Conservatives Have Themselves to Blame for Ominous Omnibus

Several years ago, I kvetched to a friend about various ways I found myself unhappy with my life. My friend listened attentively, and when I had finished, responded calmly and succinctly: “Well, what are you going to do about it?”

Conservative members of Congress face a similar dilemma this week, as they return to Washington for the first time since Congress passed a massive omnibus spending bill just before Easter. Politico last week highlighted senators’ concerns about a closed process in the Senate. Sen. John Kennedy (R-LA) went so far as to say the floor process, and the lack of amendment votes, “sucks.”

Consider the floor process in the House. The morning after Congress passed the omnibus, a staffer bragged to me about how his boss voted against the sprawling spending legislation. But my follow-up query spoke volumes: “Did your boss vote against the rule allowing for consideration of the bill?” The staffer hung his head and said that he hadn’t.

Therein lies the problem. Fully 210 Republican members of Congress voted to approve a rule that allows the House of Representatives to vote on a 2,232-page bill a mere 16 hours after its public release. In so doing, they blessed House leadership’s tactics of negotiating a budget-busting bill in secret, springing it on members without time to read it, and ramming it through Congress in a take-it-or-leave it fashion.

Or, to put it another way, those 210 Republican members of Congress signed their judgment over to the Republican leadership, which made all the decisions that mattered regarding the bill. Conservatives complained that, for the rule governing debate on the omnibus, House Republican leaders gaveled the vote to a close too quickly. Fully 25 Republicans did vote against the rule bringing the omnibus to the House floor, and if a few more that wanted to vote no had been given time to do so, the rule might have failed.

The conservatives who would not vote against the rule governing the omnibus also bear responsibility for the next omnibus. Had conservatives voted down the rule governing the omnibus, they could have demanded concessions to prevent future instances of congressional leaders ramming massive spending bills down Congress’ throat.

For instance, they could have demanded that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) commit the upper chamber to passing a budget, and considering spending bills individually on the Senate floor this summer. But because not enough conservatives voted against the rule, they received exactly no procedural concessions, ensuring Congress will resort to another massive, catch-all omnibus spending bill late this year or early next.

A very similar dynamic exists in the Senate. Despite their complaints, Kennedy and his Senate colleagues have failed to use their considerable powers to demand changes to that process. In the Senate, a single member can make long speeches, object to passing legislation by unanimous consent, and object to routine procedural requests. One senator or a handful of senators using such tactics for any period of time would quickly attract the attention of Senate leaders—and could prompt a broader discussion about how to open up Senate floor debate.

In democracies, people generally get the type of government they deserve. That axiom applies as much to the internal functioning of Congress as it does to Congress’ role in the country as a whole. If members of Congress don’t like the process their leaders have developed for debating (or not debating) legislation, they need only look in the mirror.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

Mitch McConnell’s Amendment Dilemma

Mitch McConnell has a problem entirely of his own making. The Senate majority leader promised a vote on Obamacare “stability” legislation to Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME). Collins wants a vote on the package as a Senate floor amendment to the omnibus appropriations legislation (that is, if and when congressional leaders emerge from their smoke-filled rooms and actually release an omnibus package for Congress to vote on).

Except that not six weeks ago, McConnell literally let the federal government shut down rather than grant his fellow Kentuckian Sen. Rand Paul a floor vote on his amendment to appropriations legislation.

It’s a fun choice McConnell gets to make—and he’s running out of time to do it.

Shutdown Showdown

Lest anyone forget what transpired a few short weeks ago, Paul asked for a clean vote on his amendment to budget and spending legislation, to preserve strict spending caps enacted as part of the Budget Control Act. (When it passed in 2011, McConnell said the Budget Control Act spending caps would slow down the “big government freight train”—a freight train that he now apparently wants to put into hyperdrive.)

McConnell and the Senate leadership refused to give Paul an up-or-down vote on his amendment. As Senate Republican Whip John Cornyn (R-TX) put it, “Why reward bad behavior?” Because under Senate rules Paul could speak for an extended period of time, and because Senate leadership did not allow enough time for a full floor debate on the legislation—apparently thinking it appropriate for the Senate to consider and pass in mere hours a 652-page bill allocating trillions of dollars—the federal government briefly shut down.

