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.

“Ponzi Pete” Buttigieg Proposes More Unsustainable Entitlements

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

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

CLASS Act ‘Ponzi Scheme’

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

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

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

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

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

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

Costly Promises

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

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

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

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

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

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

Warren Asks What the Country Can Do for You

Elizabeth Warren’s release Friday of a more specific health-care platform only raised more questions about Medicare for All and its effects on the middle class. Conservatives as well as Ms. Warren’s Democratic opponents questioned the assumptions behind her claim that she can enact a single-payer plan without raising taxes on the middle class. Yet the harshest critic may be Ms. Warren herself. “Ask not what your country can do for you—ask what you can do for your country,” John F. Kennedy, who once held Ms. Warren’s Senate seat, urged. She refuses to ask the middle class to pay a dime for her costly proposal.

Take Ms. Warren’s assumptions at face value, even if doing so requires a knowing suspension of disbelief. Assume she can reduce the 10-year cost of a single-payer system from the $34 trillion in new federal spending estimated by the liberal Urban Institute to a mere $20.5 trillion. Assume her program would reduce administrative costs without encouraging fraud. Assume also that her proposed wealth tax won’t generate massive tax evasion—she claims a Warren administration would generate $2.3 trillion in new revenue by cracking down on tax avoidance—and that not a penny of her $9 trillion in assessments on employers will end up being paid by workers.

Ms. Warren envisions a $20 trillion expansion of government—the largest in American history—paid for by a fraction of the population. She foresees unlimited “free” health care for millions of families, without so much as a $100 copayment, premium, assessment, tax or other fee.

Sure, the earned entitlement always had an element of fiction. Social Security and Medicare pay benefits based on current cash flows, with their respective trust funds containing little more than promises to pay future benefits. Urban Institute estimates show that even wealthy seniors will receive more in Social Security and Medicare benefits than they paid in taxes. But Ms. Warren’s plan would dispense with the pretense of social insurance, instead creating a crass form of political plunder that uses federal largess to buy votes.

In turning government programs into a version of “Oprah’s Favorite Things”—everyone gets a free car, paid for by somebody else—Ms. Warren follows the example of President Obama. He talked of social solidarity, saying “we’re all in this together,” but shied away from asking anyone other than “the rich” to pay for his new government programs. In 2008 candidate Obama made a “firm pledge” not to raise taxes on families making less than $250,000 a year, “not your income tax, not your payroll tax, not your capital-gains taxes, not any of your taxes.”

The “firm pledge” lasted two weeks. In February 2009 Mr. Obama raised tobacco taxes to fund an expansion of children’s health insurance. Then, after ObamaCare took effect in 2013, the law led at least 4.7 million Americans to receive insurance-cancellation notices. In the years since, the health-insurance market has shrunk by four million people, because those who don’t qualify for subsidies can’t afford coverage—what Bill Clinton called “the craziest thing in the world.” Working families ended up bearing the burden of Mr. Obama’s new programs.

Therein lies the true lesson for the American people. Elizabeth Warren may not ask the middle class to fund Medicare for All—at least not until she’s safely in office—but one can rest assured that, should she succeed in enacting her scheme, all American families will pay.

This post was originally published at The Wall Street Journal.

President’s Executive Order Shows Two Contrasting Visions of Health Care

As Washington remains consumed by impeachment fever, President Trump returned to the issue of health care. In an executive order released Thursday, and a speech at The Villages in Florida where he spoke on the topic, the president attempted to provide a vision that contrasts with the left’s push for single-payer socialized medicine.

This executive order focused largely on the current Medicare program, as opposed to the existing private insurance marketplace. By promoting new options and focusing on reducing costs, however, the president’s actions stand in opposition to the one-size-fits-all model of the proposed health care takeover.

The Administration Wants To Explore These Proposals

One fact worth repeating about Thursday’s action: As with prior executive orders, it will in and of itself not change policy. The more substantive changes will come in regulatory proposals issued by government agencies (most notably the Department of Health and Human Services) in response to the executive order. While only the regulations can flesh out all of the policy details, the language of the order provides some sense of the proposals the administration wants to explore.

