Three Reasons to Oppose the Swampy Budget Deal

On Monday, congressional leaders and the Trump administration announced agreement on legislation that would set budget and spending parameters for the next two years. The agreement would suspend the debt limit through July 2021, and establish spending levels for lawmakers to enact appropriations measures for the remainder of this Congress.

Conservatives have rightly criticized the agreement as abandoning the principles of smaller government, with a return to the trillion-dollar deficits seen under Barack Obama (and this time under a more robust economy). Among the many reasons to oppose the agreement, three in particular stand out.

1. More Spending Now

When the Budget Control Act, which established the existing spending caps, passed in the summer of 2011, Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-KY)—then the minority leader, now the majority leader—famously said it would slow down the “big government freight train.”

But in the time since that bill’s enactment, McConnell and his colleagues in Congress have repeatedly increased the Budget Control Act’s spending caps, speeding up the big government freight train over and over again.

2. More Spending Later

On one level, the agreement at least wins points for honesty, by abandoning the pretense that Congress has any interest in controlling spending. However, future generations will wish that Congress had substituted some actual fiscal discipline for profligacy.

3. No Policy Improvements

To assuage the conservative concerns about the package’s spending binge, Republican leaders have pointed to other language in the agreement. Specifically, the text states that Republican leaders and the White House would have a veto on any appropriations riders passed by the Democratic House that would seek to (for instance) defund regulatory actions by the current administration:

Congressional leaders and the Administration agree that, relative to the [Fiscal Year] 2019 regular appropriations acts, there will be no poison pills, additional new riders…other changes in policy or conventions…or any non-appropriations measures unless agreed to on a bipartisan basis by the four leaders with the approval of the President.

In theory, this language blocks Democrats from eliminating restrictions on taxpayer funding of abortion, among other liberal priorities.

If Democrats could block Republicans from enacting appropriations policy riders over the past two years, despite serving in the minority, could Republicans have blocked Democrats from enacting their own policy riders with continued control of the Senate and White House? That question should answer itself—provided Republicans had any spine (admittedly an uncertain prospect).

Instead, Republicans agreed to hundreds of billions of dollars in additional spending to “win” something they already had—an understanding that neither side would enact appropriations policy riders. Taken from the most cynical perspective, the agreement uses the pro-life community’s worries about Democratic riders—riders which both the White House and Republican Senate already had the means to stop—to rationalize congressional Republicans’ continued spending binge.

Trump came into office pledging to “drain the swamp.” But the new government spending contemplated by this agreement wouldn’t drain the swamp so much as grow it. Conservatives, and the American people as a whole, deserve better.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

D.C. Council’s Motto: “Obamacare for Thee — But Not for Me!”

On the first of the month, D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser held an event at Freedom Plaza to celebrate the start of Obamacare’s annual open enrollment period. She appeared with Mila Kofman, head of the District’s health insurance exchange, D.C. Health Link. In conjunction with the event, the mayor issued a proclamation declaring the open enrollment period “Get Covered, Stay Covered” months, and noting that “residents should visit [D.C. Health Link’s website] to shop for and compare health insurance.”

But in encouraging others to “get covered,” and promoting the D.C. Health Link site, Bowser omitted one key detail: She does not buy the policies that D.C. Health Link sells. My recent Freedom of Information Act request confirmed that Bowser, like most of her D.C. Council colleagues, received taxpayer-funded insurance subsidies to purchase their coverage through the District government, rather than through D.C. Health Link. Thus, DC spent nearly half a million in taxpayer funds because the mayor and council won’t be bothered to enroll in Obamacare.

Forfeiting generous employer subsidies might seem like an unreasonable request to make of the mayor and council. But earlier this year, the council passed, and Bowser signed, legislation requiring all District residents to buy health coverage or pay a tax — including tens of thousands of residents who do not qualify for subsidies.

According to public records, Bowser receives an annual salary of $200,000; council members receive $140,600 annually. This year, I will receive less income than any of them, and as a small business owner my income is far from guaranteed, unlike public officials’ salaries. Yet the mayor and council have required me to buy health coverage without a subsidy, even as they refuse to do so themselves.

I asked Bowser about this obvious inequity. Under Obamacare, an individual with income of $50,000 — one-quarter of Bowser’s salary — does not qualify for an income-based subsidy. Bowser required this individual to buy coverage without assistance, while earning much more in salary and retaining her employer subsidy. Did she see a double standard in her conduct?

