Michael Bloomberg: Against Obamacare Before He Was For It

Last week, old footage emerged of former New York City mayor, and current Democratic presidential candidate, Michael Bloomberg talking about health care rationing. In his comments from 2011, he advocated denying costly care to older patients:

If you’re bleeding, they’ll stop the bleeding—if you need an X-ray, you’re going to have to wait. That’s just…All of these costs keep going up, nobody wants to pay any more money, and at the rate we’re going, health care is going to bankrupt us….You know, if you show up with prostate cancer, you’re 95 years old, we should say, ‘Go and enjoy. Have a nice life. Live a long life. There’s no cure, and we can’t do anything.’ If you’re a young person, we should do something about it.

Perhaps more important is why Bloomberg made those particular comments. At the time, in February 2011, he was paying condolences to a Jewish family that had lost a loved one. One of the deceased man’s family noted that the man “was in the emergency room for 73 hours before he died and…that overcrowding in emergency rooms in New York had become out of control.”

This entire episode undermines the message of Bloomberg’s current ad blitz claiming that as mayor, he expanded access to health care in New York City. Plus, what did the mayor say about ER overcrowding back in 2011? “It’s going to get worse with the health care bill [i.e., Obamacare].” He also predicted that hospitals would close as a result.

Obamacare a ‘Disgrace’

During last week’s Democrat primary debate in Las Vegas, former Vice President Joe Biden brought up some of Bloomberg’s other comments about Obamacare. Biden correctly noted that Bloomberg had called Obamacare a “disgrace.” In a June 2010 speech at Dartmouth University just after the law’s enactment, Bloomberg said “We passed a health care bill that does absolutely nothing to fix the big health care problems in this country. It is just a disgrace.”

Reporters in the past several days have highlighted some of Bloomberg’s prior comments about the law:

  • In his Dartmouth speech, Bloomberg also pointed out that Democrats “say they’ve insured or provided coverage for another 45 million people…except there’s no more doctors for 45 million people.”
  • In a 2011 radio appearance, Bloomberg said that Obamacare “did not solve the basic problems, two basic problems with health care, which…got lost in all of the negotiations as every special interest in Congress got a piece or lost a piece or negotiated about a piece.”
  • In a December 2009 appearance on “Meet the Press,” Bloomberg criticized Democrats for not reading or understanding the legislation: “I have asked congressperson after congressperson, not one can explain to me what’s in the bill, even in the House version, certainly not in the other version. And so for them to vote on a bill that they don’t understand whatsoever, really, you’ve got to question the kind of government we have.”

It’s notable that Biden didn’t mention Bloomberg’s last quote—about members of Congress not reading or understanding the legislation—in Wednesday’s debate. Of course, that might have something to do with Biden’s own recent admission that “no one did understand Obamacare”—presumably including himself, at the time the vice president of the United States.

Changing His Tune

Now that Bloomberg is running for the Democratic nomination, he’s come around to supporting Obamacare. When asked about his prior comments, a Bloomberg campaign spokesman told CNN Obamacare’s only flaw lay in the fact that it didn’t go far enough. As a result, Bloomberg’s health plan proposes more government spending, funded by higher taxes, and—in a first—price controls on the entire health-care sector, including what you can and cannot pay your doctors.

On the merits of his policy platform, I’ll give the last word to Bloomberg himself, in his June 2010 speech at Dartmouth University. While Bloomberg said President Obama started out with good intentions, he said Congress “didn’t pay attention to any of those big problems and just created another program that’s going to cost a lot of money.”

It’s an apt description of Bloomberg’s own health care plan—to say nothing of his competitors for the Democratic presidential nomination.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

Why Pete Buttigieg’s Health Plan Might Be More Radical than Bernie Sanders’

During the most recent Democratic primary debate in New Hampshire, former South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg claimed that his health-care plan, unlike the single-payer proposal advocated by Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, would “not polarize the American people.” But contra the candidate’s claims, Buttigieg’s health plan advocates a policy—government price controls on the entire health-care sector—even more far-reaching than Sanders’s socialist approach.

Others have exposed how Buttigieg’s plan would force people to buy insurance costing thousands of dollars, whether they want it or not. But his proposal for government price controls across a $4 trillion health-care sector represents the most radical idea yet—because, unlike Sanders’s plan, individuals appear to have no way to opt out.

National Price Controls

Buttigieg’s plan, released in September, would “prohibit health care providers from pricing irresponsibly by capping their out-of-network rates at twice what Medicare pays.” (Upon entering the race for the Democratic presidential nomination last November, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg also adopted this rate-capping provision in his health plan.) Buttigieg admits that, by capping out-of-network rates, his proposal would give insurers leverage to demand lower prices for in-network care, creating a de facto system of national price controls for the entire health-care sector.

Imposing price controls on nearly 20 percent of the American economy, and linking those price controls to Medicare rates, would have substantial distortionary impacts. For starters, Medicare often does not reimburse medical providers at a rate to recover their costs. The Medicare Payment Advisory Commission estimated last March that hospitals would incur a -11 percent margin on their Medicare patients in 2019.

