Will Democrats Shut Down the Government to Force Taxpayer Funding of Abortions?

Last week, the Hyde Amendment, which prohibits taxpayer funding of most abortions, became the focus of presidential politics. First Joe Biden said he still supported the amendment, then changed his position one day later, after tremendous political pressure from farther-left Democrats.

But the press should focus less on whether Democrats support taxpayer-funded abortion-on-demand. Virtually all Democrats running for president now support that position, as did the party’s 2016 national platform.

Democrats Don’t Want to Vote on Hyde

For all the focus last week on the Hyde Amendment, named after its prime advocate, the late Rep. Henry Hyde (R-IL), reporters have not focused on the Labor-Health and Human Services spending bill that the House of Representatives will consider this week. The committee-approved bill includes the following language:

SEC. 506. (a) None of the funds appropriated in this Act, and none of the funds in any trust fund to which funds are appropriated in this Act, shall be expended for any abortion.

In other words, an appropriations bill approved by the Democratic-run House Appropriations Committee still includes the Hyde Amendment language. (Subsequent sections exempt cases of rape, incest, or to save the life of the mother—the Hyde Amendment exceptions—from the funding ban.)

Yet the chairwoman of that Committee, Rep. Nita Lowey (D-NY), co-sponsored stand-alone legislation (H.R. 1692) repealing the Hyde Amendment protections that she included in her spending bill.

How Far Will They Go?

Even if Republicans did not control the Senate, 41 pro-life senators could filibuster any measure lacking Hyde Amendment protections, thus preventing the legislation from passing. And of course, President Trump can, and likely would, veto any appropriations bills that omitted pro-life protections on taxpayer funding of abortion.

The likelihood during this Congress of legislation passing that excludes the Hyde Amendment seems infinitesimal. Moreover, such legislation passing during the next Congress could well require 1) a Democrat to win the presidency, 2) Democrats to retake the Senate, and 3) Democrats to agree to end the legislative filibuster, which dozens of them claim they oppose.

This Is All Just Failure Theater

Events in the House this week show that liberal members of Congress are essentially “going through the motions” about repealing the Hyde Amendment. Several of them, led by Rep. Ayanna Pressley (D-MA), offered an amendment to strike Hyde from the spending bill. However, on Monday the House Rules Committee reported a rule for consideration of the underlying bill that did not make the amendment in order.

Likewise, Pressley could have omitted that authorizing language, and submitted a shorter amendment just striking the Hyde provisions. She did not—and that she did not strongly suggests that she and her colleagues wanted to give the House Rules Committee, and therefore Democratic leadership, an “out” to block consideration of her amendment.

Pressley’s office claimed “the Congresswoman believes that she and her colleagues must use every tool and tactic available to fight for reproductive justice.” But if she wanted to use “every tool and tactic,” she would have drafted an amendment without an obvious procedural flaw giving the leadership political cover to reject it. She and her liberal colleagues would also demand a vote on her amendment, and vote against the rule to consider the bill unless and until Democrats give them one.

Pressley didn’t do the former, and when the vote on the rule came on Tuesday, she and her colleagues didn’t do the latter either. Instead, she cut a deal with the leadership whereby everyone could “save face”—as evidenced by the fact that House Rules Committee Chairman Jim McGovern, on the same day he denied her amendment a vote, co-sponsored the stand-alone bill requiring taxpayer funding of abortions.

Flip-Flops Ahead

In the coming months, however, Moulton will face a flip-flop decision of his own, as will the many other Democratic presidential candidates currently serving in Congress. Will they vote for spending bills that include the Hyde Amendment—as any final appropriations package almost certainly must include its provisions to get enacted into law—even though they claim to support repealing the amendment?

On Sunday, Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders (I-VT) laid the groundwork for just such a reversal. In an interview with CNN, he admitted that “sometimes in a large bill you have to vote for things you don’t like.” (That makes a good argument for Congress to stop passing massive spending bills that they don’t bother to read.)

Of course, if Democrats don’t want to flip-flop on taxpayer funding of abortion, they have another alternative: Refuse to pass any spending bills that include the Hyde Amendment provisions. If House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) wants to shut the federal government down until Republican lawmakers approve taxpayer-funded abortion-on-demand, well, good luck with that. But if she and her Democratic colleagues don’t want to follow that strategy, then they should get ready to explain to their constituents why they voted for legislation that retained the Hyde Amendment after promising to abolish it.

