What Jon Stewart’s Rant Ignored about Congress

Congress ended up in some hot water recently—and for once, lawmakers did little to cause the trouble. At a House Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution hearing on legislation to reauthorize the 9/11 Victim Compensation Fund, television personality and hearing witness Jon Stewart went on a rant.

Noting many empty spaces on the committee dais, Stewart said, “You should be ashamed of yourselves for those that aren’t here, but you won’t be, because accountability doesn’t appear to be something that occurs in this chamber.” Noting that lawmakers tweeted about never forgetting the heroes of 9/11 on that sad anniversary, he accused them of “callous indifference and rank hypocrisy.”

1. The Hearing Wasn’t Really Empty

As a reporter pointed out on Twitter, most subcommittee members did attend the hearing. But because the hearing took place in the full committee hearing room—that has a dais where all the members of the full committee can sit—the space looked empty.

Holding a hearing in a bigger room than was actually required doesn’t represent “callous indifference and rank hypocrisy” so much as Congress not prioritizing the “production values” Stewart might find on a typical television or film set.

2. The Bill Ended Up Passing Anyway

3. Members of Congress Juggle Lots of Priorities

Because I’ve worked in both the House and Senate, I would use many words to describe the average member of Congress, but “lazy” and “indifferent” don’t often come to mind. Members sit on multiple committees, and multiple subcommittees within those committees. They often have to hop back and forth between hearings, and between the various congressional office buildings, to monitor witness testimony and ask questions.

On top of as many as half a dozen committee hearings and markups in a typical legislative workweek, members of Congress also have to juggle votes and speeches on the House and Senate floor, meetings with constituents, time with their staff to manage the office and discuss priorities, and—yes—raise funds for their re-election.

It might seem callous for a member to take the “drive-by” approach to a hearing—show up, ask questions, then leave—but frankly, most members of Congress don’t have time in their schedules to spend hours listening to witnesses speak at a hearing.

4. Most Congressional Hearings Are Boring

Take, for instance, Wednesday’s hearing on single-payer health care. The Hill called the hearing “mostly partisan and light on substance, with Members using their allotted time to rail for or against the proposal instead of questioning the panel of health care experts and advocates at the witness table.”

I watched much of the four-hour affair, and the publication delivered a spot-on description. Most members used their five minutes for “questions” to give a four-minute speech, followed by a softball inquiry or two to a friendly witness: “Don’t you agree with my point?” I spent the last two hours wondering how many more lawmakers had yet to ask their “questions,” so the hearing could mercifully conclude.

As I noted recently, most members of Congress don’t ask particularly sharp or hard-hitting questions—and in many cases, don’t ask questions at all. I could do with far fewer hearings myself, or at least proceedings that replace the oral element with written testimony. But congressional committees hold hearings to signal their priorities, and establish a written record for future legislative action. I wouldn’t call congressional hearings entirely theatrical in nature, but they do have a strong theatrical element.

5. The Alternatives Are Far Worse

The first would disappoint many issues, causes, and organizations, who want congressional committees to take time to spotlight “their” issue. It would make Congress a less diverse institution, with a smaller bandwidth to examine the many national and international issues worthy of attention from policy-makers.

It would also subject Congress to the equivalent of a “heckler’s veto,” whereby the few hearings committees did hold would focus on issues with celebrity supporters—to prevent rants like Stewart’s from putting Congress in a bad light—rather than unheralded topics that might warrant greater attention.

As to the second, some numbers might put the issue in perspective. The Constitution originally suggested that every member of Congress would represent 30,000 constituents. At that rate, and given a population of around 330 million, the House of Representatives would currently have 11,000 members—more than 25 times its current size.

Such an enormous legislative body would not just become unwieldy, it would raise federal spending. According to the Republican Study Committee, the House of Representatives has proposed $3.97 billion in spending on its operations over the next fiscal year. If an increase in the size of the House led to a proportional increase in spending, expansion to the size originally contemplated by the Constitution would result in roughly $100 billion in spending on members of Congress and their staffs—a figure the public would likely find unacceptable.

Congress has many faults worth addressing and reforming. But Stewart’s comments notwithstanding, compelling greater lawmaker attendance at hearings does not rank high on that list.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

The Daily Show: Sebelius Swings and Misses

Last night, Secretary of Health and Human Services (HHS) Kathleen Sebelius appeared on The Daily Show to talk about Obamacare (you can watch Part 1 and Part 2 of the extended interview). She attempted to defend the Administration’s botched opening of the law’s exchanges, but like the rollout itself, most of what she said in the law’s defense ended up falling flat:

“We have a terrific market.” Thus far, the facts speak otherwise. Even Sebelius was forced to concede the exchanges’ flaws, when she admitted to host Jon Stewart that she didn’t know how many people have “fully enrolled” in exchange plans. Sebelius claimed that “this is like a Kayak site, where you might check out what plane you want to get on.” However, I’m guessing that Kayak knows exactly how many customers have purchased plane tickets from its site.

