Republicans’ Spending Dilemma, In One Tweet

Most of official Washington woke up apoplectic on Sunday, when a tweet from President Trump invoked “the Swamp’s” most dreaded word: “Shutdown.”

Put aside for a moment specific questions about the wall itself—whether it will deter illegal immigration, how much to spend on it, or even whether to build it. The Trump tweet illustrates a much larger problem facing congressional Republicans: They don’t want to fight—about the wall, or about much of anything, particularly spending.

Voting for the Mandate after They Voted Against It?

Take for instance an issue I helped raise awareness of, and have helped spend the past several weeks tracking: The District of Columbia’s move to re-establish a requirement on district residents to purchase health insurance.

As I wrote last week, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) offered an amendment in the Senate that would defund this mandate. The amendment resembles one that Rep. Gary Palmer (R-AL) offered in the House, and which representatives voted to add to the bill. If a successful vote on the Cruz amendment inserted the provision in the Senate version of the bill, the defunding amendment would presumably have a smooth passage to enactment.

So what’s holding it up? In a word, Republicans. According to Senate sources, Republican leaders—and Republican members of the Appropriations Committee—don’t want to vote on Cruz’s amendment. Several outside groups have stated they will key-vote in favor of the amendment, and the leadership types don’t want to vote against something that many conservative groups support.

Are Democrats Running Congress?

In short, because Democrats might object. Appropriations measures need 60 votes to break a Senate filibuster, and Democrats have said they will not vote for any bill that includes so-called “poison pill” appropriations riders. The definition of a “poison pill” of course lies in the eyes of the beholder.

Politico wrote about the spending process six weeks ago, noting that new Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Richard Shelby (R-AL) and Ranking Member Pat Leahy (D-VT) “have resolved to work out matters privately. Both parties have agreed to hold their noses to vote for a bill that they consider imperfect, but good enough.”

That “kumbaya” dynamic has led Senate Republican leaders and appropriators to try and avoid the Cruz amendment entirely. They don’t want to vote against the amendment, because conservatives like me support it and will (rightly) point out their hypocrisy if they do. But they don’t want the amendment to pass either, because they fear that Democrats won’t vote to pass the underlying bill if it does. So they hope the amendment will die a quiet death.

Conservatives Get the Shaft—Again

At this point some leadership types might point out that it’s easy for people like me to sit on the sidelines and criticize, but that Republicans in Congress must actually govern. That point has more than a grain of truth to it.

On the other hand, “governing” for Republicans usually means “governing like Democrats.” Case in point: The sorry spectacle I described in March, wherein Republican committee chairmen—who, last I checked, won election two years ago on a platform of repealing Obamacare—begged Democrats to include a bailout of Obamacare’s exchanges in that month’s 2,200-page omnibus appropriations bill.

The chairmen in question, and many Republican leaders, feared the party will get blamed in the fall for premium increases. So they decided to “govern” by abandoning all pretense of repealing Obamacare and trying to bolster the law instead, even though their failure to repeal Obamacare is a key driver of the premium increases driving Americans crazy.

With an election on the horizon, bicameral negotiations surrounding the spending bill could get hairy in September, because two of the parties come to the table with fundamentally different perspectives. Republican congressional leaders worry about what might happen in November if they fail to govern because they stood up for conservative policies. Trump worries about what might happen if they don’t.

UPDATE: On Wednesday afternoon, the Senate voted to table the Cruz amendment blocking DC’s individual mandate. Five Republicans who voted to repeal the individual mandate in tax reform legislation last fall — Louisiana’s Bill Cassidy, Maine’s Susan Collins, Alaska’s Lisa Murkowski, Alabama’s Richard Shelby, and Utah’s Orrin Hatch — voted to table, or kill, the amendment.

Because the vote came on a motion to table, senators may attempt to argue that the vote was procedural in nature, and did not represent a change in position on the mandate. Shelby, the chair of the Appropriations Committee, said he supported the underlying policy behind the Cruz amendment, but voted not to advance the amendment because Democrats objected to its inclusion.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

The Absurdity of the Justice Department’s Obamacare Lawsuit Intervention

Last summer, I wrote about how President Trump had created the worst of all possible outcomes regarding one Obamacare program. In threatening to cancel cost-sharing reduction payments to insurers, but not actually doing so, the administration forced insurers into raising premiums, while not complying with the rule of law by cutting off the payments outright.

Eventually, the administration finally did cut off the payments in October, but for several months, the uncertainty represented a self-inflicted wound. So too a brief filed by the Department of Justice (DOJ) late last week regarding an Obamacare lawsuit several states brought in February, which asked the court to strike down both Obamacare’s individual mandate and the most important of its federally imposed insurance regulations.

It takes a very unique set of circumstances to arrive at this level of opposition. Herewith the policy, legal, and political implications of DOJ’s actions.

Let’s Talk Policy First

Strictly as a policy matter, I agree with the general tenor of the Justice Department’s proposals. Last April, I analyzed Obamacare’s four major federally imposed insurance regulations:

  1. Guaranteed issue—accepting all applicants, regardless of health status;
  2. Community rating—charging all applicants the same premiums, regardless of health status;
  3. Essential health benefits—requiring plans to cover certain types of services; and
  4. Actuarial value—requiring plans to cover a certain percentage of each service.

I concluded that these four regulations represented a binary choice for policymakers: Either Congress should repeal them all, and allow insurers to price individuals’ health risk accordingly, or leave them all in place. Picking and choosing would likely result in unintended consequences.

