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 The budgets generally repealed the Obamacare entitlements, thus allowing the Medicare reductions to bolster that program rather than financing Obamacare.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.

Paul Ryan and “Regular Order”

Last week, Politico published an article talking about how the Republican House of Representatives under Paul Ryan’s speakership set a new record for the number of bills approved under closed rules—which prohibit members of Congress from offering amendments. Although the Politico story didn’t use the term, it echoes the complaints of Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) surrounding Obamacare “repeal-and-replace” legislation this past summer: “I want the regular order.”

McCain’s comment invites a question: What exactly constitutes “the regular order” in Congress? Why do people keep calling for it? And if so many people keep calling for it, why doesn’t Congress just restore “the regular order” already?

‘Deem-and-Pass’

Politico quoted House Rules Committee Ranking Member Louise Slaughter (D-NY): “Under Speaker Ryan’s leadership, this session of Congress has now become the most closed Congress in history.” To call Slaughter’s complaints about a closed process ironic would put it mildly.

Seven years ago, when she chaired the Rules Committee, Slaughter proposed having the Democratic House enact Obamacare into law without voting on it. The House could merely “deem” Obamacare approved as a result of passing some other measure.

While the House has repeatedly used this “deem-and-pass” strategy under both Republican and Democratic majorities, the optics of passing such a massive and prominent piece of legislation using such dodgy procedural shortcuts led Democrats to abandon the gambit, but not before conservative bloggers noted that Slaughter, Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-MD), and others attacked the “deem-and-pass” maneuver when Republicans controlled the House in the 2000s.

Republican Manipulation

In proposing the “deem-and-pass” strategy, Slaughter looked to protect House Democrats from taking a tough vote on the unpopular health-care bill Senate Democrats approved on Christmas Eve 2009—the one with the “Cornhusker Kickback,” “Gator Aid,” “Louisiana Purchase,” and the other backroom deals that made the legislation toxic in the minds of many. When in the majority themselves, Republicans have used the same tactics, using procedural blocks to avoid politically difficult votes.

In 2015, the appropriations process ground to a halt in mid-summer, when Democrats offered an amendment preventing federal funds from being used to display the Confederate flag in national cemeteries. The amendment, offered by Rep. Jared Huffman (D-CA), originally passed by voice vote, but some Republicans pledged to vote against the bill if the amendment remained in it.

Republican leaders didn’t have the votes to strip out the amendment, and didn’t have the votes to pass the bill with the amendment in, so the Interior appropriations bill got shelved—as did the entire appropriations process, because Republicans feared Democrats would offer Confederate flag-related amendments to any spending bill that came to the House floor.

House Freedom Caucus

Yet on several occasions over the past few years—including the Confederate flag flap—conservatives and HFC members have looked to leadership to squelch debate on amendments. Earlier this year, moderate Republicans and Democrats combined to defeat an amendment that would have prohibited federal funding of soldiers’ gender-reassignment surgery. Conservatives responded a few weeks later by demanding that leadership insert such a funding prohibition into the defense spending bill—without a direct vote, via the “deem-and-pass” strategy—even though the provision would have violated the will of the House as expressed in a vote weeks before.

While the executive ultimately decided the transgender issue—at conservatives’ behest, President Trump issued an executive order prohibiting transgender troops from serving, making the House procedural dispute moot—it illustrates the problems inherent with a move to “regular order.” As with Slaughter and Democrats, conservatives support an open process in the House only up until the point when it detracts from their desired policy outcomes, at which point the legislative process quickly devolves into a game of ends justifying means.

If it wanted to, HFC could easily demand a more open floor process out of Ryan. It could vote down the rules governing floor debate on individual bills unless and until the Republican leadership allowed an open process and more amendment votes, at which point the Republican leadership would have no choice but to acquiesce to pass legislation through the House. However, a more open process would require conservatives to accept policy outcomes they might not like—federal funds being spent on gender-reassignment surgeries, for instance.

These strictures require leadership to use all manner of procedural shortcuts and chicanery to cobble together legislation that can command a majority of votes. It’s no way to run a railroad. But until members’ desires for “the regular order” are strong enough that they will vote down bills on process grounds alone, it will remain the way Washington works—or, in many cases, doesn’t.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

Are Senate Republicans Going Soft on Obamacare’s Taxpayer Funding of Abortions?