When it came to the issue of equity and fairness, she didn’t have a substantive answer, nor did her council colleagues. I asked staff for each council member about their health insurance coverage, and any subsidies received. Most staff never responded to my outreach. Staff for Councilman Robert White said they would ask him about his coverage, but never sent a reply. Staff for two councilmembers, Phil Mendelson and Brandon Todd, replied with explanations about the subsidies being provided as an employer benefit.

But neither Bowser nor the council members could justify requiring other District residents, including many with lower incomes than they, from buying coverage without a subsidy even as they will not do so themselves. And how could they? Quite often, it seems liberals who preach frequently about “fairness” regarding others’ actions fall eerily silent when doing so would cost them personally. “Obamacare for thee — but not for me” doesn’t provide a particularly compelling slogan, but the mayor and council have sent that very message by their actions.

Official Washington contains numerous examples of hypocrisy and double standards, but that doesn’t make either a “D.C. value.” If Bowser wishes to abide by the D.C. values she campaigned on, she and the council members should give up their subsidies and buy health insurance just like ordinary residents do. If they find that task too difficult or costly, then perhaps they should repeal the exact same requirement they put on everyone else.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

Let the Individual Mandate Die

In May New Jersey imposed a health-insurance mandate requiring all residents to buy insurance or pay a penalty. More states will feel pressure to follow suit in the coming year as the federal mandate’s penalty disappears Jan. 1 and state legislatures reconvene, some with new Democratic majorities intent on “protecting” Obamacare. But conflicts with federal law will make state-level health-insurance mandates ineffective or unduly onerous, and governors and legislatures would do well to steer clear.

While states can require citizens to purchase health coverage, they will have trouble ensuring compliance. Federal law prohibits the Internal Revenue Service from disclosing tax-return data, except under limited circumstances. And there is no clear precedent allowing the IRS to disclose coverage data to verify compliance with state insurance requirements.

Accordingly, mandates enacted in New Jersey and the District of Columbia earlier this year created their own coverage-reporting regimes. But those likely conflict with the Employee Retirement Income Security Act, or ERISA, which explicitly pre-empts “any and all state laws insofar as they may now or hereafter relate to any employee benefit plan.” The point is to protect large employers who self-insure workers from 50 sets of conflicting state laws.

No employer has used ERISA to challenge Massachusetts’ 2006 individual mandate, which includes reporting requirements, but that doesn’t mean it’s legal. Last month a Brookings Institution paper conceded that “state requirements related to employer benefits like health coverage may be subject to legal challenge based on ERISA preemption.”

A 2016 Supreme Court ruling would bolster such a challenge. In Gobeille v. Liberty Mutual, the court struck down a Vermont law that required employers to submit health-care payment claims to a state database. The court said the law was pre-empted by ERISA.

Writing for a six-justice majority, Justice Anthony Kennedy noted the myriad reporting requirements under federal law. Vermont’s law required additional record-keeping. Justice Kennedy concluded that “differing, or even parallel, regulations from multiple jurisdictions could create wasteful administrative costs and threaten to subject plans to wide-ranging liability.”

Justice Kennedy’s opinion provides a how-to manual for employers to challenge state-level insurance mandates. A morass of state-imposed insurance mandates and reporting requirements would unnecessarily burden employers with costs and complexity. It cries out for pre-emptive relief.

Unfortunately, policy makers have ignored these concerns. Notes from the working group that recommended the District of Columbia’s individual mandate never mention the reporting burden or ERISA pre-emption. And in August the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services approved New Jersey’s waiver application that relied in part upon funding from that state’s new individual mandate, even though money from the difficult-to-enforce requirement may never materialize.

States already cannot require federal agencies to report coverage. This means their mandates won’t track the 2.3 million covered by the Indian Health Service, 9.3 million receiving health care from the Veterans Administration, 8.8 million disabled under age 65 who are enrolled in Medicare, 9.4 million military Tricare enrollees and 8.2 million federal employees and retirees.

If a successful ERISA challenge also exempts some of the 181 million with employer-based insurance from coverage-reporting requirements, state insurance mandates become farcical. States would have to choose between mandates that run on the “honor system”—thus likely rife with cheating—or taking so much time and energy to verify coverage that administration becomes prohibitively expensive.