The Justice Department’s brief asks the federal court to strike down the first two federal regulations, but not the last two. This outcome could have some unintended consequences, as a New York Times analysis notes.

But repealing the guaranteed issue and community rating regulations would remove the prime driver of premium increases under Obamacare. Those two regulations led rates for individual coverage to more than double from 2013 to 2017, necessitating the requirement for individuals to purchase, and employers to offer, health coverage, the subsidies to make coverage more “affordable,” and the tax increases and Medicare reductions used to fund them.

I noted last April that Republicans have a choice: They can either keep the status quo on pre-existing conditions or they can fulfill their promise to repeal Obamacare. They cannot do both. The DOJ brief acknowledges this dilemma, and that the regulations represent the heart of the Obamacare scheme.

Legal Question 1: Constitutionality

Roberts held that, while the federal government did not have the power to compel individuals to purchase health coverage under the Constitution’s Commerce Clause, Congress did have the power to impose a tax penalty on the non-purchase of coverage, and upheld the individual mandate on that basis.

But late last year, Congress set the mandate penalty to zero, with the provision taking effect next January. Both the plaintiff states and DOJ argue that, because the mandate will not generate revenue for the federal government beyond 2019, it can no longer function as a tax, and should be struck down as unconstitutional.

Ironically, if Congress took an unconstitutional act in setting the mandate penalty to zero, few seem to have spent little time arguing as much prior to the tax bill’s enactment last December. I opposed Congress’ action at the time, because I thought Congress needed to repeal more of Obamacare—i.e., the regulations discussed above. But few raised any concerns that setting the mandate penalty to zero represented an unconstitutional act:

  • While one school of thought suggests presidents should not sign unconstitutional legislation, President Trump signed the tax bill into law.
  • Likewise, President Trump did not issue a signing statement about the tax bill, seemingly indicating that the Trump administration had no concerns about the bill, constitutional or otherwise.
  • While in 2009 the Senate took a separate vote on the constitutionality of Obamacare, no one raised such a point of order during the Senate’s debate on the tax bill.
  • I used to work for one of the plaintiffs in the states’ lawsuit, the Texas Public Policy Foundation. TPPF put out no statement challenging the constitutionality of Congress’ move in the tax bill.

Legal Question 2: Severability

As others have noted, a court decision striking down the individual mandate as unconstitutional would by itself have few practical ramifications, given that Congress already set the mandate penalty to zero, beginning in January. The major fight lies in severability—either striking down the entire law, as the states request, or striking down the two major federal insurance regulations, as the Justice Department suggested last week.

The DOJ brief and the states’ original complaint both cite Section 1501(a) of Obamacare in making their claims to strike down more than just the mandate. DOJ cited that section—which called the mandate “essential to creating effective health insurance markets”—13 times in a 21-page brief, while the states cited that section 18 times in a 33-page complaint.

But that claim fails, for several reasons. First, the list of findings in Section 1501(a)(2) of the law discusses the mandate’s “effects on the national economy and interstate commerce.” In other words, this section of findings attempted to defend the individual mandate as a constitutional exercise of Congress’ power under the Commerce Clause—an argument Roberts struck down in the NFIB v. Sebelius ruling six years ago.

Second, the plaintiffs and the Justice Department briefs focus more on what a Congress eight years ago said—i.e., their non-binding findings to defend the individual mandate under the Commerce Clause—than what the current Congress did when it set the mandate penalty to zero, but left the rest of Obamacare intact. The Justice Department tried to retain a fig leaf of consistency by taking the same position regarding severability that the Obama administration did before the Supreme Court in 2012: that if the mandate falls, the guaranteed issue and community rating provisions (and only those provisions) should as well.

However, the Justice Department’s brief all but ignores Congress’s intervention last year. In a letter to Speaker of the House Paul Ryan (R-WI) regarding the lawsuit, Attorney General Jeff Sessions noted that “We presume that Congress legislates with knowledge of the [Supreme] Court’s findings.” A corollary to that maxim should find that the administration takes decisions with knowledge of Congress’ actions.

But rather than observing how this Congress zeroed out the mandate penalty while leaving the rest of Obamacare intact, DOJ claimed that the 2010 findings should control, because Congress did not repeal them. (Due to procedural concerns surrounding budget reconciliation, Senate Republicans arguably could not have repealed them in last year’s tax bill even if they wanted to.)

Third, as the brief by a series of Democratic state attorneys general—who received permission to intervene in the case—makes plain, Republican members of Congress said repeatedly during the tax bill debate last year that they were not changing any other part of the law. For instance, during the Senate Finance Committee markup of the tax bill, the committee’s chairman, Orrin Hatch (R-UT), said the following:

Let us be clear, repealing the [mandate] tax does not take anyone’s health insurance away. No one would lose access to coverage or subsidies that help them pay for coverage unless they chose not to enroll in health coverage once the penalty for doing so is no longer in effect. No one would be kicked off of Medicare. No one would lose insurance they are currently getting from insurance carriers. Nothing—nothing—in the modified mark impacts Obamacare policies like coverage for preexisting conditions or restrictions against lifetime limits on coverage….

The bill does nothing to alter Title 1 of Obamacare, which includes all of the insurance mandates and requirements related to preexisting conditions and essential health benefits.