Susan Collins’ Precious Bailout

Enter Collins, who along with Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-TN) has been pushing for a bailout of Obamacare insurers for months now. Collins claims she has a commitment from McConnell to support an insurer “stability” package. Alexander said he would demand a vote, asking for senators “to be accountable” for their positions on the issue, because he thinks bailing out Obamacare will lower premiums for 2019 (it won’t).

However, as I noted just last week, Collins has moved the goalposts on the bailout package significantly. Whereas she initially requested “only” $5 billion in reinsurance funds, according to her December colloquy with McConnell, the new bill she and Alexander introduced this week contains more than $30 billion in spending on reinsurance—a sixfold increase. Because Collins has demonstrably walked away from her side of whatever bargain McConnell made with her, Senate leadership should have no qualms about doing the same.

Different Treatment?

However, the McConnell office appears inclined to give Collins her way, with multiple reports saying that McConnell was “open” to such an amendment vote to the appropriations bill. Compare that to the reactions Paul received from his colleagues last month, when he wanted an amendment vote to an appropriations bill. Congressmen called it an “utterly pointless” “stunt” that “doesn’t make any d-mn sense.” One unnamed Senate Republican aide called it “the stupidest thing to happen to Congress in three weeks….This is even stupider than the kid who didn’t recognize Justin Timberlake at the Super Bowl.”

Conservatives should watch with intense interest how the Senate floor debate plays out. If McConnell moves heaven and earth to get Collins a vote on her precious bailout, after moving heaven and earth to deny Paul a vote on retaining spending caps that McConnell himself used to support, they should neither quickly forgive, nor easily forget, the double standards created by Senate leadership.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

Politico’s Dumbest Headline Ever Trivializes Rand Paul’s Budget Protest

So much for the romance surrounding the famous scene in “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” where the title character successfully filibusters a bill, rousing the public to his side. Politico claimed that similar tactics surrounding a budget agreement last week led to the “dumbest shutdown ever.” In reality, however, the brief lapse in appropriations had serious underlying causes, and the flip way its correspondents covered the incident led to arguably the dumbest headline in Politico’s history.

To explain the shutdown in brief: Congressional leaders arrived at a budget agreement last week, just before the existing spending bill expired on Thursday at midnight. Having only introduced the bill hours previously, Senate leaders pushed to pass it Thursday afternoon, before the prior spending bill expired.

Paul’s actions protested two important issues: Skyrocketing spending and deficits, and Congress passing massive spending bills without reading them or allowing anyone to offer amendments. But the Politico report by Rachael Bade and Seung Min Kim trivialized the incident, calling it a “spectacle,” “extraneous drama,” and a “sideshow” full of “absurdity.” Their own phraseology amplified quotes such as those from an unnamed Republican aide, who called the floor drama “even more stupid than the name of the new Kardashian baby.”

So Paying for Stuff Congress Buys Is ‘Stupid’?

Why would reporters take such a cavalier attitude toward otherwise weighty matters? Four possible reasons come to mind.

First, the natural inclination to blame the individual or individuals perceived as responsible for causing havoc with the schedule. Few politicians or reporters on Capitol Hill expected to spend Thursday evening and much of Friday morning covering all-night drama surrounding the appropriations bill. The missed flights, cancelled dinner plans, and other last-minute chaos largely redounded on Paul’s head, even though Senate leaders could, and should, have avoided that drama by planning more than a few hours ahead.

If, instead of the headline at issue, Politico had led its story by pointing out that tactical stupidity by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Kentucky) led to the shutdown—belying his November 2014 and December 2017 statements that “We will not be shutting down the government”—how quickly do you think the majority leader’s press staff would have responded to Politico reporters’ questions this week?