States should take the hint and refrain from even considering their own coverage mandates. But if they don’t, smart employers should challenge the mandate’s reporting requirements. They’d likely win.

This post was originally published at The Wall Street Journal.

Bill Cassidy’s “Monkey Business”

Last we checked in with Louisiana Republican Sen. Bill Cassidy, he was hard at work adding literally dozens of new federal health care requirements to a Republican “repeal-and-replace” bill. This week comes word that Cassidy continues to “monkey around” in health care — this time quite literally.

STAT reports: “Sen. Bill Cassidy is trying to help hundreds of chimpanzees enjoy an easy retirement in his home state of Louisiana. The Republican is pushing for an amendment to a major appropriations bill winding its way through Congress this week that would force the National Institutes of Health to make good on a 2015 promise to move all its chimps out of research facilities.”

Don’t get me wrong: I oppose animal cruelty as much as the next person. If NIH lacks a compelling scientific justification to conduct research on chimpanzees, or any other animal, then it should cease the research and provide alterative accommodations for the creatures affected.

But on at least three levels, Cassidy’s amendment demonstrates exactly what’s wrong with Washington D.C.

Problem 1: Skewed Priorities

The federal debt is at more than $21 trillion and rising — more than double its $10.6 trillion size not ten years ago, on the day Barack Obama took office. American troops remain stationed in Afghanistan, and elsewhere around the world. Russia still looks to undermine American democracy and to meddle in this year’s midterm elections. The situation with North Korea remains tenuous, as the North Koreans continue to develop intercontinental ballistic missile technologies and their nuclear program.

So why is Cassidy trying to consume Senate floor time with a debate and vote on the chimpanzee amendment, after having already sent a letter to NIH on the subject? On a list of America’s top policy issues and concerns, the fate of 272 chimpanzees wouldn’t register in the top 100, or even in the top 1,000. So why should members of Congress (to say nothing of their staffs) spend so much time on such a comparatively inconsequential issue?

Problem 2: Cassidy Doesn’t Want to Repeal Obamacare

Rather than spending time on a chimpanzee amendment, Cassidy — like his Senate Republican colleagues — should focus on keeping the promise they made to their voters for the past four election cycles that they would repeal Obamacare. But unfortunately, many of the people who made that promise never believed it in the first place.

Based on his record, Cassidy stands as one of those individuals opposed to Obamacare repeal. As I noted in June, Cassidy does not want to repeal the federal system of regulations that lies at the heart of the health care law. In fact, a health care plan released earlier this summer seemed designed primarily to give lawmakers like Cassidy political cover not to repeal Obamacare’s most onerous regulations — even though a study by the Heritage Foundation indicates those regulations are the prime driver of premium increases since the law passed.

Problem 3: Cassidy Just Voted to Entrench Obamacare

Earlier this month, I noted some Republicans in the Senate would likely vote to allow the District of Columbia to tax individuals who do not purchase health insurance, after having voted to repeal that mandate in last year’s tax bill. After I wrote that story, Cassidy became one of five Senate Republicans to do just that, by voting to table (or kill) an amendment defunding Washington’s new individual mandate.

Because Cassidy voted to keep the mandate in place in D.C., he voted to allow District authorities to seize and sell individuals’ property if they do not purchase “government-approved” health coverage. Rather than voting to repeal Obamacare, Cassidy and his colleagues voted to entrench Obamacare in the nation’s capital — for which they have sovereign jurisdiction under the Constitution.

Even apart from Cassidy’s flip-flopping on repeal of Obamacare and its individual mandate, the contrast with the letter to NIH raises its own questions. In that letter, Cassidy emphasized that former research chimpanzees should have “the opportunity to live in mixed-sex groups and … daily access to nesting materials.”

This all sounds well and good, but why does Cassidy seemingly care so much about giving freedom to chimpanzees and so little about giving freedom to District of Columbia residents to buy (or not buy) the health coverage they wish to purchase?

Congress, Stop Monkeying Around

Five years ago, Democratic Rep. Frank Pallone famously called a congressional hearing on the healthcare.gov debacle a “monkey court.” Five years later, the Cassidy amendment on chimpanzee research demonstrates how Congress continues to “monkey around.”

Republicans should stop the primate-related sideshows and focus on things that really matter. Like sticking to the promise they made to voters for eight years to repeal Obamacare.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

About That “Junk” Insurance

On Wednesday, the Trump administration released its final rule regarding short-term, limited-duration insurance coverage. For all critics’ carping about how short-term coverage epitomizes “junk insurance,” these plans will provide another option for individuals who find Obamacare-compliant policies unattractive and unaffordable.