As noted above, I want Congress to repeal more of Obamacare—all of it, in fact. But what I want to happen and what Congress did are two different things. When Congress explicitly set the mandate penalty to zero but left the rest of the law intact, I should not (and will not) go running to an activist judge trying to get him or her to ignore the will of Congress and strike all of it down regardless. That’s what liberals do.

Too Cute by Half Problem 1: Legal Outcomes

The brief the Democratic attorneys general filed suggested another possible outcome—one that would not please the plaintiffs in the lawsuit. While the attorneys general attempted to defend the mandate’s constitutionality despite the impending loss of the tax penalty, they offered another solution should the court find the revised mandate unconstitutional:

Under long-standing principles of statutory construction, when a legislature purports to amend an existing statute in a way that would render the statute (or part of the statute) unconstitutional, the amendment is void, and the statute continues to operate as it did before the invalid amendment was enacted.

It remains to be seen whether the courts will find this argument credible. But if they do, a lawsuit seeking to strike down all of Obamacare could actually restore part of it, by getting the court to reinstate the tax penalties associated with the mandate.

This scenario could get worse. In 2015, the Senate parliamentarian offered guidance that Congress could set the mandate penalty to zero, but not repeal it outright, as part of a budget reconciliation bill. Republicans used this precedent to zero-out the mandate in last year’s tax bill. But a court ruling stating that Congress cannot constitutionally set the mandate penalty to zero, and must instead repeal it outright, means Senate Republicans would have to muster 60 votes to do so—an outcome meaning the mandate might never get repealed.

In June 2015, the Supreme Court issued a ruling in the case of King v. Burwell. In its opinion, the court ruled that individuals in states that did not establish their own exchanges (and used the federally run healthcare.gov instead) could qualify for health insurance subsidies. By codifying an ambiguity in the Obamacare statute in favor of the subsidies, the court’s ruling prevented the Trump administration from later taking executive action to block those subsidies.

In King v. Burwell, litigating over uncertainty in Obamacare ended up precluding a future administration from taking action to dismantle it. The same thing could happen with this newest lawsuit.

Too Cute by Half Problem 2: Legislative Action

Sooner or later, someone will recognize an easy solution exists that would solve both the problem of constitutionality and severability: Congress passing legislation to repeal the mandate outright, after the tax bill set the penalty to zero. But this scenario could lead to all sorts of inconsistent, yet politically convenient, outcomes:

  • Democrats attacking Republicans over last week’s DOJ brief might oppose repealing a (now-defanged) individual mandate, because it would remove what they view as a powerful political issue heading into November’s midterm elections;
  • Republicans afraid of Democrats’ political attacks might say they repealed a part of Obamacare (i.e., the individual mandate) outright to “protect” the rest of Obamacare (i.e., the federal regulations and other assorted components of the law) from being struck down by an activist judge; and
  • Some on the Right might oppose Congress taking action to repeal “just” the individual mandate, because they want the courts to strike down the entire law—even though such a job rightly lies within Congress’ purview.

As others have noted, these contortionistic, “Through the Looking Glass” scenarios speak volumes about the tortured basis for this lawsuit. The Trump administration should spend less time writing briefs that support legislating from the bench by unelected judges, and more time working with Congress to do its job and repeal the law itself.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

Did Orrin Hatch Call the Wrong Party “Stupid” Over Obamacare?

Republican Sen. Orrin Hatch called Obamacare “the stupidest, dumbass bill” he’s ever seen at a recent American Enterprise Institute forum. “Some of you may have loved it,” he said. “And if you do, you are one of the stupidest, dumbass people I’ve ever met.”

Hatch ended up apologizing for his comment, but the question remains: If the chairman of the Senate Finance Committee considers Obamacare the “stupidest, dumbass” law on earth, then why on earth are his fellow Republicans so desperate to bail it out?

But of course, that approach would involve actually repealing Obamacare. And instead of solving the underlying problem, by repealing the regulations that led premiums to increase, Republicans want to throw money at the problem, giving insurance companies corporate welfare payments hand-over-fist in the hope that these efforts will mitigate ever-rising premiums.

This strategy does seem like a “dumbass” approach for several reasons. First, it does not repeal Obamacare. Numerous studies have demonstrated that Obamacare’s regulations have raised premiums. Occam’s Razor concludes that, if Congress wants to solve the problem of higher premiums, it should start by fixing the underlying reason for those higher premiums.

Second, this approach not only does not repeal Obamacare, it also entrenches it by making it the federal government’s business to “lower” health insurance premiums. The federal government has no more business dictating the price of health insurance than it does the price of homes, or food, or shoes. But by throwing more money at the Exchanges, Republicans will make it the business of the federal government — and federal taxpayers — to “lower” health insurance premiums.

President Trump hinted at the fundamental problems this approach brings last month, when he tweeted about protests in Britain over the National Health Service (NHS). One need only watch Prime Minister’s Questions to observe the ways in which Members of Parliament in Britain turn the NHS into a political tool. Most opposition parties pledge to “fix” the NHS by throwing more money at it. And last month, Jeremy Corbyn, head of the Labour Party and Leader of the Opposition, attacked the Conservative Government for “refusing to give our NHS the money it needs and needs now.”

If the federal government takes political responsibility for health insurance premiums, the “stability” fund would soon turn into a perpetual — and perpetually expanding — money pit. Even with a theoretical expiration date, Congress would face pressure to renew the fund, lest premiums increase if it lapses. And if premiums continue to rise, politicians would propose even greater corporate welfare payments, to “stabilize” the markets with yet more taxpayer dollars.

