The Shameful Spectacle of Friday’s Coronavirus “Vote”

Ten years ago, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) infamously proclaimed that we had to pass Obamacare to find out what was in it. On Friday, she and her House colleagues enacted one of the largest pieces of legislation in American history, a more than $2 trillion bill that represented Congress’ third piece of coronavirus-related legislation, all while refusing to take a recorded position on it.

The first coronavirus bill, signed into law on March 6, provided $8.3 billion in spending to fight the virus; the second bill, signed into law on March 18, spent another $100 billion on testing, food stamps, paid family leave, and additional subsidies to to state Medicaid programs; and the third bill, which President Trump signed last Friday, contained a broader package of unemployment and economic bailouts to businesses and families.

That Pelosi would resort to such procedural chicanery should surprise few Americans. In 2010 she wanted the House to enact Obamacare without actually voting on the legislation—the so-called “deem-and-pass” maneuver—although she eventually abandoned that strategy after a massive public outcry.

But unlike the Obamacare debate, House Republican leaders and many rank-and-file members of Congress actively participated in Pelosi’s successful attempt to deny the American people a vote on the legislation. In so doing, they abdicated their responsibilities as lawmakers and leaders out of a mixture of fear and spite.

Members of Congress Are Essential

The fear came because House lawmakers did not want to travel back to Washington to vote on the “stimulus.” The combination of several representatives and senators testing positive for coronavirus (with several others in self-isolation due to potential exposure), public advisories against large gatherings and travel, the close quarters in which members congregate in the Capitol, and the advanced age of some members made them understandably nervous about a return to Washington.

But members of Congress do not have any ordinary job. Their roles as our elected lawmakers make them essential to our democracy—and Article I, Section 6 of the Constitution recognizes them as such: “They shall in all cases, except Treason, Felony, and Breach of the Peace, be privileged from Arrest during their Attendance at the Session of their respective Houses, and in going to and returning from the same; and for any Speech or Debate in either House, they shall not be questioned in any other Place.”

While the Supreme Court has since narrowed the scope of members’ privilege from arrest, its inclusion in the nation’s founding document shows how the Framers considered full participation by all members essential to American self-rule.

Pelosi’s Incompetence Prompted the Debacle

Much of the member frustration regarding the process came not just from the fact that they had to travel to Washington, but were asked to do so on short notice—a particular difficulty given airlines’ dramatic reductions to their flight schedules. Some members could not arrive back in Washington by the time of Friday’s debate and “vote.”

But why did members have to rush back late Thursday for proceedings in the House on Friday morning? Because Pelosi mismanaged the process and then sought to blame others for her mistakes.

For starters, House members remained in their districts for most of last week only because Pelosi had sent them there. Early on March 14, House leaders dismissed members to their districts, in an attempt (ultimately successful) to force the Senate to accept the second coronavirus bill without amendments. Had the Senate made any changes to the legislation, the House would have had to return into session to ratify the Senate amendments, holding up passage. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell told his colleagues to “gag and vote for it anyway.”

Ironically enough, Pelosi not three days before dismissing her colleagues claimed, “We are the captains of the ship—we are the last to leave.” Had Pelosi kept the House in session as the Senate passed the second coronavirus bill and debated the third, members would not have needed to travel back to Washington in the first place—they would have remained here.

The speaker claimed she would give members 24 hours’ notice prior to any votes, should they become necessary. But she waited until late Thursday to tell members they would have to attend proceedings in the House beginning at 9:00 Friday morning.

Following Senate passage of the third coronavirus bill early Thursday morning, Pelosi and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) should have instructed all members to report to Washington the following day. Instead, they wasted most of Thursday playing a game of “chicken” with the rank-and-file—daring someone to demand all members attend, and then blaming that member, Rep. Thomas Massie (R-Ky.), when he insisted the House assemble a quorum of 216 members to conduct business.

A very similar scenario happened in Congress’ upper chamber two years ago. McConnell (R-Ky.) tried to ram through a spending bill at the last minute, but miscalculated when Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) raised objections. Rather than blaming McConnell for mis-managing the Senate floor, leadership staffers—and the reporters who rely on leadership staffers to spoon-feed them gossip and stories—decided to blame Paul instead.

Rep. Thomas Massie Did Not Grandstand

House leaders took the same tack with Massie last week, enlisting President Trump to attack the congressman. On Friday morning, Trump called Massie a “third rate grandstander” for insisting that members of Congress return to Washington to vote on the legislation.

But to someone well-versed in House procedure, the facts indicate otherwise. Massie had multiple other opportunities to throw sand in the proverbial gears regarding Friday’s coronavirus bill, but did not do so:

  • The House passed the rule governing debate on the bill by unanimous consent. Massie (or any member) could have objected to the House even considering the rule on Friday morning. Such an objection would have required the House Rules Committee to hold an emergency meeting, and could have postponed consideration of the bill by 24 hours. He raised no objections.
  • Massie could have demanded a vote on the rule. Demanding that vote would have required House leaders to muster a quorum of 216 members at 9:00 on Friday—a time many members were still rushing back to Washington. Massie raised no objections.
  • Massie could have demanded one or more votes on a motion to adjourn—a frequent stalling tactic the minority party in the House uses to express outrage when it feels the majority has committed a “process foul.” He never did.

If Massie truly wanted to act like a “glass-bowl,” to paraphrase a tweet by former Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), he could have done so. He could have wound the House in knots for much of Friday with procedural objections, parliamentary inquiries, motions to adjourn, and other dilatory tactics.