In crass political terms, Biden didn’t help his candidacy by wavering over the Hyde Amendment last week. But even though they may not yet realize it, most of his fellow presidential candidates may soon have their own flip-flop moments on taxpayer funding for abortion.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

Congress Prepares to Pass Another Huge Bill No One Has Read. Again.

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: Congress rams through a massive piece of legislation costing hundreds of billions of dollars without bothering to read it. Meet Congress under a Democratic majority—same as under the old majority.

Late Wednesday evening, congressional leaders still had not publicly released their omnibus appropriations legislation, and were not planning to do so until near midnight—hardly an auspicious time to embark on reading a bill exceeding 1,000 pages.

Those predictions ended up largely on the mark. The bill as introduced amounted to “only” 1,169 pages. But House leaders didn’t post the final version online until 1:20 a.m. on Thursday—the same day as the intended vote.

As Yogi Berra might say, when it comes to Congress’s bipartisan willingness to ram through massive bills, “It’s déjà vu all over again.”

Pelosi Breaks Her Promise

Of all things, Politico reported that one of the major holdups preventing an earlier public release included provisions having nothing to do with government spending—or, for that matter, border security:

“Congressional leaders are still haggling over an extension of the landmark Violence Against Women Act—one of the final hold-ups in a funding deal to avert a shutdown on Friday….One dispute centers on a Democratic push to add protections for transgender people, which the GOP is resisting; meanwhile, Republicans want more time to negotiate a broader deal, according to lawmakers and aides.”

Democrats in the House of Representatives promised that this time would be different. In a summary of their rules package for the 116th Congress—one which they released fewer than six weeks ago, remember—they pledged the following:

“ALLOW TIME TO READ THE BILL Require major bill text to be available for 72 hours before the bill can proceed to the House Floor for a vote. The current House rule only requires slightly more than 24 hours of availability.”

(Emphasis in the original.)

Their rules package did change the prior House rule, which had previously called for a three-calendar-day “reading period”—meaning that a bill promulgated at 11:59 p.m. on Monday could be voted on at 12:01 a.m. Wednesday, barely 24 hours after its release—to allow a full 72 hours for review.

And particularly in this case, Democrats find giving people time to read the bill inconvenient. Even though government funds won’t expire until Friday at midnight—and Congress could always extend that funding temporarily, to allow for more time to review the bill—both chambers want to vote on Thursday. Because heaven forbid Congress 1) do actual work on a Friday and 2) delay their “recess” (read: vacation) and their overseas trips during same. (Democratic leaders claimed their members have been “sufficiently briefed”—because it’s very easy to “brief” someone on most, let alone all, of the contents of a 1,200 page bill.)

In other words, the new House Democratic majority has spent barely one month in office, and we’re already back to Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), circa 2010: “We have to pass the bill so that you can find out what is in it.”

Garbage In, Garbage Out

After last year’s omnibus fiasco, I wrote that members of Congress only had themselves to blame for the awful process leading to that 2,232 page bill:

“As the old saying goes, the true test of a principle comes not when that principle proves convenient, but when it proves inconvenient. Only when Members find themselves willing to take tough votes—and to abide by the outcome of those votes, even if it results in policy outcomes they disfavor—will the process become more open and transparent.”

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

Ocasio-Cortez Wants Congress to Stop Pretending to Pay for Its Spending

Get used to reading more storylines like this over the next two years: The left hand doesn’t know what the far-left hand is doing.

On Wednesday, incoming House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) faced a potential revolt from within her own party. Rep.-elect Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) and several progressive allies threatened to vote against the rules package governing congressional procedures on the first day of the new Congress Thursday, because of proposed changes they believe would threaten their ability to pass single-payer health care.

What’s Going On?

Ocasio-Cortez and her allies object to Pelosi’s attempt to reinstate Pay-as-You-Go (PAYGO) rules for the new 116th Congress. Put simply, those rules would require that any legislation the House considers not increase the deficit over five- and ten-year periods. In short, this policy would mean that any bill proposing new mandatory spending or revenue reductions must pay for those changes via offsetting tax increases and/or spending cuts—hence the name.

Under Republican control, the House had a policy requiring spending increases—but not tax cuts—to be paid for. Pelosi would overturn that policy and apply PAYGO to both the spending and the revenue side of the ledger.

Progressives object to Pelosi’s attempt to constrain government spending, whether in the form of additional fiscal “stimulus” or a single-payer health system.

However, Pelosi’s spokesman countered with a statement indicating that the progressives’ move “is a vote to let Mick Mulvaney make across-the-board cuts.” Mulvaney heads the Office of Management and Budget, which would implement any sequester under statutory PAYGO.

