September 30 Deadline for Obamacare Repeal Is Fake News

Over the past several days, congressional leaders in both the House and Senate have claimed that a bill by Sens. Lindsay Graham (R-SC) and Bill Cassidy (R-LA) is “our best, last chance to get repeal and replace done.” They have made such claims because the press keeps “reporting” that Republicans’ “power to pass health care legislation through a party-line vote in the Senate expires on September 30.”

Don’t you believe it. The Senate’s 52 Republicans have multiple options open to keep the Obamacare repeal process alive after September 30. The only question is whether they have the political will to do so.

Option 1: Set a Senate Precedent

That assertion carries one big flaw: The Senate parliamentarian does not “rule.” The Senate as a body does—and that distinction makes a big difference. The procedural question centers around when, and whether, budget reconciliation instructions expire.

Budget reconciliation provides an expedited process for the Senate to consider matters of a fiscal nature. Reconciliation’s limits on debate and amendments preclude filibusters, allowing the bill to pass with a simple (i.e., 51-vote) majority rather than the usual 60 votes needed to break a filibuster and halt debate. (For additional background, see my May primer on budget reconciliation here.)

In one of its first acts upon convening in January, Congress passed a budget resolution for Fiscal Year 2017, which included instructions for health-related committees in the House and Senate to produce reconciliation legislation—legislation intended to “repeal-and-replace” Obamacare. But Fiscal Year 2017 ends on September 30, and Congress (thus far at least) hasn’t completed work on the reconciliation bill yet. So what happens on September 30? Does a reconciliation measure fail? Or can Congress continue work on the legislation, because the budget resolution set fiscal parameters for ten fiscal years (through 2026), not just the one ending on September 30?

There is literally no precedent on this particular Senate procedural question of whether and when reconciliation instructions expire. If the chair—either Vice President Mike Pence, Senate President Pro Tempore Orrin Hatch (R-UT), or another Senate Republican presiding—wishes to disregard the parliamentarian’s opinion, he or she is free to do so.

Alternatively, if the chair decides to agree with the parliamentarian’s opinion, a 51-vote majority of Republicans could decide to overturn that ruling by appealing the chair’s decision. In either event, the action by the Senate—either the chair or the body itself—would set the precedent, not the opinion of a Senate official who currently has no precedent to guide her.

Option 2: Pass a New Budget

Because there is no precedent to the question of when reconciliation instructions expire, Republican senators can set a precedent on this question themselves—keeping in mind it will apply equally when Republicans are in the minority. But if senators believe that disregarding the parliamentarian’s opinion—even on a question where she has no precedent to guide her—might jeopardize the legislative filibuster, they can simply pass a new budget for Fiscal Year 2018, one that includes reconciliation instructions to allow for Obamacare “repeal-and-replace.”

While that requirement has since been changed, Congress could still pass multiple budget resolutions in a given year, along with a reconciliation measure for each. Congress could pass a Fiscal Year 2018 budget resolution with reconciliation instructions for Obamacare repeal this month, complete work on the Obamacare bill, then pass another budget resolution with reconciliation instructions for tax reform.

Political Will

Congressional leaders apparently want to portray the Graham-Cassidy bill as a binary choice—either support it, or support keeping Obamacare in place. The facts turn that binary choice into a false one. Republicans have every opportunity to work to enact the repeal of Obamacare they promised the American people, regardless of the opinion of an unelected Senate official. No legislator should use an arbitrary—and false—deadline of next week to rationalize voting for a bad bill, or abandoning his or her promises altogether.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

Congressional Democrats Defend Obamacare at Their Peril

In recent months, the press has focused on whether President Trump is “sabotaging” Obamacare—but in so doing, they’ve largely ignored a far bigger story regarding the rule of law. In attempting to defend Obamacare, Pelosi and several of her House colleagues have essentially sabotaged the Constitution, making claims that, if accepted into common practice, would cede massive power to the executive.

The charges of sabotage derive largely from Obamacare’s system of cost-sharing reductions, intended to help certain low-income individuals with deductibles and co-payments. While the law requires insurers to lower individuals’ cost sharing, and directs the Administration to reimburse insurers for those reductions, it nowhere gives the Administration an explicit appropriation to do so.