To his credit, he didn’t do any of that. Massie cared about one thing: That members of Congress have an up-or-down vote—“yay” or “nay”—on the massive, multi-trillion-dollar bill. House leaders conspired against that reasonable request.

‘Mean Girls’ Try Their Tricks in Washington

Massie, or any member of Congress, can object that the House lacks a quorum to conduct business. Article I, Section 5 of the Constitution prescribes that a majority of members (216 at present, given several vacancies) constitutes a quorum. Given Massie’s publicly stated intent to object, the House could not pass the coronavirus bill without a majority of members present in the chamber. Hence the frantic messages from congressional leaders Thursday night seeking member attendance the next morning.

But no one member can demand a roll call vote, in which each takes a recorded “yay” or “nay” position. Article I, Section 5 of the Constitution also states that “the Yeas and Nays of the Members of either House on any question shall, at the Desire of one-fifth of those Present, be entered on the Journal.”

When debate on the bill concluded Friday afternoon, Massie suggested the absence of a quorum. The presiding officer counted, and concluded that a majority of members, many sitting in the House gallery above the chamber to observe social distancing protocols, were present. But when Massie requested a roll call vote, one-fifth of members (somewhere between 43 and 85, depending on the number of congressman present in the House chamber) would not agree, meaning the $2 trillion-plus bill passed on a voice vote, with lawmakers’ positions not recorded.

Under the most charitable interpretation, members didn’t want to force a vote when at least dozens of their colleagues could not participate, either because they remained in quarantine or couldn’t get back to Washington in time. But consider Clause 10 of Rule XX of the rules of the House for the current Congress:

The yeas and nays shall be considered as ordered when the Speaker puts the question on passage of a bill or joint resolution, or on adoption of a conference report, making general appropriations, or on final adoption of a concurrent resolution on the budget or conference report thereon. [Emphasis added.]

In just about every other circumstance, House rules require a roll-call vote on an appropriations bill like the one the House passed on Friday. This requirement did not apply to Friday’s coronavirus legislation only because the House considered it as a message from the Senate, rather than as an original bill or the report of a House-Senate conference committee.

As noted above, members had to come into town anyway, to ensure the House had a quorum to conduct business. Usual practice, as indicated by the excerpt from the House’s own rules, suggests members would record their votes publicly.

They did not even need to congregate in mass groups to vote electronically on the House floor. The clerks could have engaged in an actual roll call vote, which would have allowed members sitting in the House gallery to respond verbally from their places. Rather than following this usual practice—to say nothing of giving their own voters the respect of making their positions known on a $2 trillion bill —the House instead decided to take a passive-aggressive approach, turning Friday’s session into another real-life episode of “Mean Girls.”

To put it bluntly, members did not approve a roll-call vote to spite Massie, because Massie had the temerity to force them to come to Washington and do the job they are paid to do. Pelosi, McCarthy, and their leadership teams likely instructed rank-and-file members not to “reward bad behavior” (as one senator described the McConnell-Paul incident two years ago) and to deny Massie a recorded vote.

The members, either due to their own irritation at Massie, or fear of the consequences from leadership, politely complied. In so doing, they abdicated their responsibilities as lawmakers, prioritizing revenge and anger at Massie over conducting an open, transparent, and fully recorded vote.

Do Your Job, Congress!

Early in my career, a boss of mine offered some matter-of-fact advice that members of Congress should think about: “If you don’t like the job, don’t take the check.”

As Massie noted, grocery store clerks and many others such as nurse’s aides and orderlies in hospitals get paid far less than members of Congress’ $174,000 salary. They continue to show up on the frontlines of this pandemic day-in, day-out, performing heroically in grueling conditions. But when members of the House get asked to do their duties in public for one day, they lash out like preschoolers at the individual forcing them into service.

Massie’s solitary stand against his colleagues may cost him re-election. He faces a primary challenge in June (possibly fomented by House Republican leaders), and his opponent will no doubt use Trump’s Twitter tirade against him.

But Massie acted as he did out of the belief that our elected representatives should not add more than $2 trillion to the national debt without accepting public responsibility for their actions. Of course, to many of his congressional colleagues, Massie’s actions represent a novel—and truly revolutionary—concept: Standing up for principle.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

The Tough Cost-Benefit Choices Facing Policymakers Regarding Coronavirus

Right now, the United States, like most of the rest of the world, faces two critical, yet diametrically opposed, priorities: Stopping a global pandemic without causing a global economic depression.

Balancing these two priorities presents tough choices—all else equal, revitalizing the economy will exacerbate the pandemic, and fighting the pandemic will worsen economic misery. Yet, as they navigate this Scylla and Charybdis, some policymakers have taken positions contrary to their prior instincts.

In his daily press briefing Tuesday, Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D-NY) discussed the false choice between the economy and public health. He made the following assertions:

My mother is not expendable, your mother is not expendable, and our brothers and sisters are not expendable, and we’re not going to accept the premise that human life is disposable, and we’re not going to put a dollar figure on human life. The first order of business is to save lives, period. Whatever it costs….

If you ask the American people to choose between public health and the economy then it’s no contest. No American is going to say accelerate the economy at the cost of human life because no American is going to say how much a life is worth.

On this count, Cuomo is flat wrong. Entities in both the United States and elsewhere—including within his own state government—put a dollar figure on human life on a regular basis.