Senate Republican leadership continue to draft their “repeal-and-replace” health care bill in secret, but it sure looks like staff are preparing for the bill to endorse Obamacare’s funding of plans that cover abortion, by re-characterizing—and mischaracterizing—how current law treats the procedure. While text is not yet publicly available and will not be until Thursday at the earliest, here’s how anonymous sources described the “new” insurance subsidies to the Wall Street Journal:

Tax credits are likely to be structured in ways similar to the [Obamacare] subsidies as a way to preserve restrictions on abortion funding, according to Senate GOP aides. Provisions restricting the use of the House bill’s tax credits to pay for abortion hit procedural hurdles in the Senate.

The [Obamacare] subsidies, which are advance tax credits paid to insurance companies to lower the cost of health-insurance premiums, currently can’t be used to cover the cost of abortions.

The problem is, though, that Obamacare does have “taxpayer-funded abortions.” And that’s not what I said—that’s what Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has said. Here’s his speech on March 17, 2010, as the House was preparing to vote on Obamacare (all emphasis added):

Americans woke up yesterday thinking they had seen everything in this debate already. Then they heard the latest….They heard that Democrats over in the House want to approve the Senate bill without actually voting on it. These Democrats want to approve a bill that rewrites one-sixth of the economy, forces taxpayers to pay for abortions, raises taxes in the middle of a recession, and slashes Medicare for seniors, without leaving their fingerprints on it.

Don’t consider McConnell a reliable source? The current vice president, Mike Pence, speaking in March 2010 during debate on the reconciliation bill intended to “fix” parts of Obamacare, noted that no provision in the reconciliation bill would fix its funding of abortion:

Mr. Speaker, the bill before us tonight doesn’t fix anything. It doesn’t fix the fact that this is a government takeover of health care that’s going to mandate that every American buy health insurance whether they want it or need it or not. It doesn’t fix the fact that it includes about $600 billion in job-killing tax increases in the worst economy in 30 years. It doesn’t fix the fact this bill provides public funding for elective abortion for the first time in American history.

And then there’s former House Speaker John Boehner. During his infamous “Hell no, you can’t!” speech on the House floor as that chamber was preparing to pass Obamacare, here’s what he said about the bill (soon to become law) and abortion:

Can you go home and tell your constituents with confidence that this bill respects the sanctity of all human life and that it won’t allow for taxpayer funding of abortions for the first time in 30 years? No, you cannot.

The current majority leader, current vice president, and former House speaker are all correct, of course—or at least they were seven years ago. Obamacare provides subsidies to plans that cover abortion, a significant break from the precedent used by the federal employee health plan, and one that will see more than $700 billion in taxpayer funds in the coming decade go toward plans that could cover abortion.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

Democrats’ Hypocrisy on the Trump Budget

As expected, the Left had a harsh reaction to President Trump’s first budget on its release Tuesday. Bernie Sanders called the proposed Medicaid reductions “just cruel,” the head of one liberal think-tank dubbed the budget as a whole “radical,” and on and on.

But if liberals object to these “draconian cuts,” there’s one potential solution: Look in the mirror.

And exactly who might be to blame for creating that toxic environment?

Democrats Are Using The ‘Mediscare’ Playbook

Democrats have spent the past several political cycles running election campaigns straight out of the “Mediscare” playbook. In case anyone has forgotten, political ads have portrayed Republicans as literally throwing granny off a cliff.

This rhetoric about Republican attempts to “privatize” Medicare came despite several inconvenient truths:

  1. The “voucher” system Democrats attack for Medicare is based upon the same bidding system included in Obamacare;
  2. The Congressional Budget Office concluded one version of premium support would, by utilizing the forces of competition, actually save money for both seniors and the federal government; and
  3. Democrats—in Nancy Pelosi’s own words—“took half a trillion dollars out of Medicare” to pay for Obamacare.

Given the constant attacks from Democrats against entitlement reform, however, Donald Trump made the political decision during last year’s campaign to oppose any changes to Medicare or Social Security. He reiterated that decision in this week’s budget, by proposing no direct reductions either to Medicare or the Social Security retirement program. Office of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney said the president told him, “I promised people on the campaign trail I would not touch their retirement and I would not touch Medicare.”