Always Selective ‘Concern’ for Process

Third, reporters’ natural bias towards bipartisan agreements, underpinned by an implicit assumption that bipartisan agreements are inherently good. Whereas last year’s partisan attempts to “repeal-and-replace” Obamacare led to myriad stories about Republicans violating their pledges for transparency (an exception to rule two above), the bipartisan budget deal aroused much less indignation from the press about the secretive process used to craft it.

A contrarian might ask the obvious question: If the bill is so good, why not give lawmakers time to read and understand its contents, rather than ramming through a 652-page bill spending hundreds of billions of dollars in a 24-hour period?

Of course not. But when officials at the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) earlier this month tried to shut out a reporter for what CMS officials viewed as an inaccurate article—or, to coin a phrase, “bad behavior” by a journalist—the Association of Health Care Journalists filed protests with CMS, and published multiple stories on the kerfuffle (which Politico dutifully covered).

If they care about democracy as much as they claim, the reporters who consistently hyperventilate every time President Trump makes (idle) threats towards the press might spend more time promoting sunshine and accountability throughout government. But instead of highlighting Paul’s efforts to enhance transparency in government—is a single amendment vote on a 652-page bill really too much to ask?—the “dumbest shutdown ever” story ridiculed these efforts. It’s why the story represents Politico’s dumbest headline ever.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

What You Need to Know about “Vote-A-Rama”

It’s not a carnival ride—although it might prove even more adventurous. The Senate’s consideration of health-care legislation will soon result in a grueling series of votes dubbed “vote-a-rama.”

After 20 hours of debate on the budget reconciliation measure, equally divided between the majority and minority parties, the Senate will complete consideration of all pending amendments, with the process’ conclusion typically determined when senators exhaust all the amendments they wish to offer—not to mention themselves.

1. It’s Physically Demanding

The “vote-a-rama” process during consideration of the 2010 reconciliation bill that “fixed” Obamacare provides an example. On Wednesday, March 24, senators began voting on amendments at 5:32 PM. Nearly nine hours later, at 2:17 on the morning of Thursday, March 25, senators had completed votes on 29 amendments. The Senate then took a brief break, re-convened at 9:45 the same morning, and disposed of a further 12 amendments over an additional four-plus hours, with a vote on final passage at 2 PM on March 25.

For 20-something or 30-something staffers—let alone senators several times their age—this lengthy process can prove grueling, with long hours, late nights, lack of sleep, and little food (or bad food) the norm.

2. It’s Mentally Confusing

Between votes on amendments, senators usually allow for brief one-minute speeches by the amendment’s proponent and an opponent (generally the majority or minority floor manager of the bill). However, as Senate procedural expert James Wallner notes, that habit has derived from custom and unanimous consent, not any formal rule. If any senator objects to the brief “well speeches” as part of “vote-a-rama,” then the Senate will vote on amendments without any debate or a summary of what the amendment does.

3. It’s Hard to Pass Amendments with a Simple Majority…

As Wallner noted in an article earlier this week, the Senate’s rules essentially give preferential treatment to the underlying reconciliation bill, making it difficult to craft amendments that can pass with a simple (i.e., 50-vote) majority. The amendment must be germane (i.e., relevant) to the underlying bill, and cannot increase the deficit.

Moreover, to pass with a simple majority, an amendment must also comply with the six-part “Byrd rule” test. For instance, an amendment may not have only an incidental fiscal impact, make programmatic changes to Title II of the Social Security Act, or exceed the jurisdiction of the committees who received the reconciliation instructions (in this case, the Senate Finance and Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions committees). Other than simple motions striking particular provisions, amendments will face a difficult time running the procedural gauntlet necessary to pass on a 50-vote threshold.

4. …But It’s Easy to Get Amendment Votes

Even if an amendment does not comply with the budget reconciliation rules, senators can still offer a motion to waive those rules. The motion to waive requires the approval of three-fifths of senators sworn (i.e., 60 votes), which often does not materialize, but the motion to waive provides a way to get senators on the record on a specific issue. Many votes in a “vote-a-rama” series consist of a “motion to waive all applicable budgetary discipline”—i.e., the “Byrd rule” and other restrictions that make passing an amendment with a simple majority difficult.

