Joe Biden’s Health Care Plan: SandersCare Lite

On Monday morning, former vice president Joe Biden released the health care plan for his 2020 presidential campaign. The plan comes ahead of a single-payer health plan speech by Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) scheduled for Wednesday.

Biden’s plan includes several noteworthy omissions. For instance, it does not include any reference to health coverage for foreign citizens illegally present in the United States. That exclusion seems rather surprising, given both Democrats’ embrace of health benefits for those unlawfully present in last month’s debate, and Biden’s repeated references to the issue.

Biden said later on Monday that illegally present foreign citizens should have access to “public health clinics if they’re sick,” but not health insurance. He also claimed that last month’s debate format did not give him enough time to explain his position.

Overall, however, Biden’s plan includes many similarities to Sanders’. While both Sanders and Biden want to draw contrasts on health care—Sanders to attack Biden as beholden to corporate interests, and Biden to attack Sanders for wanting to demolish Obamacare—their plans contain far more similarities than differences.

Losing Coverage

Sanders’ bill would, as the American people have gradually learned this year, make private insurance “unlawful,” taking coverage away from approximately 300 million Americans. Biden’s plan specifically attacks single payer on this count, for “starting from scratch and getting rid of private insurance.”

As with Obamacare, Biden’s promise will echo hollow. By creating a government-run “public option” like Sanders’, the Biden plan would also take away health coverage for millions of Americans. As I have previously explained, a government-run plan would sabotage private insurance, using access to Treasury dollars and other in-built structural advantages.

In 2009, the Lewin Group concluded that a government-run health plan, available to all individuals and paying doctors and hospitals at Medicare rates (i.e., less than private insurance), would lead to 119.1 million individuals losing employer coverage:

More Spending

Biden would also expand the Obamacare subsidy regime, in three ways. He would:

  1. Reduce the maximum amount individuals would pay in premiums from 9.86% of income to no more than 8.5% of income, with federal subsidies making up the difference.
  2. Repeal Obamacare’s income cap on subsidies, so that families with incomes of more than four times the poverty level ($103,000 for a family of four in 2019) can qualify for subsidies.
  3. To lower deductibles and co-payments, link insurance subsidies to a richer “gold” plan, one that covers 80% of an average enrollee’s health costs in a given year, rather than the “silver” plan under current law.

All three of these recommendations come from the liberal Urban Institute’s Healthy America plan, issued last year. However, they all come with a big price tag. Consider the following excerpt from Biden’s plan:

Take a family of four with an income of $110,000 per year. If they currently get insurance on the individual marketplace [i.e., Exchange], because their premium will now be capped at 8.5% of their income, under the Biden Plan they will save an estimated $750 per month on insurance alone. That’s cutting their premiums almost in half. [Emphasis original.]

That’s also making coverage “affordable” for families through unaffordable levels of federal spending. By its own estimates, Biden’s plan will give a family with an income of $110,000 annually—which is approximately double the national median household income—$9,000 per year in federal insurance subsidies. Some families with that level of income may not even pay $9,000 annually in federal income taxes, depending upon their financial situation, yet they will receive sizable amounts of taxpayer-funded largesse.

Price Controls and Regulations

The drug price section of the Biden plan includes the usual leftist tropes about “prescription drug corporations…profiteering off of the pocketbooks of sick individuals.” It proposes typical liberal “solutions” in the form of price controls, whether importing price-controlled pharmaceuticals from overseas, or allowing “an evaluation by…independent board members” (i.e., bureaucrats) to determine prices.

Ironically, Biden’s plan implicitly acknowledges Obamacare’s flaws. In talking about prescription drug pricing, Biden omits any discussion of the “rock-solid deal” that the Obama administration cut with Big Pharma, so that pharmaceutical companies would run ads supporting Obamacare.

Likewise, Biden’s plan notes that “the concentration of market power in the hands of a few corporations is occurring throughout our health care system, and this lack of competition is driving up prices for consumers.” Yet it fails to note the cause of much of this consolidation: Obamacare encouraged hospitals to gobble up physician practices, and each other, to obtain clout in negotiations with insurers. Typically, after acknowledging government’s failures, Biden, like Sanders, prescribes yet more government as the solution.

In the leadup to debate on “repeal-and-replace” legislation several years ago, conservative Republicans said they did not want any replacement to become “Obamacare Lite.” Just as history often repeats itself, Democrats seem ready to embark on a similar intra-party debate. That’s because, no matter how much Biden wants to draw distinctions between his proposals and single payer, his plan looks suspiciously like “SandersCare Lite.”

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.

One Way for Florida’s Legislature to Respond to a Medicaid Expansion Referendum

Last week, Politico reported on a burgeoning effort by unions and other groups to collect signatures on a ballot initiative designed to expand Medicaid in Florida. As the article notes, the effort comes after last fall’s approval of Medicaid ballot initiatives in Utah, Idaho, and Nebraska.

