Why Republicans Get No Points for Opposing Democrats’ $3 Trillion Coronavirus Bill

On May 15, Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) will bring to the floor of the House a sprawling, 1,815-page bill. Released mere days ago, the bill would spend roughly $3 trillion—down from the $4 trillion or more that lawmakers on her socialist left wanted to allocate to the next “stimulus” package.

Most House Republicans will oppose this bill, which contains a massive bailout for states and numerous other provisions on every leftist wish list for years. But should anyone give them credit for opposing the legislation? In a word, no.

Conservatives shouldn’t give Republican lawmakers any credit for opposing bills that have no chance of passage to begin with—bills they never should vote for anyway. I didn’t go out and rob a bank yesterday. Should I get a medal for that? Of course not. You don’t get credit for doing the things you’re supposed to do.

Conservatives should demand more than the soft bigotry of low expectations that Republican lawmakers’ miserable track record on spending has led them to expect. For starters, instead of “just” voting no on the Pelosi bill’s additional $3 trillion in spending, why not come up with a plan to pay for the $3 trillion Congress has already spent in the past several months?

Yes, government needs to spend money responding to coronavirus, not least because government shut down large swathes of the economy as a public health measure. But that doesn’t mean Congress can or should avoid paying down this debt—not to mention our unsustainable entitlements—starting soon.

Decades of ‘Conservative’ Grifters

Two examples show how far Republican lawmakers stray from their rhetoric. In July 2017, former House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) said of his prior rhetoric regarding Obamacare, from defunding the law to “repeal-and-replace”: “I never believed it.” Of course, he waited to make this admission until he had left office and taken a lucrative job at an investment bank.

Cantor’s comments confirmed conservatives’ justifiable fears: That Republican lawmakers constantly play them for a bunch of suckers, making promises they don’t believe to win power, so they can leverage that power to cash in for themselves.

Perhaps the classic example of the “all hat and no cattle” mentality comes via former House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.). Notwithstanding Ryan’s reputation as a supposed fiscal hawk, consider his actions while in House leadership:

  • Instead of reforming entitlements, Ryan led the charge to repeal the first-ever cap on entitlement spending. He could have nixed Obamacare’s Independent Payment Advisory Board, a group of unelected officials charged with slowing the growth of Medicare spending, while keeping the spending cap. Instead, he got Congress to repeal the board and the spending cap that went with it—worsening our entitlement shortfalls.
  • For years, Ryan proposed various reforms to the tax treatment of health insurance, because economists on both the left and the right agree it encourages the growth of health-care costs. But as speaker, Ryan supported delays of a policy included in Obamacare that, while imperfect, at least moved in the right direction towards lowering health care costs. The delays allowed Congress to repeal the policy outright late last year, in a massive spending bill that shifted both spending and health-care costs the wrong way.
  • As chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, Ryan gave then-House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) the political cover he needed to pass a Medicare physician payment bill that increased the deficit and Medicare premiums for seniors. The legislation did include some entitlement reforms, but at a high cost—and didn’t even permanently solve the physician payment problem.

Ryan’s “accomplishments” on spending as a member of leadership echo his prior votes as a backbench member of Congress. Ryan voted for the No Child Left Behind Act; for the Medicare Modernization Act, which created a new, unpaid entitlement costing $7.8 trillion over the long term; and for the infamous Troubled Asset Relief Program Wall Street bailout.

Over his 20-year history in Congress, I can’t think of a single instance where Ryan took a “tough vote” in which he defied the majority of his party. Instead, he always supported Republicans’ big-spending agenda. In that sense, tagging Ryan as a RINO—a Republican in Name Only—lacks accuracy, because it implies that most Republican lawmakers have a sense of fiscal discipline that only Ryan lacks.

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to draw the line from Ryan’s brand of “leadership” to Donald Trump. The latter spent most of his 2016 campaign illustrating how Republican elected officials failed to deliver on any of their promises, despite talking up their plans for years.

Stand for Principle, or Stand for Nothing

When Republicans enter the House chamber on Friday to cast their votes against Pelosi’s bill, they should take a moment to contemplate her history. In the 2010 elections, Pelosi lost the speakership in no small part because of Obamacare. One scientific study concluded that the Obamacare vote alone cost Democrats 13 seats in the House that year.

Pelosi did not relinquish the speakership gladly; few would ever do that. But she proved willing to lose the speakership to pass the law—and would do so again, if forced to make such a binary choice.