That’s an incorrect and faulty assumption, of course, as both programs rapidly spiral toward insolvency. The Medicare hospital insurance trust fund has incurred a collective $132.2 billion in deficits the past eight years. Only the double-counting created by Obamacare continues to keep the Medicare trust fund afloat. The idea that President Trump should not “touch” seniors’ retirement or health care is based on the fallacious premise that they exist beyond the coming decade; on the present trajectory, they do not, at least not in their current form.

Should Bill Gates Get Taxpayer-Funded Healthcare?

That said, the president’s reticence to “touch” Social Security and Medicare comes no doubt from Democrats’ reluctance to support any reductions in entitlement spending, even to the wealthiest Americans. When Republicans first proposed additional means testing for Medicare back in 2011, then-Rep. Henry Waxman (D-CA) opposed it, saying that “if [then-House Speaker John] Boehner wants to have the wealthy contribute more to deficit reduction, he should look to the tax code.”

In other words, liberals like Henry Waxman, and others like him, wish to defend “benefits for billionaires”—the right of people like Bill Gates and Warren Buffett to receive taxpayer-funded health and retirement benefits. Admittedly, Congress passed some additional entitlement means testing as part of a Medicare bill two years ago. But the notion that taxpayers should spend any taxpayer funds on health or retirement payments to “one-percenters” would likely strike most as absurd—yet that’s exactly what current law does.

As the old saying goes, to govern is to choose. If Democrats are so violently opposed to the supposedly “cruel” savings proposals in the president’s budget, then why don’t they put alternative entitlement reforms on the table? From eliminating Medicare and Social Security payments to the highest earners, to a premium support proposal that would save seniors money, there are potential opportunities out there—if liberals can stand to tone down the “Mediscare” demagoguery. It just might yield the reforms that our country needs, to prevent future generations from drowning in a sea of debt.

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.

Three Lessons from Last Year’s Obamacare Repeal Effort

In a move virtually ignored outside Washington and largely unnoticed even within it, last December the House and Senate passed legislation repealing much of Obamacare. President Obama promptly vetoed the measure — an obstacle that will disappear come January 20. As reporters and policymakers attempt to catch up and learn the details of a process they had not closely followed, three important lessons stand out from last year’s “dry run” at repealing Obamacare.

The Senate Should Take the Lead

The legislation in question, H.R. 3762, made it to President Obama’s desk only because Republicans used a special procedure called budget reconciliation to circumvent the Senate’s 60-vote requirement to overcome a Democratic filibuster. While reconciliation allowed the bill to make it to the president’s desk, it came with several procedural strings in the Senate. Reconciliation legislation may only consider provisions that are primarily budgetary in nature; policy changes, or policy changes with an incidental fiscal impact, will get stripped from the bill. In addition, reconciliation legislation may not increase the budget deficit.

Unfortunately, the original version of the bill the House introduced did not comply with the Senate requirements. The legislation repealed Obamacare’s Independent Payment Advisory Board (IPAB) — but because that change was primarily policy-related and not fiscal in nature, it did not pass muster with the Senate parliamentarian. Likewise, according to a cost estimate by the Congressional Budget Office, the House-passed bill would have increased the deficit in the “out years” beyond the ten-year budget window, making it subject to another point-of-order challenge that would require 60 votes to overcome. Ultimately, the legislation contained enough of these procedural flaws that Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell had to introduce a completely new substitute for the bill as it came to the Senate floor, to ensure that it would receive the procedural protections accorded to a reconciliation measure.

The arcane and technical nature of the budget-reconciliation process means that the Senate will play the key role in determining what passes — simply because Senate procedure will dictate what can pass. While the House has the constitutional prerogative to originate all tax legislation, and by custom it initiates most major spending legislation, the Senate may do well to initiate action in this particular case. House Republicans proposed an Obamacare-replacement plan earlier this year, Paul Ryan’s “A Better Way,” but what good is passing that through the House if much of it ends up on the Senate’s proverbial cutting-room floor?

Personnel Matters, Because Institutional Memory Is Scarce

The original reconciliation bill was introduced in the House on October 16, during what amounted to an interval between leaders. John Boehner had announced his intention to resign the speakership, but Paul Ryan had not yet assumed that title. And while House members played another round of “musical chairs,” staff underwent their own turnover, as Speaker Boehner’s longtime health-policy adviser departed Capitol Hill a few weeks before Boehner announced his surprise resignation.