Moreover, because Medicare payment rates reflect the cost of treating the over-65 population—not many Medicare beneficiaries need maternity care, for instance—even supporters of capping rates have questioned the wisdom of linking such caps to Medicare levels.

More broadly, a national system of price controls could create health-care shortages. Facing reductions in pay, doctors could decide to retire early, and aspiring physicians could avoid the profession entirely. With the United States already facing a shortage of up to 121,900 physicians between now and 2032, Buttigieg’s price controls would reduce the physician supply still further.

Pathway to Single Payer—With No Exit

Despite the contrast he attempts to draw with Sanders’s plan, Buttigieg’s price controls would likely lead to a fully government-run system. Buttigieg admits a desire for his plan to provide a “glide path” to single-payer; its price controls provide an easy mechanism for such a transition.

By reducing the payments that private health insurers can offer doctors and hospitals, Buttigieg would slowly sabotage individuals’ existing coverage, throwing all Americans into a government-run health system. Indeed, his price caps provide an easy mechanism to force more and more individuals off their private coverage. While Buttigieg says he wants to cap payments at double Medicare rates, he could lower that cap over time. Of course, capping private health-care reimbursements at less than Medicare rates would all-but-guarantee private health insurance would cease to exist, because few doctors would agree to accept it.

Patients facing long waits for care would have no way to get around queues created by Buttigieg’s socialistic price controls. Sanders’s single-payer legislation allows physicians and patients to contract privately by paying cash for health-care services. But Buttigieg’s plan does not envision a mechanism for Americans to opt out of his price control regime. If Medicare pays $50 for a service, a patient could not pay a physician more than $100 for that service—no matter how experienced or qualified the physician, and no matter how desperate the patient.

The questionable constitutionality of Buttigieg’s plan belies its purportedly moderate nature. On the one hand, he would compel all individuals to pay for health insurance—whether they want it or not, and whether they use it or not. On the other, he would prohibit individuals from engaging in private transactions with their own doctors and hospitals if the amounts of those transactions exceed federally defined limits.

Differences in tone notwithstanding, Sanders and Buttigieg represent two halves of the same general approach to health care, expanding a technocratic leviathan that will attempt to micromanage nearly one-fifth of the economy from Washington. Doctors and patients, take note.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

What John Oliver Didn’t Mention about Single Payer Health Care

During the first episode of this season of “Last Week Tonight,” HBO host John Oliver used his monologue to make the case for the United States to adopt a single-payer health-care system. While Oliver articulated many of the shortcomings of the current system, much of his arguments in favor of a single-payer system missed the mark.

As Oliver noted in his program, whether to adopt single payer represents a debate between the devil one knows and the devil one doesn’t. Skeptics of single payer have the advantage of inertial bias—that is, people may not want to give up what they currently have.

On the other hand, supporters of single payer can characterize the future however they like—even if it doesn’t always line up with the facts. That dynamic has allowed supporters to frame single-payer health-care as “Medicare for All,” even though the legislation introduced by Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) would abolish the current Medicare program.

In his program, Oliver acknowledged some of the trade-offs associated with a move to a government-financed health-care system. But he also minimized others, and failed to explain some of the fundamental flaws in Sanders’ approach.

Cost Explosion

Oliver’s segment attempted to tackle the three primary critiques of a single-payer system: It will cost too much; lead to lines and waiting lists for care; and undermine individual choice. On the cost front, Oliver noted that estimates will vary as to whether the Sanders bill will lead to an increase in overall health-care spending. After admitting that the bill could either reduce health spending or cost “a f-ck of a lot more,” Oliver basically threw up his hands, calling the exact amount of spending under the new system unknowable.

On this front, Oliver didn’t analyze why health costs would likely rise under single payer. He mentioned (correctly) that Sanders’s bill would essentially abolish all premiums, deductibles, and co-payments for health care in the United States, making the new system much more generous than the current Medicare program, and much more generous than single-payer systems in places like Canada and Great Britain.

But Oliver did not mention four critical words that majorly affect costs: “Induced demand for care.” In other words, because Sanders’ legislation would make all health care “free” to patients, they would demand much more of it. According to the Urban Institute, a liberal think-tank, a single-payer system that eliminated cost-sharing would result in nearly $1 trillion more in health spending per year than a single-payer system that retained a system of co-pays and deductibles roughly equivalent to Obamacare’s Gold health insurance plans.

Along with many liberals, Oliver views eliminating cost-sharing as a feature of Sanders’ single-payer proposal. But at containing the costs of such a system, it represents a major bug—one Oliver never acknowledged.

Waiting Lists

Oliver did concede that waiting lists for care exist in other countries’ single-payer systems. However, he contended that patients wait primarily for non-emergency care, using knee replacements as an example. (Many patients wouldn’t call the concept of waiting nearly 10 months for a knee replacement—the average wait in Canada for an orthopedic procedure—a non-urgent matter.) He also didn’t point out that 4.56 million individuals in Britain—roughly 7 percent of that country’s population—were on waiting lists for care as of last fall, an increase of roughly 40 percent in the past five years.

Oliver’s discussion of waiting lists also missed a critical point: Sanders’s legislation would go further than other countries with single-payer systems, because it would prohibit individuals from purchasing private health insurance. Canadian and British patients who object to government waiting lists can purchase private coverage, and obtain care via that route.