Modernized Benefits: The executive order promotes “innovative … benefit structures” for Medicare Advantage, the program in which an estimated 24 million beneficiaries receive Medicare subsidies via a network of private insurers. It discusses “reduc[ing] barriers to obtaining Medicare Medical Savings Accounts,” a health savings account-like mechanism that gives beneficiaries incentives to serve as smart consumers of health care. To accomplish that last objective, the order references broader access to cost and quality data, “improving [seniors’] ability to make decisions about their health care that work best for them.”

Expanded Access: The order seeks to increase access to telehealth as one way to improve seniors’ ability to obtain care, particularly in rural areas. It also looks to combat state-imposed restrictions that can limit care options, and can lead to narrow physician and provider networks for Medicare Advantage plans.

More Providers: The order discusses eliminating regulatory burdens on doctors and other medical providers, a continuation of prior initiatives by the administration. It also references allowing non-physician providers, such as nurse practitioners and physician assistants, to practice to the full scope of their medical licenses and receive comparable pay for their work.

Entitlement Reform: Last, but certainly not least, the order proposes allowing seniors to opt out of the Medicare program. This proposal would not allow individuals to opt out of Medicare taxes, but it would undo current regulations that require seniors to opt into the Medicare program when they apply for Social Security.

As I had previously explained, this proposal stands as a common-sense solution to our entitlement shortfalls: After all, why should we force someone like Bill Gates or Warren Buffett to accept Medicare benefits if they are perfectly content to use other forms of health coverage?

Democrats’ Health Care Vision Is Medicare for None

Of course, many on the socialist left have made their vision plain for quite some time: They want the government to run the entire health-care system. Ironically enough, however, Sen. Bernie Sanders’ single-payer legislation would abolish the current Medicare program in the process:

(1) IN GENERAL.—Notwithstanding any other provision of law, subject to paragraphs (2) and (3)—

(A) no benefits shall be available under title XVIII of the Social Security Act for any item or service furnished beginning on or after the effective date of benefits under section 106(a)

As I first noted nearly two years ago, this language makes Sanders’ proposal not “Medicare for All,” but “Medicare for None.” It speaks to the radical nature of the socialist agenda that they cannot come clean with the American people about the implications of their legislation, such that even analysts at liberal think-tanks have accused them of using dishonest means to sell single-payer.

Just as important, “Medicare for None” would take away choices for seniors and hundreds of millions of other Americans. As of next year, an estimated 24 million seniors will enroll in Medicare Advantage plans to obtain their Medicare benefits. As I outline in my book, Medicare Advantage often provides better benefits to seniors, and at a lower cost to both beneficiaries and the federal government. Yet Sanders and his socialist allies want to abolish this popular coverage, to consolidate power and control in a government-run health system.

The actions the administration announced on Thursday represent the latest in a series of steps designed to offer an alternative to the command-and-control vision promoted by the left. The American people don’t deserve socialized medicine, but they don’t deserve the broken status quo either. Only true patient-centered reforms can create a health-care environment that works for seniors and the American people as a whole.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

Six Things about Pre-Existing Conditions Republican “Leaders” Still Don’t Get

“If at first you don’t succeed, go ahead and quit.” That might be the takeaway from excerpts of a conference call held earlier this month by House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA), and published in the Washington Post.

McCarthy claimed that Republicans’ “repeal and replace” legislation last Congress “put [the] pre-existing condition campaign against us, and so even people who are [sic] running for the very first time got attacked on that. And that was the defining issue and the most important issue in the [midterm election] race.” He added: “If you’ll notice, we haven’t done anything when it comes to repealing Obamacare this time.”

Problem 1: Pre-Existing Condition Provisions In Context

I first noted this dilemma last summer: Liberals call the pre-existing condition provisions “popular” because their polls only ask about the policy, and not its costs. If you ask Americans whether they would like a “free” car, how many people do you think would turn it down? The same principle applies here.

When polls ask about the trade-offs associated with the pre-existing condition provisions—which a Heritage Foundation study called the largest driver of premium increases under Obamacare—support plummets. Cato surveys in both 2017 and 2018 confirmed this fact. Moreover, a Gallup poll released after the election shows that, by double-digit margins, Americans care more about rising health premiums and costs than about losing coverage due to a pre-existing condition.

The overall polling picture provided an opportunity for Republicans to push back and point out that the pre-existing condition provisions have led to skyrocketing premiums, which priced 2.5 million people out of the insurance marketplace from 2017 to 2018. Instead, most Republicans did nothing.