Regardless of what the new House decides regarding its own procedures for considering bills, Pay-as-You-Go remains on the federal statute books. Democrats re-enacted it in 2010, just prior to Obamacare’s passage. If legislation Congress passed  violates those statutory PAYGO requirements (as opposed to any internal House rules), it will trigger mandatory spending reductions via the sequester—the “across-the-board cuts” to which Pelosi’s spokesman referred.

To Pay for Spending—Or Not?

Progressives think reinstituting PAYGO would impose fiscal constraints hindering their ability to pass massive new spending legislation. However, the reality does not match the rhetoric from Ocasio-Cortez and others. Consider, for instance, just some of the ways a Democratic Congress “paid for” the more than $1.8 trillion in new spending on Obamacare:

  • A CLASS Act that even some Democrats called “a Ponzi scheme of the first order, the kind of thing Bernie Madoff would have been proud of,” and which never went into effect because the Obama administration could not implement it in a fiscally sustainable manner;
  • Double counting the Medicare savings in the legislation as “both” improving the solvency of Medicare and paying for the new spending in Obamacare;
  • Payment reductions that the non-partisan Medicare actuary considers extremely unlikely to be sustainable, and which could cause more than half of hospitals and nursing homes to become unprofitable within a generation;
  • Tax increases that Congress has repeatedly delayed, and which could end up never going into effect.

A Bipartisan Spending Addiction

An external observer weighing the Part D and Obamacare examples would find it difficult to determine the less dishonest approach to fiscal policy. It reinforces that America’s representatives have a bipartisan addiction to more government spending, and a virtually complete unwillingness to make tough choices now, instead bequeathing massive (and growing) amounts of debt to the next generation.

In that sense, Ocasio-Cortez and her fellow progressives should feel right at home in the new Congress. Republicans may criticize her for proposing new spending, but the difference between her and most GOP members represents one of degree rather than of kind. Therein lies the problem: In continuing to spend with reckless abandon, Congress is merely debating how quickly to sink our country’s fiscal ship.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

What Mitch McConnell and Congressional Democrats Get Wrong about Entitlements

Sometimes, as parents often remind children in their youth, two wrongs don’t make a right. This held true on Tuesday, when Democrats erupted over comments by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) on entitlement reform.

In returning to “Mediscare” tactics, Democrats made several false claims about entitlements. But so did McConnell, who blithely omitted what a Republican majority did earlier this year to worsen the country’s entitlement shortfall.

What McConnell Got Wrong

McConnell spoke accurately when he said in an interview that Medicare, Social Security, and Medicaid serve as the primary drivers of our long-term debt. He stood on less firm ground when he told Bloomberg that “the single biggest disappointment of my time in Congress has been our failure to address the entitlement issue.” Contra McConnell’s claim, Congress—a Republican Congress—actually did address the entitlement issue this year: they made the problem worse.

This Republican Congress repealed a cap on Medicare spending—the first such cap in that program’s history. It did so as part of a budget-busting fiscal agreement that increased the debt by hundreds of billions of dollars. It did so even though Republicans could have retained the cap on Medicare spending while repealing the unelected, unaccountable board that Democrats included in Obamacare to enforce that spending cap.

By and large, both parties have tried for years to avoid taking on entitlement reform. But Democrats included an actual cap on Medicare spending as part of Obamacare, and Republicans turned around and repealed it at their first possible opportunity. That makes entitlements not just a bipartisan problem—it makes them a Republican problem too.

What Democrats Got Wrong

But McConnell’s comments suggested just the opposite. He noted that, while entitlements serve as the prime driver of the nation’s long-term debt, any changes to those programs “may well be difficult if not impossible to achieve when you have unified government.” McConnell said the same thing in a separate interview with Reuters on Wednesday: “We all know that there will be no solution to that, short of some kind of bipartisan grand bargain that makes the very, very popular entitlement programs in a position to be sustained. That hasn’t happened since the ’80s.”

Even though Congress needs to start reforming entitlements sooner rather than later—even if that means one political party must take the lead—McConnell indicated he would do nothing of the sort. In fact, his comments implied that Congress would not do so unless and until Democrats agreed to entitlement reform, giving the party an effective veto over any changes. Yet Democrats, who never fail to demagogue an issue, attacked him for those comments anyway.

Actually, they haven’t “earned” those benefits. Seniors may have “paid into” the system during their working lives, but the average senior citizen receives far more in benefits than he or she paid in taxes, and the gap continues to grow.