Under Sanders’s proposal, American patients would not have that choice: They could only opt-out of the single payer system by paying for their treatment entirely in cash. Because not even a family making several hundred thousand dollars per year could afford the full costs of a heart transplant or chemotherapy, the vast majority of Americans would have no choice but to wait for care until the government system got around to treating them.

Choice

That brings up Oliver’s discussion of choice, and whether taking choice away matters. He points out—rightly—that many Americans do not have a substantive choice of either insurers or doctors, because their employers control the former, and by definition the latter.

But it doesn’t require the federal government taking over the entire health-care system to solve this problem, and give Americans a true choice among insurance plans and doctors. I have pointed out on many occasions the ways the Trump administration has acted to make coverage more portable, so that individuals, not employers, and not the federal government, choose the coverage options they prefer.

Oliver talks about the choices some patients currently face: whether to seek treatment they cannot pay for, or rationing medicines based on cost grounds. But patients would face similar choices under a government-run system—just for different reasons.

Oliver acknowledged the likelihood of waiting lists under a single-payer system, as have other supporters. For instance, the head of the People’s Policy Project has argued that costs won’t rise under single payer because “there is still a hard limit to just how much health care can be performed because there are only so many doctors and only so many facilities.” In other words, people will seek care, but not be able to obtain it.

In such circumstances, people won’t have a “choice” at all. Because they cannot purchase private insurance to cover treatments the government plan does not, they can either wait for care or they can…wait for care. That’s not just not giving patients choices, it’s harming patients by prohibiting them from buying the insurance they want to buy with their own money.

Towards the end of the segment, Oliver revealed his own bias against giving American patients any choices. After a clip of former South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg’s claim that “I trust Americans to make that right choice” on health care, Oliver responded to laughs: “Okay, well, hold on there. You trust Americans to make the right choice? You know Americans choose to drink Bud Light, right?”

Even as he tries to rebut conservative claims that single-payer would undermine Americans’ choices, Oliver admits that he doesn’t really want to give Americans a choice at all. He would rather use government to impose his beliefs on others, and force them to comply.

At minimum, Oliver’s program acknowledged the very real trade-offs associated with a single-payer health-care system. But had he explained those trade-offs fully, the American people would understand why single payer would result in adverse consequences to both our health-care system and our economy as a whole.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

No, $400 in Routine Health Care Costs is Not a Reason to Socialize Medicine

Sometimes, even heated discussions on Twitter can bring both light and heat by illuminating policy discussions. On Wednesday evening, Elizabeth Bruenig wrote a since-deleted tweet, using her transition from a writing position at the Washington Post to one at The New York Times to argue for single-payer health-care system:

Vance made a compelling point on policy, but one that conflated two issues. I wholeheartedly agree with his position on wanting to make coverage portable. But I don’t believe that a movement to de-link health coverage from employment means the government should pay for the health costs of comparatively affluent individuals.

Need for Portability

In her tweet, Bruenig admitted her period of uninsurance came from switching jobs. As a mother of two, including a newborn, Bruenig quite likely—and understandably—arranged some time between her two positions to spend with her young children.

On that front, I agree with both Bruenig and Vance about the good policy reasons to move away from individuals obtaining health coverage from their employers. As I outlined in prior writings, much of the problem of pre-existing conditions comes from our employer-based health insurance system: When you lose your job, you lose your coverage, which causes understandable worry for employees who have pre-existing conditions.

Making health coverage portable would allow individuals to take their insurance from job to job. This change would eliminate the friction people like Bruenig face when they’re between jobs, and greatly reduce (but not eliminate) the problem of pre-existing conditions, because people who develop such conditions during their working careers would own their own coverage, purchased before they became ill. The Trump administration has taken big strides on that front, publishing a regulation that will allow individuals—not their employers—to select and own their own health coverage, while still receiving an employer subsidy to cover some or all of the cost of their premiums.

However, people on the left talk about making health coverage portable not by giving power to individuals but by giving power to government. To borrow a medical metaphor, most liberals and socialists focus on the symptom (pre-existing conditions) rather than the underlying disease (lack of portable insurance). They favor either government regulation regarding pre-existing conditions, which encourages people to wait until they become sick to buy insurance, or in Bruenig’s case, an entirely government-run system.

Affordability for Individuals—And Taxpayers

While I agree with both Bruenig and Vance on the need to improve coverage portability (even if I disagree with the former on the way to go about it), I disagree in this instance about the separate question of who should pay for those costs.

But context matters, and in this case, the context looks quite different. Bruenig’s husband Matt also works; a former attorney for the National Labor Relations Board, he heads the People’s Policy Project, a socialist think-tank. As a result, their family has a second source of income, and another source of employer-based health insurance. (While Bruenig referenced health bills for her children, she didn’t say that her children faced an insurance gap. Given that context, I assume, but do not know for certain, that her husband’s insurance covers her children.)