The effort comes as liberals try to extend “free” health care to more and more Americans. But that “free” health care comes with significant costs, and policymakers in Florida have opportunities to make those costs apparent to voters.

‘Free’ Money Isn’t Free

By contrast, the petition being circulated in Florida includes no source of funding for the state’s 10 percent share of Medicaid expansion funding under Obamacare. The failure to specify a funding source represents a typical liberal tactic. Advocates seeking to expand Medicaid have traditionally focused on the “free” money from Washington available for states that do expand. “Free” money from Washington and “free” health care for low-income individuals—what’s not to like?

Of course, Medicaid expansion has very real costs for states, without even considering the effects on their taxpayers of the federal tax increases needed to fund all that “free” money from Washington. Every dollar that states spend on providing health care to the able-bodied represents another dollar that they cannot spend elsewhere.

I have previously noted how spending on Medicaid has crowded out funding for higher education, thus limiting mobility among lower-income populations, and encourages states to prioritize the needs of able-bodied adults over individuals with disabilities, for whom states receive a lower federal Medicaid match.

Taxes Ahead? Oh Yeah, Baby

Proposing a state income tax to fund Medicaid expansion would certainly make the cost of expansion readily apparent to Florida voters, especially the retirees who moved to the Sunshine State due to its combination of warm weather and no individual income tax. Voters would likely think twice if Medicaid expansion came with an income tax—which of course lawmakers could raise in the future, to fund all manner of government spending.

Prior efforts suggest that making the costs of Medicaid expansion apparent to voters appreciably dampens support. Utah approved its ballot initiative, which included a sales tax increase, with a comparatively small (53.3 percent) approval margin. In Montana, a referendum proposing a tobacco tax increase to fund a continuation of that state’s Medicaid expansion (which began in 2016) went down to defeat in November.

New Taxes Are an Uphill Battle

Liberal groups already face challenges in getting a Medicaid ballot initiative approved in Florida. The state constitution requires 60 percent approval for all initiative measures intended to change that document, a higher bar than advocates for expansion have had to clear elsewhere. Of the four states where voters approved Medicaid expansion—Maine, Nebraska, Utah, and Idaho—only the margin in Idaho exceeded 60 percent, and then just barely (60.58 percent).

Disclosure: While the author served on the health care transition advisory committee of Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, the views expressed above represent his personal views only.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

Politico Reporter’s “Fact Check” of Trump Riddled with Omissions

Who will fact check the fact checkers? That question reared its head again late last week, as a reporter from Politico attempted to add “context” to health-care-related comments the president made at a political rally in Las Vegas. As with Trump himself, what Politico reporter Dan Diamond omitted said just as much as what he included.

During his speech, the president talked about pre-existing conditions, saying Republicans want to “protect patients with pre-existing conditions:”

I’ve previously written about the Obamacare lawsuit in question—why I oppose both the lawsuit, and the Justice Department’s intervention in the case, as unwise judicial activism—and Republicans’ poor response on the issue. But note what neither Diamond nor Trump mentioned: That the pre-existing condition “protections” are incredibly costly—the biggest driver of premium increases—and that, when voters are asked whether they would like these provisions “if it caused the cost of your health insurance to go up,” support plummets by roughly 40 percentage points.

If you need any more persuading that the media are carrying liberals’ water on pre-existing conditions, consider that the Kaiser Family Foundation released their health care tracking survey earlier this month. In it, Kaiser asked whether people are worried that “if the Supreme Court overturns the health care law’s protections for people with pre-existing health conditions you will have to pay more for health insurance coverage.”

The survey didn’t mention that all individuals are already paying higher premiums for those “protections” since Obamacare took effect—whether they want to or not, and whether they have a pre-existing condition or not. In fact, the survey implied the opposite. By only citing a scenario that associates premium rises with a Supreme Court ruling striking down the provisions, Kaiser misled respondents into its “preferred” response.

Then last week, Politico ran another story on the Republican strategy to “duck and cover” regarding the states’ lawsuit, which might of course have something to do with the tenor of Politico’s “reporting” on pre-existing conditions in the first place.

Next, to Single-Payer Proposals

Following the comments about pre-existing conditions, the president then went on the attack, and Diamond felt the need to respond.

Diamond accurately notes that “there is no consensus ‘Democrat plan.’” As the saying goes, the left hand doesn’t always know what the far-left hand is doing. But Trump also made crystal clear what specific Democratic plan he was describing—the single-payer plan written by Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT). He even quoted the $32 trillion estimated cost of the plan, as per a Mercatus Center study that became the topic of great dispute earlier this summer.