Democrats Are Sabotaging Themselves on Obamacare

Having first sabotaged Obamacare through their own incompetence, Democratic leaders in the House—bless their hearts—thought it would be a good idea to use the troubled law to give the President even more authority. In a little-noticed development the week before the election, Nancy Pelosi and 10 leading House Democrats filed an amicus curiae brief in an ongoing lawsuit regarding the cost-sharing reductions. The brief justified the cost-sharing payments by claiming “everyone understood” the law included an appropriation, even though the bill’s actual text did no such thing—“We meant to include it, honest we did!”

More importantly, the lawmakers’ brief claimed Congress has little judicial recourse should the executive exceed its authority. Pelosi wrote that not one but both chambers of Congress must initiate a suit seeking to protect the legislature’s prerogatives—which would, due to the Senate filibuster, effectively subject all such suits to a supermajority 60-vote margin in that body. Likewise, the belief that Congress should pass corrective legislation rather than initiating legal action would effectively give the President a veto over any attempt to constrain his power, necessitating a two-thirds majority to clip his wings.

One would have thought that submitting a legal brief giving the executive such broad power one week before last November’s election might have given Nancy Pelosi pause. Pelosi may have been “with her,” but—surprise, surprise!—the voters had other designs. And now Pelosi and her Democratic colleagues could find themselves in a dilly of a pickle.

Obamacare Set A Horrible Precedent

Therein lies the danger presented by the Obamacare payment precedent. President Obama’s Justice Department and House Democrats both argued that the structure of Obamacare implies an appropriation that does not exist—giving future Presidents an opening to invent appropriations on any subject upon which Congress has previously opined. And with both the Obama Administration and Democratic lawmakers asserting that Congress’ failure to prohibit such spending permits the President to do so, only a supermajority of lawmakers could prohibit virtually unchecked spending by the executive.

In their attempt to justify their slapdash Obamacare legislating, Democrats have laid the legal groundwork for future administrations to create appropriations where none exist—we literally have to pass the bill so that you can find out what is in it. While Democrats’ inability to include a 12-figure appropriation in a 2700-page bill doesn’t exactly inspire confidence in the legislative process, the answer lies not in yet another executive power grab of the kind Pelosi endorsed last fall. Democrats can whine about Trump’s supposed “sabotage” of Obamacare all they want, but their sabotage to our system of checks and balances would be far worse.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

What You Need to Know About Budget Reconciliation in the Senate

After last week’s House passage of the American Health Care Act, the Senate has begun sorting through various policy options for health care legislation. But looming over the policy discussions are procedural concerns unique to the Senate. Herewith a primer on the process under which the upper chamber will consider an Obamacare “repeal-and-replace” bill.

How Will the Bill Come to the Senate Floor?

The bill that passed the House was drafted as a budget reconciliation bill. The phrase “budget reconciliation” refers to a process established by the Congressional Budget Act of 1974, in which congressional committees reconcile spending in programs within their jurisdiction to the budget blueprint passed by Congress. In this case, Congress passed a budget in January that required health-care committees to report legislation reducing the deficit by $1 billion—the intended vehicle for an Obamacare “repeal-and-replace” bill.

What’s So Important about Budget Reconciliation?

Under most circumstances, the Senate can only limit debate and amendments by invoking cloture, which requires the approval of three-fifths of all senators sworn (i.e., 60 votes). Because the reconciliation process prohibits filibusters and unlimited debate, it allows the Senate to pass reconciliation bills with a simple majority (i.e., 51-vote) threshold.

Why Does the ‘Byrd Rule’ Exist as part of Budget Reconciliation?

Named for former Senate Majority Leader Robert Byrd (D-WV), the rule intends to protect the integrity of the legislative filibuster. By allowing only matters integral to the budget reconciliation to pass the Senate with a simple majority (as opposed to the 60-vote threshold), the rule seeks to keep the body’s tradition of extended debate.

What Is the ‘Byrd Rule’?