Consider also the most recent breakdown of IRS tax filing data by income. As of 2017, households with adjusted gross income exceeding $97,870 represented the top quintile (i.e., top 20 percent) of filers, and households with adjusted gross income exceeding $145,135 represented the top 10 percent of filers. Bruenig and her husband almost certainly exceed the threshold to put themselves in the top 20 percent, and quite possibly the top 10 percent as well. Do I believe someone with that kind of income should receive government assistance for health insurance costs? In a word, no.

I haven’t yet completed my tax returns for 2019, but based on my paperwork compiled to date, I expect to declare just over $100,000 in income from my business last year. Of course, because I run my own business, I have to pay my own health insurance premiums. And my age (I’m roughly ten years older than Bruenig) means I pay more in premiums for Obamacare exchange coverage than she would if she bought temporary insurance there—and I do it month after month, not just when I have a gap between jobs.

In short, the Twitter mob calling me an “elite” for my tone and comments about savings ignore the fact that, based upon their station in life, Bruenig and her husband qualify on that front too. Unlike them, however, I don’t believe the federal government has a place subsidizing my insurance costs.

A Question of Priorities

I’ll give the last word to a Democrat: Maryland Rep. Steny Hoyer. As I mentioned in my book, in 2009, Hoyer, then as now the House majority leader, took to the House floor to make this compelling statement about entitlement spending and federal priorities:

At some point in time, my friends, we have to buck up our courage and our judgement and say, if we take care of everybody, we won’t be able to take care of those who need us most. That’s my concern. If we take care of everybody, irrespective of their ability to pay for themselves, the Ross Perots of America, frankly, the Steny Hoyers of America, then we will not be able to take care of those most in need in America. [Emphasis added.]

I agree with both Vance and Bruenig on the need to make health coverage more portable. But on the separate question of who pays, and saving scarce taxpayer resources for those who need them most, I stand with Hoyer.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

Christmas Eve Vote on Obamacare Showed Washington Still Has Shame

A decade ago this morning, 60 Senate Democrats cast their final votes approving the legislation that became Obamacare. The bill took a circuitous route to enactment after Scott Brown’s surprise victory in the Massachusetts Senate contest, which occurred a few weeks after the Senate vote, in January 2010.

Brown’s election meant Republicans gained a 41st Senate seat, giving them the necessary votes to filibuster a House-Senate conference report on Obamacare. Because Democrats lacked the 60 votes to overcome a filibuster, they eventually agreed to a process amending certain budgetary and fiscal elements of the Senate bill through the reconciliation process on a 51-vote threshold.

The grubby process leading up to Obamacare’s enactment, full of parochial politics and special interest pork, cost Democrats politically. But many Americans do not realize that such machinations occur all the time in Washington—indeed, occurred just last week. When one party participates in a corrupt process, it becomes a scandal; when both parties partake, few outside the Beltway bother to notice.

Backroom Deals

The process among Democrats leading up to the final health vote resembled an open market, with each Senator making “asks” of Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV). Reid needed all 60 Democrats to vote for Obamacare to break a Republican filibuster, and the parochial provisions included in the legislation showed the lengths he would go to enact it:

Cornhusker Kickback:” The most notorious of the backroom deals came after Sen. Ben Nelson (D-NE) requested a 100 percent Medicaid match rate for his home state of Nebraska. The final manager’s amendment introduced by Reid included this earmark—Nebraska would have its entire costs of Medicaid expansion paid for by the federal government forever. But the blowback from constituents and the press became so great that Nelson asked to have the provision removed; the reconciliation measure enacted in March 2010 gave Nebraska the same treatment as all other states.

Gator Aid:” This provision, inserted at the behest of Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL), and later removed in the reconciliation bill, sought to exempt Florida seniors from much of the effects of the law’s Medicare Advantage cuts.

Louisiana Purchase:” This provision, included due to a request from Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-LA), adjusted the state’s Medicaid matching formula. Landrieu publicly defended the provision—which she said reflected the state’s circumstances after Hurricane Katrina—and it remained in law for several years, but was eventually phased out in legislation enacted February 2012.

While these three provisions captivated the public’s attention, other earmarks and pork provisions abounded inside Obamacare too—a Medicaid funding provision that helped Massachusetts; exemptions from the insurer tax for two Blue Cross carriers; a $100 million earmark for a Connecticut hospital, and health benefits for miners in Libby, Montana, courtesy of then-Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-MT).

Not only did senators try to keep these corrupt deals in the legislation—notwithstanding the public outrage they engendered—but Reid defended both the earmarks and the horse-trading process that led to their inclusion:

I don’t know if there’s a senator who doesn’t have something in this bill that’s important to them. And if they don’t have something in it that’s important to them, then it doesn’t speak well for them.

It was a far cry from Barack Obama’s 2008 (broken) campaign promise to have all his health care negotiations televised on C-SPAN, “so we will know who is making arguments on behalf of their constituents, and who are making arguments on behalf of the drug companies or the insurance companies.” And it looked like Democrats didn’t really believe in the merits of the underlying legislation, but instead voted to restructure nearly one-fifth of the American economy because they got some comparatively minor pork project for their district back home.

Déjà Vu All Over Again

Democrats lost control of the House in the 2010 elections, and political scientists have attributed much of the loss to the impact of the Obamacare vote. One study found that Obamacare cost Democrats 6 percentage points of support in the 2010 midterm elections, and at least 13 seats in Congress.

