CBO Tries But Fails to Defend Its Illegal Budget Gimmick

In a blog post released last Thursday, the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) attempted to defend its actions regarding what I have characterized as an illegal budget gimmick designed to facilitate passage of an Obamacare bailout. When fully parsed, the response does not answer any of the key questions, likely because CBO has no justifiable answers to them.

The issue surrounds the budgetary treatment of cost-sharing reductions (CSRs), which President Trump cancelled last fall. While initially CBO said it would not change its budgetary treatment of CSRs, last month the agency changed course, saying it would instead assume that CSRs are “being funded through higher premiums and larger premium tax credit subsidies rather than through a direct appropriation.”

That claim fails on multiple fronts. First, it fails to address the states that did not assume that CSR payments get met through “higher premiums and larger premium tax credit subsidies.” As I noted in a March post, while most states allowed insurers to raise premiums for 2018 to take into account the loss of CSR payments, a few states—including Vermont, North Dakota, the District of Columbia, and a few other carriers in other states—did not. In those cases, the CSR payments cannot be accounted for through indirect premium subsidies, because premiums do not reflect CSR payments.

In its newest post, CBO admits that “most”—not all, but only “most”—insurers have covered the higher costs associated with lowering cost-sharing “by increasing premiums for silver plans.” But by using that phraseology, CBO cannot assume CSRs are being “fully funded” through higher premium subsidies, because not all insurers have covered their CSR costs through higher premiums. Therefore, even by CBO’s own logic, this new budgetary treatment violates the Gramm-Rudman-Hollings statutory requirements.

Second, even assuming that (eventually) all states migrate to the same strategy, and do allow for insurers to recover CSR payments through premium subsidies, CBO’s rationale does not comply with the actual text of the law. The law itself—2 U.S.C. 907—requires CBO to assume that “funding for entitlement authority is…adequate to make all payments required by those laws” (emphasis mine).

I reached out to CBO to ask about their reasoning in the blog post—how the organization can reconcile its admission that not all, but only “most,” insurers raised premiums to account for the lack of CSR funding with CBO’s claim that the CSRs are “fully funded” in the new baseline. A spokesman declined to comment, stating that more information about this issue would be included in a forthcoming publication. However, CBO did not explain why it published a blog post on the issue “provid[ing] additional information” when it now admits that post did not include all relevant information.

In addition, CBO also has not addressed the question of why Director Keith Hall reneged on his January 30 testimony before the House Budget Committee. At that January hearing, Reps. Jan Schakowsky (D-IL) and Dave Brat (R-VA) asked Hall about the budgetary treatment of CSRs. In both cases, the director said he would not make any changes “until we get other direction from the Budget Committees.”

That’s not what happened. CBO now claims that the change “was made by CBO after consultation with the House and Senate Budget Committees” (emphasis mine). No one directed CBO to make this change—or so the agency claims. But curiously enough, as I previously noted, Hall declined to answer a direct question from Rep. Gary Palmer (R-AL) at an April 12 hearing: “Why did you do that [i.e., change the baseline]?…You would have had to have gotten instruction to” make the change.

Moreover, Brat specifically asked how the agency would treat CSRs—as if they were being paid directly, or indirectly. Hall repeated the same response he gave Schakowsky, that CBO would not change its treatment “unless we get direction to do something different”—an answer which, given the agency’s later actions, could constitute a materially misleading statement to Congress.

Reasonable as it may seem from outward appearances, CBO’s excuses do not stand up to any serious scrutiny. The agency should finally come clean and admit that its recent actions do not comport with the law—as well as who put CBO up to making this change in the first place.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

This American Life Doesn’t Understand This American Government

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

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

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

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

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

Looks Can Be Deceiving

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

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

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

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

Let’s Review Some of Those

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

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

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

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

Consider a Case Study in Virginia

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

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

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

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

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

‘Slow Government’ Complaints Are Way Older than Trump

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

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

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

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

The Making of a Budget Gimmick

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

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

The Problem? It’s Illegal

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

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

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

Then Comes the Flip-Flop

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

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

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

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

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

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

Coming Up: An Embarrassing Spectacle

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

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

This post was originally published at The Federalist.