Simply put, the rule prohibits “extraneous” material from intruding in budget reconciliation legislation. However, the term “Byrd rule” is technically a misnomer in two respects. First, the “Byrd rule” is more than just a longstanding practice of the Senate. After several years of operation as a Senate rule, it was codified into law beginning in 1985, and can be found at 2 U.S.C. 644. Second, the rule consists of not just one test to define whether material is “extraneous,” but six.

What Are the Six Different Types of Extraneous Material?

So the Various Types of ‘Byrd Rule’ Violations Are Not Necessarily Equivalent?

Correct. While most reporters focus on the fourth test—when a legislative provision has a budgetary impact merely incidental to the provision’s policy change—that is not the only type of rule violation. Nor in many respects is it the most significant.

While violations of the fourth test are fatal to the provision—the extraneous material is stricken from the underlying legislation—violations of the third (material outside the jurisdiction of committees charged with reporting reconciliation legislation) and sixth (changes to Title II of the Social Security Act) tests are fatal to the entire bill.

Who Determines Whether a Provision Qualifies as ‘Extraneous’ Under the ‘Byrd Rule’?

How Does One Determine Whether a Provision Qualifies as ‘Extraneous’ under the ‘Byrd Rule’?

In some cases, determining compliance with the rule is relatively straight-forward. A provision dealing with veterans’ benefits (within the jurisdiction of the Veterans Affairs Committee) would clearly fail the third test in a tax reconciliation bill, as tax matters lie within the Finance Committee’s jurisdiction.

However, other cases require a more nuanced, textual analysis by the parliamentarian. Such an analysis might examine Congressional Budget Office (CBO) and other outside scores, to assess the provision’s fiscal impact (or lack thereof), the statute the reconciliation bill seeks to amend, other statutes cross-referenced in the legislation (to assess the impact of the programmatic changes the provision would make), and prior precedent on related matters.

When Does the Senate Assess Whether a Provision Qualifies as ‘Extraneous’?

In some respects, assessing compliance is an iterative process. Often, the Senate parliamentarian will provide informal advice to majority staff as they begin to write reconciliation legislation. While these informal conversations help to guide bill writers during the drafting process, the parliamentarian normally notes that these discussions do not constitute a formal advisory opinion; minority party staff and other interested persons are not privy to the ex parte conversations, and could in time bring her new information that could cause her to change her opinion.

Do Debates about the ‘Byrd Rule’ Take Place on the Senate Floor?

They can, and they have, but relatively rarely. As James Wallner, an expert in Senate parliamentary procedure, notes, over the last three decades, the Senate has formally adjudicated only ten instances of the fourth test—whether a provision’s fiscal impacts are merely incidental to its proposed policy changes.

Because most determinations of “Byrd rule” compliance (or non-compliance) have been made through informal, closed-door “Byrd bath” discussions in the Senate parliamentarian’s office, there are few formal precedents—either rulings from the chair or votes by the Senate itself—regarding specific examples of “extraneous” material. As a result, the Senate—whether the parliamentarian, the presiding officer, or the body itself—has significant latitude to interpret the statutory tests about what qualifies as “extraneous.”

Can the Senate Overrule the Parliamentarian about What Qualifies as ‘Extraneous’ Under the ‘Byrd Rule’?

Yes, in two respects. The presiding officer—whether the vice president as president of the Senate, the president pro tempore (currently Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-UT), or another senator—can disregard the parliamentarian’s guidance and issue his or her own ruling. Alternatively, a senator could appeal the chair’s decision, and a simple majority of the body could overrule that decision. There is a long history of senators doing just that.

As a practical matter, however, such a scenario appears unlikely during the Obamacare debate, for two reasons. First, some senators may view such a move as akin to the “nuclear option,” undermining the legislative filibuster by a simple majority vote. The recent letter signed by 61 senators pledging to uphold the legislative filibuster indicates that at least some senators in both parties want to preserve the usual 60-vote margin for passing legislation, and therefore may not wish to set a precedent of allowing potentially “extraneous” material on to a budget reconciliation bill through a simple majority.