Making a Tough Job Worse

In this case, two wrongs not only did not make a right, they made our country worse off. Like outgoing Speaker of the House Paul Ryan (R-WI), McConnell wishes to absolve himself of blame for the entitlement crisis, when he made the situation worse.

On the other side, Pelosi and her fellow Democrats continue the partisan demagoguery, perpetuating the myth that seniors have “earned” their benefits because they see political advantage in defending nearly infinite amounts of government subsidies to nearly infinite numbers of people. For all their love of attacking “science deniers,” much of the left’s politics requires denying math—that unsustainable trends can continue in perpetuity.

At some point, this absurd game will have to end. When it finally does, our country might not have any money left.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

If Republicans Can Confirm Kavanaugh, They Can Repeal Obamacare

So Republican lawmakers do have spines after all. Who knew? Last weekend’s confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court, notwithstanding the controversies surrounding his nomination, stemmed primarily from two sources.

First, many Republican lawmakers objected to how Democrats politicized the nomination—holding allegations of sexual assault against Kavanaugh for more than a month, then leaking them days before his confirmation.

Lawmakers defied the political controversies, protests, and Kavanaugh’s middling poll numbers, because they felt the need to deliver on a promise they made to voters. Well, if Republicans are going to go all crazy by starting to deliver on their promises, why don’t they deliver on the promise they made for the last four election cycles, by eliminating the health care law that has raised premiums for millions?

Meanwhile, Back at the Ranch

Senate Republicans’ bout of political courage in confirming Kavanaugh belies their other actions in the past several weeks. Even as most of the media generated ridiculous amounts of coverage on the Supreme Court nomination, the noise surrounding such topics as “boofing” allowed Republican lawmakers to renege on other political promises under the radar.

Case in point: The massive spending bill that Congress approved, and President Trump signed, last month. Despite funding most of the federal government, it does not include funding for a border wall. Republicans punted on that fight until after the election—ensuring they’ll never have it.

Mr. ‘Don’t Blink’ Blinked

But the piece de resistance of the spending bill had to come from the way that it fully funded all of Obamacare. Despite funding Obamacare—and breaking so many other promises to voters—only 56 Republicans in the House, and seven in the Senate, voted against the measure.

One Republican who supported rather than opposed the spending bill that broke so many Republican promises? None other than Sen. Ted Cruz. You may recall that in 2013, Cruz mounted a 21-hour speech prodding the Senate to defund Obamacare:

He pleaded with Republican lawmakers to deliver on their promise to voters, exhorting them, “Don’t blink!”

Last month, by voting for legislation that funded Obamacare, Cruz blinked. With “courage” like this, is it any wonder that Cruz faces the fight of his political life in his re-election campaign against Rep. Robert O’Rourke?

It’s no secret why Cruz faces problems, even in a ruby red state like Texas: Conservatives don’t feel particularly motivated to support his re-election. Given that Cruz said one thing about Obamacare five years ago, and acted in a completely contrary manner just before his election, their apathy is not without reason.

Do Your Job, And Keep Your Promises

For the past eight years, Republicans have promised to repeal Obamacare. They have control of Congress for at least the next three months. They could easily pass legislation undoing the measure in that time—provided they have the kind of backbone seen on display during the Kavanaugh nomination.

Some Senate Republicans may have voted for Kavanaugh not just because they support the nominee on his merits, but because they feared what voters would do to them if they did not support him. They should ponder that same dynamic when considering the fate of the health care law. And then they should get back to work, deliver on another promise to voters, and repeal Obamacare.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

How a CBO Error Could Cost the Pharmaceutical Industry Billions

Government officials often attempt to bury bad news. Aaron Sorkin’s “The West Wing” even coined a term for it: “Take Out the Trash Day.” So it proved last week. A Congressional Budget Office (CBO) document released quietly on Thursday hinted at a major gaffe by the budget agency and its efforts to conceal that gaffe.

In a series of questions for the record submitted following Director Keith Hall’s April 11 hearing before the Senate Budget Committee, CBO admitted the following regarding a change to the Medicare Part D prescription drug program included in this past February’s budget agreement:

When the legislation was being considered, CBO estimated that provision would reduce net Medicare spending for Part D by $7.7 billion over the 2018-2027 period. CBO subsequently learned of a relevant analysis by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services and incorporated that analysis in its projections for the April 2018 Medicare baseline. The current baseline incorporates an estimate that, compared with prior law, [the relevant provision] will reduce net Medicare spending for Part D by $11.8 billion over the 2018-2027 period.