“For about 85 percent of us, we don’t have to sign up for anything, because we have insurance that works…I think the President did not want to dismantle the health care that 85 percent of the country had and start all over again.” That may not have been intent of Obamacare—but it has been one of the law’s effects. Companies are already dropping health insurance for part-time workers and for spouses, causing individuals to lose their employer-provided coverage and raising the cost of federal insurance subsidies.

“We know about 6 out of 10 people will get a policy for under $100 a month—never happened before.” We also know that most of those individuals will be dumped into the Medicaid program—a form of coverage that its own members don’t even call “real insurance,” because low reimbursement rates prevent Medicaid patients from seeing actual doctors.

“Nothing that helps an individual get health insurance has been delayed at all.” That’s simply not accurate. The insurance subsidies may not have been delayed, but many elements of the insurance shopping experience—from a choice of insurance companies for those working for small businesses, to the basic health plan, to caps on out-of-pocket spending—have been delayed. All these Obamacare features were thrown overboard in an attempt to make the core elements of the exchanges work—which they haven’t.

The sharpest part of the interview came when Stewart pressed Sebelius on the delay in the law’s employer mandate, and the disparity in treatment between big business and the rest of America: “Geez, it looks like because I don’t have a lobbying group…I would feel like you are favoring big business because they lobbied you to delay it because they didn’t want to do it this year but you are not allowing individuals that same courtesy.” That is of course consistent with the attitude the Administration has taken towards the law from the start—reward “squeaky wheels” who hire lobbyists and make political noise by exempting them from some of Obamacare’s most harmful effects.

Stewart’s opening comment summed up the exchanges’ flaws: “I’m going to try and download every movie ever made and you’re going to try and sign up for Obamacare and we’ll see which happens first.” Sebelius may have played the part of a loyal trooper, but the facts speak for themselves.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

The Massive Costs of the Latest Obamacare Waiver

Policymakers are still recovering from yesterday’s shocking admission by the Administration that it can’t implement Obamacare’s employer mandate without destroying jobs.

The announced one-year delay in enforcement brings with it an immediate revenue loss. But by further encouraging firms to drop coverage now—allowing businesses to privatize gains and socialize losses—the change could cause federal spending on Obamacare exchange subsidies to soar.

The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) estimated in May that the employer mandate would raise $10 billion in revenue in its first year. (Because the employer mandate is a tax penalty, firms will pay the penalties the following year—penalties for 2014 will be paid in 2015; penalties for 2015 will be paid in 2016, etc.) That $10 billion in employer mandate revenue projected for fiscal year 2015 will almost certainly disappear.

Then there’s the separate question of whether, when, and how employers will drop their health insurance plans and dump their workers on the exchanges. Here’s what we know on that front:

  • In its most recent economic forecasts in February, the CBO estimated that unemployment would average 7.8 percent in 2014. That number is nearly three percentage points higher than the CBO’s estimate of 2014 unemployment at the time of Obamacare’s passage. Because unemployment will be higher than the CBO first projected when Obamacare passed, firms will have more incentive to drop health insurance now, while labor markets are more competitive and workers have fewer employment options.
  • The CBO now projects that, if firms do drop health coverage, insurance subsidies on exchanges will average $5,290 per enrollee next year. By comparison, shortly after Obamacare passed, the CBO projected subsidies would average $3,970 in 2014. In other words, the projected average subsidy for 2014 has grown by one-third since the law passed.
  • As we documented last week, since Obamacare’s enactment, the CBO has increased the number of projected uninsured and decreased the number of individuals projected to retain their employer coverage.

Over the past several years, numerous studies, papers, briefs, reports, employer questionnaires, consultant presentations, surveys, op-eds, interviews, quotes, and comments from Democrats suggest that employers will drop coverage in significant numbers, resulting in trillions of dollars of added federal costs. Even Jon Stewart, in an interview with Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius last year, would not believe that employers would keep offering coverage:

Is the penalty more than the [cost of] insurance?… Is there a consequence other than a fine or shame—cause I know the shame thing’s not gonna work.

Instead of facing a decision to pay more than $10,000 for a worker’s insurance policy or pay a $2,000 per-employee penalty, employers next year will now be able to raise their workers’ wages to compensate them for the loss of their health plans. And the cost of that choice—which some would argue is so obvious as to not be a choice—could result in skyrocketing federal spending.

This post was originally published at The Daily Signal.