Rationing on Cost Grounds Already Happens

Consider the below statement describing the National Institute of Health and Care Excellence (NICE), a British institution that determines coverage guidelines for the country’s National Health Service (NHS). NICE uses the quality-adjusted life year (QALY) formula, which puts a value on human life and then judges whether a new treatment exceeds its “worth” to society:

As a treatment approaches a cost of £20,000 [about $24,000 at current exchange rates] per QALY gained over existing best practice, NICE will scrutinize it closely. It will consider how robust the analysis relating to its cost- and clinical-effectiveness is, how innovative the treatment is, and other factors. As the cost rises above £30,000 [about $36,000] per QALY, NICE states that ‘an increasingly stronger case for supporting the technology as an effective use of NHS resources’ is necessary.

Entities in the United States undertake similar research. The Institute for Clinical and Economic Review (ICER) also performs cost-effectiveness research using the QALY metric. The organization’s website notes that “the state of New York has used [ICER] reports as an input into its Medicaid program of negotiating drug prices.” In other words, Cuomo’s own administration places a value on human life when determining what the state’s Medicaid program will and won’t pay for pharmaceuticals.

Cost-Effectiveness Thresholds

Cuomo represents but one example of the contradictions in the current coronavirus debate. Donald Berwick, an official in the Obama administration and recent advisor to the presidential campaign of Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), infamously discussed the need to “ration with our eyes open” While many liberals like him have traditionally endorsed rationing health care on cost grounds, few seem willing to prioritize economic growth over fighting the pandemic.

Conversely, conservatives often oppose rationing as an example of government harming the most vulnerable by placing an arbitrary value on human life. Nonetheless, the recent voices wanting to prioritize a return to economic activity over fighting the pandemic have come largely from the right.

The calls to reopen the economy came in part from an Imperial College London study examining outcomes from the pandemic. The paper concluded that an unmitigated epidemic (i.e., one where officials made no attempt to stop the virus’ spread) would cost approximately 2.2 million lives in the United States. Mitigation strategies like social distancing would reduce the virus’ impact and save lives, but would prolong the outbreak—and harm the economy—for more than a year.

The paper’s most interesting nugget lies at its end: “Even if all patients were able to be treated”—meaning hospitals would not get overwhelmed with a surge of patients when the pandemic peaks—“we predict there would still be in the order of…1.1-1.2 million [deaths] in the US.” Based on the Imperial College model, shutting down the economy so as not to let the virus run rampant would save approximately 1 million lives compared to the worst-case scenario.

A Cost of $1 Million Per Estimated Life Saved

Some crude economic math suggests the value a pandemic-inspired economic “pause” might place on human life. Based on a U.S. gross domestic product of approximately $21 trillion, a 5 percent reduction in GDP—which seems realistic, or perhaps even conservative, based on current worldwide projections—would erase roughly $1.05 trillion in economic growth. The Imperial College estimate that mitigation and social distancing measures would save roughly 1 million lives would therefore place the value of each life saved at approximately $1 million.

Of course, these calculations depend in large part on inputs and assumptions—how quickly the virus spreads, whether large numbers of Americans have already become infected asymptomatically, whether already infected individuals gain immunity from future infection, how much the slowdown harms economic growth in both the short and long-term, and many, many more. Other assumptions could yield quite different results.

But if these types of calculations, particularly when performed with varying assumptions and inputs, replicate the results of the crude math above, policymakers likely will sit up and take notice. Given that Britain’s National Health Service makes coverage decisions by valuing life as worth tens of thousands of pounds, far less than millions of dollars, it seems contradictory to keep pursuing a pandemic strategy resulting in economic damage many multiples of that amount for every life saved.

Tough Cost-Benefit Analysis

Unfortunately, lawmakers the world over face awful choices, and can merely attempt to select the least-bad option based on the best evidence available to them at the time. Slogans like “Why put your job over your grandmother?” or “If you worry about the virus, just stay home” belie the very real consequences the country could face.

Consider possible scenarios if officials loosen economic restrictions while the pandemic persists. Some individuals with health conditions could face the prospect of returning to work in an environment they find potentially hazardous, or losing their jobs. Individuals who stay home to avoid the virus, yet develop medical conditions unrelated to the virus—a heart attack, for instance—could die due to their inability to access care, as hospitals become swarmed with coronavirus patients. And on and on.

The president said on Tuesday he would like to start reopening the economy by Easter, a timeline that seems highly optimistic, at best. If by that time the situation in New York City deteriorates to something resembling Italy’s coronavirus crisis—and well it could—both the president and the American people may take quite a different view towards reopening the economy immediately. (And governors, who have more direct power over their states, could decide to ignore Trump and keep state-based restrictions on economic activity in place regardless of what he says.)

Nonetheless, everyone understands that the economy cannot remain in suspended animation forever. Hopefully, better data, more rapid viral testing, and the emergence of potential treatments will allow the United States and the world to begin re-establishing some sense of normalcy, at the minimum possible cost to both human life and economic growth.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

Nancy Pelosi’s Obamacare Bailout Also Funds Abortion Coverage

In the words of her former House colleague Rahm Emanuel, Nancy Pelosi never wants to let a crisis go to waste. The House speaker not only wants to use the coronavirus pandemic to entrench Obamacare, she wants to make taxpayers fund abortion in the process.

A recent summary of the legislation Pelosi plans to introduce as an alternative to Senate Republicans’ “stimulus” bill laid out the strategy. House Democrats want to force insurers to reopen enrollment in the Obamacare Exchanges, and cover their losses via a taxpayer-funded bailout.

Leftist Wish List

The available summary of the bill—the summary!—totals 62 pages, and nearly 25,000 words. It contains a veritable menagerie of liberal big-government programs and boondoggles. For instance, it creates a “cash for clunkers” program for the government to buy old airplanes. (I’m not making this up—check out page 53 of the summary.)