As I wrote at the time, the provision attracted no small amount of controversy at its passage—or, for that matter, since. The provision accelerated the closing of the Part D “donut hole” faced by seniors with high prescription drug costs, but it did so by shifting costs away from the Part D program run by health insurers and on to drug companies.

The pharmaceutical industry was, and remains, livid at the change, which it did not expect, and tried to undo in the March omnibus spending bill. CBO didn’t just get its score wrong on a minor, non-controversial provision—it messed up on a major provision that will over the next decade affect both drug companies and health insurers.

Because the provision substitutes mandatory “discounts” by drug companies for government spending through the Part D program, it saves the government money through smaller Part D subsidies—at least on paper. (That said, the score doesn’t take into account whether drug manufacturers will raise prices in response to the change, which they could well do.) Because seniors actually spend more in the “donut hole” than CBO’s initial projections said, the provision will have a greater impact—i.e., cost the pharmaceutical industry billions more—than the February budget estimate says.

In its response last week, CBO tried to cover its tracks by claiming that “the $4 billion change…accounts for about 2 percent” of the total of $186 billion reduction in estimated Medicare spending over the coming decade due to technical changes incorporated into the revised baseline. But a $4.1 billion scoring error on a provision first projected to save $7.7 billion means CBO messed up its score by more than 53 percent of its original budgetary impact. That’s not exactly a small error.

Moreover, CBO didn’t come clean and publicly admit this error of its own volition. It did so only because Senate Budget Committee Chairman Mike Enzi (R-WY) forced the budget office to do so.

Enzi submitted a question noting that “CBO realized its estimate of a provision [in the budget agreement] was incorrect. Where is the correction featured in the new report?” CBO didn’t “feature” the correction in its April Budget and Economic Outlook report at all—it incorporated the change into the revised baseline without disclosing it, hoping to sneak it by without anyone calling the budget office out on its error.

Since that time, the purportedly “nonpartisan” organization realized it published an incorrect score—off by more than 50 percent—on a high-profile and controversial issue, changed its baseline to account for the scoring error, and said exactly nothing in a 166-page report on the federal budget about the change. If CBO won’t disclose this kind of major mistake on its own, then its “transparency efforts” seem like so much noise—a distraction designed to keep people preoccupied from focusing on errors like the Part D debacle.

To view it from another perspective: Any head of a private company whose analysis of a multi-billion-dollar transaction proved off by more than 50 percent, because his staff did not access relevant information available to them at the time of the analysis, would face major questions about his leadership, and could well lose his job. But judging from his desire to conceal this scoring mistake, the CBO director apparently feels no such sense of accountability.

Thankfully, however, members of Congress have tools available to fix the rot at CBO, up to and including replacing the director. Given the way CBO attempted to conceal the Part D scoring fiasco, they should start using them.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

Why Members of Congress Secretly Like Unpopular Omnibus Bills

On this website last week, conservative leaders Sen. Mike Lee (R-UT) and Rep. Jim Jordan (R-OH) wrote a joint op-ed echoing my column from a few weeks previously, saying Congress remains on course for yet another omnibus spending bill debacle unless and until it reforms its procedures, and specifically starts considering, and passing, spending bills one-by-one, rather than in a catch-all bill enacted in a lame-duck session after the November elections.

All that sounds logical enough, at least to most individuals outside the Beltway. Why shouldn’t Congress do its job, and consider bills in a deliberative fashion, rather than jamming an entire year’s work into one must-pass vehicle totaling thousands of pages—a literal and figurative “Christmas tree” that usually passes in the waning days of December?

Reason 1: Members of Congress Are Lazy

I don’t mean “lazy” in the sense of goofing around. Most members work long hours, including difficult commutes back and forth to their districts every week. I mean “lazy” in the sense of not wanting to vote on difficult or politically controversial issues. In 2015, the House halted its consideration of appropriations bills because Republican leaders “worried that Democrats could try to offer more amendments related to the display of the Confederate flag that could again tie the GOP into knots.”

In Congress, appropriations bills generally operate under free-wheeling procedures, in which members can offer germane (i.e., relevant) amendments. Because the appropriations bills collectively cover all federal operations, and because members have few opportunities to offer amendments to other bills in both the House and the Senate, the spending bills become magnets for every conceivable controversy.

