. Fully 25 Republicans did vote against the rule bringing the omnibus to the House floor, and if a few more that wanted to vote no had been given time to do so, the rule might have failed.

The conservatives who would not vote against the rule governing the omnibus also bear responsibility for the next omnibus. Had conservatives voted down the rule governing the omnibus, they could have demanded concessions to prevent future instances of congressional leaders ramming massive spending bills down Congress’ throat.

For instance, they could have demanded that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) commit the upper chamber to passing a budget, and considering spending bills individually on the Senate floor this summer. But because not enough conservatives voted against the rule, they received exactly no procedural concessions, ensuring Congress will resort to another massive, catch-all omnibus spending bill late this year or early next.

A very similar dynamic exists in the Senate. Despite their complaints, Kennedy and his Senate colleagues have failed to use their considerable powers to demand changes to that process. In the Senate, a single member can make long speeches, object to passing legislation by unanimous consent, and object to routine procedural requests. One senator or a handful of senators using such tactics for any period of time would quickly attract the attention of Senate leaders—and could prompt a broader discussion about how to open up Senate floor debate.

In democracies, people generally get the type of government they deserve. That axiom applies as much to the internal functioning of Congress as it does to Congress’ role in the country as a whole. If members of Congress don’t like the process their leaders have developed for debating (or not debating) legislation, they need only look in the mirror.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

Graham-Cassidy and Conservative Health Reform

In its February budget submission to Congress, the Trump administration endorsed legislation “modeled after” the bill Sens. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) and Bill Cassidy (R-LA) introduced last year, which would devolve much of Obamacare’s entitlement spending to the states.

The budget claims this legislation “would allow states to use the block grant for a variety of approaches in order to help their citizens.” But based on the most recent public version, the Graham-Cassidy bill needs significant changes to deliver true flexibility to states.

The administration endorsed Graham-Cassidy because it believes the legislation would give states flexibility to embrace a “variety of approaches” to health care and health insurance. But would the most recent version of the bill allow Idaho to implement its reforms without federal intrusion? In a word, no.

In at least two respects, Idaho’s plan violates the many federal requirements that would remain intact under Graham-Cassidy. Idaho’s proposal to allow annual limits of over $1,000,000, and its proposal to allow surcharges of up to 50 percent for individuals who do not maintain continuous coverage, both contravene the Washington-imposed regulatory apparatus Graham-Cassidy retains.

This raises an obvious question: If the only state-based insurance reform plan proposed to date violates Graham-Cassidy, then how much “flexibility” does the legislation really provide? To paraphrase Margaret Thatcher, conservatives have not spent the past eight years fighting to roll back a Washington-based, regulatory leviathan imposed by a Democratic Congress, only to see that leviathan reimposed by a Republican one.

To its credit, the Trump administration has worked to roll back Obamacare’s regulatory regime. Consistent with its promise in the budget to generate “relie[f] from many of [Obamacare’s] insurance rules and pricing restrictions,” the administration has proposed rules allowing greater access to short-term insurance coverage and association health plans, both of which are exempt from some or all of the Obamacare statutory restrictions.

But make no mistake: While these actions will give some individuals freedom from Obamacare’s restrictions, they will not give states the control they deserve over their own insurance markets. To give the states the freedom that the Trump administration promised, Congress must repeal the federally imposed regulatory superstructure Obamacare created. Only by doing so will Washington give states the true flexibility to explore alternative visions of health care for their citizens—Graham-Cassidy’s stated goal.

If Congress does not act to give states freedom, a future Democratic administration will reimpose each and every health care regulation the Trump administration loosened—and many more besides. The Center for American Progress made as much crystal-clear recently, when in releasing the Left’s next plan for (more) government-run health care, it proposed legislation that would “leave little to no discretion to the Administration [of the day] on policy matters.”