That scenario leads to the third problem, which Margaret Thatcher famously described four decades ago: Socialist governments traditionally do make a financial mess. They always run out of other people’s money.

That quote, coupled with our existing $20 trillion in federal debt, explains why, in their attempts to micro-manage the health insurance system from Washington, the Republican-Socialists who wish to bail out Obamacare have proposed much the same kind of “dumbass” policies as Hatch himself criticized.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

Republicans’ SCHIP Surrender

In spring 2015, Senate Republican leaders pressured their members to accept a clean, two-year reauthorization of the State Children’s Health Insurance Program (SCHIP) added as part of a larger health spending measure.

The SCHIP reauthorization added to a larger Medicare bill included none of the reforms Republicans had proposed that year, many of which attempted to turn the program’s focus back toward covering low-income families first, as the George W. Bush administration had done. But Republican leaders said that the two-year extension, rather than the four-year extension Democrats supported, would allow conservatives to fight harder for reforms in 2017.

The press has focused on the disputes over paying for the SCHIP program, which have held up final enactment of a long-term reauthorization. (The House passed its version of the bill in November; the Senate, failing to find agreement on pay-fors, has not considered the bill on the floor.) But the focus on pay-fors has ignored Republicans’ abject surrender on the policy behind the program, because the media defines “bipartisanship” as conservatives agreeing to do liberal things. That occurred in abundance on this particular bill.

So Much for Our Promises, Voters

On the underlying policy, all the groups who pledged to fight for conservative reforms vacated the field. Senate Finance Committee Chairman Orrin Hatch (R-UT), who brags about how he created the program as part of the Balanced Budget Act in 1997, cut a deal with Ranking Member Ron Wyden (D-OR) that, as detailed below, includes virtually no conservative reforms to the program—raising questions about whether Hatch was so desperate for a deal to preserve his legacy that he failed to fight for conservative reforms.

House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) did not repudiate the agreement Hatch and Wyden struck, even though that agreement maintained virtually the provisions of the 2009 SCHIP reauthorization that Ryan himself, then the ranking member of the House Budget Committee, called “an entitlement train wreck.”

Republicans have thus suffered the worst of both worlds: getting blamed for inaction on a program’s reauthorization, while already having conceded virtually every element of that program, save for its funding.

Details About the SCHIP Proposals

A detailed examination of the Hatch-Wyden agreement (original version here, and slightly revised version in Sections 301-304 of the House-passed bill here) demonstrates how it extends provisions of the 2009 reauthorization passed by a Democratic Congress and signed by President Obama—which Republicans in large part opposed. Moreover, the Hatch-Wyden agreement and House-passed bill includes none of the reforms the House Energy and Commerce Committee proposed, but were not enacted into law, in 2015.

The only “reform” in the pending reauthorization consists of phasing out an enhanced match for states included in Section 2101(a) of Obamacare—one already scheduled to expire. Even though the enhanced match will end on its own in October 2019, the Hatch-Wyden agreement and the House-passed bill would extend that enhanced match by one year further, albeit at a reduced level, before phasing it out entirely.

Child Enrollment Contingency Fund: Created in Section 103 of the 2009 reauthorization. As I noted then, “Some Members may be concerned that the fund—which does not include provisions making additional payments contingent on enrolling the low-income children­ for which the program was designed—will therefore help to subsidize wealthier children in states which have expanded their programs to higher-income populations, diverting SCHIP funds from the program’s original purpose” (emphasis original). Section 301(c) of the House-passed bill would extend this fund, without any reforms.

Express Lane Eligibility: Created in Section 203 of the 2009 reauthorization, as a way of using eligibility determinations from other agencies and programs to facilitate enrollment in SCHIP. As I noted then, “Some Members may be concerned first that the streamlined verification processes outlined above will facilitate individuals who would not otherwise qualify for Medicaid or SCHIP, due either to their income or citizenship, to obtain federally-paid health benefits.” Section 301(e) of the House-passed bill would extend this option, without any reforms.

Citizenship Verification: Section 211 of the 2009 reauthorization created a new process for verifying citizenship, but not identity, to circumvent strict verification requirements included in the 2005 Deficit Reduction Act. As I wrote in 2009:

Some Members may echo the concerns of Social Security Commissioner Michael Astrue, who in a September 2007 letter stated that the verification process proposed in the bill would not keep ineligible individuals from receiving federal benefits—since many applicants would instead submit another person’s name and Social Security number to qualify. Some Members may believe the bill, by laying out a policy of ‘enroll and chase,’ will permit ineligible individuals, including illegal aliens, to obtain federally-paid health coverage for at least four months during the course of the verification process. Finally, some Members may be concerned that the bill, by not taking remedial action against states for enrolling illegal aliens—which can be waived entirely at the Secretary’s discretion—until states’ error rate exceeds 3%, effectively allows states to provide benefits to illegal aliens.

Legal Aliens: Section 214 of the 2009 reauthorization allowed states to cover legal aliens in their SCHIP programs without subjecting them to the five-year waiting period required for means-tested benefits under the 1996 welfare reform law.

As I wrote in 2009, “Some Members may be concerned that permitting states to cover legal aliens without imposing waiting periods will override the language of bipartisan welfare reform legislation passed by a Republican Congress and signed by a Democrat President, conflict with decades-long practices in other federally-sponsored entitlement health programs (i.e., Medicare), and encourage migrants to travel to the United States for the sole or primary purpose of receiving health benefits paid for by federal taxpayers.” The House-passed bill includes no provisions modifying or repealing this option.