Page 13 of the summary also notes that the bill would spend $400,000 so Congress’ Office of the Attending Physician can buy “N95 masks, surgical masks, gloves, swabs, test[s]…and personal protective equipment.” Somehow, the fact that Pelosi ensured Congress appropriated funds to protect itself failed to surprise this jaded observer.

New Open Enrollment Period

Division G of the 1,404-page legislation includes a variety of health-care provisions, only some of which directly relate to the coronavirus pandemic. For instance, Section 70301 (which begins on page 337) would create a “one-time special enrollment period for the [Obamacare Exchanges], allowing Americans who are uninsured to” purchase coverage.

This proposal raises an obvious problem: Moral hazard. If individuals know they can forego coverage during the usual open enrollment period and obtain coverage later, healthy individuals will do just that: only buy insurance when they need it.

Some may argue that those who lose their jobs due to coronavirus—either a temporary furlough, or a permanent layoff, during the resulting downturn—need a way to buy coverage after losing their insurance. But individuals who lose employer coverage already have a way to purchase a new plan: They automatically qualify for a special enrollment period, during which they can replace their former employer plan with exchange coverage.

Bailout Funds

News reports suggest that insurers support reopening the exchanges for a special enrollment period. However, the insurance industry also wants federal dollars to offset their potential losses from such a move.

Insurers obviously did not account for the costs of coronavirus treatments last spring and summer, when they set their 2020 premiums; no one knew of the disease at that point. The unexpected costs associated with treating the disease will likely eat into insurers’ margins for 2020.

But allowing people to buy “insurance” in the middle of a pandemic will raise insurers’ costs even further. Consider that life insurers are already imposing waiting periods for at least some applicants during the pandemic. One actuary believes life insurers will shut down applications entirely, due to the overwhelming risks they face.

By contrast, health carriers will allow anyone to apply for “insurance” during the pandemic, “if the government cover[s] anticipated losses.” Hence Section 70308 of Pelosi’s “stimulus” bill (beginning on page 404) provides for a two-year program of risk corridors.

Pelosi’s bill would recreate an Obamacare program in place from 2014 through 2016 that would have exposed taxpayers to billions of dollars in losses, but for language inserted at the insistence of Republican members of Congress. Just a few months ago, insurers took a case over risk corridors to the Supreme Court, asking for the justices to give them the bailout funds that Congress declined to pay.

Taxpayer Funding of Abortion Coverage

But as I noted nearly three years ago, when Republicans wanted to pass a “stability” bill bailing out Obamacare insurers, providing new federal dollars to insurers by definition represents taxpayer funding of abortion coverage. Only codifying the Hyde amendment’s pro-life protections for the risk corridor program would ensure that the bailout dollars will not flow to plans that cover abortion.

Separate provisions included in Section 104 of Division T of the bill (beginning on page 1089) would also substantially increase the generosity of Obamacare subsidies. The provisions would reduce the percentage of income that individuals would have to pay towards their premiums, with the federal government picking up a greater share of the tab. The same section would also eliminate the current income cap that prevents households with incomes of over 400% of the federal poverty level ($104,800 for a family of four in 2020) from receiving subsidies.

Joe Biden also included these changes to the Obamacare subsidy regime in his own health plan, released last summer, illustrating Pelosi’s attempt to exploit the coronavirus pandemic to enact Democrats’ pre-existing agenda. As with the risk corridors funding, if the legislation does not include strong pro-life protections, it means that billions of federal taxpayer dollars will flow to plans that cover abortion.

Of course, Pelosi did not include these Hyde Amendment protections in the summary of her bill, and likely would not allow a measure containing the protections to come to the House floor. Instead, the legislation represents a giveaway to both health insurers and the abortion industry.

Ironically, Senate Democrats objected to Republicans’ “stimulus” bill because they claimed it included a “slush fund” designed to bail out corporations. Perhaps they should have a conversation with Pelosi, because the Obamacare “slush fund” included in her bill would do the exact same thing.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

This post was updated subsequent to publication with additional details regarding the introduced bill.

It Shouldn’t Take a Pandemic to Deregulate American Health Care

Over the past several weeks, the media has spent a great deal of time focusing on delays in rolling out and scaling up coronavirus testing across the country. But the understandable frustration over testing delays should not discount the other changes occurring within the federal government to help the virus response.

On Tuesday, the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services announced its approval of two waivers related to the coronavirus outbreak. One allowed Medicare providers to treat more conditions via telehealth, so more seniors can avoid exposure to the virus by having medical exams at home rather than traveling to a doctor’s office. The other gave Florida’s Medicaid program additional flexibility — such as the ability to reimburse claims made by doctors who participate in other state Medicaid or Medicare programs, even if they have not gone through the process of enrolling in Florida’s Medicaid program.

These changes represent real progress against the virus. But they also raise the broader question of why it required an imminent threat to public health to effect common-sense regulatory changes — and why some of these changes may last only for the duration of the coronavirus outbreak.

The Emergency Declaration Includes

The regulatory flexibility announced on Tuesday came mere days after President Trump signed a proclamation authorizing the changes. In his remarks in the Rose Garden Friday, the president indicated what kind of changes the declaration would give to the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services and its parent agency, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS):

  • “The ability to waive laws to enable telehealth,” which “gives remote doctors’ visits and hospital check-ins;”
  • “The power to waive certain federal license requirements so that doctors from other states can provide services [in] states with the greatest need;”
  • “The ability to waive requirements that critical-access hospitals limit the number of beds to 25 and the length of stay to 96 hours;”
  • “The ability to waive the requirements of a three-day hospital stay prior to admission to a nursing home;”
  • “The authority to waive rules that hinder hospitals’ ability to bring additional physicians on board or obtain needed office space;” and
  • “The authority to waive rules that severely restrict where hospitals can care for patients within the hospital itself, ensuring that the emergency capacity can be quickly established.”