Second, if the Senate did overrule the parliamentarian on a procedural matter related to budget reconciliation, a conservative senator would likely introduce a simple, one-line Obamacare repeal bill and ask the Senate to overrule the parliamentarian to allow it to qualify as a reconciliation matter. Since many members of the Senate, like the House, do not actually wish to repeal Obamacare, they would likely decline to head down the road of overruling the parliamentarian, for fear it may head in this direction.

Can the Senate Waive the ‘Byrd Rule’?

Yes—provided three-fifths of senators sworn (i.e., 60 senators) agree. In the past, many budget reconciliation bills—like the Balanced Budget Act of 1997—passed with far more than 60 Senate votes, which made waiving the rule easier.

However, Republicans did not agree to waive the rule for extraneous material included in Senate Democrats’ Obamacare “fix” bill in March 2010. That material was stricken from the legislation and did not make it into law. For this and other reasons, it seems unlikely that eight or more Senate Democrats would vote to waive the rule for an Obamacare “repeal-and-replace” bill.

Didn’t Democrats Pass Obamacare through Budget Reconciliation?

Yes and no. They fixed portions of Obamacare—for instance, the notorious “Cornhusker Kickback”—through a budget reconciliation measure that passed through both houses of Congress in March 2010. But the larger, 2,400-page measure that passed the Senate on Christmas Eve 2009 was enacted into law first.

Once Scott Brown’s election to the Senate in January 2010 gave Republicans 41 votes, Democrats knew they could not go through the usual process of convening a House-Senate conference committee to consider the differences between each chamber’s legislation. A conference report is subject to a filibuster, and Republicans had the votes to sustain that filibuster.

Instead, House Democrats agreed to pass the Senate version of the legislation—the version that passed with 60 votes on Christmas Eve 2009—then have both chambers use a separate budget reconciliation bill—one that could pass the Senate with a 51-vote majority—to make changes to the bill they had just enacted.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

Will the “Byrd Bath” Turn into a Tax Credit Bloodbath?

While most of official Washington waits for word—expected early this week—from the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) about the fiscal effects of House Republicans’ “repeal-and-replace” legislation, another, equally critical debate is taking place within the corridors of the Capitol. Arcane arguments behind closed doors about the nuances of parliamentary procedure will do much to determine the bill’s fate in the Senate—and could lead to a vastly altered final product.

In recent days, House leaders have made numerous comments highlighting the procedural limitations of the budget reconciliation process in the Senate. However, those statements do not necessarily mean the legislation released last week comports with all of those Senate strictures. Indeed, my conversations with more than half a dozen current and former senior Senate staff, all of whom have years of expertise in the minutiae of Senate rules and procedure, have revealed at least four significant procedural issues—one regarding abortion, two regarding immigration, and one regarding a structural “firewall”—surrounding the bill’s tax credit regime.

It is far too premature to claim that any of these potential flaws will necessarily be fatal. The Senate parliamentarian’s guidance to senators depends on textual analysis—of the bill’s specific wording, the underlying statutes to which it refers, and the CBO scores (not yet available)—and arguments about precedent made by both parties. Senate staff could re-draft portions of the House bill to make it pass procedural muster, or make arguments to preserve the existing language that the parliamentarian accepts as consistent with Senate precedents.

Nevertheless, if the parliamentarian validates even one of the four potential procedural problems, Republicans could end up with a tax credit regime that is politically unsustainable, or whose costs escalate appreciably.

In 2009, Democratic Sen. Kent Conrad famously opined that passing health care legislation through budget reconciliation would make the bill look like “Swiss cheese.” (While Democrats did not pass Obamacare through reconciliation, they did use the reconciliation process to “fix” the bill that cleared the Senate on Christmas Eve 2009.)

In reality, it’s much easier to repeal provisions of a budgetary nature—like Obamacare’s taxes, entitlements, and even its major regulations—through reconciliation than to create a new replacement regime. The coming week may provide firsthand proof of Conrad’s 2009 axiom.

The ‘Byrd Rule’ and Abortion

The Senate’s so-called “Byrd rule” governing debate on budget reconciliation rules, named after former Senate Majority Leader and procedural guru Robert Byrd (D-WV), consists of not one rule, but six. The six points of order (codified here) seek to keep extraneous material out of the expedited reconciliation process, preserving the Senate tradition of unlimited debate, subject to the usual 60-vote margin to break a filibuster.