To say that relevant leaders and committee chairs have swapped places in the House recently is putting it mildly. Not one has served in his current post for more than two years. Two years ago, Paul Ryan chaired the House Budget Committee; his reign at Ways and Means lasted a brief nine months before he assumed the speakership. Elsewhere in leadership, both Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy and Majority Whip Steve Scalise assumed their jobs after the defeat of Eric Cantor in August 2014. At the committees, Budget Committee chairman Tom Price and Ways and Means Committee chairman Kevin Brady succeeded Paul Ryan in leading their respective committees last year. And the Energy and Commerce and Education and Workforce Committees will soon choose new chairmen to assume their gavels in January.

While Senate leadership has remained more stable at the member level, most of the staff in both chambers has turned over since the Obamacare debate of 2009–10. I served in House leadership during 2009, and Senate leadership from 2010 to 2012; most of my former colleagues have long since moved on, whether to lobbying jobs, grad school, or even outside Washington altogether. Both at the member level and the staff level, the critically important institutional knowledge of what happened to Democrats — and when, why, and how — during the Obamacare debacle eight short years ago is dangerously thin.

The Washington gossip circles seem most interested in playing the parlor game of who will fill what post in the new administration. But particularly if the administration defers to Capitol Hill on policy, the true action in determining what happens to Obamacare — and what replaces it — may well lie at the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue. Both reporters and would-be job applicants should react and plan accordingly.

An Influential Troika of Senate Conservatives

In addition to its procedural shortfalls, the original House reconciliation bill represented something much less than full repeal of Obamacare. While the law as enacted contains 419 sections, four of which had already been repealed prior to last October, the House’s reconciliation bill repealed just seven of them. Admittedly, much of Obamacare contains extraneous provisions unrelated to the law’s coverage expansions: nursing-home regulations, loan-forgiveness programs, and the like. But the original House reconciliation bill left intact many of Obamacare’s tax increases and all of its coverage expansions, leaving it far short of anything that could be called full repeal.

Into the breach stepped three conservative senators: Mike Lee, Marco Rubio, and Ted Cruz. The day before the House voted to pass its reconciliation bill, they issued a joint statement calling it thin gruel indeed:

On Friday the House of Representatives is set to vote on a reconciliation bill that repeals only parts of Obamacare. This simply isn’t good enough. Each of us campaigned on a promise to fully repeal Obamacare, and a reconciliation bill is the best way to send such legislation to President Obama’s desk. If this bill cannot be amended so that it fully repeals Obamacare pursuant to Senate rules, we cannot support this bill. With millions of Americans now getting health premium increase notices in the mail, we owe our constituents nothing less. 

Knowing that the bill lacked the votes to pass the chamber without support from the three conservatives, Senate leadership significantly broadened the bill’s scope. The revised version that went to the president’s desk repealed all of the law’s tax increases and all of its coverage expansions. It was not a one-sentence repeal bill that eradicated all of Obamacare from the statute books, but it came much closer to “fully repeal[ing] Obamacare pursuant to Senate rules,” as the three senators laid out in their statement.

The conservatives’ mettle will be tested once again. Already, Republican congressional sources are telling reporters that they intend to keep the law’s Medicaid expansion, albeit in a different fashion. “One of the aides said this version of the bill [that passed last year] was mostly about ‘messaging,’ and that this time, ‘We’re not going to use that package. We’re not dumb.’”

Apart from the wisdom of calling a bill that their bosses voted for less than one year ago “dumb,” the comment clarifies the obvious fissure points that will emerge in the coming weeks. Will conservatives such as Lee, Rubio, and Cruz hold out for legislation mirroring last year’s bill — and vote no if they do not receive it? Conversely, what Republican who voted for the reconciliation bill last year will object if it returns to the Senate floor? Will senators be willing to vote against something in 2017 that they voted for in 2015?

As I noted last week, Republicans’ path on Obamacare could prove more complicated than the new conventional wisdom in Washington suggests. If past is prologue, last year’s reconciliation bill provides one possible roadmap for how the congressional debate may play out.