Pros and Cons of the Rule

The Cato Institute’s Michael Cannon lists a good summary of the rule’s benefits. At a time when the market for unsubsidized coverage away from the exchanges has dropped by nearly 40 percent, short-term plans will allow individuals who find Obamacare-compliant coverage unaffordable to purchase coverage.

Whereas the Obama administration defined “consumer protections” as “protecting people from being a consumer” of anything other than exchange plans, the Trump administration’s rule allows consumers to buy coverage that actually protects them from future harmful health events.

That said, the rule brings with it two notable drawbacks. First, the administration believes it could raise federal spending by $28.2 billion over a decade. The estimate comes because some healthy people likely will leave the exchanges to buy more affordable short-term coverage, raising premiums—and thus premium subsidies—for those who remain in Obamacare-compliant plans. While the Congressional Budget Office estimated a much smaller (and slightly positive) fiscal impact, the rule could end up increasing spending at a time when the federal government has racked up $21 trillion in debt (and counting).

Second, the rule doesn’t repeal Obamacare—an obvious statement, but one with important implications. Another president can easily revoke the Trump administration’s actions, and the next Democrat will almost certainly do just that. While helpful, the rule itself should not serve as an excuse for Congress not to take action to repeal Obamacare’s harmful regulations—because if you like your short-term plan, and Congress does nothing, you probably won’t be able to keep it.

What’s the Real ‘Junk Insurance’?

But as I wrote last week, Kofman has refused to buy an Obamacare plan, because she claims she requires an employer subsidy—this despite making more than $217,000 per year. Given her sizable income, Kofman must not think exchange policies unaffordable, even without an employer subsidy.

After all, the Exchange Authority recently endorsed, and the District enacted, a mandate requiring people with far less income than her—that is, people like me—to buy unsubsidized coverage or pay a tax. Why does she not buy the insurance policies she sells—because she considers them “junk insurance?”

She’s not alone. At a briefing last month, Sara Collins, a vice president at the Commonwealth Fund, asked whether short-term plans and other non-Obamacare policies would have “warning labels on them.” Collins neglected to provide a warning of her own: She has not purchased an exchange plan. Lest one think she cannot afford to do so, Commonwealth’s tax filings reveal that for the 12 months ending in June 2017, Collins received $334,353 in total compensation (including benefits).

I consider the very definition of “junk insurance” a policy that one encourages others to buy but refuses to purchase. On that, Corlette has a sterling track record. At a 2016 briefing, her presentation included a bullet point about the need to increase exchange sign-ups. She went further in her oral remarks: “I think it’s critical to do everything we can do boost enrollment.”

But when I asked Corlette at that same 2016 briefing if she had taken her own advice and bought an exchange plan, I received a song-and-dance about her life as a “spoiled academic.” Lest anyone think her unfeeling, however, she allowed that “I do try to think about” individuals without employer-sponsored coverage when designing insurance coverage standards.

Principles Versus Power

That’s the point. If Obamacare advocates thought achieving the law’s goals was so critical, they would have put their money where their mouths are and enrolled in exchange plans long ago. For all liberals’ talk of solidarity and “We’re all in this together,” the unwillingness for individuals making hundreds of thousands per year to enroll in exchange coverage, even though they could easily afford to do so, astounds. Given their own failures to enroll, who are they to criticize President Trump for “sabotaging” the law?

In their quiet moments, people like Kofman, Collins, and Corlette may wonder what strange confluence of events led the American people to elect Donald Trump, and empower him with the authority to dismantle their liberal paradise. But their failure to practice what they preach yields a ready answer: They need only look in the mirror.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

Republicans’ Spending Dilemma, In One Tweet

Most of official Washington woke up apoplectic on Sunday, when a tweet from President Trump invoked “the Swamp’s” most dreaded word: “Shutdown.”

Put aside for a moment specific questions about the wall itself—whether it will deter illegal immigration, how much to spend on it, or even whether to build it. The Trump tweet illustrates a much larger problem facing congressional Republicans: They don’t want to fight—about the wall, or about much of anything, particularly spending.

Voting for the Mandate after They Voted Against It?