5. It Will Result in Messaging Amendments

(b) Prohibiting Coverage of Certain Prescription Drugs—

(1) In general.–Health programs administered by the Federal Government and American Health Benefit Exchanges (as described in section 1311 of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act) shall not provide coverage or reimbursement for—

(A) prescription drugs to treat erectile dysfunction for individuals convicted of child molestation, rape, or other forms of sexual assault;

The “No Viagra for Sex Offenders” amendment drew no small amount of attention at the time, and led to political ads being run against the Democrats who voted against it (as some predicted prior to the amendment vote).

Democrats will almost certainly offer similar messaging amendments this year, including amendments unrelated to the bill, or even health care. They may offer amendments regarding the Russia investigation—those would likely be subject to a 60-vote threshold, as foreign policy is not germane to a budget reconciliation bill, but if Democrats wish to get Republicans on record, any vote will do.

Doubtless Democrats will offer amendments related to Donald Trump’s taxes—the reconciliation bill is in the jurisdiction of the Finance Committee, so these amendments could theoretically prove germane, but amendments specifically targeting the president (i.e., making policy, with only an incidental fiscal impact) could violate the “Byrd rule,” making them subject to a 60-vote threshold. For Democratic political consultants, the possibilities are virtually endless.

6. It May Lead to Chicanery—and ‘Strategery’

While opposing reimportation on the merits, some Republicans supported these particular amendments because they wanted to break up the “rock-solid deal” between Democrats and Big Pharma—whereby pharma agreed to support Obamacare in exchange for a promise from Democrats not to support reimportation of prescription drugs.

As it happened, Democrats spent an entire week—from December 8 through December 15, 2009—without floor votes on amendments to Obamacare. The delay—effectively, Democrats filibustering their own bill—came in part because party leaders could not persuade fellow Democrats to vote against the reimportation amendment—and could not afford to allow the amendment to pass.

One can expect similar gamesmanship by the Democratic minority this time around, as evidenced by their tactical decision to abstain from voting on Tuesday’s motion to proceed to the bill until Republican senators mustered a majority solely from within their own ranks. If only three Republicans defect on an amendment, Democrats could have the power to play a decisive role in that amendment’s outcome. It’s an open question how they will do so.

For instance, will some or all of the 12 Democrats who voted against reimportation earlier this year—during January’s “vote-a-rama,” when the Senate passed the budget enabling the current reconciliation process—switch their votes so the amendment will pass, causing Republicans heartburn with the pharmaceutical lobby? When and how will Democrats use other tactical voting to gum up the process for Republicans? The answers range from possible to likely, but it remains to be seen exactly how the process will play out.

7. It Will Inflict Political Pain

Consider for instance a flashpoint in the reconciliation bill: Whether to defund Planned Parenthood. Two Republican senators, Susan Collins and Lisa Murkowski, have already stated they oppose defunding the organization. If one more Republican defects, Democrats would likely have the votes to strip the defunding provision. (While Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin previously supported defunding Planned Parenthood two years ago, in the immediate aftermath of sting videos featuring organization leaders, he has since reversed his position, and will presumably vote with all Democrats to strip the provision.)

To put it another way: Sen. Dean Heller (R-NV) may not just have to be the 50th vote supporting the underlying bill, he may also have to provide the 50th vote to keep the Planned Parenthood defunding provision in the legislation. Will Heller vote to defund the nation’s largest abortion provider—and what will happen to the bill if he, and the Senate as a whole, votes to strip the provision out? Senate leaders will face several of these white-knuckle amendment dramas during “vote-a-rama,” any one of which could jeopardize the entire legislation.

8. It Could Unravel the Entire Bill

Ultimately, with no agreement among Republicans to preserve the underlying bill text, and no clear roadmap on how to proceed, “vote-a-rama” could resemble pulling on the proverbial thread—one good tug and the whole thing unravels. What if Heller ends up helping to strip out Planned Parenthood defunding—and conservatives respond by blocking more funding for Medicaid expansion states? What if moderates vote to strip the “consumer freedom” amendment offered by Sen. Ted Cruz (T-TX), and conservatives retaliate by taking out the “side deals” included to assuage moderates’ concerns?