The emergency authorities given to HHS under Section 1135 of the Social Security Act include all these flexibilities and several others — for instance, the power to waive conditions of participation and certification requirements for providers, modify statutory deadlines and timetables, waive out-of-network requirements for Medicare Advantage plans, and waive penalties for certain comparatively minor HIPAA violations, such as not distributing privacy notices.

In his remarks Friday, Trump summarized the effect of these changes: Hospitals and medical providers “can do what they have to do” to treat virus patients. “They know what they have to do. Now they won’t have any problem getting it done.”

Reform Onerous Regulatory Burdens For Good

These changes, while both necessary and welcome, fail to answer the broader question of why some of these regulations existed in the first place. For instance, why does a doctor who lives just north of the Florida-Georgia line have to go through one set of bureaucratic hoops to treat his Georgia Medicaid patients and another set of hoops to treat Medicaid patients who happen to live a few miles south in Florida?

In addition to federal laws and regulations that bog down the practice of medicine, states’ varying and often conflicting requirements create a patchwork of regulations that makes life miserable for doctors, and can prohibit them from practicing in multiple states. Worse yet, scope-of-practice laws often prevent people like nurse practitioners and nurse anesthetists from using their full complement of skills because physician groups seeking to maintain their monopoly status lobby state legislatures to enact harmful regulatory burdens.

The Mercatus Center has conducted volumes of research showing that these types of state-imposed laws — whether measures limiting the scope of practice or requiring a certificate of need from a government board before hospitals can construct new facilities — do not improve quality of care, and often harm it. In sum, these laws work less to protect patients than they do to protect incumbent doctors and hospitals looking to eliminate potential competitors.

Lawmakers at both the state and federal levels should examine these unnecessary regulatory burdens with an intent toward rolling them back permanently. The hospital industry has already asked for at least $1 billion as part of the next “stimulus” bill. At minimum, Congress should insist on regulatory reform in exchange for any additional federal dollars. Regulatory reform would both improve the system for patients and ensure Congress gets the most bang for its proverbial buck when providing taxpayer funds to the health-care sector.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

The Other Epidemic Plaguing Washington: Bailouts and Moral Hazard

While lawmakers face tough decisions about the economic impact of coronavirus, they should keep in mind that they face battles on two fronts. They want to promote a healthy economy (or as close to one as is feasible) during the coronavirus downturn, but they also don’t want to exacerbate moral hazard.

Moral hazard reared its ugly head during the 2008-09 recession, particularly in the form of the infamous (and unpopular) TARP program. The concept holds that policy actions supporting people who engaged in “bad” behavior—for instance, bailing out the Wall Street firms that caused the financial crisis—will only encourage such behavior in the future. Multiple examples in recent days, featuring both corporations and individuals, suggest the concept remains alive and well in Washington.

Corporations and Buybacks

On the corporate side, individuals as varied as Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) and billionaire investor Mark Cuban have highlighted prior actions by airlines, who now seek a government bailout totaling $50 billion. Both noted that the airline industry as a whole spent 96 percent of its free cash flow over the past decade buying back shares—an act that might juice company stock prices, while leaving little cash on hand should a major calamity like a pandemic emerge.

Some have argued that because the Internal Revenue Code currently taxes corporations’ accumulated earnings, airlines have a strong disincentive to build up larger “rainy day funds,” notwithstanding the historically volatile nature of their industry. But the optics of this potential bailout reek of moral hazard, by privatizing gains (i.e., stock buybacks) and socializing losses.

Student Debt

The issue of moral hazard has not remained confined only to corporations. For instance, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) has demanded that Congress include “broad student loan forgiveness,” along the lines of her presidential campaign proposal, as part of any “stimulus” legislation.

That student loan bailout proposal, originally released in May 2019, “cancels $50,000 in student loan debt for every person with household income under $100,000,” and “provides substantial debt cancellation for every person with household income between $100,000 and $250,000.”

That type of proposal has all sorts of flaws to it. Most notably, by rewarding individuals who picked costlier, private institutions (e.g., Harvard University), it punishes those who chose a less expensive school (e.g., a public institution or community college) to save money. It likewise punishes those who chose their degree based upon earning potential (e.g., an MBA) compared to those who decided to study what they love, even if it would not help their future earning prospects (e.g., art history).

Of course, such a massive (and expensive) bailout would have little to do with the immediate task at hand, in the form of the virus’ economic impacts. A household with income last year of $80,000, but where the income-earners telework, would receive far more debt forgiveness than the owner of a restaurant who earned far more last year but whose small business now lies in ruin because of the virus.

One can cite the present circumstances to make a case for some student loan assistance. Forbearance, a waiver of interest, and suspension of collections—all make sense, particularly for families suffering financial turmoil. But outright loan forgiveness? That would only exacerbate the rising cost of college education, as future students would spend away, thinking Washington will erase their debts in a similar fashion.

Don’t Pick Winners and Losers

Various publications have noted that the “stimulus” activity represents a bonanza for K Street. Lobbyists continue to make their pitch for bailing out various industries, and using coronavirus as a justification to enact agenda items that existed well before the epidemic.

But Congress should avoid the temptation to enact bailouts targeted at particular industries. Such activity only picks winners and losers, further entrenching Washington in the nation’s economy. Moreover, some of the industries seeking assistance have a less-than-critical role in the nation’s economy.