Consider some amendments that might get offered this year were Congress to consider spending bills individually:

  • Conservatives, particularly in the House, could seek to reduce or even eliminate funding for Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation—amendments that moderate Republicans, or even Republican leaders, might oppose.
  • A bipartisan coalition would again offer amendments regarding medical marijuana—amendments that the chairman of the House Rules Committee, Pete Sessions (R-TX), has largely prevented from being considered on the House floor.
  • Democrats could offer political messaging amendments on issues ranging from President Trump’s tax returns to cabinet officers’ travel-related controversies to the emoluments clause—all issues that moderate Republicans, or Republicans with tough re-election campaigns, would not want to vote on prior to the midterm elections.

Members of Congress have become so accustomed to avoiding votes on tough issues that many recoil at the thought of reinstituting an open process. They may not say so outright, but many would prefer that leadership make the tough decisions for them behind closed doors, rather than forcing them into votes that could undermine their re-election prospects.

Reason 2: Members Want to Rig Outcomes

The Confederate flag flap also illustrated this dilemma for congressional leaders: “Some Republicans, primarily representing Southern states, found out about the amendment [banning display of the Confederate flag] after the fact and threatened to vote against the entire bill if it remained intact.” In other words, because some members did not achieve an outcome they wanted on the specific amendment, they were willing to take down the entire measure.

As I noted last fall, the House Freedom Caucus, which Jordan helped to found, has engaged in these kinds of tactics. Last summer, after moderate Republicans and Democrats combined to defeat an amendment prohibiting the use of taxpayer funds for soldiers’ gender-reassignment surgery, conservatives went to congressional leaders and told them to insert the amendment in a spending bill, the prior vote notwithstanding.

As the old saying goes, the true test of a principle comes not when that principle proves convenient, but when it proves inconvenient. Only when members find themselves willing to take tough votes, and to abide by the outcome of those votes, even if it results in policy outcomes they disfavor, will the process become more open and transparent.

As I noted a few weeks ago, members already have the power to bring about that open and transparent process—the only question is if they have the wherewithal to use it.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

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.

Republicans Omit Obamacare Bailout from Omnibus — DO NOT CONGRATULATE

Congressional leaders finally released the massive, 2,232-page omnibus spending bill late Wednesday, a measure they want Congress to pass within 24 hours. The version released Wednesday night omits language of an Obamacare “stability” package that Republican lawmakers released separately on Monday.

But, to borrow a phrase echoing throughout the Capitol since a Washington Post story appeared Tuesday night, “DO NOT CONGRATULATE” Republicans for leaving the bailout provisions out of the draft. On both process and on substance, congressional leaders did not cover themselves in glory. Far from it.

Republicans Bad on Substance…

A cynic would question why Republican leaders found this particular issue non-negotiable. After all, Republicans ran for four straight election cycles—in 2010, 2012, 2014, and 2016—on repealing Obamacare, only to turn around and propose more than $60 billion in spending to prop it up. From Democrats’ perspective, since Republicans did a complete 180 on repealing Obamacare, why not expect the GOP to perform a similar U-turn on taxpayer funding of abortion?

…And Just as Bad on Process

In general, the process surrounding the omnibus—as with most appropriations legislation, and most major legislation in general—stinks. After completing a secretive drafting process among a small group of staff behind closed doors—the swamp personified—leaders now will turn to ramming the legislation through Congress.

Facing a potential government shutdown at midnight on Friday, they will rush through the massive bill spending trillions of dollars in a matter of hours, well before members of Congress or their staff will have time to read, let alone digest and understand, its contents.

One specific issue stands out: As I previously wrote, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) wants to grant Sens. Susan Collins (R-ME) and Lamar Alexander (R-TN) a separate vote on bailing out Obamacare. He apparently will attempt to do so despite the fact that:

  1. Other Republican senators never agreed to give Collins a vote. McConnell spoke only for himself in his colloquy with Collins last December.
  2. Collins demonstrably moved the goalposts on the size of her bailout. McConnell agreed to support $5 billion in reinsurance funds in December, while now she has demanded more than six times as much, or more than $30 billion.
  3. McConnell literally shut down the federal government rather than grant Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) a vote on his amendment to an appropriations bill just last month—and Paul’s colleagues publicly trashed his attempts to obtain a vote as a “stunt” and “utterly pointless.”

To most individuals outside Washington, Republicans moving to bail out Obamacare, and attempting to pass 2,200-plus page bills in mere hours, signifies a degree of insanity. Unfortunately, however, Congress seems to engage in these types of activities (at least) every year, raising the specter of the trite saying that defines insanity as doing the same thing over and over while expecting different results.