But did the rebuke Democrats received for their behavior prompt them to change their ways? Only to the extent that, when they want to ram through a massive piece of legislation no one has bothered to read, they include Republicans in the taxpayer-funded largesse.

Consider last week’s $1.4 trillion spending package: Two bills totaling more than 2,300 pages, which lawmakers introduced on Monday and voted on in the House 24 hours later. Democrats wanted to repeal one set of Obamacare taxes—and in exchange, they agreed to repeal another set of taxes that Republicans (and their K Street lobbying friends) wanted gone. The Obamacare taxes went away, but the Obamacare spending remained, thus increasing the deficit by nearly $400 billion.

And both sides agreed to increase spending in defense and non-defense categories alike. Therein lies the true definition of bipartisanship in Washington: An agreement in which both sides get what they want—courtesy of taxpayers in the next generation, who get stuck with the bill.

It remains a sad commentary on the state of affairs in the nation’s capital that the Obamacare debacle remains an anomaly—the one time when the glare of the spotlight so seared Members seeking pork projects that they dared consider forsaking their ill-gotten gains. To paraphrase the axiom about casinos, in Washington, The Swamp (almost) always wins.

“Cadillac Tax” Repeal “Deal” Is What’s Wrong with Washington

News articles over the weekend reported that Congress later this week may repeal would Obamacare taxes—the “Cadillac tax” on high-cost health plans, and the medical device tax—as part of a larger spending bill. In reality, however, Democrats eventually agreed to repeal not one but two Obamacare industry taxes—the health insurer tax, which costs approximately $150 billion over a decade, along with the medical device tax—in exchange for repeal of the Cadillac tax, which labor unions want because of their cushy health insurance offerings.

According to The Hill:

On a separate front on ObamaCare, the spending deal repeals three major taxes that had helped fund the law’s coverage expansion. The deal will repeal a 40 percent tax on generous “Cadillac” health plans, the 2.3 percent medical device tax and the health insurance tax.

Those are major wins for the health insurance and medical device industries, which had long lobbied to lift those taxes. The Cadillac tax, in addition to providing about $200 billion in funding over 10 years, had been intended to help lower health care spending by incentivizing employers to lower costs to avoid hitting the tax.

On its face, the news sounds like a win for conservatives. Far from it. The way Congress has addressed these issues illustrates all the problems with politics, both procedural and substantive, in the nation’s capital.

Problem 1: Awful Process

Obvious considerations first: Congressional leaders in both parties want to enact the annual spending bills—which run thousands of pages, and spend trillions of dollars—before breaking for the Christmas holidays at week’s end. But congressional leaders only released text of the two bills publicly on Monday night, so there’s no way American citizens, let alone rank-and-file lawmakers, can digest it before Congress decides. As one lawmaker famously said:

The spending bills are 1,773 pages and 540 pages, respectively. (The health care provisions are in the larger of the two bills.) According to the Joint Committee on Taxation, the repeal of the three health care taxes will cost the federal government $387 billion over ten years.

Nearly ten years after a Democratic-controlled Senate passed the massive Obamacare statute on Christmas Eve—laden with pork-barrel provisions like the “Cornhusker Kickback,” the “Louisiana Purchase,” and the “Gator Aid”—a Senate run by Republicans wants to pass a similarly pork-laden spending bill. It brings to mind the old adage attributed to former House Speaker Sam Rayburn: “There is no education in the second kick of a mule.”

President Trump has likewise confronted the problem of Congress passing huge spending bills on short notice before. When presented with a similarly massive—and pork-laden—omnibus bill in March 2018, he famously proclaimed “I will never sign another bill like this again.” Time will tell if he follows through on his promise, but Congress sure isn’t acting like they think he will.

Problem 2: Raising Health Care Costs

The “Cadillac tax” in particular represents one way to address the problem of ever-increasing health costs. Current law allows employers to offer tax-free health benefits to their workers without limit. This dynamic encourages firms to provide overly generous benefits to their employees, leading to the over-consumption of health care.

By encouraging employers and employees to consume health insurance, and thus health care, more wisely, the “Cadillac tax,” despite its flaws, should work to moderate the growth in health care costs. That is, if Congress ever allows it to take effect as scheduled.

As I noted earlier this year, the left has an easy “solution” to the problem of rising health care costs: Regulations and price controls designed to bring down costs through government fiat. These price controls will lead to consequences for our health system, of course—rationing of care most notably—but they do “work,” insofar as they will arbitrarily reduce health spending.

Conservatives who oppose government price controls should embrace solutions like the “Cadillac tax” (or something like it) as one way to slow the growth in health care spending—not least because Democrats enacted the tax as part of Obamacare. Instead, many conservative lawmakers appear poised to endorse its repeal, without an alternative strategy to control health costs instead, because they find it easier to pursue the path of least resistance.

Problem 3: Lack of Discipline

The Congressional Budget Office previously estimated that repealing the “Cadillac tax” would cost the government nearly $200 billion in revenue over a decade, and larger sums in the decades after that. How does Congress propose to replace that revenue? By repealing the medical device and health insurer taxes, of course!