At the end of “vote-a-rama,” senators could be left with an incoherent policy mess, legislation that no one would readily support. It’s the big potential downside of the freewheeling amendment strategy—but a chance that McConnell apparently feels he has no other choice but to take.

9. It’s Why Senate Leadership Is Talking about a Conference with the House

In recent days, Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn (R-TX) and others have floated the idea that, rather than having the House pass the Senate’s bill whole, sending it straight to the White House, members may instead want to have a House-Senate conference to resolve differences between the two chambers. Some have gone so far as to propose the Senate passing a “skinny” bill—repeal of the individual and employer mandates, along with the medical device tax—as a placeholder to get the reconciliation measure to a conference committee.

This strategy would have one beneficial outcome for the Senate’s Republican leadership: By allowing congressional leaders to re-write the bill in conference, it would save them from having to abide by the results of “vote-a-rama.” If, for instance, senators vote to strip out Planned Parenthood defunding, or to add in reimportation language, congressional leaders could re-write the bill in conference to negate the effects of those votes—presenting a new measure to both chambers with a binary choice to approve the bill or not. (In other words, rather than a “wrap-around bait-and-switch” on the Senate floor, senators could instead face a bait-and-switch in conference.)

That leadership has mooted a conference committee speaks to the nature of the “vote-a-rama” ahead. Despite the complaints on both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue about the lengthy nature of the health-care process, Senate leaders are now looking to extend the process further via a House-Senate conference—because they may need to regain control of the legislation after a wild and unpredictable debate on the Senate floor.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

A Status Update on Health Care

The past week’s debate on health care has seen more twists and turns than a dime-store movie novel. “Repeal-and-replace” is dead—then alive again. President Trump calls for outright repeal, then letting the law fail, then “repeal-and-replace” again.

As Vince Lombardi might ask, “What the h— is going on out here???”

Never fear. Three simple facts will put the debate in context.

Leadership Is Buying Moderates for ‘Repeal-and-Replace’

Whether in the form of “candy,” “making it rain,” or old-fashioned carve-outs that help states with reluctant senators, Senate leaders are trying to figure out the amount and type of money and incentives that will win enough moderate votes to pass a “repeal-and-replace” bill. Details remain sketchy, but the broader outline is clear: senators don’t want to vote for provisions they approved 18 months ago—when they knew President Obama would veto a repeal measure. And Senate leadership hopes to “solve” this problem essentially by throwing money at it—through new funding for Medicaid expansion states, opioid funding, bailout funds for insurers, programmatic carve-outs for some states, or all of the above (likely all of the above).

Leadership Isn’t Serious about Repeal-Only

Some observers (not to mention some senators) are confused about whether the Senate will vote on a repeal-only measure, or a “repeal-and-replace” bill. But Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn (R-TX) explained leadership’s strategy to Bloomberg Wednesday: “There’s more optimism that we could vote on a repeal-and-replace bill, rather than just a repeal bill….But if there’s no agreement then we’ll still vote on the motion to proceed” to a repeal-only measure” (emphasis mine).

Translation: Senate leadership will only move to a vote on the 2015 repeal bill—which some conservative groups have argued for—if it knows it will fail. In fact, some observers have gone so far as to suggest Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s Monday announcement that the Senate would vote on a repeal-only bill amounted to an attempt to bait-and-switch conservatives—convincing them to support starting debate on the bill by dangling repeal-only in front of them, only to pivot back to “repeal-and-replace” once the debate began.

Regardless of McConnell’s intentions earlier in the week, Cornyn’s comments make clear the extent to which Senate leaders take a repeal-only bill seriously: They don’t.

McCain May Make It Moot

It may sound impolitic or callous to translate a war hero’s struggle against cancer into crass political terms, but if the recent cancer diagnosis of Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) means the senator will be unable to travel to Washington, Republican leaders’ desperate attempts to cobble together a legislative compromise may ultimately prove moot. At least two conservative senators oppose the current bill from the Right; adding more money to appease moderates won’t reduce those numbers, and may increase them. And at least two moderate senators oppose the current bill from the Left, hence the effort to increase funding.