The Byrd rule’s most famous test states that “a provision shall be considered extraneous if it produces changes in outlays or revenues which are merely incidental to the non-budgetary components of the legislation.” If the section in question primarily makes a policy change, and has a minimal budgetary impact, it remains in the bill only if 60 senators (the usual margin necessary to break a filibuster) agree to waive the Byrd point of order.

One example of this test may apply to the House bill’s tax credits: “Hyde amendment” language preventing the credits from funding plans that cover abortion. Such language protecting taxpayer funding of abortion coverage occurs several places throughout the bill, including at the top of page 25 of the Ways and Means title.

The question will then occur as to what becomes of both the credit and the Hyde protections. Some within the administration have argued that the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) can institute pro-life protections through regulations, but administration insiders doubt HHS’ authority to do so. Moreover, most pro-life groups publicly denounced President Obama’s March 2010 executive order, which he claimed would prevent taxpayer funding of abortion coverage in Obamacare, as 1) insufficient and 2) subject to change under a future administration. How would those pro-life groups view a regulatory change by the current administration any differently?

Two Procedural Problems Related to Immigration

A similarly controversial issue—immigration—brings an even larger set of procedural challenges. Apart from the separate question of whether the current verification provisions in the House bill are sufficiently robust, any eligibility verification regime for tax credits faces not one, but two major procedural obstacles in the Senate.

Of the six tests under the Byrd rule, some are more fatal than others. For instance, if the Hyde amendment restrictions outlined above are ruled incidental in nature, then those provisions merely get stricken from the bill unless 60 Senators vote to retain them—a highly improbable scenario in this case.

Page 37 of the Ways and Means title of the bill requires creation of a verification regime for tax credits similar to that created under Sections 1411 and 1412 of Obamacare. As Joint Committee on Taxation Chief of Staff Tom Barthold testified last week during the Ways and Means Committee markup, verifying citizenship requires use of a database held by the Department of Homeland Security’s Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services (CIS).

That admission creates a big problem: The tax credit lies within the jurisdiction of the Senate Finance Committee, but CIS lies within the jurisdiction of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee. And because the Finance Committee’s portion of the reconciliation bill can affect only programs within the Finance Committee’s jurisdiction, imposing programmatic requirements on CIS to verify citizenship status could exceed the Finance Committee’s scope—potentially jeopardizing the entire bill.

The verification provisions in Sections 1411 and 1412 of Obamacare also require using  Social Security numbers, triggering another potentially fatal blow to the entire bill. Senate sources report that, during drafting the original reconciliation bill repealing Obamacare in the fall of 2015, Republicans attempted to repeal the language in Obamacare (Section 1414(a)(2), to be precise) giving the HHS secretary authority to collect and use Social Security numbers to establish eligibility. However, because Section 1414(a)(2) of Obamacare amended Title II of the Social Security Act, Republicans ultimately did not repeal this section of Obamacare in the reconciliation bill because it could have triggered a point of order fatal to the legislation.

If both the points of order against the verification regime are sustained, Congress will have to re-write the bill to create an eligibility verification system that 1) does not rely on the Department of Homeland Security and 2) does not use Social Security numbers. Doing so would create both political and policy problems. On the political side, the revised verification regime would exacerbate existing concerns that undocumented immigrants may have access to federal tax credits.

But the policy implications of a weaker verification regime might actually be more profound. Weaker verification would likely result in a higher score from CBO and JCT—budget scorekeepers would assume a higher incidence of fraud, raising the credits’ costs. House leaders might then have to reduce the amount of their tax credit to reflect the higher take-up of the credit by fraudsters taking advantage of lax verification. Any reduction in the credit amounts would bring with it additional political and policy implications, including lower coverage rates.

Concerns over the Tax Credit Firewall

Finally, the tax credit “firewall”—designed to ensure that only individuals without access to other health insurance options receive federal subsidies—could also present procedural concerns. Specifically, pages 27 and 28 of the bill make ineligible for the credit individuals participating in other forms of health insurance, several of which—Tricare, Veterans Administration coverage, coverage for Peace Corps volunteers, etc.—lie outside the Finance Committee’s jurisdiction.