Problem 2: Republicans’ Awful Legislating

The bills’ flaws came from a failure to understand how Obamacare works. The law’s provisions requiring insurers to offer coverage to everyone (guaranteed issue) and price that coverage the same regardless of health status (community rating) make insurers want to avoid covering sick people. Those two provisions necessitate another two requirements, which force insurers to cover certain conditions (essential health benefits) and a certain percentage of expected health costs (actuarial value).

In general, the House and Senate bills either repealed, or allowed states to waive, the latter two regulations, while keeping the former two in place. If Republicans had repealed all of Obamacare’s insurance regulations, they could have generated sizable premium savings—an important metric, and one they could tout to constituents. Instead, they ended up in a political no man’s land, with people upset about losing their pre-existing condition “protections,” and no large premium reductions to offset that outrage.

Looking at this dynamic objectively, it isn’t surprising that McCarthy and his colleagues ended up with a political loser on their hands. The true surprise is why anyone ever thought the legislative strategy made for good politics—or, for that matter, good (or even coherent) policy.

Problem 3: Pre-Existing Conditions Aren’t Going Away

Within hours after Sen. Thom Tillis (R-NC) introduced a bill last year maintaining Obamacare’s pre-existing condition provisions—the requirement that all insurers offer coverage at the same rates to all individuals, regardless of health status—liberals weighed in to call it insufficient.

As noted above, Obamacare encourages insurers to discriminate against people with pre-existing conditions. Repealing only some of the law’s regulations would exacerbate that dynamic, by giving insurers more tools with which to avoid enrolling sick people. Liberals recognize this fact, and will say as much any time Republicans try to modify any of Obamacare’s major insurance regulations.

Problem 4: Better Policies Exist

According to the Post, McCarthy said he wants to recruit candidates who would “find a solution at the end of the day.” A good thing that, because better solutions for the problems of pre-existing conditions do exist (I’ve written about several) if McCarthy had ever bothered to look for them.

Their political attacks demonstrate that liberals focus on supporting “insurance” for people once they develop a pre-existing condition. (Those individuals’ coverage by definition really isn’t “insurance.”) By contrast, conservatives should support making coverage more affordable, such that people can buy it before they develop a pre-existing condition—and keep it once they’re diagnosed with one.

Regulations proposed by the Trump administration late last year could help immensely on this front, by allowing employers to subsidize insurance that individuals hold and keep—that is, coverage that remains portable from job to job. Similar solutions, like health status insurance, would also encourage portability of insurance throughout one’s lifetime. Other options, such as direct primary care and high-risk pools, could provide care for people who have already developed pre-existing conditions.

Using a series of targeted alternatives to reduce and then to solve the pre-existing condition problem would prove far preferable than the blunt alternative of one-size-fits-all government regulations that have made coverage unaffordable for millions. However, such a solution would require political will from Republicans—which to date they have unequivocally lacked.

Problem 5: Republicans’ Alternative Is Socialized Medicine

Instead of promoting those better policies, House Republican leaders would like to cave in the most efficient manner possible. During the first day of Congress, they offered a procedural motion that, had it been adopted, would have instructed the relevant committees of jurisdiction to report legislation that:

(1) Guarantees no American citizen can be denied health insurance coverage as the result of a previous illness or health status; and (2) Guarantees no American citizen can be charged higher premiums or cost sharing as the result of a previous illness or health status, thus ensuring affordable health coverage for those with pre-existing conditions.

Guaranteeing that everyone gets charged the same price for health care? I believe that’s called socialism—and socialized medicine.

Their position makes it very ironic that the same Republican committee leaders are pushing for hearings on Democrats’ single-payer legislation. It’s a bit rich to endorse one form of socialism, only to denounce another form as something that will destroy the country. (Of course, Republican leaders will only take that position unless and until a single-payer bill passes, at which point they will likely try to embrace it themselves.)

Problem 6: Health Care Isn’t Going Away As An Issue

The federal debt this month passed $22 trillion, and continues to rise. Most of our long-term government deficits arise from health care—the ongoing retirement of the baby boomers, and our corresponding obligations to Medicare, Medicaid, and now Obamacare.