Therein lies the problem in Congress: The current definition of a bipartisan “deal” occurs when both sides get what they want—at the expense of taxpayers, or more specifically future generations. One article notes that “in general medical device tax repeal is more of a priority of Republicans and ‘Cadillac tax’ repeal for Democrats.” That makes this agreement combining repeal of both taxes like an episode of “Oprah’s Favorite Things,” where everyone wins a car.

Except for one minor detail: Our country already faces $23 trillion in debt, and trillion-dollar deficits as far as the eye can see. The “deal” on these two taxes alone will increase that debt by another quarter-trillion dollars (give or take). That number doesn’t include the increased spending arising from Congress’ agreement to bust its spending caps, or all the other ancillary provisions (like a bailout for coal miners) hitching a ride on the “Christmas tree” omnibus.

At some point soon, Congress’ lack of discipline—its inability to say no to spending pledges our country cannot afford—will harm our economic growth and fiscal stability. At that point, the American people will realize that, by constantly trying to play Santa Claus, lawmakers have left a multi-trillion-dollar lump of coal to the next generation, in the form of our rapidly skyrocketing debt.

UPDATE: This post was edited after publication to reflect late-breaking developments concerning the omnibus spending bills.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

The Four Most Dangerous Words in Washington

More than three decades ago, Ronald Reagan rightly characterized the nine most terrifying words in the English language: “I’m from the government, and I’m here to help.” In Washington, a quartet of four words rank close behind Reagan’s nine in their ability to terrify: What are you for?

Countless people in official Washington, from leadership staff to reporters to liberals to lobbyists, use these four words, or some variation thereof, to try to get conservatives to endorse bad policy. Their words carry with them an implicit argument: You have to be for something, rather than just opposing bad policy.

Reagan would find that reasoning nonsensical. Why do you have to be for something when all the available options undermine conservative principles—because you’re from the government and you’re here to help? It’s a lazy straw-man argument, which might explain why so many people in Washington use it, but it’s a premise that conservatives should reject.

Example 1: Drug Price Legislation

On Monday, House Republican leaders released their alternative to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s prescription drug legislation. Their very first bullet in the summary of the legislation said that the bill includes “350 pages” of provisions. (Technically, the bill has 352 pages of content, while by contrast, the Rules Committee print of Democrats’ prescription drug legislation weighs in at 275 pages.)

Republicans quite rightly criticized Pelosi almost a decade ago for the awful process she used to enact Obamacare. Remember the speaker’s infamous quote about the legislation in March 2010, which House Republicans still have on their YouTube page:

Yet including the bill’s size as the first bullet point in their summary suggests Republican leadership considers it a feature, not a bug: “Look at how substantive we are—our bill is 350 pages long!” Granted, the House Republican package consists of a grab-bag of provisions related to drug pricing, most of which existed well before this week. Some of them doubtless contain good ideas, and ideas I have previously endorsed.

But think about what went into creating this “new,” 350-page bill. A bunch of leadership staffers sat around a big desk in the Capitol, decided what bills and provisions to include in the package—and, by extension, which bills to exclude from it. I know, because I’ve sat in those types of meetings. They released the legislation on Monday, and Congress likely will vote on it late Wednesday night (early Thursday at the latest).

Republican Members of Congress won’t have time to read all 352 pages of the House Republican bill. Some of them may not have time to read even the four-page summary of the bill. And their staff, who are currently overwhelmed by the litany of issues on Congress’ December agenda, from impeachment to a massive defense policy bill to another massive spending bill to the prescription drug debate, have neither the time nor the bandwidth to provide thoughtful advice and counsel.

But most if not all Republican members of Congress will vote for this drug price alternative they have not read and many do not fully understand. Why? Because most think they need to “be for something.” Because they believe that (false) premise, they will have effectively handed their voting card to unelected leadership staffers—who may or may not actually know what they are doing—to define what Republicans are “for.” It’s no way to run a railroad, let alone the country.

Example 2: Entitlements

My article last week about Democratic presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg’s proposed long-term care entitlement prompted an e-mail from a colleague. The e-mail asked a polite variation of the question noted above: If you don’t like Buttigieg’s approach to long-term care, what would you do instead?

My response in a nutshell: Nope. As I pointed out in the original post, our country faces $23 trillion—that’s $23,000,000,000,000—in debt—and rising. We can’t afford the entitlements and government programs we have now. To even talk about creating new programs (which would face their own solvency and sustainability concerns) only gives lawmakers and the American public a permission structure to avoid the hard decisions Congress should have made years ago to right-size our entitlements.

Example 3: ‘Surprise Billing’ Legislation

On Sunday, several members of key committees announced an agreement in principle on federal legislation regarding “surprise billing,” which arises when physicians and medical providers seek to recover charges when patients obtain care out-of-network during emergencies, or when patients inadvertently see an out-of-network physician (e.g., an anesthesiologist) at an in-network hospital.

(Disclosure: I have consulted with various firms about the potential outcomes and implications of this legislation. However, these firms have not asked me for my personal policy positions on the legislation, nor have they asked me to advocate for a position on it—as my positions, as always, are mine alone.)