I know not on what policy grounds, if any, Republicans would willingly sacrifice their majorities in the way Pelosi and the Democrats did to pass Obamacare. (Reforming entitlements? Tax cuts? Immigration?) That in and of itself speaks to the Republican Party’s existential questions, and the ineffective nature of the party’s “leadership.”

It also provides all the reason in the world that House Republicans should not trumpet their votes against the Pelosi legislation on Friday.

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.

Three Ways Pete Buttigieg Is No Moderate

In recent weeks, former South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg has enjoyed a boomlet in polls for the Democratic presidential nomination, helped in no small part by fawning press coverage. Politico and others have examined the candidate and his supposedly “moderate” message.

Rhetoric aside, however, the substance of Buttigieg’s policy plans seem anything but moderate. On multiple issues, Pete has embraced positions far to the left of anything Hillary Clinton dared endorse in her campaign four years ago, and which seem “moderate” only in comparison to the socialist delusions of candidates like Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.).

1. Big Tax Increases on the Middle Class

As I first noted last month, Buttigieg has supported at least one, and quite possibly several, tax increases on the middle class. His retirement security plan included one explicit tax increase on working families, endorsing legislation that would raise payroll taxes as part of a new regime of paid family leave.

The retirement white paper, released just before Thanksgiving, implicitly endorsed a second tax increase on the middle class as well. The plan proposed a new entitlement program, Long-Term Care for America, designed to replace the CLASS Act included in Obamacare, but which Congress repealed prior to its implementation due to solvency concerns. Buttigieg’s paper didn’t say how it would pay for the new spending created by the program, but other studies cited by the campaign did: They proposed another increase in the payroll tax, which would also fall on middle-class families.

I wrote about Buttigieg’s tax plans in the Wall Street Journal last month. Yet following that article, no one from the Buttigieg campaign bothered to refute, smack down, or otherwise correct my assertion that their candidate wants to tax middle-class families.

The deafening silence from the Buttigieg campaign regarding my op-ed suggests the candidate does indeed want to raise taxes on the middle class—he just hopes that no one will notice that fact. It seems like an ironic bit of silence, given that Buttigieg attacked Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) for being “extremely evasive” on the issue of middle-class tax increases last fall.

2. ‘Insurance, Whether You Want It or Not’

Buttigieg likes to advertise his health care plan as “Medicare for All Who Want It,” but as several stories over the holiday revealed, it comes with an intrusive twist. While his plan says that “individuals could opt out of public coverage,” they could do so only “if they choose to enroll in another insurance plan.”

In other words, Buttigieg would compel people to buy insurance—whether they want to or not, enforcing this revived individual mandate through the tax code. On April 15, individuals who didn’t enroll in health insurance the previous year would get a bill for coverage, which could total $5,000 or more, whether they wanted that coverage or not, and whether they knew they had that coverage or not.

It’s far from clear that this new “mandate on steroids” would pass constitutional muster. In 2012, the Supreme Court under Chief Justice Roberts blessed Obamacare’s mandate as a tax in part because “for most Americans the amount due will be far less than the price of insurance…It may often be a reasonable financial decision to make the payment rather than purchase insurance.”

Roberts justified Obamacare’s mandate as a tax because it gave the public a genuine choice: Buy insurance, or pay the IRS a tax. Buttigieg’s plan would give the public a Hobson’s choice: Buy insurance, or have insurance bought for you. It represents a significant increase in federal powers—one courts could (and should) strike down.

3. ‘Glide Path’ to Socialized Medicine

Notwithstanding his use of a strengthened individual mandate, Buttigieg ultimately wants to end up with a single-payer system of socialized medicine. He has made no bones about his objective, claiming that his health-care plan would provide a “glide path” to socialism.

As with most of the 2020 Democratic candidates who haven’t endorsed single payer explicitly, Buttigieg’s plan contains several characteristics designed to promote the growth of government-run health care. For instance, he would automatically enroll millions of individuals into the government-run health plan. (He claims Americans could opt out of the government plan, but if he wants the system to end in single payer, how easy would he make it for them to do so?) And he has proposed capping the amount that both private and public insurers can pay physicians and hospitals for health treatments, another way to funnel Americans into the government-run system.

Buttigieg’s plan would create the architecture to create a government-run system of socialized medicine. He just would build that edifice slightly more slowly than Sanders would. It represents but one of the big-government dreams of a candidate who, despite soothing rhetoric, has little in the way of policies to justify the term “moderate.”

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

Elizabeth Warren’s Health Care “Choice:” Dishonesty

In Thursday night’s Democratic presidential debate, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) may debut before a nationwide audience a surprising mantra for someone openly committed to enacting a single-payer system of socialized medicine: Choice.