Any Republican who cares about a strong national defense, or keeping tax rates low—concerns most Republicans embrace—should care about, and take an active interest in, health care and health policy. Given his comments about not repealing, or even talking about, Obamacare, McCarthy apparently does not.

But unsustainable trends are, in the long run, unsustainable. At some point in the not-too-distant future, skyrocketing spending on health care will mean that McCarthy will have to care—as will President Trump, and the Democrats who have gone out of their way to avoid talking about Medicare’s sizable financial woes. Here’s hoping that by that point, McCarthy and Republican leaders will have a more coherent—and conservative—policy than total surrender to the left.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

How Republicans Shot Themselves in the Foot on Pre-Existing Conditions

Republicans who want to blame their election shortcomings on last year’s attempt to “repeal-and-replace” Obamacare will have all the fodder they need from the media. A full two weeks before Election Day, the bedwetters caucus was already out in full force:

House Republicans are increasingly worried that Democrats’ attacks on their votes to repeal and replace Obamacare could cost them the House. While the legislation stalled in the Senate, it’s become a toxic issue on the campaign trail for the House Republicans who backed it.

In reality, however, the seeds of this problem go well beyond this Congress, or even the last election cycle. A health care strategy based on a simple but contradictory slogan created a policy orphan that few Republicans could readily defend.

A Dumb Political Slogan

Around the same time last year, I wrote an article explaining why the “repeal-and-replace” mantra would prove so problematic for the Republican Congress trying to translate the slogan into law. Conservatives seized on the “repeal” element to focus on eradicating the law, and taking steps to help lower health costs.

By contrast, moderates assumed that “replace” meant Republican lawmakers had embraced the mantra of universal health coverage, and would maintain most of the benefits—both the number of Americans with insurance and the regulatory “protections”—of Obamacare itself. Two disparate philosophies linked by a conjunction does not a governing platform make. The past two years proved as much.

A Non-Sensical Bill

In life, one mistake can often lead to another, and so it proved in health care. After having created an internal divide through the “repeal-and-replace” mantra over four election cycles, Republicans had to put policy meat on the details they had papered over for seven years. In so doing, they ended up with a “solution” that appealed to no one.

  1. Removed Obamacare’s requirements for what treatments insurers must cover (e.g., essential health benefits);
  2. Removed Obamacare’s requirements about how much of these treatments insurers must cover (e.g., actuarial value, which measures a percentage of expected health expenses covered by insurance); but
  3. Retained Obamacare’s requirements about whom insurance must cover—the requirement to cover all applicants (guaranteed issue), and the related requirement not to vary premiums based on health status (community rating).

As I first outlined early last year, this regulatory combination resulted in a witch’s brew of bad outcomes on both the policy and political fronts:

  • Because lawmakers retained the requirements for insurers to cover all individuals, regardless of health status, the bills didn’t reduce premiums much. If insurers must charge all individuals the same rates regardless of their health, they will assume that a disproportionately sicker population will sign up. That dynamic meant the bills did little to reverse the more-than-doubling of individual market insurance premiums from 2013-17. What little premium reduction did materialize came largely due to the corporate welfare payments the bills funneled to insurers in the form of a “Stability Fund.”
  • However, because lawmakers removed the requirements about what and how much insurers must cover, liberal groups raised questions about access to care, particularly for sicker populations. This dynamic led to the myriad charges and political attacks about Republicans “gutting” care for people with pre-existing conditions.

You couldn’t have picked a worse combination for lawmakers to try to defend. The bills as written created a plethora of “losers” and very few clear “winners.” Legislators absorbed most of the political pain regarding pre-existing conditions that they would have received had they repealed those regulations (i.e., guaranteed issue and community rating) outright, but virtually none of the political gain (i.e., lower premiums) from doing so.

Some people—including yours truly—predicted this outcome. Before the House voted on its bill, I noted that this combination would prove untenable from a policy perspective, and politically problematic to boot. Republicans plowed ahead anyway, likely because they saw this option as the only way to breach the policy chasm caused by bad sloganeering, and paid the price.

Lawmaker Ignorance and Apathy

That apathy continued after Obamacare’s enactment. While Suderman articulated an alternative vision to the law, he admitted that “Republicans can’t make the case for that plan because they’ve never figured out what it would look like. The GOP plan is always in development but never ready for final release.”