To the Left, Obamacare isn’t about power so much as control. As President Reagan famously stated, the “little intellectual elite in a far-distant capital” think they can “plan our lives for us better than we can plan them ourselves.” To liberals’ unquenchable desire to arrogate more power in Washington, conservatives must respond with freedom—freedom for states, and ultimately to businesses and individuals, to buy the coverage they want, and innovate in ways that can lower health spending.

The Graham-Cassidy bill has other flaws. It retains most of Obamacare’s spending (albeit disbursed to the states through the block grant) and all of its major tax increases. But at its core, the debate over health care remains one of control: Whether Washington will try to micromanage 50 states and more than 300 million people, or whether states and citizens can lead the way. We stand with the people—and hope that, after eight years of promises, the Republican Congress finally does likewise.

This post, co-written with former Sen. Jim DeMint, was originally published at The Federalist.

More Liberal Scaremongering on Premiums

It didn’t get much notice at the time, given its release just prior to the massive, 2,232-page omnibus appropriations measure, but the Urban Institute issued a study designed largely, if not solely, for Democrats to engage in political scaremongering prior to the midterm elections this fall. Like other studies before it, the Urban paper omitted inconvenient truths that have made this year’s premium increases less drastic for consumers than they appear at first blush.

In fact, the Urban Institute authors ignored their own prior research while doing so, an explanation one can only chalk up to raw politics—i.e., the desire to show the greatest possible premium increases in political ads this fall, even though few (if any) individuals will pay them.

But nowhere in the recent Urban study did the researchers explicitly state the major implication of this selective loading of premiums. In most states, individuals who do not qualify for subsidies can avoid the “CSR surcharge” (i.e., the premium costs associated with the withdrawal of CSR funding) by either buying a non-silver plan, or buying a silver plan off the exchange.

As I previously noted, only in six states must unsubsidized individuals pay the costs associated with the withdrawal of CSRs. In the remaining 44 states and the District of Columbia, unsubsidized individuals can choose other plans to avoid the surcharge—and all fully informed, rational consumers would do so.

Given this unusual dynamic, the increase in silver, on-exchange premiums between 2017 and 2018 does reflect an increase in federal spending. Obamacare links premium subsidies to the cost of the second-lowest silver plan on the exchanges, meaning that federal spending on subsidies rose from the “CSR surcharge.” But it does not reflect what people paid out-of-pocket. In most cases, unsubsidized individuals could avoid the surcharge, and most presumably did just that.

The Urban Institute researchers know that most unsubsidized individuals can (and did) avoid the “CSR surcharge”—because they encouraged states to come up with this strategy in the first place. Their January 2016 paper about the withdrawal of CSR payments noted that, if those payments disappeared, unsubsidized individuals would be “strongly disincentivized” to purchase coverage from the exchanges, and would instead “enroll in silver plan coverage” outside the exchanges, where “plan premiums…would be significantly lower.”

Linda Blumberg, one of the authors of the prior study, also co-authored the paper released last month. She did not forget her prior work. In fact, she cited the January 2016 study in footnote six of the March 2018 paper. So why did the March 2018 work nowhere mention that most unsubsidized individuals could, and likely did, obtain cheaper coverage by buying other types of plans?

The obvious answer comes in the lead paragraph of a Politico story about the study: “Premiums for the most popular Obamacare plans skyrocketed by nearly a third this year…” Neither the study nor the Politico story mentioned that in most states, only subsidized individuals—for whom the federal government pays most of their premiums—purchased these plans, and that unsubsidized individuals could avoid these “skyrocketing” premiums by purchasing other coverage.

In other words, the Urban Institute “study” amounted to a political hit piece on Republicans. By coming up with the largest possible premium increases, even though few (if any) individuals actually paid these increases out-of-pocket, the Urban Institute gave Democrats fodder to use in campaign attack ads this fall. Given the lack of attention and consideration the Urban researchers paid to their own prior work, that seems the prime objective for the paper.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.