This week’s spectacle should raise one obvious question: How many more of these sorry affairs will it take before conservatives summon the will to end it, once and for all?

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

The Pitfalls of Guaranteed Issue

Background:  Beginning in the early 1990s, some states began to consider various policy solutions to reduce the number of uninsured Americans.   One such solution required insurance carriers in a state to accept all applicants, regardless of their age or health status.  Advocates believed that these guaranteed issue regulations would improve access to health insurance coverage for those individuals with chronic health conditions for whom policies had heretofore been unobtainable.

In many instances, imposition of guaranteed issue restrictions on insurance carriers was coupled with additional regulation in the form of community-rated premiums.  Community rating provisions generally require insurance carriers to charge all individuals the same premium, with minor variations occasionally permitted due to geographic variations or general age bands.  As with guaranteed issue regulations, community rating attempts to expand access to insurance for those with chronic conditions by ensuring they will pay no higher premiums than healthy individuals.

In the 2008 presidential campaign, both remaining Democratic candidates support guaranteed issue and community rating restrictions on insurance carriers.  Sen. Barack Obama (D-IL) notes that his proposed health insurance exchange will “charge fair and stable premiums that will not depend upon health status.”[1]  Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-NY), claiming that “insurance companies in America spend tens of billions of dollars per year figuring out how to avoid costly beneficiaries,” would impose guaranteed issue restrictions on carriers, along with prohibitions on “charging large premium differences based on age, gender, and occupation.”[2]  However, because she accepts the criticism that placing such restrictions on carriers in the absence of a mandate to purchase insurance would only encourage individuals to “game” the system by waiting until they become sick to submit an insurance application, Sen. Clinton has also incorporated an individual mandate to purchase health insurance into her platform.

Problems in Implementation:  Most of the available data from states that have imposed guaranteed issue and community rating restrictions are consistent with the concern articulated by the Clinton campaign—that because individuals can obtain health insurance at any time and at standard rates, they have little incentive to purchase coverage until such time as they become ill.  This rational choice on the part of individuals creates a moral hazard whose burden is borne by insurance carriers—because their insured population is sicker than the population as a whole, they have no choice but to raise premiums across-the-board, as they are prohibited from imposing even slightly higher premiums on sicker populations.  These across-the-board increases further discourage young, healthy individuals from purchasing insurance.

Data from a prominent online broker of health insurance policies nationwide illustrate the disparity in premiums between states with guaranteed issue policies and states lacking them.  A report released last September found that in 2006, the average monthly cost of an individual health insurance policy in two states with guaranteed issue and community rating restrictions—New York and New Jersey—was $338 and $277 respectively.[3]  These numbers are approximately twice the average amount paid for health insurance by individuals in neighboring Pennsylvania—a state without guaranteed issue and community rating restrictions, and whose average premium of $148 per month equals the national average.[4]  Due to the wide difference in premiums created by excessive regulation in some states, some conservatives may support legislation permitting individuals to buy health insurance across state lines, to take advantage of lower premiums in states with more realistic levels of insurance regulation.

The perverse incentives created by guaranteed issue and community rating policies that have driven up premiums have also helped to drive insurance carriers out of states where they have been imposed.  For instance, Kentucky enacted both guaranteed issue and community rating procedures in 1995, but ultimately ended up repealing both, due in large part to the fact that by 1997 most every insurance carrier ceased operations in the state.  The regulations were repealed in 2000, and by May 2007 seven insurance carriers had returned to offer individual insurance products in Kentucky.[5]

Alternatives to Guaranteed Issue:  Instead of imposing additional restrictions on carriers that in many cases have damaged insurance markets, many states have developed alternative solutions for medically high-risk individuals.  In total, 34 states have established reinsurance mechanisms, or high-risk pools, providing approximately 200,000 individuals with chronic conditions access to care.[6]  As a result, overall individual health insurance premiums in states with high-risk mechanisms are significantly lower than the $300 monthly averages seen in guaranteed issue states like New York and New Jersey.

Although premiums are paid by participants in these state-based pools, and the premiums are higher than standard rates (generally 150-200% of rates for standard risks), other sources of revenue can be used to offset the pools’ operating losses.  These mechanisms are financed through means that vary from state to state, but can include per capita surtaxes on insurance plans, state general revenues, or other sources of dedicated funding.  In addition, legislation reauthorized by Congress in 2006 (P.L. 109-172) provides for federal grants to state high-risk pools to offset their operating losses.  The Fiscal Year 2008 omnibus appropriations measure (P.L. 110-161) included nearly $50 million in grants to states appropriated pursuant to the 2006 authorization.