Cruise lines—most of whom base their ships in other countries anyway—how do they represent a vital national interest? Casinos—does anyone really think Americans won’t want to gamble again once the coronavirus restrictions get lifted?

Lawmakers always feel the need to “do something,” seemingly irrespective of what that “something” is. The current pandemic only exacerbates that dilemma. But Congress should proceed very cautiously, because the “cure” for the coronavirus economy could in the long run end up worse than the disease.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

The Sorry Story of Congress’ Latest “Stimulus” Bill

As Yogi Berra’s infamous saying goes, it’s déjà vu all over again—and not in a good way.

I refer not just to the rapid economic slowdown, panicky markets, and multiple Federal Reserve bailouts related to the coronavirus epidemic, all of which echo the financial crisis of 2008. I speak also of Nancy Pelosi’s infamous comments a decade ago this month about Obamacare:

The House of Representatives—both Democrats and most (all but 40) Republicans—went along with legislation that not only wasn’t paid for, and didn’t contain any long-term reforms to programs desperately in need of them. They passed a bill whose cost still remains unknown (the Congressional Budget Office has yet to issue a cost estimate), which none of them had time to read—and might not even accomplish its supposed objectives.

Word emerged over the weekend that flaws in the bill require at least one, and possibly more than one, correction. The Wall Street Journal reported the House will attempt to pass “a technical fix on Monday.” But even as Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, who negotiated the package with Pelosi despite being “relatively green” on such matters, tried to minimize the objections, others weighed in more strongly.

The Capitol Hill publication Roll Call said the bill may need a “do-over” regarding its paid family leave provisions. The National Federation of Independent Business weighed in with objections after the bill’s passage in the House, saying that small firms wouldn’t receive the tax credits quickly enough, and could face cash-flow problems as a result.

A congressional source confirmed to me that concerns about the family leave provisions could prompt a rewrite that’s more than technical in nature. These developments should surprise no one acquainted with prior slapdash attempts to legislate on the fly, but they should force Congress to slow down such a ridiculous process.

TARP and Obamacare

This past weekend, House leaders released the final version of their “stimulus” legislation at 11:45 p.m. Friday night. The House’s vote on the bill ended at 12:51 a.m. Saturday—just more than an hour later. Members of Congress had a whopping 66 minutes to review the 110-page bill before voting on it. Even the Republican Study Committee, a conservative caucus in the House, barely had time to issue a 10-page summary of the bill before the vote gaveled to a close.

That the legislation needs a technical fix (and possibly more than one) merely continues Congress’ practice of passing complicated legislation members do not understand. For instance, in March 2009 Sen. Chris Dodd (D-CT) had to accept responsibility for inserting a provision into the “stimulus” at the behest of Obama administration officials that allowed AIG officials to collect more than $1 billion in bonuses, despite the firm requiring a massive bailout from the federal government via the Troubled Assets Relief Program. The entire controversy demonstrated that no one, not even the lawmakers who drafted the “stimulus” and TARP bills, fully understood the bills or their effects.

Consider too this description of the infamous Obamacare bill:

The Affordable Care Act contains more than a few examples of inartful drafting. (To cite just one, the Act creates three separate Section 1563s.) Several features of the Act’s passage contributed to that unfortunate reality. Congress wrote key parts of the Act behind closed doors, rather than through ‘the traditional legislative process.’…. As a result, the Act does not reflect the type of care and deliberation that one might expect of such significant legislation.

That description comes from Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts’s 2015 ruling in King v. Burwell, a case about whether individuals purchasing coverage from the federal exchange qualified for subsidies. Roberts’s ruling called the language a drafting error, and permitted individuals in all states to receive the subsidies. But if an innocent drafting error, the mistake had potentially far-reaching implications, which few if any members of Congress realized when they voted for the bill—without reading it, of course.

Rushing for the Exits

To call the nascent controversy surrounding the “stimulus” legislation a fiasco would put it mildly. Worse yet, much of the controversy seems unnecessary and entirely self-inflicted.

Congress had absolutely no reason to pass the bill just before 1 a.m. on Saturday. Financial markets had closed for the weekend, and the Senate had adjourned until Monday afternoon. Voting early Saturday morning, as opposed to later in the day on Saturday, or even on Sunday, didn’t accelerate passage of the bill one bit. However, it did allow members of Congress to leave Washington more quickly.

In other words, the leaders of both parties—who agreed to the rushed process leading up to the vote—made getting members out of town a bigger priority than giving members the time to do their due diligence as lawmakers. It’s an understandable instinct, given the serious consequences of the coronavirus on all Americans, particularly the older profile of many legislators. But it’s also an abdication of Pelosi’s own claim last week that “we’re the captains of this ship.”

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

Don’t Just Bail Out a Flawed Medicaid Program

In recent days, some observers have discussed the possibility of targeted assistance to state Medicaid programs affected by the coronavirus outbreak. Unfortunately, the legislation proposed by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) falls far short of that marker, providing a gusher of new spending with no long-term reforms to the program. Conservatives should insist on better.

The House’s bill, introduced late in the night Wednesday, contains several noteworthy flaws. By increasing the federal Medicaid match for all states by 8 percentage points for the entire public health emergency, it prevents the targeting of assistance to those states most affected by coronavirus cases.

Increasing the federal match for able-bodied adults to 98 percent encourages states to prioritize these individuals over disabled populations, while discouraging states from rooting out fraud. The legislation also precludes states from making any changes to their Medicaid programs for the duration of the bailout, reinstituting the fiscal straight-jacket contained in President Obama’s “stimulus” bill.