I wrote back in July that this issue largely represented a solution in search of a problem, for multiple reasons. First, a relatively small number of hospitals and providers impose most of the “surprise” bills. Second, states have the power to fix this issue on their own by regulating providers, even if federal law makes it difficult for states to regulate all the insurers in their state.

So why do Republicans feel the need to sign off on federal legislation addressing a problem that states can decide to fix (or not to fix) themselves? Again, because lawmakers feel the need to “be for something.” That again brings to mind Reagan’s axiom about the nine most terrifying words, and the proposition that “I’m from the government and I’m here to help” often leads to unintended consequences.

No, Don’t Just ‘Do Something’

Perhaps by this point, some observers might have come up with an obvious question: How can you win elections if you don’t try to “do something?” The question has two simple answers.

First, citizens quite obviously do not vote solely based on a candidate’s ability to “do something,” such as expand the regulatory state, the welfare state, and government in general. If conservatives want to run campaigns based on giving voters “free stuff,” but just slightly less “free stuff” than Democrats, guess how many elections the conservative would win?

Second, as noted above, the “What are you for?” question has an obvious four-word response: “We can’t afford it.” That retort sadly has the feature of truth about it, as our country cannot sustain its current levels of government spending.

Any responsible parent knows that, no matter how often his child asks, letting that child eat ice cream three times a day does not represent good parenting. Congress long since should have imposed some of that sense of discipline on itself, and the American people.

Given our current fiscal situation, many policy proposals, no matter how popular, are not fiscally sustainable. The “What are you for?” question cleverly tries to elide that debate, in ways that will only undermine conservative principles, and our country’s solvency.

I’ll end by noting my strong support for the First Amendment: “Congress shall make no law.” (What, you thought it contains some other words too?) If Congress spent the majority of its time stopping bad laws and policies—particularly policies considered only slightly less bad than the original proposals—maybe our country wouldn’t face the prospect of paying off a growing mountain of debt.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

Pete Buttigieg’s Plan to Tax the Middle Class

Democratic presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg claimed last month that “everything that we have proposed has been paid for, and we have proposed no tax increase on the middle class.” The South Bend, Indiana mayor is incorrect on both counts: He hasn’t said how he’d pay for all his proposed spending. He has endorsed one explicit tax increase on the middle class, and his recent retirement plan provides an outline for another. Add it up, and middle-class workers could face a trillion dollars in new taxes.

To support family caregivers, Mr. Buttigieg’s retirement plan restated his prior commitment to enact “an enhanced version of the Family Act,” which would provide 12 weeks of subsidized family leave. The candidate has yet to specify how exactly he would “enhance” the Family Act. But that legislation, introduced by Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D., Conn.) and Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D., N.Y.), pays for its new benefit by raising payroll taxes by 0.2% of income.

Mr. Buttigieg’s retirement plan also contains several new spending proposals, including a long-term care entitlement. He says the program would make benefits available to people over 65 and would “kick in after an income-related waiting period.” His plan cites two white papers as examples of “similar programs” proposed by scholars.

Mr. Buttigieg fails to note how both white papers propose to pay for the new benefits. In the first paper, the Long-Term Care Financing Collaborative envisions a program “fully financed by a dedicated revenue source,” including a payroll tax, “an explicit income tax surcharge, or other dedicated tax.”

The second paper, written by researchers affiliated with the Urban Institute, contains several policy details Mr. Buttigieg adopted, including waiting periods for wealthier people to qualify. That paper also proposes a specific funding source: “an additional tax of about 1.0 percent of earned Medicare-covered income.” In other words, an increase in the payroll tax—a tax increase on the middle class.

The Congressional Budget Office estimated last December that a one percentage point increase in the Medicare tax rate would raise $898.3 billion over a decade. If Mr. Buttigieg intends to fund his new long-term care program via the payroll tax, that tax increase, coupled with the 0.2% payroll tax hike in the Family Act he has already endorsed, would bring total payroll-tax increases to more than $1 trillion.

If Mr. Buttigieg doesn’t want to fund his long-term-care entitlement with the payroll-tax increase proposed in a paper his campaign cited, he should explain where that money will come from. His own claims notwithstanding, Mr. Buttigieg’s candidacy has lacked fiscal candor. His campaign told the Indianapolis Star last month that it had proposed $5.7 trillion in spending to that point, but cited a total of only $5.1 trillion in tax increases and savings.

Mr. Buttigieg’s retirement-security plan has since added other spending proposals with no mention of a funding source. There’s his plan to make those receiving Social Security disability benefits immediately eligible for Medicare, which will likely cost more than $100 billion. There’s his new requirement for state Medicaid programs to cover community-based services as a mandatory benefit, along with mandates on nursing homes—including a $15 minimum wage and higher staffing ratios—which will raise Medicaid spending.

Mr. Buttigieg called Elizabeth Warren “extremely evasive” for her answers on single-payer health care, saying, “I think that if you are proud of your plan and it’s the right plan, you should defend it in straightforward terms. And I think it’s puzzling that when everybody knows the answer to that question of whether her plan . . . will raise middle class taxes is ‘Yes.’ Why wouldn’t you just say so, and then explain why you think that’s the better way forward?” He should follow his own advice.