If McCain is unable to vote on the legislation, Republican leaders will be able to withstand only one defection before putting the bill’s passage in jeopardy—yet at least two senators on either side of the Republican Conference oppose the current bill. That math just doesn’t add up, which means that barring some unforeseen development, the hue and cry of the past several days may ultimately amount to very little.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

John Cornyn Illustrates Republicans’ Obamacare Problem in One Tweet

As the Senate’s second-ranking Republican, John Cornyn holds significant sway in policy-making circles. In his third term, and serving on both the judiciary and finance committees—the latter of which has jurisdiction over Medicare and Medicaid—Cornyn should have a good working knowledge of health policy.

All of that makes this tweet, sent Friday from his account, so surprising.

The tweet essentially complains that Obamacare wreaked massive havoc on the health care system, while leaving 30 million uninsured. It’s similar to the Catskills joke cited by Woody Allen in “Annie Hall”: “The food at this place is really terrible—and such small portions!”

Observers on Twitter noted the irony. Some asked Cornyn to support more government spending on subsidies; some asked him to have his home state of Texas expand Medicaid; some asked for a single-payer system that would “end” the problem of uninsurance entirely.

For that matter, increasing the mandate tax to thousands of dollars, or putting people in jail if they do not purchase coverage, would also reduce the number of uninsured. Does that mean Cornyn would support those efforts?

It’s the Costs, Stupid!

Insurance Does Not Equal Access: The narrow networks and high deductibles plaguing Obamacare exchange plans—imposed because federally mandated benefits force insurers to find other ways to cut costs—impede access to care, making finding an in-network physician both more difficult and more costly.

Similarly for Medicaid—the prime source of Obamacare’s coverage expansions—beneficiaries themselves don’t even consider a Medicaid card “real insurance,” because they cannot find a physician who will treat them: “You feel so helpless thinking, something’s wrong with this child and I can’t even get her into a doctor….When we had real insurance, we would call and come in at the drop of a hat.”

Insurance Does Not Equal Better Health: The Oregon Health Insurance Experiment compared a group of individuals selected from a random lottery to enroll in Medicaid with similarly situated individuals who did not win the lottery and did not enroll in coverage. It found that Medicaid coverage brought no measurable improvement in physical health outcomes. Likewise, prior studies have suggested that, for health outcomes Medicaid coverage may be worse than having no health insurance at all.

Obama Promised to Lower Costs—And Failed to Deliver: During his 2008 campaign, Barack Obama didn’t promise to reduce the number of uninsured by a certain amount. He did, however, promise to cut the average family’s health insurance costs and premiums by an average of $2,500 per year. On that count, his health law failed miserably. Since the law passed, employer-sponsored coverage has risen by more than $4,300 per family. Exchange policies spiked dramatically in 2014, when the law’s mandated benefits took effect, and are set to rise again this coming year.

Voters Care Most About Costs: Prior polling data indicates that, by a more than two-to-one margin, voters prioritize the cost of health care (45 percent) over the lack of universal coverage (19 percent). Likewise, voters prefer a health plan that would lower costs without guaranteeing universal coverage to a plan that would create universal coverage while increasing costs by a 13-point margin.

Buying into a Liberal Shibboleth

The responses from liberals to Cornyn’s tweet indicate the extent to which health coverage has become a shibboleth on the Left. There are few things liberals will not do—from spending more money on subsidies, to creating a single-payer system, to expanding coverage to illegal immigrants—to ensure everyone has a health insurance card. (Some liberals might object to putting people in jail for not buying health coverage. Might.)

So, apparently, does John Cornyn. Rather than pledging to lower health costs—Americans’ top health care goal—or questioning the effectiveness of Democrats’ focus on health insurance above all else, his tweet looks like pure kvetching about a problem he has no interest in solving. If one wants to understand Republicans’ problems on health care—both their poor messaging, and their single-minded policy focus on replicating liberal solutions in a slightly-less-costly manner—they need look no further than this one tweet.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.