If the Senate parliamentarian advises for the removal of references to these programs because they lie outside the Finance Committee’s jurisdiction, then participants in those programs will essentially be able to “double-dip”—to receive both the federal tax credit and maintain their current coverage. As with the immigration provision outlined above, such a scenario could significantly increase the tax credits’ cost, requiring offsetting cuts elsewhere, which would have their own budgetary implications.

Senate sources indicate this “firewall” concern could prove less problematic than the immigration concern outlined above. While the immigration provision extends new programmatic authority to the administration to develop a revised eligibility verification system, the “firewall” provisions have the opposite effect—essentially excluding Tricare and other program recipients from the credit. However, if the parliamentarian gives guidance suggesting that some or all of the “firewall” provisions must go, that will have a significant impact on the bill’s fiscal impact.

Broader Implications Of These Procedural Problems

Both individually and collectively, these four potential procedural concerns hint at an intellectual inconsistency in the House bill’s approach, one Yuval Levin highlighted in National Review last week. House leaders claim their bill was drafted to comply with the Senate reconciliation procedures. But the bill itself contains numerous actual or potential violations of those procedures and amends some of Obamacare’s insurance regulations, rather than repealing them outright, making their argument incoherent.

Particularly on Obamacare’s costly insurance regulations, there seems little reason not to make the “ol’ college try,” and attempt to repeal the major mandates that have raised premium levels. According to prior CBO scores, other outside estimates, and the Obama administration’s own estimates, the major regulations have significant budgetary effects.

Republicans can and should argue to the parliamentarian that the regulations’ repeal would be neither incidental nor extraneous—their repeal would remove the terms and conditions under which Obamacare created its insurance subsidies in the first place, thus meeting the Byrd test. If successful, such efforts would provide relief on the issue Americans care most about: Reducing health costs and staggering premium increases.

On the tax credit itself, Republicans may face some difficult choices. Abortion and immigration present thorny—and controversial—issues, either of which could sink the legislation. On the bill’s tax credits, the “Byrd bath,” in which the parliamentarian gives guidance on what provisions can remain in the reconciliation bill, could become a bloodbath. If pro-life protections and eligibility verification come out of the bill, a difficult choice for conservatives on whether to support tax credits will become that much harder.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

Conservatives’ Choice: Power or Principle

In the days immediately preceding and following the November 8 election, I observed a distinct evolution in thinking among some rightist thinkers. Some went into the election pledging an outright rebellion in the Senate should a Majority Leader Chuck Schumer use the “nuclear option” to muscle through a Hillary Clinton Supreme Court nominee, but mere days later thought that a Majority Leader Mitch McConnell should consider abolishing the filibuster to allow President Trump’s nominee a smoother path to confirmation.

One couldn’t help but hold on to one’s neck for the bad case of whiplash. Some who proudly defended the filibuster as a bastion of deliberative legislating when they feared Democrats would win the White House and take back the Senate suddenly, instead, when presented with a Republican Senate and president-elect, considered this principle a trifling inconvenience. Those situational ethics present a more fundamental question: Are conservatives willing to forego policy “victories” that might result from a raw use of power, when exercising that power violates critical philosophical principles rooted in a belief in limited government?

Not Within the Law

The new president’s executive order on Obamacare, released Friday evening, instructed executive agencies to take actions “to the maximum extent permitted by law” to blunt the effects of Obamacare. There are indeed many ways the Trump administration can act within the scope of existing law to provide relief to consumers, many of which I outlined in a report last week. But blanket non-enforcement of the individual mandate doesn’t qualify as being within the law, any more than President Obama’s policy of blanket non-enforcement for certain classes of immigrants fit within statutory parameters.

Observers have noted the last administration’s many examples of executive overreach on Obamacare have given the new administration grounds to provide regulatory relief on multiple fronts. But two wrongs do not make a right. Take, for instance, the following analysis:

The Administration thus used the public pronouncements of its non-enforcement policies to encourage the regulated community to disregard provisions of [the law]. Prospectively licensing large groups of people to violate a congressional statute for policy reasons is inimical to the Take Care clause.