This post was originally published at National Review.

The Politics of Paying for the Medicare “Doc Fix”

House members are working on legislation to provide a permanent repeal of provisions capping Medicare reimbursements to physicians. As past debates have shown, failure to identify spending cuts to offset the pay increase to doctors would significantly impact seniors’ Medicare premiums.

Legislative language has yet to be released, but press reports have indicated the outlines of a potential agreement between House Speaker John Boehner and Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi. The proposal is expected to permanently repeal the sustainable growth rate (SGR) mechanism established in 1997 for setting physician payments and overall physician spending within Medicare. After only a few years, spending began to exceed the SGR spending targets, prompting Congress to pass a series of bills—known as the “doc fix”–adjusting the targets upward for short periods.

In general, Congress financed these short-term doc fixes by reducing spending elsewhere in the budget. More than $165 billion worth was covered this way. But lawmakers used two statutory mechanisms to lower the cost of these short-term spending bumps and promised to recover the remaining costs in the future. Each time it has come up, Congress has kicked the proverbial can down the line.

When it comes to physician payment, the agreement being negotiated by the congressional leaders is expected to do two things: First, it would fill in the shortfall from repeated budgetary gimmicks. Maintaining flat payment rates for the future, rather than letting the SGR cuts take effect, would cost $137.4 billion, according to the Congressional Budget Office. This would not be paid for but would be absorbed into the deficit. The second part of the agreement, which provides for modest increases in physician payments in the coming years, would have a net cost of $37.1 billion, according to CBO. This increase in spending would be paid for.

One ramification of the proposed $137 billion increase in deficit spending: Seniors would fund a significant portion. As CBO noted in its 2009 score of an earlier, unsuccessful SGR repeal bill: “Beneficiaries enrolled in Part B of Medicare pay premiums that offset about 25 percent of the costs of those benefits. . . . Therefore, about one-quarter of the increase in Medicare spending would be offset by changes in those premium receipts.”

The House Republican leadership is well aware of the premium effects of an unpaid-for SGR repeal. When then-Speaker Pelosi brought an unpaid-for SGR repeal bill to the House floor in November 2009, then-Minority Leader Boehner called it an “absolute train wreck,” because it “forces seniors to pay higher premiums.” All but one House Republican voted against the legislation—largely because it did not include spending cuts to pay for the repeal.

It remains unclear how many House Republicans today might change their position from 2009, or what their public justification for doing so would be. What is clear is that any unpaid-for legislation would have a fiscal impact on America’s seniors as well as the federal budget.

This post was originally published at the Wall Street Journal Think Tank blog.

More CBO Transparency Could Have Prevented Obamacare’s CLASS Debacle

Mere days into a Republican Congress, Democrats are making charges of ideological bias when it comes to the majority’s handling of the Congressional Budget Office. A group of leading Senate Democrats wrote a letter to House Speaker John Boehner specifically noting that “a CBO director should not be required to revise the score of the Affordable Care Act in order to please partisan interests.” It’s an ironic charge, given that it’s far from partisan to question why the CBO failed to perform analyses that could have predicted the collapse of an $86 billion Obamacare program — exactly what happened under its current director, Doug Elmendorf.

The program in question, Community Living Assistance Services and Supports, or CLASS, was designed to provide cash benefits for those needing long-term services and support. CLASS made it into Obamacare at the behest of then-Sen. Ted Kennedy, and over the objections of both Republicans and moderate Democrats, who considered it fiscally unsustainable; then-Senate Budget Committee Chairman Kent Conrad, D-N.D., famously dubbed CLASS “a Ponzi scheme of the first order, the kind of thing Bernie Madoff would have been proud of.” And so it proved — in October 2011, less than two years after the law’s passage, the Department of Health and Human Services determined CLASS could not be implemented in a fiscally solvent manner, and in January 2013, Congress repealed it entirely.

But Congress and the American people could have been spared this trouble had CBO performed a more thorough analysis of CLASS. In 2009, the budget agency assumed that CLASS’s administrative expenses would remain confined to three percent of premiums, even though HHS’ own actuary later called this requirement “unrealistic and undesirable.” The actuary hired by HHS went on to estimate total expenses at 20 percent of premiums — nearly seven times the level specified in the law.