Emphasizing the “repeal-and-replace” mantra allowed Republicans to avoid face the very real trade-offs that come with making health policy. When a Republican Congress finally had to look those trade-offs in the face, it couldn’t. Many didn’t know what they wanted, or wanted a pain-free solution (“Who knew health care could be so complicated?”). Difficulty regarding trade-offs led to the further difficulty of unifying behind a singular policy.

Can’t Avoid Health Care

Many conservative lawmakers face something that could be described as “health policy PTSD”—they don’t understand it, so they don’t study it; they only define their views by what they oppose (e.g., “Hillarycare” and Obamacare); and when they put out proposals (e.g., premium support for Medicare and “repeal-and-replace” on Obamacare), they get attacked. So they conclude that they should never talk about the issue or put out proposals. Doubtless Tuesday’s election results will confirm that tendency for some.

Rather than using the election results to avoid health care, Republican lawmakers instead should lean in to the issue, to understand it and ascertain what concepts and policies they support. The left knows exactly what it wants from health care: More regulation, more spending, and more government control—leading ultimately to total government control.

Conservatives must act now to articulate an alternative vision, because the 800-pound gorilla of Washington policy will not disappear any time soon.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

What Mitch McConnell and Congressional Democrats Get Wrong about Entitlements

Sometimes, as parents often remind children in their youth, two wrongs don’t make a right. This held true on Tuesday, when Democrats erupted over comments by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) on entitlement reform.

In returning to “Mediscare” tactics, Democrats made several false claims about entitlements. But so did McConnell, who blithely omitted what a Republican majority did earlier this year to worsen the country’s entitlement shortfall.

What McConnell Got Wrong

McConnell spoke accurately when he said in an interview that Medicare, Social Security, and Medicaid serve as the primary drivers of our long-term debt. He stood on less firm ground when he told Bloomberg that “the single biggest disappointment of my time in Congress has been our failure to address the entitlement issue.” Contra McConnell’s claim, Congress—a Republican Congress—actually did address the entitlement issue this year: they made the problem worse.

This Republican Congress repealed a cap on Medicare spending—the first such cap in that program’s history. It did so as part of a budget-busting fiscal agreement that increased the debt by hundreds of billions of dollars. It did so even though Republicans could have retained the cap on Medicare spending while repealing the unelected, unaccountable board that Democrats included in Obamacare to enforce that spending cap.

By and large, both parties have tried for years to avoid taking on entitlement reform. But Democrats included an actual cap on Medicare spending as part of Obamacare, and Republicans turned around and repealed it at their first possible opportunity. That makes entitlements not just a bipartisan problem—it makes them a Republican problem too.

What Democrats Got Wrong

But McConnell’s comments suggested just the opposite. He noted that, while entitlements serve as the prime driver of the nation’s long-term debt, any changes to those programs “may well be difficult if not impossible to achieve when you have unified government.” McConnell said the same thing in a separate interview with Reuters on Wednesday: “We all know that there will be no solution to that, short of some kind of bipartisan grand bargain that makes the very, very popular entitlement programs in a position to be sustained. That hasn’t happened since the ’80s.”

Even though Congress needs to start reforming entitlements sooner rather than later—even if that means one political party must take the lead—McConnell indicated he would do nothing of the sort. In fact, his comments implied that Congress would not do so unless and until Democrats agreed to entitlement reform, giving the party an effective veto over any changes. Yet Democrats, who never fail to demagogue an issue, attacked him for those comments anyway.

Actually, they haven’t “earned” those benefits. Seniors may have “paid into” the system during their working lives, but the average senior citizen receives far more in benefits than he or she paid in taxes, and the gap continues to grow.

Making a Tough Job Worse

In this case, two wrongs not only did not make a right, they made our country worse off. Like outgoing Speaker of the House Paul Ryan (R-WI), McConnell wishes to absolve himself of blame for the entitlement crisis, when he made the situation worse.

On the other side, Pelosi and her fellow Democrats continue the partisan demagoguery, perpetuating the myth that seniors have “earned” their benefits because they see political advantage in defending nearly infinite amounts of government subsidies to nearly infinite numbers of people. For all their love of attacking “science deniers,” much of the left’s politics requires denying math—that unsustainable trends can continue in perpetuity.