The quote comes from a paper by University of Michigan professor Nicholas Bagley, talking about President Obama’s 2013 “transitional policy” that allowed people facing cancellation notices to temporarily keep their pre-Obamacare plans. But the same description could apply to not enforcing the individual mandate as well. Conservatives believe that forcing individuals to purchase a product is unconstitutional—but so is an executive refusing to enforce the law. Is the answer to a constitutional violation really another constitutional violation?

Major Practical Concerns

In many cases, non-enforcement could result in lawsuits. The Obama administration’s unilateral actions generally led to more people getting benefits—insurance subsidies, immigration status, etc.—which made it difficult to find someone with standing to sue.

By contrast, if the Trump administration decides (as some have suggested) to give insurers permission to sell policies that do not meet all of Obamacare’s mandated benefits, purchasers of said policies would have grounds to sue insurers. Obamacare’s mandated benefits are prescribed in law, and if the law is clear, its text trumps (pardon the pun) any regulatory edict from the new administration. Most insurers probably wouldn’t even bother offering such policies because of the legal jeopardy and uncertainty they would face in doing so.

Making Repeal Less Likely?

There’s another practical implication of not enforcing the mandate that should worry conservatives: ironically, it could make Obamacare’s repeal more difficult.

Over the past few weeks Washington has debated whether Congress should repeal Obamacare without enacting a simultaneous replacement. Some pundits have been forthright in admitting that they wish to do so because they fear some members of Congress have a different vision of what an alternative regime should look like. To put it bluntly, they wish to hold repeal hostage to their vision for an Obamacare “replacement.”

The executive unilaterally ending some of Obamacare’s worst effects—albeit temporarily—will take the pressure off members of Congress to do so themselves. The justifiable fear is that action on repeal will get bogged down by internecine squabbling over a vision for “replace,” making the sole movement on Obamacare an executive action—which any future president (or even the current one) could overturn.

Reinforce Congress’ Role

If President Trump unilaterally eliminating the individual mandate isn’t the answer, then what is? For conservatives, the solution should lie with the branch the Constitution’s Framers considered the most important: Congress, the legislative branch Article I of the Constitution establishes. Through its oversight powers, Congress has the ability to investigate and act upon regulatory overreach.

The last Congress was less feckless in blunting unilateral executive actions than some might think. Its preliminary victory in the case of House v. Burwell, regarding Obamacare’s cost-sharing subsidies to insurers, set a critical precedent that Congress has the right to litigate on matters of constitutional import—namely, the executive (in this case, the Obama administration) spending funds without an express appropriation from Congress. Hopefully the Trump administration will vacate the Obama administration’s appeal of the District Court ruling, allowing this precedent to stand.

Obamacare Is Ultimately About Power

Obamacare was really never about health care so much as power—the power of government to regulate health care, tax health care, and force people to purchase health care (or at least health insurance). It seems somehow fitting that Obamacare gave the nation so many examples of executive unilateralism.

But to conservatives, the rule of law—in many ways the antithesis of raw power—stands pre-eminent. A Republican administration should not be tempted to “use unilateral actions to achieve conservative ends.” Such behavior represents a contradiction in terms. That’s why it’s important to watch the new administration’s actions closely in the coming days and weeks. Obamacare may not be worth keeping, but the rule of law is.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

Hillarycare Redux? A Review of “The System”

A young president promising hope and change takes over the White House. Immediately embarking upon a major health-care initiative, he becomes trapped amidst warring factions in his party in Congress, bickering interest groups, and an angry public, all laying the groundwork for a resounding electoral defeat.

Barack Obama, circa 2009-10? Most definitely. But the same story also applies to Bill Clinton’s first two years in office, a period marked by a health-care debate in 1993-94 that paved the way for the Republican takeover of both houses of Congress.