Take for instance an issue I helped raise awareness of, and have helped spend the past several weeks tracking: The District of Columbia’s move to re-establish a requirement on district residents to purchase health insurance.

As I wrote last week, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) offered an amendment in the Senate that would defund this mandate. The amendment resembles one that Rep. Gary Palmer (R-AL) offered in the House, and which representatives voted to add to the bill. If a successful vote on the Cruz amendment inserted the provision in the Senate version of the bill, the defunding amendment would presumably have a smooth passage to enactment.

So what’s holding it up? In a word, Republicans. According to Senate sources, Republican leaders—and Republican members of the Appropriations Committee—don’t want to vote on Cruz’s amendment. Several outside groups have stated they will key-vote in favor of the amendment, and the leadership types don’t want to vote against something that many conservative groups support.

Are Democrats Running Congress?

In short, because Democrats might object. Appropriations measures need 60 votes to break a Senate filibuster, and Democrats have said they will not vote for any bill that includes so-called “poison pill” appropriations riders. The definition of a “poison pill” of course lies in the eyes of the beholder.

Politico wrote about the spending process six weeks ago, noting that new Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Richard Shelby (R-AL) and Ranking Member Pat Leahy (D-VT) “have resolved to work out matters privately. Both parties have agreed to hold their noses to vote for a bill that they consider imperfect, but good enough.”

That “kumbaya” dynamic has led Senate Republican leaders and appropriators to try and avoid the Cruz amendment entirely. They don’t want to vote against the amendment, because conservatives like me support it and will (rightly) point out their hypocrisy if they do. But they don’t want the amendment to pass either, because they fear that Democrats won’t vote to pass the underlying bill if it does. So they hope the amendment will die a quiet death.

Conservatives Get the Shaft—Again

At this point some leadership types might point out that it’s easy for people like me to sit on the sidelines and criticize, but that Republicans in Congress must actually govern. That point has more than a grain of truth to it.

On the other hand, “governing” for Republicans usually means “governing like Democrats.” Case in point: The sorry spectacle I described in March, wherein Republican committee chairmen—who, last I checked, won election two years ago on a platform of repealing Obamacare—begged Democrats to include a bailout of Obamacare’s exchanges in that month’s 2,200-page omnibus appropriations bill.

The chairmen in question, and many Republican leaders, feared the party will get blamed in the fall for premium increases. So they decided to “govern” by abandoning all pretense of repealing Obamacare and trying to bolster the law instead, even though their failure to repeal Obamacare is a key driver of the premium increases driving Americans crazy.

With an election on the horizon, bicameral negotiations surrounding the spending bill could get hairy in September, because two of the parties come to the table with fundamentally different perspectives. Republican congressional leaders worry about what might happen in November if they fail to govern because they stood up for conservative policies. Trump worries about what might happen if they don’t.

UPDATE: On Wednesday afternoon, the Senate voted to table the Cruz amendment blocking DC’s individual mandate. Five Republicans who voted to repeal the individual mandate in tax reform legislation last fall — Louisiana’s Bill Cassidy, Maine’s Susan Collins, Alaska’s Lisa Murkowski, Alabama’s Richard Shelby, and Utah’s Orrin Hatch — voted to table, or kill, the amendment.

Because the vote came on a motion to table, senators may attempt to argue that the vote was procedural in nature, and did not represent a change in position on the mandate. Shelby, the chair of the Appropriations Committee, said he supported the underlying policy behind the Cruz amendment, but voted not to advance the amendment because Democrats objected to its inclusion.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

How D.C. Leaders Ignore Their Own Constituents on Health Care

The July 24 editorial “ ‘Here we go again’ ” misapportioned blame. Instead of attacking the House, the editorial should have examined the disregard the D.C. government has shown residents by passing a controversial requirement to purchase health coverage.

The D.C. Council opaquely enacted a major policy change, burying the provision in a 300-page bill featuring clerical amendments to things such as the Eastern Market Enterprise Fund. The council’s press release said not a word about the mandate’s enactment.

Second, the head of the D.C. Health Benefit Exchange Authority, which requested the mandate, refuses to buy the plans she sells. When I asked her about this in 2016, Mila Kofman claimed that buying an exchange plan would cause her to forfeit her employer subsidy. I find it absurd that an individual making more than $217,000 per year requires insurance subsidies yet wants to tax people such as me — who make far less yet receive no subsidies — who do not purchase a “government-approved” plan.