Premium Assistance: Section 301 of the 2009 reauthorization created new options regarding premium assistance—allowing states to subsidize employer-sponsored coverage, rather than enrolling individuals in government-run plans. While that reauthorization contained some language designed to make premium assistance programs more flexible for states, it also expressly prohibited states from subsidizing health savings account (HSA) coverage through premium assistance. The House-passed bill includes no provisions modifying or repealing this prohibition on states subsidizing HSA coverage.

Health Opportunity Accounts: Section 613 of the 2009 reauthorization prohibited the Department of Health and Human Services from approving any new demonstration programs regarding Health Opportunity Accounts, a new consumer-oriented option for low-income beneficiaries created in the 2005 Deficit Reduction Act. The House-passed bill includes no provisions modifying or repealing this prohibition on states offering more consumer-oriented options.

Covering Poor Kids First: The 2015 proposed reauthorization looked to restore SCHIP’s focus on covering low-income children first, by 1) eliminating the enhanced federal match rate for states choosing to cover children in families between 250-300 percent of the federal poverty level ($61,500-$73,800 for a family of four in 2017) and 2) eliminating the federal match entirely for states choosing to cover children in families above 300 percent of poverty. These provisions were consistent with the policy of the George W. Bush administration, which in 2007 issued guidance seeking to ensure that states covered low-income families first before expanding their SCHIP programs further up the income ladder. The House-passed bill includes no such provision.

Maintenance of Effort: Section 2001(b) of Obamacare included a requirement that states could not alter eligibility standards for children enrolled in SCHIP through October 1, 2019, limiting their ability to manage their state programs. Whereas the 2015 proposed reauthorization would have repealed this requirement, effective October 1, 2015, Section 301(f) of the House-passed bill would extend this requirement, through October 1, 2022. (However, under the House-passed bill, states could alter eligibility for children in families with incomes over 300 percent of poverty, beginning in October 2019.)

Crowd-Out: The 2015 proposed reauthorization allowed states to impose a waiting period of up to 12 months for individuals who declined an offer of, or disenrolled from, employer-based coverage—a provision designed to keep families from dropping private insurance to enroll in a government program. The House-passed bill contains no such provision.

Program Name: The 2009 reauthorization sought to remove the “state” element of the “State Children’s Health Insurance Program,” renaming the program as the “Children’s Health Insurance Program.” While the 2015 proposed reauthorization looked to restore the “state” element to “SCHIP,” the House-passed bill includes no such provision.

Cave, Not a Compromise

For all the focus on paying for SCHIP, the underlying policy represents a near-total cave by Republicans, who failed to obtain any meaningful reforms to the program. Granted, Democrats likely would not agree to all the changes detailed above. But the idea that a “bipartisan” bill should include exactly none of them also seems absurd—unless Republicans threw in the towel and failed to fight for any changes.

The press spent much of 2017 focused on Republican efforts to unwind Obamacare. But the SCHIP bill represents just as consequential a story. The cave on SCHIP demonstrates how many Republicans, after spending the last eight years objecting to the Obama agenda, suddenly have little interest in rolling it back.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

Are Senate Republicans Planning an Abortion Flip-Flop in Obamacare “Stability” Bill?

As Yogi Berra would say, “It’s déjà vu all over again.” Once again, Senate Republicans are preparing to flip-flop on taxpayer funding of plans that cover abortion. In June, I discussed how unnamed Senate Republican sources claimed that their “repeal-and-replace” legislation would preserve Obamacare’s “restrictions on abortion funding,” even though Republicans have spent the past seven years arguing that the law provides taxpayer funding of plans that cover abortion.

Those same unnamed sources are now trying to claim that the Obamacare “stability” bill does not need additional restrictions on abortion funding. As Politico reports:

[Senate Republicans are] stressing that Obamacare already has prohibitions on using federal funds for abortions that are not because of rape or incest or to save the mother’s life. Anti-abortion groups didn’t trust the Obama Administration to enforce those prohibitions. That prohibition could carry more weight now. ‘We have a pro-life Administration that has agreed to more stringently enforce the life protections,’ a Senate Republican source said.

Let’s Go Down Memory Lane

In June, I cited several floor speeches during the Obamacare debate where congressional leaders argued that Obamacare includes taxpayer funding of abortions. For instance, here’s Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), as the House prepared to vote on Obamacare: “Democrats over in the House want to approve the Senate bill without actually voting on it. These Democrats want to approve a bill that rewrites one-sixth of the economy, forces taxpayers to pay for abortions, raises taxes in the middle of a recession, and slashes Medicare for seniors, without leaving their fingerprints on it” (emphasis mine).

Astute observers might notice the wording of McConnell’s remarks. The Senate majority leader did not say that “Obamacare might force taxpayers to fund abortion coverage, depending upon how the administration implements the law.” He did not say that “We need to elect a pro-life administration to prevent Obamacare from providing taxpayer funding of abortion coverage.” He flatly stated that Obamacare “forces taxpayers to pay for abortions”—period, end of story.

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

Law Trumps Executive Action

McConnell, Pence, and many others had good reason for their statements. As Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-UT) noted in December 2009, Obamacare’s abortion funding restrictions are “significantly weaker” than the Hyde Amendment—a provision designed to prevent taxpayer funding of abortion since 1976—making them “completely unacceptable” in Hatch’s view, and in the view of most pro-lifers.