NBC reports that Warren said on Saturday: “We’re going to push through…full health care coverage at no cost for everyone else who wants it—you can buy it for a modest amount. You don’t have to, but it’s your choice.”

To clarify her “you can buy it” comments, Warren’s most recent health care plan said she would immediately make “free” coverage available to anyone making less than two times the federal poverty level ($51,500 for a family of four in 2019), with sliding-scale premiums capped at no more than 5% of income for those making more than 200% of poverty. Her recent speeches have focused on selling this “transition” plan—“free” coverage if you want it, but only if you want it—rather than her earlier single-payer program.

Some conservatives have claimed that Warren’s change in rhetoric marks the “last gasp” for the left’s move towards socialized medicine. Don’t you believe it. Warren hasn’t given up on anything. Nor have Pete Buttigieg and the other candidates who have campaigned against “Medicare for All.” They, and she, have just chosen to become less candid with the American people about how they hope to achieve their ultimate objectives.

Why Warren Pivoted

Two reasons in particular explain why Warren suddenly embraced the mantra of choice. First, most Americans who have health insurance right now like their plan. A Gallup survey found that nearly seven in ten Americans find their health coverage either excellent (27%) or good (42%). In the 18 years since Gallup first started asking this question, the approval number for Americans’ health coverage has never dropped below 63%.

When millions of people received cancellation notices as Obamacare took effect, Barack Obama found out in 2013 how much people like their current coverage. He felt compelled to issue a public apology for his “Lie of the Year,” telling people they could keep their existing plans when many could not. In part due to these events six years ago, the fear of taking people’s coverage away has dominated the health care discussions at this year’s Democratic presidential debates.

By emphasizing choice, Warren seeks to minimize this potential source of controversy for key constituencies. In the Democratic primaries, union households who have negotiated generous health benefits may blanch at losing those benefits; one confronted Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) about the issue in Iowa this past summer.

Then in next year’s general election, educated and affluent voters who have good health coverage will similarly fear a new plan taking that coverage away. As Philip Klein recently noted in the Washington Examiner, proposing the eradication of existing insurance options could well cost Warren in places like the suburbs of Philadelphia, Detroit, and Milwaukee—critically important battleground areas in battleground states.

De-Emphasizing (Middle Class) Tax Increases

Second, Warren’s earlier rhetoric about taking coverage away from all Americans implies another, similarly awkward question: How will you pay for this massive expansion of government? Warren tried to answer this query by releasing a funding proposal in early November, but in truth, it raised more questions than it answered.

To give but one example: Since Warren released her plan, one study found that her proposed wealth tax would raise $1 trillion less in revenue than she claimed. That $1 trillion gap represents money that she would have to get from somewhere else.

Her revenue plan has myriad other gimmicks buried inside (analyzed in detail here). For instance, her estimates didn’t take into account the fact that the tax increases will shrink the economy, and therefore by definition won’t produce all the revenue she claims.

Warren released her revenue plan claiming that she could fund the full cost of her single-payer plan without raising taxes on the middle class. But the more she pushed that plan, the more people would pick apart all the gimmicks—and Warren’s opponents would rightly claim the gap between what she said her plan would raise and what it actually does would end up coming from the middle class. As a result, Warren “chose” to pivot to her “choice” mantra, navigating away from the Scylla and Charybdis of taking away people’s coverage, and raising taxes on the middle class to do so.

Forcing People to ‘Choose’ Socialism

The change in Warren’s tone doesn’t mean she’s changed her ultimate objective, however. Consider her comments at a town hall on Monday: “When tens of millions of people have had a chance to try [the buy-in proposal], I believe, at that point, we’re going to be ready to vote for” single payer (emphasis added).

Like Buttigieg, Warren sees a buy-in program—call it a “government-run plan,” call it a “public option,” call it “Medicare for All Who Want It”—as creating a natural “glide path” to single payer. They remain quite outspoken in their goal: They want to achieve a socialized medicine system. If given the opportunity, they will use policy to accomplish that objective—just slightly more slowly than under an immediate transition to single payer.

A throwaway line in a recent Vox article got at this same point. The article focused on open enrollment for exchange plans, and the fact that insurers must limit enrollment to a certain period of time, because Obamacare’s costly pre-existing condition provisions encourage individuals to wait until they become sick to sign up for coverage. The penultimate paragraph included this claim:

Under the various public options that have been proposed, uninsured people would be automatically enrolled in the new optional government plan. One advantage the government has over private insurers is it doesn’t need its books to balance perfectly; adverse selection [a disproportionate number of sick people signing up] isn’t as big a concern. [Emphasis mine.]