D.C. officials who complain about disregard from Congress should not deprecate or disregard their own residents. Unfortunately, passing laws surreptitiously, imposing requirements on others while not following them oneself, and ignoring constituent complaints all qualify.

This post was originally published at The Washington Post.

Liberal Think-Tank Admits Obamacare’s Failures

Once again, the movement to expand government-run health care continues apace. No sooner had one think tank published a paper calling for the return of an individual mandate at the federal level than the liberal Commonwealth Fund published a paper, released on Friday, calling for states to impose their own Obamacare-style mandates at the state level.

However, the paper proves most interesting for what it tacitly admits. Over time, Commonwealth believes that more and more people will purchase coverage solely due to a government order—because health costs and premiums will continue to rise. Because Obamacare failed to control health costs, more and more individuals will purchase health coverage only under the threat of government-imposed taxation. That’s Commonwealth’s version of health “reform.”

Late Wednesday evening, the House of Representatives adopted the amendment by a 226-189 vote. Next week, the Senate could take up its version of the District of Columbia appropriations bill. If a similar amendment passes on the Senate floor, then the final version of the appropriations measure likely will contain the defunding language—thus preventing individuals who do not buy “government-approved” health coverage from having their property seized by DC authorities.

Longer-Term Effects of the Mandate

As to the Commonwealth report itself: It concludes that enacting an individual mandate in all 50 states would increase insurance coverage by roughly 3.9 million in 2019. Nearly half of those individuals (1.7 million) would comprise individuals purchasing unsubsidized exchange coverage—the people for whom Bill Clinton said Obamacare was the “craziest thing in the world,” because they don’t receive subsidies (which might explain why they won’t purchase insurance unless the government taxes them for not doing so). Individuals enrolling in Medicaid (600,000), subsidized exchange policies (1.1 million), and employer plans (450,000) comprise the rest of the coverage gains.

Particularly noteworthy however: In 2022—just four years from now—the mandate will lead 7.5 million people to obtain health coverage, or nearly twice the 2019 total. Commonwealth explains the reasoning:

As health care costs get more expensive relative to incomes over time, fewer people tend to purchase insurance and the number of uninsured rises. However, with an individual mandate in place, the effect of health care cost growth is lessened because more people hold on to their insurance to comply with the mandate. As a result, the effect of the individual mandate on reducing the number of people without insurance increases over time in percentage terms.

Wasn’t Obamacare Supposed to Reduce Health Costs?

The obvious question: Why would health care costs continue to “get more expensive relative to income over time”? Wasn’t Obamacare supposed to fix all that?

Recall that during his 2008 campaign, Barack Obama repeatedly promised that his health plan would cut families’ premiums by $2,500 per year. Commonwealth provided some of the intellectual firepower behind the pledge, releasing in 2007 a report that it claimed could save $1.5 trillion in health expenditures over 10 years. Many of that report’s proposals, although not all (limiting Medicare’s coverage of expensive drugs and treatments being an obvious exception), made their way into the measure that became Obamacare.

In 2013, Commonwealth upped the ante, releasing another report whose recommendations promised $2 trillion in lower health spending over a decade. Yet Commonwealth’s report released Friday admits that health costs in 2022 will continue to rise faster than income, resulting in more and more people feeling squeezed to afford coverage. At this rate, Commonwealth should stop putting out reports talking about all the health costs we could save. Our country can’t afford them.

The Left’s Arrogant Conceit

I’ll give the last word to—of all people—Barack Obama. In 2010, he talked about how he didn’t want to “give the keys back” to people who “didn’t know how to drive.” The Commonwealth report makes plain that despite all the intrusions on freedom Obamacare included, it didn’t accomplish its supposed goal of making health care more affordable. (And no, using government to re-distribute money doesn’t qualify as making the underlying cost of care more “affordable.”)

Given that dynamic, who would want to give people like the researchers at Commonwealth even more control over the health care system? The question should answer itself.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

Preserving Health Care Freedom in the Nation’s Capital

Two weeks ago, I described how provisions in a budget bill that the District of Columbia Council quietly passed would extend the reach of government-controlled health care in the nation’s capital. The provisions buried in that budget bill would not only reimpose the health insurance mandate penalty within the District of Columbia that Congress set to zero beginning in January, but would go further, by allowing DC authorities to place liens on, seize, and sell the property of individuals who cannot afford to pay the mandate tax.