As to Republican staffers’ claims that the Trump administration can “fix” the flawed statutory language through executive orders or more robust enforcement, here’s what pro-life Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner (R-WI) had to say about that in March 2010:

This bill expands abortion funding to the greatest extent in history. I have heard that the President is contemplating an executive order to try to limit this. Members should not be fooled. Executive orders cannot override the clear intent of a statute….If an executive order moves the abortion funding in this bill away from where it is now, it will be struck down as unconstitutional because executive orders cannot constitutionally do that.

Other House members made the same argument in March 2010, including Dan Lungren (R-CA) and Joe Pitts (R-PA). Their argument applies just as equally to Republican presidents and administrations as it does to Democratic ones.

Moreover, conservatives who believe in limited government should not ask President Trump to exceed his executive authority, and a blanket funding on Obamacare’s abortion coverage would do just that. As I wrote in January, “a Republican Administration should not be tempted to ‘use unilateral actions to achieve conservative ends.’ Such behavior represents a contradiction in terms.” Not only can the Trump administration not stop funding of abortion coverage unilaterally, it should not attempt to try, if doing so would exceed its legal authority.

Don’t Insult Voters’ Intelligence

Just as the Trump administration should not try to exceed its authority in shutting down federal funding of abortion coverage, Senate Republicans should not attempt to insult voters by pretending that those efforts will succeed legally, or that the “completely unacceptable” abortion “protections” Hatch described in 2009 are now sufficient.

Senate Republicans have already attempted to claim that the insurer “stability” bill will bring benefits to taxpayers, even though the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office believes the bill will give a windfall directly to insurance companies. They should not worsen the spectacle of rationalizing bad policy by attempting to render seven years of arguments they made to the pro-life community meaningless—for they only beclown themselves in the process.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

Bailing Out Health Insurers Now Would Only Reward Their Negligence

Upon the unveiling of another health insurance “stabilization” measure Tuesday, Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee Chairman Lamar Alexander (R-TN) claimed he did not view it as a repudiation of his own “stability” measure, introduced last week.

“We’ve gone from a position where everyone was saying we can’t do cost sharing [reduction payments] to responsible voices like [Senate Finance Committee Chairman Orrin] Hatch and [House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Kevin] Brady saying we should.”

In the words of Margaret Thatcher, “No. No. No!” Conservatives should reject the premise that Congress must immediately open up the federal piggy bank to replenish the unconstitutional cost-sharing reduction subsidies that the Trump administration cut off earlier this month. Instead, it should first hold insurers—and insurance regulators—accountable for the irresponsible actions that got them to this point.

Insurers Disregarded a Federal Lawsuit

My May article explained how insurers sought to hold Congress hostage over cost-sharing reduction payments. Unless Congress guaranteed the payments for all of calendar year 2018, insurers claimed they would have to raise premiums to reflect “uncertainty” over the payments.

But that “uncertainty” always existed. Insurers just ignored it. They ignored a federal district court judge’s May 2016 ruling striking down the cost-sharing reduction payments as unconstitutional, because the judge stayed her ruling pending an appeal. They ignored warnings that the next presidential administration could easily cut off the payments unilaterally. And they ignored the fact that a presidential election was scheduled for November 2016, and that “come January 2017, the policy landscape for insurers could look far different” than under the Obama administration.

Upon reading my May 2017 article, a former colleague who works for an insurer responded by claiming that no one took the litigation against the cost-sharing reduction payments seriously last year. In other words, it was a risk that he and his colleagues ignored until President Trump started making threats to cut off the payments, and finally did so earlier this month.

Regulators Asleep at the Switch?

Likewise, state insurance commissioners largely disregarded until this spring and summer the possibility that cost-sharing reduction payments would disappear. At a Capitol Hill briefing last month, I asked Brian Webb of the National Association of Insurance Commissioners (NAIC) whether his members had considered the prospect of cost-sharing reduction payments disappearing last fall, when regulators examined rates for the current (i.e., 2017) plan year. By last fall, a federal court had already declared the payments unconstitutional, and every state insurance commissioner knew a new administration would take office in January and could stop the payments directly.

Webb’s response? “Under the court decision, they [the cost-sharing reduction payments] are still being paid, pending appeal.… In the meantime, payments are being made.” That is, until three weeks after the briefing in question, when President Trump stopped the payments. Oops.

It does not appear that most regulators even bothered to consider this scenario last year, just like most insurers ignored the prospect of cost-sharing reductions going away. Instead, as with banks who assumed a decade ago that subprime mortgages could never fail, the health insurance industry blindly assumed—despite significant evidence to the contrary—that cost-sharing reduction payments would continue.

Prevent ‘Too Big to Fail’

Yes, the Congressional Budget Office has indicated that cutting off the cost-sharing reduction payments would cost the federal government more in the short-term. That and other facts may give Congress a reason to restore the payments, eventually.

But most importantly, Congress should take action—by exercising its oversight authority, and through legislation if necessary—to end the “too big to fail” mentality that led insurers and their regulators to make a series of bad decisions regarding cost-sharing reductions. To instead give insurers a blank check, paid for by federal taxpayers, could cost far more in the longer term.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

September 30 Deadline for Obamacare Repeal Is Fake News

Over the past several days, congressional leaders in both the House and Senate have claimed that a bill by Sens. Lindsay Graham (R-SC) and Bill Cassidy (R-LA) is “our best, last chance to get repeal and replace done.” They have made such claims because the press keeps “reporting” that Republicans’ “power to pass health care legislation through a party-line vote in the Senate expires on September 30.”