Here’s what Section 102(a) of Sanders’ bill (S. 1804) says about coverage under the single-payer plan: “SEC. 102. UNIVERSAL ENTITLEMENT. (a) IN GENERAL.—Every individual who is a resident of the United States is entitled to benefits for health care services under this Act. The Secretary shall promulgate a rule that provides criteria for determining residency for eligibility purposes under this Act.”

And here’s what Section 107(a) of the bill says about individuals trying to keep their own health coverage, or purchasing other coverage, to “get out” of the single-payer system:

SEC. 107. PROHIBITION AGAINST DUPLICATING COVERAGE.

(a) IN GENERAL.—Beginning on the effective date described in section 106(a), it shall be unlawful for—

(1) a private health insurer to sell health insurance coverage that duplicates the benefits provided under this Act; or

(2) an employer to provide benefits for an employee, former employee, or the dependents of an employee or former employee that duplicate the benefits provided under this Act.

In other words, the Sanders bill “would force every American on to government-run health care, and virtually eliminate all private and employer-based health care plans”—exactly as the president claimed.

His “most” wording cleverly attempted to elide the fact that the most prominent Democratic plan—the one endorsed by everyone from Sanders to Sens. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), Cory Booker (D-NJ), Kamala Harris (D-CA), and Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), and vigorously pursued by the activist left—does exactly what Trump claimed.

I have little doubt that, had the president inflated the Mercatus study’s estimated cost of Sanders’ single-payer plan—for instance, had Trump said it would cost $42 trillion, or $52 trillion, instead of using the $32 trillion number—Diamond (and others) would have instantly “fact checked” the incorrect number. Given that Diamond, and just about everyone else, knew Trump was talking about the single-payer bill, this so-called “fact check”—which discussed everything but the bill Trump referenced—looks both smarmy and pedantic, specifically designed to divert attention from the most prominent Democratic plan put forward, and Trump’s (accurate) claims about it.

Medicare Benefits Not Guaranteed

Ironically, if Diamond really wanted to fact check the president, as opposed to playing political games, he had a wide open opportunity to do so, on at least two levels. In both cases, he whiffed completely.

In the middle of his riff on single-payer health care, President Trump said this: “Robbing from our senior citizens—you know that? It’s going to be one of the great catastrophes ever. The benefits—they paid, for their entire lives—are going to be taken away.” Wrong, wrong, wrong.

Politicians can claim all they want that people “paid into” Medicare to get back their benefits, but it isn’t true. The average senior receives far more in benefits than what he or she paid into the system, and the gap is growing. Medicare’s existing cash crunch makes a compelling case against expanding government-run health care, but it still doesn’t mean that seniors “paid for” all (as opposed merely to some) of the benefits they receive.

Second, as I have previously noted, Sanders’ bill is not “Medicare-for-all.” It’s “Medicare-for-none.” Section 901(a)(1)(A) of the bill would end benefits under the current Medicare program, and Section 701(d) of the bill would liquidate the existing Medicare trust fund. If seniors like the Medicare coverage, including the privately run Medicare Advantage plans, they have now, they would lose it. Period.

To sum up, in this case Politico ignored:

  1. The cost of the pre-existing condition “protections”—how they raise premiums, and how Obamacare advocates don’t want to mention that fact when talking about them;
  2. The way that the most prominent Democratic health care bill—the one that President Trump very clearly referred to in his remarks—would abolish private coverage and force hundreds of millions of individuals on to government-run health care;
  3. Inaccurate claims President Trump made about seniors having “earned” all their Medicare benefits; and
  4. The fact that Sanders’ bill would actually abolish Medicare for seniors.

And people say the media have an ideological bias in favor of greater government control of health care. Why on earth would they think that?

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

How the Obama Administration Hid Facts to Pass Obamacare

Over the weekend, Politico ran a report about how a “Trump policy shop filters facts to fit his message.” The article cited several unnamed sources complaining about the office of the Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation (ASPE) within the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), and its allegedly politicized role within the current administration.

One of the article’s anonymous sources called ASPE’s conduct over the past 18 months “another example of how we’re moving to a post-fact era.” Richard Frank, a former Obama appointee and one of the few sources to speak on the record, said that he found the current administration’s “attack on the integrity and the culture of the office…disturbing.”

As a congressional staffer conducting oversight of the CLASS Act in 2011-12, I reviewed thousands of pages of e-mails and documents from the months leading up to Obamacare’s passage. Those records strongly suggest that ASPE officials, including Frank, withheld material facts from Congress and the public about CLASS’s unsustainability, because full and prompt disclosure could have jeopardized Obamacare’s chances of passage.

About the CLASS Act ‘Ponzi scheme’

The Community Living Assistance Services and Supports program, or CLASS for short, intended to provide a voluntary insurance benefit for long-term care. Included as part of Obamacare, the program never got off the ground. In October 2011, HHS concluded it could not implement the program in an actuarially sound manner; Congress repealed the program entirely as part of the “fiscal cliff” deal enacted into law in the early days of 2013.