Like that 2009 package, Pelosi’s legislation proposes tens of billions in new spending for an already-sprawling Medicaid program without any structural changes. But if Pelosi or conservatives wish to pay for the short-term largesse via long-term changes to Medicaid, they need not look far: President Obama’s budgets included several proposals that, if enacted into law, would change incentives in Medicaid for the better.

One area ripe for reform: Medicaid provider taxes. Hospitals and other medical providers often support these taxes—the only entities that ever endorse new taxes on themselves—because they immediately come right back to the health care industry, after states use the tax revenue to draw down additional Medicaid matching funds. In 2011, none other than Joe Biden reportedly called this form of legalized money laundering a “scam.”

At minimum, Congress should immediately enact a moratorium on any new provider taxes, or any increases in existing provider taxes, cutting off the spigot of federal dollars via this budget gimmick. Lawmakers can echo President Obama’s February 2012 budget submission, which would have saved $21.8 billion by reducing states’ maximum provider tax rate.

That proposal delayed its effective date by three years, “giv[ing] states more time to plan”—which would in this case delay the changes until the coronavirus outbreak subsides. Another positive solution: Codifying the Trump administration’s Medicaid fiscal accountability rule, which includes welcome reforms reining in states’ most egregious accounting gimmicks, effective a future date.

More broadly, Congress should also consider the ways the existing matching rate formula encourages additional Medicaid spending by states. For instance, current law provides all states with a minimum 50 percent match rate, encouraging richer states to spend more on Medicaid. Absent that floor, 14 states—11 of them blue—would face a lower match; Connecticut’s rate would plummet from 50 percent to 11.69 percent.

Gradually lowering or eliminating the federal floor on the match rate, beginning 2-3 years hence, would discourage wealthier states from growing their Medicaid programs beyond their, and the federal government’s, control. Had lawmakers enacted this proposal as part of the 2009 “stimulus,” New York—which would have a federal match rate of 34.49 percent in the current fiscal year absent the 50 percent minimum—might have right-sized its Medicaid program well before the program’s current budget crunch.

Alternatively, Congress could embrace Obama’s budget proposal for a blended Medicaid matching rate. Replacing the current morass of varying federal match rates for different populations could save money, and eliminate the perverse incentives included in Obamacare, which gives states a higher match rate to cover able-bodied adults than individuals with disabilities.

Judging from her initial bid in the “stimulus” wars, Pelosi has taken Rahm Emanuel’s advice never to let a serious crisis go to waste. If she wishes to emulate Obama’s first chief of staff, conservatives should insist that she also enact some of the Medicaid changes proposed in Obama’s own budgets, to begin the process of reforming the program.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

No, Bernie Sanders, Single Payer Wouldn’t Eliminate the Coronavirus Outbreak

On Monday evening, Fox News hosted a town hall with Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders in Dearborn, Michigan, ahead of that state’s Democratic presidential primary on Tuesday. The program began with a question about the ongoing coronavirus situation, and how Sanders would respond to the outbreak.

Sanders criticized President Trump’s handling of the outbreak, specifically the contradictions between some of his public statements and those of government scientists. Sanders then pivoted to suggest that a single payer health care system with “free” care would ameliorate Americans’ concerns:

We will talk I am sure about [single payer]. But when I talk about health care being a human right, and all people having health care, the coronavirus crisis makes that abundantly clear as to why it should be. You’ve got millions of people in this country today who may feel that they have a symptom. But you know what? They cannot afford to go to a doctor.

Sanders believes a single payer system that eliminates patient cost-sharing, like Britain’s National Health Service (NHS), would improve access to care. But consider some recent comments made by British Labour Party Leader Jeremy Corbyn. At Prime Minister’s Questions last Wednesday, Corbyn raised the same issue Sanders did—patients in his country unable to access care:

Yesterday, our part-time prime minister finally published the steps that his government will take to tackle the outbreak of the disease. The strategy broadly has our support, but a decade of Tory austerity means that our national health service is already struggling to cope. Bed-occupancy levels are at 94% and hundreds of our most vulnerable people are being treated on trolleys in corridors. What additional funding will our overstretched and underfunded NHS be given to deal with this crisis?

Far from acting as the panacea Sanders claimed in his remarks Monday evening, Corbyn believes the NHS will also leave some coronavirus patients untreated.

As this space has previously noted, British patients pay quite a lot for health care—they just pay for it by waiting, as opposed to out-of-pocket costs. A report released last fall concluded that waiting lists in the NHS have risen by 40 percent in the past five years, and now approaches 4.6 million Britons, or nearly 7 percent of the country’s entire population.

As Corbyn noted in his remarks last Wednesday, funding shortfalls mean that British hospitals already face overcrowding pressures under normal circumstances. Two years ago, an outbreak of the flu caused the postponement of nearly 55,000 operations. Emergency room physicians apologized for “Third World conditions of the department due to overcrowding.” Lack of inpatient beds meant ER patients spent hours on gurneys in hallways waiting to get admitted to the hospital, and ambulances spent hours circling hospitals, waiting to drop off their patients.

The NHS’ “winter crisis” occurs regularly when flu cases spike in Britain. And coronavirus—more virulent than the flu, and with no treatments available at present—represents a potential threat orders of magnitude greater than the NHS’s usual capacity problems.

Britain provides health care to its residents with few out-of-pocket charges. But the nearly 4.6 million Britons on waiting lists have no ability to compel the government to treat them promptly. In other words, Sanders’s claims to the contrary, Britain does not make health care “a human right.” Nor would his own bill make health care a legally enforceable right in the United States.