In their seminal work “The System,” Haynes Johnson and David Broder recount the events of 1993-94 in detail—explaining not just how the Clinton health initiative failed, but also why. Anyone following the debate on Obamacare repeal should take time over the holidays to read “The System” to better understand what may await Congress and Washington next year. After all, why spend time arguing with your in-laws at the holiday table when you can read about people arguing in Congress two decades ago?

Echoes of History

For those following events of the past few years, the Clinton health debate as profiled in “The System” provides interesting echoes between past and present. Here is Karen Ignani of the AFL-CIO, viewed as a single-payer supporter and complaining that insurance companies could still “game the system” under some proposed reforms. Ironic sentiments indeed, as Ignani went on to chair the health insurance industry’s trade association during the Obamacare debate.

There are references to health care becoming a president’s Waterloo—Johnson and Broder attribute that quote to Grover Norquist, years before Sen. Jim DeMint uttered it in 2009. Max Baucus makes an appearance—he opposed in 1994 the employer mandate he included in Obamacare in 2009—as do raucous rallies in the summer of 1994, presaging the Obamacare town halls 15 years later.

Then there are the bigger lessons and themes that helped define the larger debate:

“Events, Dear Boy, Events:” The axiom attributed to Harold Macmillan about leaders being cast adrift by crises out of their control applied to the Clintons’ health-care debate. Foreign crises in Somalia (see “Black Hawk Down”) and Haiti sapped time on the presidential calendar and press attention, and distracted messaging. During the second half of 2009, Obama spent most of his time and energy focused on health care, leading some to conclude he had turned away from solving the economic crisis.

Old Bulls and Power Centers: “The System” spends much more time profiling the chairs of the respective congressional committees—including Dan Rostenkowski at House Ways and Means, John Dingell at House Energy and Commerce, and Patrick Moynihan at Senate Finance—than would have been warranted in 2009-10. While committee chairs held great power in the early 1990s, 15 years later House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid called most of the legislative shots from their leadership offices.

Whereas the House marked up three very different versions of health-care legislation in 1993-94, all three committees started from the same chairman’s mark in 2009. With Speaker Paul Ryan, like John Boehner before him, running a much more diffuse leadership operation than Pelosi’s tightly controlled ship, it remains to be seen whether congressional leaders can drive consensus on both policy strategy and legislative tactics.

The Filibuster: At the beginning of the legislative debate in 1993, Robert Byrd—a guardian of Senate rules and procedures—pleaded for Democrats not to try and enact their health agenda using budget reconciliation procedures to avoid a filibuster. Democrats (begrudgingly) followed his advice in 1993, only to ignore his pleadings 16 years later, using reconciliation to ram through changes to Obamacare. Likewise, what and how Republicans use reconciliation, and Democrats use the filibuster, on health care will doubtless define next year’s Senate debate.

Many Obama White House operatives such as Rahm Emanuel, having lived through the Clinton debate, followed the exact opposite playbook to pass Obamacare.

They used the time between 1993 and 2009 to narrow their policy differences as a party. Rather than debating between a single-payer system and managed competition, most of the political wrangling focused on the narrower issue of a government-run “public option.” Rather than writing a massive, 1,300-page bill and dropping it on Capitol Hill’s lap, they deferred to congressional leaders early on. Rather than bashing special interest groups publicly, they cut “rock-solid deals” behind closed doors to win industry support. While their strategy ultimately led to legislative success, the electoral consequences proved eerily similar.

Lack of Institutional Knowledge

The example of Team Obama aside, Washington and Washingtonians sometimes have short memories. Recently a reporter e-mailed asking me if I knew of someone who used to work on health care issues for Vice President-elect Mike Pence. (Um, have you read my bio…?) Likewise, reporters consider “longtime advisers” those who have worked the issue since the last presidential election. While there is no substitute for experience itself, a robust knowledge of history would come in a close second.

Those who underestimate the task facing congressional Republicans would do well to read “The System.” Having read it for the first time the week of President Obama’s 2009 inauguration, I was less surprised by how that year played out on Capitol Hill than I was surprised by the eerie similarities.

George Santayana’s saying that “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it” bears more than a grain of truth. History may not repeat itself exactly, but it does run in cycles. Those who read “The System” now will better understand the cycle about to unfold before us in the year ahead.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.