CLASS’s prime structural problem closely resembled that of the Obamacare exchanges—too many sick people, and not enough healthy ones. Disability lobbyists strongly supported the CLASS Act, hoping that it would provide financial support to individuals with disabilities. However, its voluntary nature meant that the more people already with disabilities enrolled and qualified for benefits, the higher premiums would rise, thereby discouraging healthy people from signing up.

Moreover, although actuarially questionable in the long-term, CLASS’s structure provided short-term fiscal benefits that aided Obamacare’s passage. Because CLASS required a five-year waiting period to collect benefits, the program would generate revenue early in its lifespan—and thus in the ten-year window budget analysts would use to score Obamacare—even if it could not maintain balance over a longer, 75-year timeframe.

This dynamic led the Senate Budget Committee Chairman Kent Conrad (D-ND), to dub CLASS “a Ponzi scheme of the first order, the kind of thing Bernie Madoff would have been proud of.”

Internal Concerns Minimized in Public

A report I helped draft, which several congressional offices released in September 2011—weeks before HHS concluded that program implementation would not go forward—highlighted concerns raised within the department during the debate on Obamacare about CLASS’ unsustainable nature. For instance, in September 2009, one set of talking points prepared by ASPE indicated that, even after changes made by Congress, CLASS “is still likely to create severe adverse selection problems”—i.e., too many sick people would enroll to make the program sustainable.

Frank told me that, during one public speech in October 2009, “I spent about half my time setting out the problems with CLASS that needed to be fixed.” He did indeed highlight some of the actuarial challenges the CLASS program faced. But Frank’s remarks, at a Kaiser Family Foundation event, closed thusly:

We’ve, in the department, have modeled this extensively, perhaps more extensively than anybody would want to hear about [laughter] and we’re entirely persuaded that reasonable premiums, solid participation rates, and financial solvency over the 75-year period can be maintained. So it is, on this basis, that the Administration supports it that the bill continues to sort of meet the standards of being able to stand on its own financial feet. Thanks.

Frank told me over the weekend that his comments “came at the end of my explaining that we were in the process of addressing those issues” (emphasis mine). But Frank actually said that the Obama administration was “entirely persuaded” of CLASS’ solvency, which gives the impression not that the department had begun a process of addressing those issues, but had already resolved them.

Frank’s public comments notwithstanding, ASPE had far from resolved the actuarial problems plaguing CLASS. Two days after his speech, one of Frank’s employees sent around an internal e-mail suggesting that the CLASS Act “seems like a recipe for disaster.”

But the ‘Fixes’ Fall Short

In response to these new analyses, HHS and ASPE came up with a package of technical fixes designed to make the CLASS program actuarially sound. One section of those fixes noted that “it is possible the authority in the bill to modify premiums will not be sufficient to ensure the program is sustainable.”

However, the proposed changes came too late:

  • No changes to the CLASS Act made it into the final version of Obamacare, which then-Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) filed in the Senate on December 19, 2009.
  • The election of Scott Brown (R-MA) to replace the late Kennedy in January 2010 prevented Democrats from fixing the CLASS Act through a House-Senate conference committee, as Brown had pledged to be the “41st Republican” in the Senate who would prevent a conference report from receiving a final vote.
  • While the House and Senate could (and did) pass some changes to Obamacare on a party-line vote through the budget reconciliation process, the Senate’s “Byrd rule” on inclusion of incidental matters in a budget reconciliation bill prevented them from addressing CLASS.

The White House’s own health care proposal, released in February 2010, discussed “a series of changes to the Senate bill to improve the CLASS program’s financial stability and ensure its long-run solvency.” But as HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius later testified before the Senate Finance Committee, the “Byrd rule” procedures for budget reconciliation meant that those changes never saw the light of day—and could not make it into law.

Kinda Looks Like a Conspiracy of Silence

By the early months of 2010, officials at ASPE knew they had a program that they could not fix legislatively, and could fail as a result. Yet at no point between January 2010, when ASPE proposed its package of technical changes, through Obamacare’s enactment, did anyone within the administration admit that the program could prove impossible to implement.

Over the weekend, I asked Frank about this silence. He responded that “when the reconciliation package was shelved”—which I take to mean that the CLASS changes did not make it into the reconciliation bill, which did pass—“we began working on regulatory remedies that might address the flaws in CLASS.” However, from the outset some of Frank’s own employees believed those changes might prove insufficient to make the program actuarially sound, as it later proved.

To put it another way: In February 2011, Sebelius testified before the Senate Finance Committee that “the snapshot [of CLASS] in the bill, I would absolutely agree, is totally unsustainable.” She, Frank, and others within the administration had known this fact one year previously: They just hoped they could arrive at a package of regulatory changes that would overcome the law’s structural flaws.

