Three Obstacles to Senate Democrats’ Health Care Vision

If Democrats win a “clean sweep” in the 2020 elections—win back the White House and the Senate, while retaining control of the House—what will their health care vision look like? Surprisingly for those watching Democratic presidential debates, single payer does not feature prominently for some members of Congress—at least not explicitly, or immediately. But that doesn’t make the proposals any more plausible.

Ezra Klein at Vox spent some time talking with prominent Senate Democrats, to take their temperature on what they would do should the political trifecta provide them an opportunity to legislate in 2021. Apart from the typical “Voxplanations” in the article—really, did Klein have to make not one but two factual errors in his article’s first sentence?—the philosophy and policies the Senate Democrats laid out don’t stand up to serious scrutiny, on multiple levels.

Problem 1: Politics

The first problem comes in the form of a dilemma articulated by none other than Ezra Klein, just a few weeks ago. Just before the last Democratic debate in July, Klein wrote that liberals should not dismiss with a patronizing shrug Americans’ reluctance to give up their current health coverage:

If the private insurance market is such a nightmare, why is the public so loath to abandon it? Why have past reformers so often been punished for trying to take away what people have and replace it with something better?…

Risk aversion [in health policy] is real, and it’s dangerous. Health reformers don’t tiptoe around it because they wouldn’t prefer to imagine bigger, more ambitious plans. They tiptoe around it because they have seen its power to destroy even modest plans. There may be a better strategy than that. I hope there is. But it starts with taking the public’s fear of dramatic change seriously, not trying to deny its power.

Democrats’ “go big or go home” theory lies in direct contrast to the inherent unease Klein identified in the zeitgeist not four weeks ago.

Problem 2: Policy

Klein and the Senate Democrats attempt to square the circle by talking about choice and keeping a role for private insurance. The problem comes because at bottom, many if not most Democrats don’t truly believe in that principle. Their own statements belie their claims, and the policy Democrats end up crafting would doubtless follow suit.

Does this sound like someone who 1) would maintain private insurance, if she could get away with abolishing it, and 2) will write legislation that puts the private system on a truly level playing field with the government-run plan? If you believe either of those premises, I’ve got some land to sell you.

In my forthcoming book and elsewhere, I have outlined some of the inherent biases that Democratic proposals would give to government-run coverage over private insurance: Billions in taxpayer funding; a network of physicians and hospitals coerced into participating in government insurance, and paid far less than private insurance can pay medical providers; automatic enrollment into the government-run plan; and many more. Why else would the founder of the “public option” say that “it’s not a Trojan horse” for single payer—“it’s just right there!”

Problem 3: Process

Because Democrats will not have a 60-vote margin to overcome a Republican filibuster even if they retake the majority in 2020, Klein argues they can enact the bulk of their agenda through the budget reconciliation process. He claims that “if Democrats confine themselves to lowering the Medicare age, adding a [government-run plan], and negotiating drug prices, there’s reason to believe it might pass parliamentary muster.”

Of course Klein would say that—because he never worked in the Senate. It also appears he never read my primer on the Senate’s “Byrd rule,” which governs reconciliation procedures in the Senate. Had he done either, he probably wouldn’t have made that overly simplistic, and likely incorrect, statement.

Take negotiating drug prices. The Congressional Budget Office first stated in 2007—and reaffirmed this May—its opinion that on its own, allowing Medicare to negotiate drug prices would not lead to any additional savings.

That said, Democrats this year have introduced legislation with a “stick” designed to force drug companies to the “negotiating” table. Rep. Lloyd Doggett (D-Texas) introduced a bill (H.R. 1046) requiring federal officials to license the patents of companies that refuse to “negotiate” with Medicare.

While threatening to confiscate their patents might allow federal bureaucrats to coerce additional price concessions from drug companies, and thus scorable budgetary savings, the provisions of the Doggett bill bring their own procedural problems. Patents lie within the scope of the House and Senate Judiciary Committees, not the committees with jurisdiction over health care issues (Senate Finance, House Ways and Means, and House Energy and Commerce).

While Doggett tried to draft his bill to avoid touching those committees’ jurisdiction, he did not, and likely could not, avoid it entirely. For instance, language on lines 4-7 of page six of the Doggett bill allows drug companies whose patents get licensed to “seek recovery against the United States in the…Court of Federal Claims”—a clear reference to matter within the jurisdiction of the Judiciary Committees. If Democrats include this provision in a reconciliation bill, the parliamentarian almost certainly advise that this provision exceeds the scope of the health care committees, which could kill the reconciliation bill entirely.

But if Democrats don’t include a provision allowing drug manufacturers whose patents get licensed the opportunity to receive fair compensation, the drug companies would likely challenge the bill’s constitutionality. They would claim the drug “negotiation” language violates the Fifth Amendment’s prohibition on “takings,” and omitting the language to let them apply for just compensation in court would give them a much more compelling case. Therein lies the “darned if you do, darned if you don’t” dilemma reconciliation often presents: including provisions could kill the entire legislation, but excluding them could make portions of the legislation unworkable.

Remember: Republicans had to take stricter verification provisions out of their “repeal-and-replace” legislation in March 2017—as I had predicted—due to the “Byrd rule.” (The provisions went outside the scope of the committees of jurisdiction, and touched on Title II of the Social Security Act—both verboten under budget reconciliation.)

If Republicans had to give up on provisions designed to ensure illegal immigrants couldn’t receive taxpayer-funded insurance subsidies due to Senate procedure, Democrats similarly will have to give up provisions they care about should they use budget reconciliation for health care. While it’s premature to speculate, I wouldn’t count myself surprised if they have to give up on drug “negotiation” entirely.

1994 Redux?

Klein’s claims of a “consensus” aside, Democrats could face a reprise of their debacle in 1993-94—or, frankly, of Republicans’ efforts in 2017. During both health care debates, a lack of agreement among the majority party in Congress—single payer versus “managed competition” in 1993-94, and “repeal versus replace” in 2017—meant that each majority party ended up spinning its wheels.

To achieve “consensus” on health care, the left hand of the Democratic Party must banish the far-left hand. But even Democrats have admitted that the rhetoric in the presidential debates is having the opposite effect—which makes Klein’s talk of success in 2021 wishful thinking more than a realistic prediction.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.