Thankfully, my post had its intended effect in raising awareness of the issue among federal policy-makers. The office of Rep. Gary Palmer (R-AL) responded, introducing an amendment to appropriations legislation that the House of Representatives will consider this week.

Prevents Affordable Options from Qualifying 

The Palmer amendment would also allow individuals to purchase the type of health coverage they desire without getting hit with a “stealth” tax bill after-the-fact. If the District’s law goes into effect in January, individuals buying the new, more affordable coverage options proposed by the Trump administration could face exactly that.

The mandate the DC Council approved (see pages 168-82 here) effectively re-imposes on the District Obamacare’s individual mandate as it existed last December 15—the date the congressional conferees on the tax bill filed their conference report (i.e., before legislation setting the federal mandate penalty to zero was signed into law). By linking the District’s mandate to the policies and regulations in place as of last December 15, the DC mandate also prevents the new options the Trump administration is introducing from qualifying as “minimum essential coverage” for purposes of complying with the mandate.

For instance, the DC law defines “minimum essential coverage” as “minimum essential coverage as defined by section 5000A of the [federal] Internal Revenue Code of 1986 and its implementing regulations, as that section and its implementing regulations were in effect on December 15, 2017.” It further specifies that “minimum essential coverage” shall include:

Health coverage provided under a multiple employer welfare arrangement; provided that the multiple employer welfare arrangement provided coverage in the District on December 15, 2017, or complies with federal law and regulations applicable to multiple employer welfare arrangements that were in place as of December 15, 2017.

Locks Out Short-Term Coverage, Too

The District’s statute also would exclude short-term health plans from qualifying as “minimum essential coverage” for purposes of its health insurance mandate. Obamacare itself defined “minimum essential coverage” to include “coverage under a health plan offered in the individual market within a state.” But because another portion of federal law says “‘individual health insurance coverage’ means health insurance coverage offered to individuals in the individual market, but does not include short-term limited duration insurance,” short-term plans would not qualify.

Obamacare did give the secretary of Health and Human Services, along with the secretary of the Treasury, discretion in determining other forms of “minimum essential coverage” for purposes of the federal mandate. However, because the District linked its mandate to those federal definitions in effect as of December 15, 2017—well before the Trump administration first proposed its changes to the regulation of short-term plans on February 20, 2018—short-term plans would not qualify as acceptable coverage under the District’s mandate.

District residents who purchase short-term plans, like those who access the expanded association health plans, would not comply with the new coverage requirements. Particularly given the very quiet way the DC Council enacted the legislation, many individuals may not know that the District re-imposed a health insurance mandate or that certain types of coverage do not comply with it, and face an unpleasant tax “surprise” in the spring of 2020 (as they file their DC tax returns for 2019). Unless, of course, Congress enacts the Palmer amendment into law.

Congress’s Constitutional Duty

Moreover, it also belies the fact that DC officials made little attempt—one could argue purposefully made little attempt—to publicize the council’s deliberations over this change. I e-mailed three people in Mayor Muriel Bowser’s press office about the council’s actions two weeks ago, and still have yet to receive so much as an acknowledgement.

Bowser can argue all she wants about “Taxation without Representation,” but given that her office made zero attempt to represent me, she has little right to complain. The House should pass the Palmer amendment this week, and prevent the strong-arm tactics associated with government-controlled health care from taking root in the nation’s capital.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

D.C.’s Latest Health “Reform:” Seizing People’s Property

Just when you think the move for government control of health care couldn’t get any worse, somehow it manages to. Last Wednesday, the District of Columbia City Council approved a requirement for all DC residents to purchase health insurance. The mandate would take effect in January, right when the federal mandate penalty drops to $0, as per last year’s tax law.

The D.C. mandate contains three elements that make it just as bad as, if not worse than, the federal mandate it is intended to replace.

A (Deliberately?) Opaque Process

A cynic might believe that the D.C. Council acted in such a low-key manner by design. The council did not approve the mandate as a stand-alone bill, but wrapped it into a 297-page Budget Support Act. That bill contains such unrelated provisions as an amendment regarding the Fort Dupont Ice Arena, technical corrections to a supermarket tax incentive program, and amendments regarding civic associations using public schools.

Likewise, a press release by the D.C. Council summarizing Wednesday’s meeting contained not a word about imposing the individual mandate, nor did the council website show any stand-alone votes on the mandate itself. This lack of disclosure pushed me to contact my council member, Charles Allen, to find out what had happened at the council meeting Wednesday.