But did anyone within the administration disclose that CLASS was “totally unsustainable” as written back in February 2010? No, because doing so could have jeopardized Obamacare’s chances of passage. The law passed the House on a narrow 219-212 margin.

If HHS had publicly conceded that CLASS could become a “zombie” program—one that they could not fix, but could not remove—it would have caused a political firestorm, and raised broader questions about the bill’s fiscal integrity that could have prevented its enactment.

Was Obamacare Sold on a Lie?

Conservatives have pilloried Obamacare for the many false statements used to sell the law, from the infamous “Lie of the Year” that “If you like your plan, you can keep it” to the repeated promises about premium reductions, Barack Obama’s “firm pledge” to avoid middle-class tax increases, and on and on.

But there are sins of both commission and omission, and the CLASS Act falls into the latter category. Regardless of whether one uses the loaded term “lie” to characterize the sequence of events described above, the public statements by HHS officials surrounding the program prior to Obamacare’s enactment fell short of the full and unvarnished truth, both as they knew it at the time, and as events later proved.

Politico can write all it wants about ASPE under Trump “filter[ing] facts to fit his message.” But ASPE’s prior failure to disclose the full scope of problems the CLASS Act faced represents a textbook example of a bureaucracy hiding inconvenient truths to enact its agenda. If anonymous HHS bureaucrats now wish to attack a “post-fact era” under Trump, they should start by taking a hard look in the mirror at what they did under President Obama to enact Obamacare.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

D.C.’s Latest Health “Reform:” Seizing People’s Property

Just when you think the move for government control of health care couldn’t get any worse, somehow it manages to. Last Wednesday, the District of Columbia City Council approved a requirement for all DC residents to purchase health insurance. The mandate would take effect in January, right when the federal mandate penalty drops to $0, as per last year’s tax law.

The D.C. mandate contains three elements that make it just as bad as, if not worse than, the federal mandate it is intended to replace.

A (Deliberately?) Opaque Process

A cynic might believe that the D.C. Council acted in such a low-key manner by design. The council did not approve the mandate as a stand-alone bill, but wrapped it into a 297-page Budget Support Act. That bill contains such unrelated provisions as an amendment regarding the Fort Dupont Ice Arena, technical corrections to a supermarket tax incentive program, and amendments regarding civic associations using public schools.

Likewise, a press release by the D.C. Council summarizing Wednesday’s meeting contained not a word about imposing the individual mandate, nor did the council website show any stand-alone votes on the mandate itself. This lack of disclosure pushed me to contact my council member, Charles Allen, to find out what had happened at the council meeting Wednesday.

Upon hearing that the mandate as passed of a much larger package, I asked one of Allen’s staffers whether this provision had been “snuck in at the last minute.” The staffer said DC Mayor Muriel Bowser had proposed the mandate as part of her budget submission to the council back in March. He then rather sheepishly added that, while people had testified on behalf of other portions of the Budget Support Act, no one had spoken about the mandate specifically.

For a district that decries “Taxation Without Representation,” this Nancy Pelosi-esque behavior—where we literally had to pass the bill to find out what was in it—seems to embody the very congressional tactics that DC leaders love to hate.

Harsher Penalties for Violators

During the 2009-10 debate on Obamacare, the threat of penalties for violating the individual mandate became a source of intense controversy. During the Senate Finance Committee’s markup, Sen. John Ensign (R-NV) received a handwritten note from Thomas Barthold, head of the Joint Committee on Taxation, stating that, under federal law, non-payment of the mandate tax could result in imprisonment. Democrats buckled under this political pressure, removing from the Internal Revenue Service the power to imprison violators, or impose liens on personal property, for non-payment of the mandate tax.

By contrast, the district’s mandate—which comprises pages 168-182 of the Budget Support Act—includes this language at the bottom of page 180: “A taxpayer who fails to pay the District of Columbia shared responsibility payment imposed…shall be subject to all collection, enforcement, and administrative provisions applicable to unpaid taxes or fees, as provided in Chapter 18, Chapter 41, Chapter 42, Chapter 43, and Chapter 44 of this title [emphasis mine].”

Unlike the federal Internal Revenue Code, it does not appear at first glance that the district’s tax law allows for imprisoning individuals for non-payment of taxes (as opposed to deliberate tax evasion or fraud). However, Chapter 44 includes the following language:

If a person determined to be liable to the District of Columbia for a tax neglects or refuses to pay the tax within 10 days after notice and demand, the Mayor may collect the tax, with interest and penalties thereon (and an amount sufficient to cover the expenses of the levy), by levy upon all property (including rights to property) of the person or on which there is a lien provided in this chapter for the payment of the tax.

No wonder the D.C. Council didn’t want to hold an up-or-down vote on just this provision.

Hypocrisy Much?