This post was originally published at The Wall Street Journal.

Warren’s Prescription the Wrong One

In an October analysis the Urban Institute concluded that a single-payer plan, similar to Sen. Warren’s, which eliminates virtually all patient cost-sharing, would raise national health spending by more than 20%, or $719.7 billion a year. In the researchers’ view, the additional demand stimulated by making health care “free” to consumers would overwhelm any potential savings from paying doctors and hospitals government-dictated rates. This higher demand would also raise the cost of single-payer well beyond Sen. Warren’s estimates, meaning middle-class families would face massive tax increases to pay for this spending.

That Prof. Johnson would cite the Urban Institute to argue that Sen. Warren’s plan would lower health-care costs, while ignoring the fact that the institute itself reached the opposite conclusion, speaks to the cherry-picked nature of the proposal, which has drawn derision from liberals and conservatives alike.

This post was originally published at the Wall Street Journal.

“Ponzi Pete” Buttigieg Proposes More Unsustainable Entitlements

On the campaign trail for the Democratic presidential nomination, South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg tries to portray himself as a moderate politician. By running ads against implementing a single-payer health system, Buttigieg would have voters believe he rejects the radical leftism of socialist Sen. Bernie Sanders.

Don’t you believe it. Buttigieg recently released an aging and retirement plan that proposed massive amounts of new entitlement spending, with very little in the way of specifics to pay for all his ideas. It’s but the latest example of Democrats’ government giveaway train run amok.

CLASS Act ‘Ponzi Scheme’

The first part of Buttigieg’s paper talks about an “historic” new program, Long-Term Care America. The mayor claims this plan would provide aid to seniors “who require assistance with two or more activities of daily living….Benefits would be worth $90 per day for as long as [seniors] need care, and kick in after an income-related waiting period.”

But Title VIII of Obamacare contained language establishing the Community Living Assistance Services and Supports (CLASS) program. Moderate Democrats attacked the proposal as unsustainable. Prior to Obamacare’s enactment, Sen. Kent Conrad (D-N.D.), then the chairman of the Senate Budget Committee, called CLASS a “Ponzi scheme of the first order, the kind of thing Bernie Madoff would have been proud of.” Those concerns ultimately proved correct, as the Obama administration had to shelve the program as unworkable before it ever collected a dime in premiums.

As a Senate staffer conducting oversight on CLASS, and later as a member of the Commission on Long-Term Care tasked with examining possible replacements, I examined the program’s failure in minute detail. But at bottom, the program suffered from the same problem facing the Obamacare exchanges: Too many sick people signing up for benefits, driving up premiums, and therefore driving away healthy individuals.

Obamacare required individuals to pay into the CLASS program for only five years to qualify for benefits. Actuaries believed that people would sign up, pay a few thousand dollars in premiums over five years, and then collect benefits totaling tens of thousands of dollars or more. Just as Obamacare’s pre-existing condition provisions have priced millions of people out of coverage—because individuals can sign up for “insurance” after they develop a pre-existing condition—so too would CLASS have attracted people already suffering from disabilities, who by definition don’t need insurance so much as they need care.

The exchanges have remained somewhat sustainable only because of massive amounts of federal spending on subsidies and bailouts. However, Obamacare forced CLASS to become self-sustaining, without relying on federally subsidized premiums or a bailout. The Obama administration in October 2011 conceded that it could not meet these statutory requirements, and therefore shelved the program. (Congress later repealed CLASS outright in the “fiscal cliff” deal in January 2013.)

Buttigieg’s plan acknowledges none of this history, and makes no mention of solvency or sustainability when talking about his proposed new program. Perhaps limiting it to only those over age 65, and imposing a waiting period for people to receive benefits, as his proposal outlines, will make it more financially sustainable (or less unsustainable). But Buttigieg also proposes a $90 daily benefit, 80 percent richer than the CLASS Act’s $50 per day benefit, exacerbating solvency concerns.

Costly Promises

Buttigieg’s promise of a long-term care benefit says nothing about whether this new federal spending would increase the deficit, your taxes, or both. In that respect, it represents but one of the many costly promises in his retirement plan, including:

  • An end to the two-year waiting period currently required for individuals receiving Social Security disability benefits to qualify for Medicare coverage;
  • An increase in the minimum wage to $15 an hour, and new staffing requirements for nursing homes, all of which will raise costs to the Medicaid program; and
  • An expansion of Social Security benefits—including a new minimum benefit and credit for caregivers—funded entirely by higher taxes on “the rich.”

At present, our federal government faces $23 trillion in debt, and trillion-dollar deficits as far as the eye can see. To put it bluntly, we can’t pay for the government we have now, let alone the new programs Buttigieg and his fellow presidential candidates have proposed.

Buttigieg can try to hide himself in the cloak of the “moderate” mantra all he likes. But his laundry lists of new and unsustainable entitlements represent nothing more than big-government liberalism.

UPDATE: This post was edited after publication, to clarify the nature of Buttigieg’s proposal as compared to Obamacare’s CLASS Act.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.