At some point, this absurd game will have to end. When it finally does, our country might not have any money left.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

Politico Reporter’s “Fact Check” of Trump Riddled with Omissions

Who will fact check the fact checkers? That question reared its head again late last week, as a reporter from Politico attempted to add “context” to health-care-related comments the president made at a political rally in Las Vegas. As with Trump himself, what Politico reporter Dan Diamond omitted said just as much as what he included.

During his speech, the president talked about pre-existing conditions, saying Republicans want to “protect patients with pre-existing conditions:”

I’ve previously written about the Obamacare lawsuit in question—why I oppose both the lawsuit, and the Justice Department’s intervention in the case, as unwise judicial activism—and Republicans’ poor response on the issue. But note what neither Diamond nor Trump mentioned: That the pre-existing condition “protections” are incredibly costly—the biggest driver of premium increases—and that, when voters are asked whether they would like these provisions “if it caused the cost of your health insurance to go up,” support plummets by roughly 40 percentage points.

If you need any more persuading that the media are carrying liberals’ water on pre-existing conditions, consider that the Kaiser Family Foundation released their health care tracking survey earlier this month. In it, Kaiser asked whether people are worried that “if the Supreme Court overturns the health care law’s protections for people with pre-existing health conditions you will have to pay more for health insurance coverage.”

The survey didn’t mention that all individuals are already paying higher premiums for those “protections” since Obamacare took effect—whether they want to or not, and whether they have a pre-existing condition or not. In fact, the survey implied the opposite. By only citing a scenario that associates premium rises with a Supreme Court ruling striking down the provisions, Kaiser misled respondents into its “preferred” response.

Then last week, Politico ran another story on the Republican strategy to “duck and cover” regarding the states’ lawsuit, which might of course have something to do with the tenor of Politico’s “reporting” on pre-existing conditions in the first place.

Next, to Single-Payer Proposals

Following the comments about pre-existing conditions, the president then went on the attack, and Diamond felt the need to respond.

Diamond accurately notes that “there is no consensus ‘Democrat plan.’” As the saying goes, the left hand doesn’t always know what the far-left hand is doing. But Trump also made crystal clear what specific Democratic plan he was describing—the single-payer plan written by Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT). He even quoted the $32 trillion estimated cost of the plan, as per a Mercatus Center study that became the topic of great dispute earlier this summer.

Here’s what Section 102(a) of Sanders’ bill (S. 1804) says about coverage under the single-payer plan: “SEC. 102. UNIVERSAL ENTITLEMENT. (a) IN GENERAL.—Every individual who is a resident of the United States is entitled to benefits for health care services under this Act. The Secretary shall promulgate a rule that provides criteria for determining residency for eligibility purposes under this Act.”

And here’s what Section 107(a) of the bill says about individuals trying to keep their own health coverage, or purchasing other coverage, to “get out” of the single-payer system:

SEC. 107. PROHIBITION AGAINST DUPLICATING COVERAGE.

(a) IN GENERAL.—Beginning on the effective date described in section 106(a), it shall be unlawful for—

(1) a private health insurer to sell health insurance coverage that duplicates the benefits provided under this Act; or

(2) an employer to provide benefits for an employee, former employee, or the dependents of an employee or former employee that duplicate the benefits provided under this Act.

In other words, the Sanders bill “would force every American on to government-run health care, and virtually eliminate all private and employer-based health care plans”—exactly as the president claimed.

His “most” wording cleverly attempted to elide the fact that the most prominent Democratic plan—the one endorsed by everyone from Sanders to Sens. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), Cory Booker (D-NJ), Kamala Harris (D-CA), and Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), and vigorously pursued by the activist left—does exactly what Trump claimed.

I have little doubt that, had the president inflated the Mercatus study’s estimated cost of Sanders’ single-payer plan—for instance, had Trump said it would cost $42 trillion, or $52 trillion, instead of using the $32 trillion number—Diamond (and others) would have instantly “fact checked” the incorrect number. Given that Diamond, and just about everyone else, knew Trump was talking about the single-payer bill, this so-called “fact check”—which discussed everything but the bill Trump referenced—looks both smarmy and pedantic, specifically designed to divert attention from the most prominent Democratic plan put forward, and Trump’s (accurate) claims about it.

Medicare Benefits Not Guaranteed

Ironically, if Diamond really wanted to fact check the president, as opposed to playing political games, he had a wide open opportunity to do so, on at least two levels. In both cases, he whiffed completely.

