Rescissions Package Shows Washington’s Spending Problem

Talk about swampy: Republicans control the House, the Senate, and the White House, yet even token attempts to reduce spending cannot succeed.

Last week’s failure of a $15 billion package of rescissions (i.e., spending cuts) that the administration had proposed partly reflected the narrow Republican majority in the Senate. With Republicans’ one-vote margin, objections by Sens. Susan Collins (R-ME) and Richard Burr (R-NC) sank the measure in a 48-50 vote.

Health Care: Dems Demagogue, GOP Caves

Nearly half of the proposed savings, approximately $7 billion, in the rescissions package came from the State Children’s Health Insurance Program (SCHIP)—roughly $5.1 billion in unobligated balances, and $1.9 billion in child enrollment contingency funds for the current fiscal year that ends in September.

Liberals claimed the rescissions package would “gut” the contingency fund and “put the health of children at risk.” However, the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) last month noted that, with respect to the $5.1 billion in unobligated SCHIP balances, “authority to distribute the funds to states…expired in 2017.”

CBO also “projected that the rescission from the child enrollment contingency fund would not affect payments to states.” In sum, the budget office concluded that the $7 billion rescission “would not affect…the number of individuals with insurance coverage.”

Had Republicans stuck to their prior principles on SCHIP, much of the rescissions package would have proved unnecessary. Congress never would have authorized the funds in the first place, eliminating the need to rescind that spending. They did not. Collins voted against the package because of the SCHIP funds, while Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) voted to support it, but very begrudgingly.

Parochial Interests Clip the Other Vote

The other Senate Republican no vote came from Burr, a surprise opponent of the measure. Burr said he opposed the package’s $16 million reduction in funding for the Land and Water Conservation Fund.

Burr’s staff told the Washington Post they had not received assurances that Burr could receive a vote on an amendment striking the land and water reduction from the package, leading the senator to oppose the procedural motion to bring the package to the floor.

On the other hand, killing a $15 billion spending reduction package over literally 0.1 percent of its contents seems more than slightly absurd. With the federal debt at $21 trillion and rising, if Congress will not act on this package—buckets of unspent money lying around at agencies, like spare change under the proverbial couch cushions—when will it discover fiscal discipline?

All Dessert, No Spinach

The defeat of this rescissions package means another may not follow in short order. The administration wanted to propose reductions in spending from March’s omnibus legislation. But appropriators like Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) said that one party clawing back money included in a bipartisan budget deal might impede Congress’ ability to pass budget-busting legislation in the future. (Quelle horreur!)

The administration relented in the short-term, hoping to start a virtuous cycle of fiscal responsibility and set spending-reducing precedent they could build upon. Unfortunately, however, the administration failed to recognize the magnitude of this Congress’ bipartisan addiction to federal spending.

Sooner or later, Congress will end up passing spending reductions of a much larger scale than last week’s rescissions package. That they failed to start that task when they had an easy opportunity—the lowest of the low-hanging fruit—will make the spending reductions Congress ultimately enacts that much larger, and more painful.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

Summary of Health Care “Consensus” Group Plan

Tuesday, a group of analysts including those at the Heritage Foundation released their outline for a way to pass health-care-related legislation in Congress. Readers can find the actual health plan here; a summary and analysis follow below.

What Does the Health Plan Include?

The plan includes parameters for a state-based block grant that would combine funds from Obamacare’s insurance subsidies and its Medicaid expansion into one pot of money. The plan would funnel the block grant funds through the State Children’s Health Insurance Program (SCHIP), using that program’s pro-life protections. In general, states using the block grant would:

  • Spend at least half of the funds subsidizing private health coverage;
  • Spend at least half of the funds subsidizing low-income individuals (which can overlap with the first pot of funds);
  • Spend an unspecified percentage of their funds subsidizing high-risk patients with high health costs;
  • Allow anyone who qualifies for SCHIP or Medicaid to take the value of their benefits and use those funds to subsidize private coverage; and
  • Not face federal requirements regarding 1) essential health benefits; 2) the single risk pool; 3) medical loss ratios; and 4) the 3:1 age ratio (i.e., insurers can charge older customers only three times as much as younger customers).

Is That It?

Pretty much. For instance, the plan remains silent on whether to support an Obamacare “stability” (read: bailout) bill intended to 1) keep insurance markets intact during the transition to the block grant, and 2) attract the votes of moderate Republicans like Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski and Maine Sen. Susan Collins.