The highlighted line demonstrates how liberals would use taxpayer funds for the government-run plan: subsidizing coverage in advance, or bailing out the government plan after the fact if premiums are set too low, or too many sick people enroll, or both. Vox’s line hints at the left’s true goal through a “public option:” To sabotage private plans, and force people into socialized medicine, one person at a time.

Warren’s “choice” mantra sounds innocuous, but its underlying premise—by her own admission—seeks to create a single-payer system, just over a slightly longer period. Conservatives who think her approach represents anything other than a change in tactics should think again. The wolf attacking private insurance hasn’t disappeared so much as put on a disguise of sheep’s clothing.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

“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.

The Tax Increase Joe Biden’s Tax Plan “Forgot” to Mention Affects His Pocketbook

The details of Joe Biden’s tax plan emerged on Thursday—“emerged” because the campaign has yet to release a plan on its website. Instead, Bloomberg News obtained and published details of the tax proposal.

Most news coverage of the plan has to date focused on two issues. First, Biden’s plan proposes raising a relatively modest amount of revenue—“only” $3.2 trillion over a decade, compared to $20-30 trillion for the likes of Sens. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) and Bernie Sanders (I-VT). As an additional point of comparison, the 2017 tax cut, which Biden called “the dumbest thing in the world,” reduced revenues by $1.46 trillion over 10 years—less than half the fiscal impact of Biden’s tax increase. (Biden has said he wants to repeal those tax cuts, most of which are not included in his $3.2 trillion tax increase proposal.)

Second, stories have centered around the fact that Biden’s proposed revenue raisers would hit corporations and the affluent, while sparing the middle class. But few if any stories on Biden’s tax plan have mentioned one tax he has not proposed increasing—the one he failed to pay himself.

The List of Tax Increases

The Bloomberg story listed ten tax increases included in Biden’s $3.2 trillion plan:

  1. Taxing capital gains as ordinary income for individuals making more than $1 million ($800 billion revenue increase over ten years);
  2. Increasing the corporate income tax rate back up to 28% ($730 billion);
  3. Ending the “stepped-up basis” of taxation, under which the cost basis of inherited property (e.g., stocks, real estate, etc.) for determining capital gains tax liability is the value of the property at the time of the inheritance, rather than the value of the property when the deceased individual purchased the asset ($440 billion);
  4. Imposing a 15% minimum tax on all corporations with net income over $100 million, but who paid no federal income taxes ($400 billion);
  5. Doubling the rate of tax on profits generated overseas to 21% ($340 billion);
  6. Limiting the value of deductions for the wealthy to 28%, a proposal included in several Obama administration budgets ($310 billion);
  7. Raising the top rate of tax back up to 39.6% ($90 billion);
  8. Imposing sanctions on countries that “facilitate illegal corporate tax avoidance” ($200 billion);
  9. Eliminating real estate tax loopholes ($70 billion); and
  10. Ending fossil fuel subsidies ($40 billion).

Among that list of revenue raises, Biden did not incorporate a proposal submitted by the Obama administration in its budgets. That proposal, which would have raised taxes by an estimated $271.7 billion as of February 2016, attempted to end the practice of individuals funneling their profits through S corporations, to avoid paying self-employment taxes on their earnings.

The omission might come because, as previously reported, Biden and his wife used this loophole Obama wanted to close. In taking more than $13 million in book and speech earnings as income from their corporation, rather than wages, Joe and Jill Biden avoided paying as much as $500,000 in taxes—taxes used to fund Obamacare and Medicare. Experts interviewed by the Wall Street Journal over the summer called the maneuver “pretty aggressive” and a “pretty cut and dried” abuse of the system, because the Bidens’ speech and book income clearly came from their own intellectual property, rather than as a result of a corporate creation (e.g., profits from a restaurant, a car business, etc.).

Colluding Reporters?

As noted above, Bloomberg News broke the story of Biden’s tax plan. Its story mentioned not a word about how Biden’s plan omitted the Obama proposal on self-employment taxes, or Biden’s history of questionable tax maneuvers. The silence comes as Bloomberg said it would not conduct investigative reporting into declared candidate, and Bloomberg News owner, Michael Bloomberg’s rivals for the Democratic presidential nomination—but would continue to investigate President Trump.

At some point, reporters should stop colluding with each other to avoid investigations into Joe Biden’s sordid tax history. And they should start asking why a candidate who has campaigned on preserving and building upon Obamacare didn’t want to pay the taxes that fund it.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

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.