In the middle of his riff on single-payer health care, President Trump said this: “Robbing from our senior citizens—you know that? It’s going to be one of the great catastrophes ever. The benefits—they paid, for their entire lives—are going to be taken away.” Wrong, wrong, wrong.

Politicians can claim all they want that people “paid into” Medicare to get back their benefits, but it isn’t true. The average senior receives far more in benefits than what he or she paid into the system, and the gap is growing. Medicare’s existing cash crunch makes a compelling case against expanding government-run health care, but it still doesn’t mean that seniors “paid for” all (as opposed merely to some) of the benefits they receive.

Second, as I have previously noted, Sanders’ bill is not “Medicare-for-all.” It’s “Medicare-for-none.” Section 901(a)(1)(A) of the bill would end benefits under the current Medicare program, and Section 701(d) of the bill would liquidate the existing Medicare trust fund. If seniors like the Medicare coverage, including the privately run Medicare Advantage plans, they have now, they would lose it. Period.

To sum up, in this case Politico ignored:

  1. The cost of the pre-existing condition “protections”—how they raise premiums, and how Obamacare advocates don’t want to mention that fact when talking about them;
  2. The way that the most prominent Democratic health care bill—the one that President Trump very clearly referred to in his remarks—would abolish private coverage and force hundreds of millions of individuals on to government-run health care;
  3. Inaccurate claims President Trump made about seniors having “earned” all their Medicare benefits; and
  4. The fact that Sanders’ bill would actually abolish Medicare for seniors.

And people say the media have an ideological bias in favor of greater government control of health care. Why on earth would they think that?

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

Mixed Messages on Paul Ryan’s Entitlement Record

Upon news of House Speaker Paul Ryan’s retirement Wednesday, liberals knew to attack him, but didn’t know exactly why. Liberal Politico columnist Michael Grunwald skewered Ryan’s hypocrisy on fiscal discipline:

Ryan’s support for higher spending has not been limited to defense and homeland security. He supported Bush’s expansion of prescription drug benefits, as well as the auto bailout and Wall Street bailout during the financial crisis…Ryan does talk a lot about reining in Medicaid, Medicare, and Social Security, for which he’s routinely praised as a courageous truth-teller. But he’s never actually made entitlement reform happen. Congress did pass one law during his tenure that reduced Medicare spending by more than $700 billion, but that law was Obamacare, and Ryan bitterly opposed it.

For the record, Ryan opposed Obamacare because, as he repeatedly noted during the 2012 campaign, the law “raided” Medicare to pay for Obamacare. (Kathleen Sebelius, a member of President Obama’s cabinet, admitted the law used Medicare spending reductions to both “save Medicare” and “fund health care reform.”)

Compare that with a Vox article, titled “Paul Ryan’s Most Important Legacy is Trump’s War on Medicaid”: “[Paul] Ryan’s dreams are alive and well. Through work requirements and other restrictions, President Donald Trump could eventually oversee the most significant rollback of Medicaid benefits in the program’s 50-year history.” It goes on to talk about how the administration “is carrying on Ryan’s Medicaid-gutting agenda.”

Which is it? On fiscal discipline, is Ryan an incompetent hypocrite, or a slash-and-burn maniac throwing poor people out on the streets? As in most cases, reality contains nuance. Several caveats are in order.

First, Ryan’s budgets always contained “magic asterisks.” As the Los Angeles Times noted in 2012, “the budget resolutions he wrote would have left that Medicare ‘raid’ in place”—because Republicans could only achieve the political goal of a balanced budget within ten years by retaining Obamacare’s tax increases and Medicare reductions.” The budgets generally repealed the Obamacare entitlements, thus allowing the Medicare reductions to bolster that program rather than financing Obamacare. The budgets served as messaging documents, but generally lacked many of the critical details to transform them from visions into actual policy.

Second, to the best of my recollections, Ryan never took on the leadership of his party on a major policy issue. Former GOP House Speaker John Boehner famously never requested an earmark during a quarter-century in Congress. Sen. John McCain’s “Maverick” image came from his fight against fellow Republicans on campaign finance reform.