The unrealistically low administrative expenses go to the heart of CLASS’s structural flaws. The program proved fiscally unsustainable because it faced a classic actuarial death spiral—a lack of healthy people paying into the pool to fund benefits for those needing care.

Had CBO formally analyzed CLASS’s administrative expenses, it likely would have concluded that the unrealistic assumptions written into the law meant premiums would eventually have to rise, benefits fall, or both, to meet the shortfall — making the program even more unattractive to healthy individuals, and further imperiling its solvency. The CBO does have models to estimate the cost of insurance; with Obamacare, it stated in November 2009 that insurance exchanges would reduce the administrative costs of individually-purchased coverage. But when it came to CLASS, CBO did not perform a similar analysis.

Likewise, CBO at no point attempted to quantify the potentially massive costs to states that CLASS would have imposed. The program would have required state Medicaid programs to create a benefit eligibility system similar to that used by the Social Security disability insurance program. That program costs nearly $3 billion to administer every year — meaning CLASS could easily have imposed costs to states of $20 billion-30 billion over a decade.

Within HHS, officials expressed concern that CLASS would “create significant new burdens on the states.” Coming at a time when governors of both parties were criticizing the “mother of all unfunded mandates” in the form of Obamacare’s Medicaid expansion, a CBO finding that CLASS imposed mandates on states in the billions, or tens of billions, would have prompted bipartisan outrage — and could have scuttled the program entirely. But from its introduction to its repeal, CBO at no point even acknowledged the significant cost to states associated with CLASS.

In fairness to CBO, the months leading up to Obamacare’s passage were by far the busiest in my time as a Capitol Hill staffer. Lack of enough hours and lack of sleep could, and did, cause details to slip through the cracks; to quote Nancy Pelosi, we really did have to pass the bill to find out what was in it. But that neither excuses nor explains why CBO has not publicly acknowledged the shortcomings outlined above, and what if anything it needs to change — whether in resources, oversight, or both — to improve its analysis going forward.

Judging from his silence on CLASS, Elmendorf may view protecting his office’s budget analysts as a prime objective of a CBO director. As much as I value loyalty, CBO’s prime loyalty should lay to Congress — and ultimately to the public, which funds both CBO and the programs it analyzes. While Elmendorf has taken measures to release more information publicly — developments I welcome — such steps generally fall into the realm of making CBO less opaque, rather than truly transparent.

Democrats’ political posturing aside, it’s not partisan to ask for a public explanation why an independent budget office did not produce analyses that could have revealed the instability of an $86 billion “Ponzi scheme” before Congress enacted it into law. In fact, the principles of good governance should compel the CBO in exactly this direction. Hopefully CBO’s next director, whoever he or she is, will move more rapidly down the road of this much-needed transparency.

This post was originally published at the Washington Examiner.

In the House’s Health Care Lawsuit, High Stakes Over Subsidies

Most coverage of House Republicans’ lawsuit against the Obama administration has focused on the latter’s delay implementing Obamacare’s employer mandate. But five of the eight counts of the lawsuit focus on another issue–one that, depending on the outcome of the suit, could cause insurers to re-assess their involvement in the health-care exchanges.

The issue revolves around the law’s cost-sharing subsidies, a program I analyzed in a June blog post. The administration had said it was combining the law’s premium subsidies and cost-sharing subsidies–which provide lower co-payments and deductibles to certain low-income individuals—into one set of payments to insurers. “The problem with this? That’s not what the law says,” I wrote, based on a previous analysis showing that the law structured the two types of subsidies very differently.

In my earlier post, I posited that the administration may have combined the two programs to exempt the cost-sharing subsidies from sequester budget cuts. But the House’s lawsuit alleges a more fundamental point: that lumping cost-sharing subsidies in with premium subsidies attempts to hide the fact that Congress never appropriated funds for the cost-sharing subsidies. In another June Think Tank post analyzing similar questions about Obamacare’s “risk corridor” program (under which plans with enrollees who are healthier than average pay into a pool that subsidizes plans whose enrollees are unhealthier than average), I noted the basic legal question about risk corridors, which also applies to the cost-sharing subsidies:

“A January memo from the Congressional Research Service … and manuals of appropriations law published by the Government Accountability Office provide the minute background, but the basic premise is simple: To spend money, Congress must pass legislation authorizing the executive to do X action and then also appropriate Y dollars for that purpose.”