Upon hearing that the mandate as passed of a much larger package, I asked one of Allen’s staffers whether this provision had been “snuck in at the last minute.” The staffer said DC Mayor Muriel Bowser had proposed the mandate as part of her budget submission to the council back in March. He then rather sheepishly added that, while people had testified on behalf of other portions of the Budget Support Act, no one had spoken about the mandate specifically.

For a district that decries “Taxation Without Representation,” this Nancy Pelosi-esque behavior—where we literally had to pass the bill to find out what was in it—seems to embody the very congressional tactics that DC leaders love to hate.

Harsher Penalties for Violators

During the 2009-10 debate on Obamacare, the threat of penalties for violating the individual mandate became a source of intense controversy. During the Senate Finance Committee’s markup, Sen. John Ensign (R-NV) received a handwritten note from Thomas Barthold, head of the Joint Committee on Taxation, stating that, under federal law, non-payment of the mandate tax could result in imprisonment. Democrats buckled under this political pressure, removing from the Internal Revenue Service the power to imprison violators, or impose liens on personal property, for non-payment of the mandate tax.

By contrast, the district’s mandate—which comprises pages 168-182 of the Budget Support Act—includes this language at the bottom of page 180: “A taxpayer who fails to pay the District of Columbia shared responsibility payment imposed…shall be subject to all collection, enforcement, and administrative provisions applicable to unpaid taxes or fees, as provided in Chapter 18, Chapter 41, Chapter 42, Chapter 43, and Chapter 44 of this title [emphasis mine].”

Unlike the federal Internal Revenue Code, it does not appear at first glance that the district’s tax law allows for imprisoning individuals for non-payment of taxes (as opposed to deliberate tax evasion or fraud). However, Chapter 44 includes the following language:

If a person determined to be liable to the District of Columbia for a tax neglects or refuses to pay the tax within 10 days after notice and demand, the Mayor may collect the tax, with interest and penalties thereon (and an amount sufficient to cover the expenses of the levy), by levy upon all property (including rights to property) of the person or on which there is a lien provided in this chapter for the payment of the tax.

No wonder the D.C. Council didn’t want to hold an up-or-down vote on just this provision.

Hypocrisy Much?

Another relevant fact to the district’s mandate: The head of the District’s health insurance exchange—which recommended creating a DC mandate following the removal of the federal tax penalty—doesn’t buy exchange coverage herself. As I previously noted, many exchange heads (and Obamacare supporters) refuse to buy the coverage they promote, including the head of the district’s exchange, Mila Kofman.

When I discovered in late 2016 that I could not retain that plan in 2017, due in part to regulations imposed by the district’s exchange, I attended a meeting of the exchange authority. I asked Kofman whether she, and other exchange employees, purchased exchange coverage. She claimed that she and her colleagues could not purchase exchange policies, because they would lose their employer subsidy in the process.

I don’t know whether Bowser and the DC Council behave similarly to Kofman, but I can guess. On Thursday afternoon, I e-mailed Bowser’s office asking about the DC insurance mandate, and whether Bowser received a taxpayer subsidy for her insurance coverage. (The district’s mayor receives a salary of $200,000 annually.) I also asked what Bowser would “say to District residents like me—who make far less in salary than she does, yet do not receive [taxpayer-]subsidized benefits—being forced to buy coverage under penalty not just of taxation, but of property seizures through DC’s tax enforcement mechanisms?”

Wouldn’t you know it: I have yet to receive a response.

Here Are Some Policy Solutions

Thankfully, several of the policy and process problems outlined above contain within them readily achievable solutions:

  • The D.C. Council should pass legislation requiring the mayor, council, exchange CEO, and exchange board members to buy coverage through the exchange—without using separate taxpayer-funded benefits available to other district employees.
  • If the council will not act, the Trump administration could promulgate regulations requiring the CEOs and board members of all state-run exchanges (including the district’s) to buy the coverage they promote and oversee.
  • Congress could also exercise its constitutional prerogatives and strike down the district’s individual mandate, ensuring that no individuals will have their property seized by an overzealous government if they cannot afford to buy “bureaucrat-approved” health insurance.

Better yet: The District of Columbia Council could decide to stop micromanaging its residents’ health care by surreptitiously passing onerous mandates in legislation that few district residents know about.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.