But whether as a backbencher or a committee chair, Ryan rarely bucked the party line. That meant voting for the Bush administration’s big-spending bills like the Medicare Modernization Act and TARP—both of which the current vice president, Mike Pence, voted against while a backbench member of Congress.

Third, particularly under this president, Republicans do not want to reform entitlements. As I noted during the 2016 election, neither presidential candidate made an issue of entitlement reform, or Medicare’s impending insolvency. In fact, both went out of their way to avoid the issue. Any House speaker would have difficulty convincing this president to embrace substantive entitlement reforms.

In general, one can argue that, contrary to his image as a leader on fiscal issues, Ryan too readily followed. Other Republicans would support his austere budgets, which never had the force of law, but he would support their big-spending bills, many of which made it to the statute books.

On one issue, however, Ryan did lead—and in the worst possible way. As I wrote last fall, Ryan brought to the House floor legislation repealing Obamacare’s cap on Medicare spending. This past February, that repeal became law.

Ryan could have sought to retain that cap while discarding the unelected, unaccountable board Obamacare created to enforce it. As a result, Ryan’s “legacy” on entitlement reform will consist of his role as the first speaker to repeal a cap on entitlement spending.

Primum non nocere—first, do no harm. Ryan may not have had the power to compel Republicans to reform entitlements, but he did have the power—if he had had the courage—to prevent his own party from making the problem any worse. He did not.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

No, Nancy Pelosi, Republicans Aren’t “Cutting” Medicare — But They Should

In a many-layered case of irony, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) attacked Republicans on Wednesday for doing something they didn’t do—but she did. In a letter to her Democratic colleagues, Pelosi wrote the tax reform bill “will lead to devastating cuts to Medicare and Medicaid.”

First things first: A slowdown in a program’s projected growth rate does not constitute a “cut.” That fact applies just as much to Republican spending proposals as Democratic ones. You don’t have to take my word for it: Multiple fact check articles discussing Obamacare’s reductions in Medicare spending pointed out that under Democrats’ law, “Medicare spending will increase each year but at a lower rate.”

Pelosi’s 2011 phraseology hit the nail on the head, because Democrats did “take” money out of Medicare to fund Obamacare’s new entitlements. While on paper the spending reductions extended the life of the Medicare trust fund, the Congressional Budget Office concluded that Obamacare did not “enhance the ability of the government to pay for future Medicare benefits.”

While the Democrat record on Medicare leaves much to be desired, so too does the Republican one. Whereas Democrats reduced Medicare spending, then diverted those savings to fund another new and costly entitlement, Republicans just last month turned around and increased Medicare spending.

In the February budget “deal,” Republicans repealed the Independent Payment Advisory Board (IPAB). While Obamacare created this unelected, unaccountable board of bureaucrats to make binding rulings regarding Medicare, it did so for a worthwhile purpose: To cap Medicare spending. As I noted last fall, Republicans could have kept the caps in place, while repealing the board. They chose not to do so. As a result, the budget “deal” raised entitlement spending rather than lowering it.

As it stands now, the “devastating cuts to Medicare and Medicaid” that Pelosi claimed to warn her colleagues about on Wednesday seem inevitable—not because Republicans will soon pass legislation slowing the growth of entitlements, but instead because they refuse to do so. Because some Republicans remain under the misapprehension that Medicare “is underfunded,” and because liberals love running “Mediscare” campaigns designed to frighten seniors into voting Democratic, Republicans seem poised to do exactly nothing on entitlement reform for the foreseeable future.

At least, until the debt crisis arrives—which it will, and sooner than many think. With the imminent return of trillion-dollar deficits, and the federal government already $21 trillion in debt, China and other nations may not take kindly to the bipartisan profligacy perpetrated by Democrats and Republicans alike.

As I noted two years ago, if not for the double-counting fiscal gimmicks included in Obamacare, the Medicare Hospital Insurance Trust Fund would already have been exhausted, putting the program’s solvency quite literally on borrowed time.

Last month, in typically understated fashion, Pelosi tweeted about how Republicans were “plotting to destroy your Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security.” That claim implies a level of intent—that Republicans actually have a plan to reform entitlement spending—that quite clearly does not exist.

Instead, Republicans and Democrats will continue to destroy Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security in the same way they have over the past several decades. Both parties will ignore the problem and do nothing until it’s too late. It’s the most insidious type of “bipartisanship,” but in Washington, also the most common.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.