Another relevant fact to the district’s mandate: The head of the District’s health insurance exchange—which recommended creating a DC mandate following the removal of the federal tax penalty—doesn’t buy exchange coverage herself. As I previously noted, many exchange heads (and Obamacare supporters) refuse to buy the coverage they promote, including the head of the district’s exchange, Mila Kofman.

When I discovered in late 2016 that I could not retain that plan in 2017, due in part to regulations imposed by the district’s exchange, I attended a meeting of the exchange authority. I asked Kofman whether she, and other exchange employees, purchased exchange coverage. She claimed that she and her colleagues could not purchase exchange policies, because they would lose their employer subsidy in the process.

I don’t know whether Bowser and the DC Council behave similarly to Kofman, but I can guess. On Thursday afternoon, I e-mailed Bowser’s office asking about the DC insurance mandate, and whether Bowser received a taxpayer subsidy for her insurance coverage. (The district’s mayor receives a salary of $200,000 annually.) I also asked what Bowser would “say to District residents like me—who make far less in salary than she does, yet do not receive [taxpayer-]subsidized benefits—being forced to buy coverage under penalty not just of taxation, but of property seizures through DC’s tax enforcement mechanisms?”

Wouldn’t you know it: I have yet to receive a response.

Here Are Some Policy Solutions

Thankfully, several of the policy and process problems outlined above contain within them readily achievable solutions:

  • The D.C. Council should pass legislation requiring the mayor, council, exchange CEO, and exchange board members to buy coverage through the exchange—without using separate taxpayer-funded benefits available to other district employees.
  • If the council will not act, the Trump administration could promulgate regulations requiring the CEOs and board members of all state-run exchanges (including the district’s) to buy the coverage they promote and oversee.
  • Congress could also exercise its constitutional prerogatives and strike down the district’s individual mandate, ensuring that no individuals will have their property seized by an overzealous government if they cannot afford to buy “bureaucrat-approved” health insurance.

Better yet: The District of Columbia Council could decide to stop micromanaging its residents’ health care by surreptitiously passing onerous mandates in legislation that few district residents know about.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

A Rebuttal to George Will — And a Template for Congressional Republicans

Last week venerable conservative columnist George Will called for voting against Republicans this November to rebuke President Trump, provoking no small amount of commentary. Some focused on dissecting the flaws in his theory—it would create bad policy outcomes, particularly on judges (a point Will conceded), and could make the Republican Party even more dependent upon Trump and his acolytes.

Into this debate unwittingly stepped Politico earlier this week, with a profile of Pennsylvania’s junior senator, Republican Pat Toomey. Having just won re-election to a six-year term, Toomey faces three big political advantages: First, he will not have to face an anti-Trump wave this year. Second, he will not share the ballot with Trump in two years. Third, he won his 2016 re-election by nearly twice as many votes as Trump did. The way he opposed Trump’s trade policies provides a useful template for others within his party to dissent from the chief executive.

1. Pick Something Important

First, speak out on an issue you care about—one of significant national import. Toomey believes that a trade war President Trump’s tariffs prompted could spark a major economic downturn, and undo the effects of the tax legislation passed late last year. He notes that the tariffs, along with the threats of more to come, are “already doing real damage,” such as this week’s news about Harley-Davidson moving some manufacturing overseas.

Politico notes that Toomey’s newfound role as “Trump’s sharpest antagonist on trade policy” stems from “his passion on economic issues,” a passion I know well. I still remember absorbing the arguments he made in drafts of his book: If foreign countries want to invest in the United States—and bring down the cost of goods Americans consume in the process—why should politicians enact arbitrary obstacles to that growth?

That argument holds little weight with Trump, who generally sees conflict in zero-sum terms—a trade deficit with another country must mean America has lost to someone, somehow. But it’s already resonating with some Harley owners.

2. Mind the Separation of Powers

Second, remember the important role that separation of powers plays. Will’s column harrumphed at Congress’ supine status, stating that a Republican congressional minority “will be stripped of the Constitution’s Article I powers that they have been too invertebrate to use against the current wielder of Article II powers.” He cites Madison in Federalist 51: “Ambition must be made to counteract ambition. The interest of the man must be connected with the constitutional rights of the place.”

Into that breach stepped Toomey on trade. He has given floor speeches rightly pointing out that he and his colleagues “are not potted plants.” In an interview with Politico, he asserted the institutional prerogatives that Will thought Republicans had heretofore forgotten: “The Constitution is completely unambiguous….It is the authority of Congress to establish tariffs….We’ve given him [i.e., the President] a lot of authority, and I think that is authority that should reside with Congress.”

3. Disagree Politely

Third, agree to disagree agreeably. Toomey does not understate the impact of Trump’s policies on trade: “We’ve crossed the Rubicon,” he notes. But in Politico’s words, he disagrees “politely but pointedly.” No calls for public heckling of cabinet officials, in the vein of Rep. Maxine Waters (D-CA). No intemperate tweets, either.