Both American and British patients end up paying for their care—the former more explicitly, and the latter more implicitly. But the potential queues that will likely materialize at NHS hospitals should the coronavirus spread demonstrate that a single-payer system will not provide a cure-all for American health care.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

Hospitals Seek to Defend Their Questionable Accounting Scams

With the federal government more than $23 trillion in debt, why should taxpayers continue to fund states’ accounting scams designed to bilk Washington out of additional Medicaid matching funds? It’s a good question, but one hospital lobbyists don’t want you to ask.

Late last year, the Trump administration released a proposed regulation designed to bring more transparency and accountability into the Medicaid program. The hospital sector in particular has begun an all-out blitz to try and overturn the rulemaking process. The need for the regulations demonstrates the problems with the current American health-care system, and how hospitals stand as one of the biggest obstacles to reform.

How the ‘Scam’ Works

The proposed regulations call for more transparency about supplemental payments within the Medicaid program. These payments, which take a variety of different forms, are considered supplemental in nature because they are not directly connected to the treatment of any one particular patient.

Many of these supplemental payments represent a way for states—and hospitals—to obtain a greater share of Medicaid matching dollars from the federal government. Hospitals, local governments, or other entities “contribute” funds to the state for the express purpose of obtaining additional Medicaid funds from Washington. Those matching funds then get funneled right back to many of the same entities that “contributed” the funds in the first place. As the old saying goes, it’s nice work if you can get it.

Over the years, even liberal groups have expressed concern about these shady funding mechanisms. In 2011, then-Vice President Joe Biden reportedly called provider taxes—in which hospitals and nursing homes pay an assessment, which gets laundered through state coffers to receive—a “scam.” Think about it: How often do you ask to pay higher taxes? Hospitals and nursing homes often propose new or higher provider taxes because they believe they will get their money back, and then some, via greater Medicaid payments.

Likewise, in 2000 the liberal Center on Budget and Policy Priorities decried the use of “Rube Goldberg-like accounting arrangements” that “use complex accounting gimmicks to secure additional federal funds for states without actual state matching contributions.” Yet two decades later, the scams continue to proliferate, because, as a 2005 government audit noted, most states have hired contingency-fee consultants for the sole purpose of bilking additional Medicaid matching funds from the federal government.

Hospitals’ Scare Tactics Rationalize Theft

The Trump administration’s proposal would make these accounting arrangements more transparent, with the goal of phasing out several of the most egregious arrangements altogether. This has prompted hospital executives to consider the proposed rule something just short of Armageddon.

During a 2008 debate on a similar set of Medicaid regulations put forward by the Bush administration, very few members of Congress even debated the regulations, as opposed to their effects on hospitals. Likewise, most hospital lobbyists and executives don’t try to defend the merits of these accounting scams. Instead, they just focus on the effects, with the typical “parade of horribles” examples: “If you end these payments, Tiny Tim will die.”

Hospitals’ reluctance to defend these opaque funding arrangements on their merits represents an implicit admission: They never should have received this money in the first place. Translation: “We stole that money fair and square—and you better let us keep stealing that money, or else” the hospital will close, people will lose their jobs, etc.

Hospitals’ Disingenuous Tactics

Some lobbyists on Capitol Hill claim they “only” want to delay the regulations, to allow for additional feedback and give hospitals time to adjust. It’s a ridiculous argument on multiple levels. First, as the policy paper from 2000 reveals, hospitals have engaged in these types of tactics for more than two decades, and they continue to grow and proliferate. The idea that hospitals need additional time to adjust to a problem they created seems laughable on its face.

Consider also what happened in 2008, when the Bush administration proposed a similar set of regulations designed to crack down on Medicaid financing abuses. Democrats passed a one-year moratorium preventing the administration from finalizing the rules, blocking them from taking effect.

Why only a one-year delay and not an outright ban? At the time, staff for the House Energy and Commerce Committee publicly stated that the moratorium “intended to delay the implementation of the Medicaid rules just long enough so that a future Administration can withdraw them.”

That’s exactly what ended up happening: The Obama administration withdrew the regulations upon taking office in 2009, so Congress didn’t have to pay for the cost associated with blocking them permanently. Hospital lobbyists asking for a delay of the regulations are hoping a Democrat wins the White House this fall, and can withdraw the regulations next year. They just won’t tell Republican staffers that their strategy is premised upon President Trump losing his re-election bid.

Let the Regulations Proceed, And Let States Decide

If the regulations went into effect today, they wouldn’t automatically lead to any hospitals closing down, or even hospitals losing any money. The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) said it would work with states to transition away from the offending transactions over time.

That said, some governors oppose the regulations for the same reason hospitals do: It would force state governors and lawmakers to make difficult choices. If the loopholes that allow states to bilk more funds out of Washington end, then states would have to pony up “real” money from their coffers to maintain payments to providers, rather than funds obtained via accounting gimmicks. Hospitals would have to compete with other important state priorities—transportation, education, corrections, etc.—to maintain their existing payments.

But as the old saying goes, to govern is to choose. Better for a state to raise taxes—and be up-front and honest about doing so—to fund its Medicaid program than for that same state to use opaque gimmicks to squeeze out more federal dollars. The latter situation amounts to a (deferred) tax increase anyway, by adding more dollars to Washington’s ever-growing debt.

After decades of delays, and with our country’s debt growing ever-larger by the day, Medicaid deserves the fiscal integrity these new regulations would bring. They should go into full effect, and sooner rather than later.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.