The House’s lawsuit alleges that Congress authorized but never appropriated funds for the cost-sharing subsidies, and it asks the court to block further payments to insurers under the subsidy program unless and until Congress specifically appropriates funds.

The potential impact on insurers and exchanges is enormous. The Congressional Research Service observed in May 2013 that, should the sequestration budget cuts apply to cost-sharing subsidies, “insurers presumably will still have to provide required coverage [i.e., reductions in co-payments and deductibles] to qualifying enrollees, but they will not receive the full subsidy to cover their increased costs.” If a court prohibits the administration from paying out the cost-sharing subsidies, the financial hit to insurers would be $175 billion over the next 10 years, according to Congressional Budget Office estimates of spending on the subsidies through 2024.

In October, it was reported that insurers had requested language from the administration for the second Affordable Care Act open-enrollment season that gives insurers the opportunity to stop offering plans, and cancel existing plans, in the 37 states with a federally run exchange should court cases–now scheduled to be heard by the Supreme Court in March–disrupt federal premium and cost-sharing subsidies to those states. The language also appears to allow insurers to take the same actions should a court halt the flow of cost-sharing subsidies as a result of the House lawsuit. If insurers end up facing an unfunded mandate–a requirement to provide reduced cost-sharing to low-income individuals but no federal subsidies to help finance those benefits–totaling tens of billions of dollars per year, it seems likely that many, if not most or all, insurers would seek to terminate their exchange offerings.

If King v. Burwell–the lawsuit the Supreme Court has agreed to hear about the legality of subsidies in federally run exchanges—represents an existential threat to Obamacare, the implications of the Boehner lawsuit come a close second. If a court blocks the health-care law’s cost-sharing subsidies, insurers facing an uncertain financial, legal and actuarial environment could opt out of the exchanges. The fact that insurers could pull out of the exchanges, and the possibility that the House lawsuit could trigger such an outcome, make the lawsuit worth watching.

This post was originally published at the Wall Street Journal Think Tank blog.

Obamacare and the Pitfalls of Congressional Legislating

Weeks before Congress embarked on its final push to put Obamacare on the statute books, then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi infamously stated that Congress had to pass the bill “so that you can find out what’s in it.” But last week, a staffer at the heart of drafting the legislation admitted that Congress itself failed to comprehend the implications of the provisions it imposed upon the American people.

On Friday, a Capitol Hill newspaper published a story outlining the history of Obamacare’s employer mandate and whether the administration might delay its implementation still further. In the article, Yvette Fontenot—a lobbyist who helped write the bill for then-Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus and later worked on implementing the legislation at the White House—admitted that when Mr. Baucus’s staff drafted the employer mandate, “we didn’t have a very good handle on how difficult operationalizing the provision would be at that time.”

Indeed, the employer mandate has proved difficult to implement. Defining who counts as a full-time employee across a variety of industries and creating databases to track employees’ hours have taxed regulators and companies alike. While the administration has cited these difficulties in twice delaying the mandate’s implementation, the law’s critics take a different view—believing the administration postponed the mandate to avoid potential stories about job losses prior to the 2014 elections.

Likewise, the import of Ms. Fontenot’s admission. Liberals and supporters of a strong executive might argue that her comments highlight the need for agency rulemaking, rather than placing final authority in the hands of inexpert legislators and overtaxed congressional staff—essentially saving Congress from itself. House Speaker John Boehner obviously disagrees. The Ohio Republican views the impending House vote exploring legal action against the administration as one way for the legislature to regain its authority.

But more broadly, conservatives would argue that Ms. Fontenot’s comments highlight the need for a more deliberative—and more humble—Congress, one quicker to acknowledge its own flaws, and change its processes accordingly. Recall that Max Baucus—the prime congressional author of Obamacare—said four years ago that he didn’t want to “waste my time” reading the legislation, because “we hire experts.” But one of those “experts” now says she didn’t understand how one of the major portions of the bill would work. It makes a very compelling argument that Congress, rather than relying on agency employees to resolve its self-imposed problems, should instead revert to the Hippocratic oath, and focus first and foremost on doing no legislative harm.

This post was originally published at the Wall Street Journal Think Tank blog.