Don’t you believe it. The Senate’s 52 Republicans have multiple options open to keep the Obamacare repeal process alive after September 30. The only question is whether they have the political will to do so.

Option 1: Set a Senate Precedent

That assertion carries one big flaw: The Senate parliamentarian does not “rule.” The Senate as a body does—and that distinction makes a big difference. The procedural question centers around when, and whether, budget reconciliation instructions expire.

Budget reconciliation provides an expedited process for the Senate to consider matters of a fiscal nature. Reconciliation’s limits on debate and amendments preclude filibusters, allowing the bill to pass with a simple (i.e., 51-vote) majority rather than the usual 60 votes needed to break a filibuster and halt debate. (For additional background, see my May primer on budget reconciliation here.)

In one of its first acts upon convening in January, Congress passed a budget resolution for Fiscal Year 2017, which included instructions for health-related committees in the House and Senate to produce reconciliation legislation—legislation intended to “repeal-and-replace” Obamacare. But Fiscal Year 2017 ends on September 30, and Congress (thus far at least) hasn’t completed work on the reconciliation bill yet. So what happens on September 30? Does a reconciliation measure fail? Or can Congress continue work on the legislation, because the budget resolution set fiscal parameters for ten fiscal years (through 2026), not just the one ending on September 30?

There is literally no precedent on this particular Senate procedural question of whether and when reconciliation instructions expire. If the chair—either Vice President Mike Pence, Senate President Pro Tempore Orrin Hatch (R-UT), or another Senate Republican presiding—wishes to disregard the parliamentarian’s opinion, he or she is free to do so.

Alternatively, if the chair decides to agree with the parliamentarian’s opinion, a 51-vote majority of Republicans could decide to overturn that ruling by appealing the chair’s decision. In either event, the action by the Senate—either the chair or the body itself—would set the precedent, not the opinion of a Senate official who currently has no precedent to guide her.

Option 2: Pass a New Budget

Because there is no precedent to the question of when reconciliation instructions expire, Republican senators can set a precedent on this question themselves—keeping in mind it will apply equally when Republicans are in the minority. But if senators believe that disregarding the parliamentarian’s opinion—even on a question where she has no precedent to guide her—might jeopardize the legislative filibuster, they can simply pass a new budget for Fiscal Year 2018, one that includes reconciliation instructions to allow for Obamacare “repeal-and-replace.”

While that requirement has since been changed, Congress could still pass multiple budget resolutions in a given year, along with a reconciliation measure for each. Congress could pass a Fiscal Year 2018 budget resolution with reconciliation instructions for Obamacare repeal this month, complete work on the Obamacare bill, then pass another budget resolution with reconciliation instructions for tax reform.

Political Will

Congressional leaders apparently want to portray the Graham-Cassidy bill as a binary choice—either support it, or support keeping Obamacare in place. The facts turn that binary choice into a false one. Republicans have every opportunity to work to enact the repeal of Obamacare they promised the American people, regardless of the opinion of an unelected Senate official. No legislator should use an arbitrary—and false—deadline of next week to rationalize voting for a bad bill, or abandoning his or her promises altogether.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

What You Need to Know About Budget Reconciliation in the Senate

After last week’s House passage of the American Health Care Act, the Senate has begun sorting through various policy options for health care legislation. But looming over the policy discussions are procedural concerns unique to the Senate. Herewith a primer on the process under which the upper chamber will consider an Obamacare “repeal-and-replace” bill.

How Will the Bill Come to the Senate Floor?

The bill that passed the House was drafted as a budget reconciliation bill. The phrase “budget reconciliation” refers to a process established by the Congressional Budget Act of 1974, in which congressional committees reconcile spending in programs within their jurisdiction to the budget blueprint passed by Congress. In this case, Congress passed a budget in January that required health-care committees to report legislation reducing the deficit by $1 billion—the intended vehicle for an Obamacare “repeal-and-replace” bill.

What’s So Important about Budget Reconciliation?

Under most circumstances, the Senate can only limit debate and amendments by invoking cloture, which requires the approval of three-fifths of all senators sworn (i.e., 60 votes). Because the reconciliation process prohibits filibusters and unlimited debate, it allows the Senate to pass reconciliation bills with a simple majority (i.e., 51-vote) threshold.

Why Does the ‘Byrd Rule’ Exist as part of Budget Reconciliation?

Named for former Senate Majority Leader Robert Byrd (D-WV), the rule intends to protect the integrity of the legislative filibuster. By allowing only matters integral to the budget reconciliation to pass the Senate with a simple majority (as opposed to the 60-vote threshold), the rule seeks to keep the body’s tradition of extended debate.

What Is the ‘Byrd Rule’?

Simply put, the rule prohibits “extraneous” material from intruding in budget reconciliation legislation. However, the term “Byrd rule” is technically a misnomer in two respects. First, the “Byrd rule” is more than just a longstanding practice of the Senate. After several years of operation as a Senate rule, it was codified into law beginning in 1985, and can be found at 2 U.S.C. 644. Second, the rule consists of not just one test to define whether material is “extraneous,” but six.

What Are the Six Different Types of Extraneous Material?

So the Various Types of ‘Byrd Rule’ Violations Are Not Necessarily Equivalent?