On both the policy of free trade and the necessity of the legislative branch standing firm in its beliefs, Will agrees with Toomey. His column last week highlighted the thwarted efforts of Sen. Bob Corker (R-TN), Toomey’s partner, in their joint effort to prevent presidents from using national security reasons to impose tariffs unilaterally. Rather than focusing on the unsuccessful efforts of a senator departing Congress this fall, Will might do well to bolster the efforts of an earnest senator who will remain for four years more—and cultivate more like him.

I sympathize with Will’s plight about elections presenting bad, or at minimum sub-optimal, choices. During most of last year, when Republicans debated health care, many lawmakers focused more on the political goal of finding a bill that could garner enough votes to pass rather than achieving positive policy outcomes—lowering premiums, promoting health care freedom, and so on. Viewed through this prism, the midterm elections might appear a choice between a Republican Party with few coherent or decipherable principles and a Democratic Party fully embracing the wrong ones.

But an exemplar like Toomey, and the wisdom of scripture, suggest another possible outcome. In Genesis, God told Lot he would spare Sodom’s destruction to save ten righteous people in the city. Rather than waiting for electoral fire and brimstone to rain down on the licentious or sycophantic elements of the GOP in November, perhaps Will would do well to focus on highlighting the lawmakers like Toomey—Utah’s Sen. Mike Lee presents another obvious example—worth saving.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

Michael Cohen and “The Swamp”

Recent revelations surrounding the business clients of Michael Cohen, Donald Trump’s personal attorney, demonstrate the seedy underbelly of the lobbying business in Washington. At least one company that hired Cohen admitted that it got suckered by someone who couldn’t deliver what he promised. Many companies consider these types of expenditures the cost of doing business.

Last Tuesday, attorney Michael Avenatti released a report claiming that Cohen’s firm, Essential Consultants, received millions of dollars in payments from various companies, including one linked to a Russian oligarch. Avenatti, a Trump critic, represents onscreen prostitute Stormy Daniels in a lawsuit seeking to nullify a non-disclosure agreement Daniels and Cohen reached regarding the former’s alleged affair with Trump.

While Avenatti’s original report claimed Novartis paid Cohen just under $400,000, the company later confirmed payments totaling three times that amount, or $1.2 million. In an interview, an unnamed Novartis employee gave commentary into what amounts to a corporate comedy of errors:

He [Cohen] reached out to us…With a new Administration coming in, basically, all the traditional contacts disappeared and they were all new players. We were trying to find an inroad into the Administration. Cohen promised access to not just Trump, but also the circle around him. It was almost as if we were hiring him as a lobbyist.

To paraphrase the British phrase used when a new sovereign assumes the throne: “The (Old) Swamp is dead! Long live The (New) Swamp!”

Unfortunately for Novartis, however, the firm locked itself in to a one-year agreement at a $100,000 monthly retainer—ridiculously high by most Washington lobbying standards—only to discover that Cohen could not deliver. According to the Novartis employee, it took but one meeting for the bloom to come off of the rose: “At first it all sounded impressive, but toward the end of the meeting, everyone realized this was probably a slippery slope to engage him. So they decided not to really engage Cohen for any activities after that.”

AT&T and Novartis admitted on Wednesday that the office of special counsel Robert Mueller contacted both about their relationships with Cohen. In analyzing their behavior, assume that both companies acted legally—that their payments to Cohen were solely for consulting services, and not as part of some quid pro quo scheme directly tied to an official act, whether by Cohen, Trump, or anyone else.

On one hand, the companies exercised exceedingly poor judgment. Novartis CEO Vas Narasimhan (who was not running the company when Novartis signed its 2017 agreement with Cohen) admitted on Thursday that the company “made a mistake in entering into this engagement,” signing away more than a million dollars in shareholder money to someone without undertaking any due diligence as to whether he could deliver what he had promised.

Novartis also vastly overpaid Cohen, even if it had engaged him for more activities than a single meeting. As I noted on Twitter, I could have cautioned them about the dim chances for Obamacare repeal for half the $1.2 million they paid Cohen. (If they had asked nicely, I might have done so for even one-quarter that sum.) Very few if any Washington lobbying firms can command a six-figure monthly retainer from one client, yet Novartis paid that much to a single individual.

As Politico noted, Trump’s “2016 victory rattled corporations enough that clients were eager to pay top dollar to anyone who could help them understand the Administration in its first months.” Because no one thought Trump could win—and therefore spent little time reaching out to him or his campaign in the summer and fall of 2016— after the election corporations felt the need to overcompensate, throwing money at anyone with a connection to Trump, in the hopes of ingratiating themselves with the new administration. I saw some of this myself in late 2016 and early 2017, when companies and financial firms came out of the woodwork asking me to predict what the new Congress and administration would do on health care. (Trust me: My offers didn’t come anywhere close to $1.2 million.)