One further nuance on the high-risk pool mechanism involves a risk transfer model based solely on interactions among private insurance companies.  Under this scenario, insurance carriers would resolve claims amongst themselves at year’s end, based upon which carriers had disproportionate numbers of beneficiary claims associated with chronic diseases such as diabetes, chronic heart failure, or breast cancer.  Some conservatives may find this model slightly preferable to the state-run risk pool mechanism, because the lack of state and/or federal funding removes a disincentive for carriers to “game” the system by ceding high-risk patients into a pool with a government backstop attached.

Conclusion:  Based on the examples examined above, some conservatives may be concerned that the twin proposals of guaranteed issue and community rating have served to undermine insurance markets where they have been implemented.  Because these policies serve as a de facto tax on young and healthy individuals—who pay higher rates than they would otherwise be charged in order to finance the coverage of older and sicker individuals—they encourage moral hazard, by making insurance plans prohibitively expensive for those healthy populations who are generally less inclined to purchase coverage in the first place.

Some policy-makers, conceding this point, therefore believe that an individual mandate to purchase coverage would succeed in forcing all healthy risks into purchasing insurance, thereby reducing the perverse effects of guaranteed issue regulations.  However, that argument pre-supposes the efficacy of an individual mandate—and Massachusetts’ experiment with a mandate has already resulted in 15-20% of the population being exempted from it due to cost concerns.  In addition, some conservatives might question whether and how the concept of “personal responsibility” advanced by advocates of an individual mandate comports with community rating policies which would charge smokers with lung cancer, or other individuals with behaviorally-acquired diseases, the same insurance premiums as their healthier counterparts.

While the concept of ending “insurance company discrimination” against less healthy people sounds politically appealing, many individuals who have already developed a chronic condition do not need access to insurance, but rather access to health care—and the existing state-based risk pool mechanisms have helped provide that care for a significant population.  For other individuals, a landmark 1999 book by Wharton economists Mark Pauly and Bradley Herring demonstrated how the individual health insurance market does pool risk—because policies are guaranteed renewable, and one individual’s premium cannot be increased or decreased at the time of renewal based on changes in health status, healthy risks do subsidize sicker risks more effectively and efficiently than critics assert.[7]  For these reasons, some conservatives may therefore view guaranteed issue and community rating as unnecessary policies that would unduly restrict the health insurance marketplace, and actually undermine their stated intention of reducing costs while increasing access to care.

 

[1] “Barack Obama’s Plan for a Healthy America,” available online at http://www.barackobama.com/issues/pdf/HealthCareFullPlan.pdf (accessed April 12, 2008), p. 4.

[2] “American Health Choices Plan,” available online at http://www.hillaryclinton.com/issues/healthcare/americanhealthchoicesplan.pdf (accessed April 12, 2008), pp. 6-7.

[3] “The Cost and Benefits of Individual Health Insurance Plans: 2007,” available online at http://www.ehealthinsurance.com/content/expertcenterNew/CostBenefitsReportSeptember2007.pdf (accessed April 12, 2008), p. 23.

[4] Ibid.  Perhaps paradoxically in light of the above evidence, Gov. Ed Rendell (D-PA) has proposed extending guaranteed issue and community rating restrictions to the Pennsylvania insurance market.  See http://www.gohcr.state.pa.us/prescription-for-pennsylvania/PlainEnglishLegislation.pdf (accessed April 12, 2008), p. 5.

[5] Cited in Anthony Lo Sasso, “An Examination of State Non-Group and Small Group Health Insurance Regulations,” (Washington, DC, American Enterprise Institute Working Paper #140, January 2008), available online at http://www.aei.org/docLib/20080111_LoSassoState.pdf (accessed April 12, 2008), p. 15.

[6] Additional information on state-based high risk pools can be found through the National Association of State Comprehensive Health Insurance Plans at www.naschip.org.

[7] Bradley Herring and Mark Pauly, Pooling Health Insurance Risks (Washington, DC, American Enterprise Institute Press, 1999).  See also Herring and Pauly, “The Effect of State Community Rating Regulations on Premiums and Coverage in the Individual Insurance Market,” (Cambridge, MA, National Bureau of Economic Research Working Paper #12504, August 2006), available online at http://www.nber.org/papers/w12504.pdf (accessed April 12, 2008).