Correct. While most reporters focus on the fourth test—when a legislative provision has a budgetary impact merely incidental to the provision’s policy change—that is not the only type of rule violation. Nor in many respects is it the most significant.

While violations of the fourth test are fatal to the provision—the extraneous material is stricken from the underlying legislation—violations of the third (material outside the jurisdiction of committees charged with reporting reconciliation legislation) and sixth (changes to Title II of the Social Security Act) tests are fatal to the entire bill.

Who Determines Whether a Provision Qualifies as ‘Extraneous’ Under the ‘Byrd Rule’?

How Does One Determine Whether a Provision Qualifies as ‘Extraneous’ under the ‘Byrd Rule’?

In some cases, determining compliance with the rule is relatively straight-forward. A provision dealing with veterans’ benefits (within the jurisdiction of the Veterans Affairs Committee) would clearly fail the third test in a tax reconciliation bill, as tax matters lie within the Finance Committee’s jurisdiction.

However, other cases require a more nuanced, textual analysis by the parliamentarian. Such an analysis might examine Congressional Budget Office (CBO) and other outside scores, to assess the provision’s fiscal impact (or lack thereof), the statute the reconciliation bill seeks to amend, other statutes cross-referenced in the legislation (to assess the impact of the programmatic changes the provision would make), and prior precedent on related matters.

When Does the Senate Assess Whether a Provision Qualifies as ‘Extraneous’?

In some respects, assessing compliance is an iterative process. Often, the Senate parliamentarian will provide informal advice to majority staff as they begin to write reconciliation legislation. While these informal conversations help to guide bill writers during the drafting process, the parliamentarian normally notes that these discussions do not constitute a formal advisory opinion; minority party staff and other interested persons are not privy to the ex parte conversations, and could in time bring her new information that could cause her to change her opinion.

Do Debates about the ‘Byrd Rule’ Take Place on the Senate Floor?

They can, and they have, but relatively rarely. As James Wallner, an expert in Senate parliamentary procedure, notes, over the last three decades, the Senate has formally adjudicated only ten instances of the fourth test—whether a provision’s fiscal impacts are merely incidental to its proposed policy changes.

Because most determinations of “Byrd rule” compliance (or non-compliance) have been made through informal, closed-door “Byrd bath” discussions in the Senate parliamentarian’s office, there are few formal precedents—either rulings from the chair or votes by the Senate itself—regarding specific examples of “extraneous” material. As a result, the Senate—whether the parliamentarian, the presiding officer, or the body itself—has significant latitude to interpret the statutory tests about what qualifies as “extraneous.”

Can the Senate Overrule the Parliamentarian about What Qualifies as ‘Extraneous’ Under the ‘Byrd Rule’?

Yes, in two respects. The presiding officer—whether the vice president as president of the Senate, the president pro tempore (currently Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-UT), or another senator—can disregard the parliamentarian’s guidance and issue his or her own ruling. Alternatively, a senator could appeal the chair’s decision, and a simple majority of the body could overrule that decision. There is a long history of senators doing just that.

As a practical matter, however, such a scenario appears unlikely during the Obamacare debate, for two reasons. First, some senators may view such a move as akin to the “nuclear option,” undermining the legislative filibuster by a simple majority vote. The recent letter signed by 61 senators pledging to uphold the legislative filibuster indicates that at least some senators in both parties want to preserve the usual 60-vote margin for passing legislation, and therefore may not wish to set a precedent of allowing potentially “extraneous” material on to a budget reconciliation bill through a simple majority.

Second, if the Senate did overrule the parliamentarian on a procedural matter related to budget reconciliation, a conservative senator would likely introduce a simple, one-line Obamacare repeal bill and ask the Senate to overrule the parliamentarian to allow it to qualify as a reconciliation matter. Since many members of the Senate, like the House, do not actually wish to repeal Obamacare, they would likely decline to head down the road of overruling the parliamentarian, for fear it may head in this direction.

Can the Senate Waive the ‘Byrd Rule’?

Yes—provided three-fifths of senators sworn (i.e., 60 senators) agree. In the past, many budget reconciliation bills—like the Balanced Budget Act of 1997—passed with far more than 60 Senate votes, which made waiving the rule easier.

However, Republicans did not agree to waive the rule for extraneous material included in Senate Democrats’ Obamacare “fix” bill in March 2010. That material was stricken from the legislation and did not make it into law. For this and other reasons, it seems unlikely that eight or more Senate Democrats would vote to waive the rule for an Obamacare “repeal-and-replace” bill.

Didn’t Democrats Pass Obamacare through Budget Reconciliation?

Yes and no. They fixed portions of Obamacare—for instance, the notorious “Cornhusker Kickback”—through a budget reconciliation measure that passed through both houses of Congress in March 2010. But the larger, 2,400-page measure that passed the Senate on Christmas Eve 2009 was enacted into law first.

Once Scott Brown’s election to the Senate in January 2010 gave Republicans 41 votes, Democrats knew they could not go through the usual process of convening a House-Senate conference committee to consider the differences between each chamber’s legislation. A conference report is subject to a filibuster, and Republicans had the votes to sustain that filibuster.

Instead, House Democrats agreed to pass the Senate version of the legislation—the version that passed with 60 votes on Christmas Eve 2009—then have both chambers use a separate budget reconciliation bill—one that could pass the Senate with a 51-vote majority—to make changes to the bill they had just enacted.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.