Firms often spend sizable sums on lobbying. Novartis has “nearly a dozen lobbying firms on retainer,” for which it paid $8.6 million last year. In some cases, companies or industries have so many lobbying firms on retainer that the ineffective ones often attempt to take credit for the “wins” achieved by the effective ones. However, given how federal policy initiatives can affect both a company’s revenue and its stock price—witness the market volatility surrounding President Trump’s proposals on drug pricing—companies have little choice but to play the K Street game.

It seems ridiculous to pay $1.2 million to an individual for a single meeting, and it is. But only a smaller role for the federal government—in taxing, spending, and regulations—would bring an end to the types of influence-peddling stories like those surrounding Cohen this week. Unfortunately, it’s the price of doing business for many companies—and a symptom of a government run amok.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

Mixed Messages on Paul Ryan’s Entitlement Record

Upon news of House Speaker Paul Ryan’s retirement Wednesday, liberals knew to attack him, but didn’t know exactly why. Liberal Politico columnist Michael Grunwald skewered Ryan’s hypocrisy on fiscal discipline:

Ryan’s support for higher spending has not been limited to defense and homeland security. He supported Bush’s expansion of prescription drug benefits, as well as the auto bailout and Wall Street bailout during the financial crisis…Ryan does talk a lot about reining in Medicaid, Medicare, and Social Security, for which he’s routinely praised as a courageous truth-teller. But he’s never actually made entitlement reform happen. Congress did pass one law during his tenure that reduced Medicare spending by more than $700 billion, but that law was Obamacare, and Ryan bitterly opposed it.

For the record, Ryan opposed Obamacare because, as he repeatedly noted during the 2012 campaign, the law “raided” Medicare to pay for Obamacare. (Kathleen Sebelius, a member of President Obama’s cabinet, admitted the law used Medicare spending reductions to both “save Medicare” and “fund health care reform.”)

Compare that with a Vox article, titled “Paul Ryan’s Most Important Legacy is Trump’s War on Medicaid”: “[Paul] Ryan’s dreams are alive and well. Through work requirements and other restrictions, President Donald Trump could eventually oversee the most significant rollback of Medicaid benefits in the program’s 50-year history.” It goes on to talk about how the administration “is carrying on Ryan’s Medicaid-gutting agenda.”

Which is it? On fiscal discipline, is Ryan an incompetent hypocrite, or a slash-and-burn maniac throwing poor people out on the streets? As in most cases, reality contains nuance. Several caveats are in order.

First, Ryan’s budgets always contained “magic asterisks.” As the Los Angeles Times noted in 2012, “the budget resolutions he wrote would have left that Medicare ‘raid’ in place”—because Republicans could only achieve the political goal of a balanced budget within ten years by retaining Obamacare’s tax increases and Medicare reductions.” The budgets generally repealed the Obamacare entitlements, thus allowing the Medicare reductions to bolster that program rather than financing Obamacare. The budgets served as messaging documents, but generally lacked many of the critical details to transform them from visions into actual policy.

Second, to the best of my recollections, Ryan never took on the leadership of his party on a major policy issue. Former GOP House Speaker John Boehner famously never requested an earmark during a quarter-century in Congress. Sen. John McCain’s “Maverick” image came from his fight against fellow Republicans on campaign finance reform.

But whether as a backbencher or a committee chair, Ryan rarely bucked the party line. That meant voting for the Bush administration’s big-spending bills like the Medicare Modernization Act and TARP—both of which the current vice president, Mike Pence, voted against while a backbench member of Congress.

Third, particularly under this president, Republicans do not want to reform entitlements. As I noted during the 2016 election, neither presidential candidate made an issue of entitlement reform, or Medicare’s impending insolvency. In fact, both went out of their way to avoid the issue. Any House speaker would have difficulty convincing this president to embrace substantive entitlement reforms.

In general, one can argue that, contrary to his image as a leader on fiscal issues, Ryan too readily followed. Other Republicans would support his austere budgets, which never had the force of law, but he would support their big-spending bills, many of which made it to the statute books.

On one issue, however, Ryan did lead—and in the worst possible way. As I wrote last fall, Ryan brought to the House floor legislation repealing Obamacare’s cap on Medicare spending. This past February, that repeal became law.

Ryan could have sought to retain that cap while discarding the unelected, unaccountable board Obamacare created to enforce it. As a result, Ryan’s “legacy” on entitlement reform will consist of his role as the first speaker to repeal a cap on entitlement spending.

Primum non nocere—first, do no harm. Ryan may not have had the power to compel Republicans to reform entitlements, but he did have the power—if he had had the courage—to prevent his own party from making the problem any worse. He did not.

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.