As recently as three weeks ago, former Sen. Rick Santorum was telling groups that the proposal would include the Collins “stability” language. However, as I previously noted, doing so would likely lead to taxpayer funding of abortion coverage, because there are few if any ways to attach pro-life protections to Obamacare’s cost-sharing reduction payments to insurers under the special budget reconciliation procedures the Senate would use to consider “repeal-and-replace” legislation.

What Parts of Obamacare Would the Plan Retain?

In short, most of them.

Taxes and Medicare Reductions: By retaining all of Obamacare’s spending, the plan would retain all of Obamacare’s tax increases—either that, or it would increase the deficit. Likewise, the plan says nothing about undoing Obamacare’s Medicare reductions. By retaining Obamacare’s spending levels, the plan would maintain the gimmick of double-counting, whereby the law’s payment reductions are used both to “save Medicare” and fund Obamacare.

Insurance Regulations: The Congressional Research Service lists 22 separate new federal requirements imposed on health insurance plans under Obamacare. The plan would retain at least 14 of them:

  1. Guaranteed issue of coverage—Section 2702 of the Public Health Service Act;
  2. Non-discrimination based on health status—Section 2705 of the Public Health Service Act;
  3. Extension of dependent coverage—Section 2714 of the Public Health Service Act;
  4. Prohibition of discrimination based on salary—Section 2716 of the Public Health Service Act (only applies to employer plans);
  5. Waiting period limitation—Section 2708 of the Public Health Service Act (only applies to employer plans);
  6. Guaranteed renewability—Section 2703 of the Public Health Service Act;
  7. Prohibition on rescissions—Section 2712 of the Public Health Service Act;
  8. Rate review—Section 2794 of the Public Health Service Act;
  9. Coverage of preventive health services without cost sharing—Section 2713 of the Public Health Service Act;
  10. Coverage of pre-existing health conditions—Section 2703 of the Public Health Service Act;
  11. Summary of benefits and coverage—Section 2715 of the Public Health Service Act;
  12. Appeals process—Section 2719 of the Public Health Service Act;
  13. Patient protections—Section 2719A of the Public Health Service Act; and
  14. Non-discrimination regarding clinical trial participation—Section 2709 of the Public Health Service Act.

Are Parts of the Health Plan Unclear?

Yes. For instance, the plan says that “Obamacare requirements on essential health benefits” would not apply in states receiving block grant funds. However, Section 1302 of Obamacare—which codified the essential health benefits requirement—also included two other requirements, one capping annual cost-sharing (Section 1302(c)) and another imposing minimum actuarial value requirements (Section 1302(d)).

Additionally, the plan on two occasions says that “insurers could offer discounts to people who are continuously covered.” House Republicans offered a similar proposal in their American Health Care Act last year, one that imposed penalties on individuals failing to maintain continuous coverage.

However, the plan includes no specific proposal on how insurers could go about offering such discounts, as the plan states that the 3:1 age rating requirement—and presumably only that requirement—would not apply for states receiving block grant funds. It is unclear whether or how insurers would have the flexibility under the plan to offer discounts for continuous coverage if all of Obamacare’s restrictions on premium rating, save that for age, remain.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

Biden Precedent Provides Roadmap for Repealing Obamacare with 51 Votes

With Congress having effectively repealed its individual mandate in the tax relief bill, what should Republicans do about Obamacare now?

While eliminating a penalty for Americans who cannot afford government-approved health insurance removes a financial burden on low-income families, it does not give people the freedom to purchase the coverage they do want to buy. Doubtless the president’s October executive order, when implemented, will provide more affordable options through regulatory relief. But ensuring that relief remains intact through future administrations will require legislative action.

How Joe Biden Used His Senate Presidency

While Democrats did not use budget reconciliation—a Senate procedure allowing bills to pass with a simple 51-vote majority, instead of the 60 votes needed to overcome a filibuster—to pass Obamacare, they did use a reconciliation bill to “fix” the law they passed. In March 2010, the Senate considered, and President Obama eventually signed, a reconciliation bill that removed the odious “Cornhusker Kickback” for Nebraska, and made other amendments to the health law.

That reconciliation bill also changed Obamacare’s regulatory regime. Specifically, Section 2301(a) of the reconciliation measure applied four insurance requirements—limiting waiting periods to join employer plans, banning lifetime limits, ending rescissions by insurers, and extending coverage to “dependents” under age 26—to “grandfathered” health plans established before the law’s enactment. In addition, Section 2301(b) of the bill amended Obamacare itself, removing language that limited under-26 “dependent” coverage to unmarried individuals.

During consideration of the reconciliation bill on the Senate floor, Iowa Republican Chuck Grassley objected to including these provisions. He argued that Section 2301 of the bill violated the Senate’s “Byrd rule,” designed to prevent the inclusion of matters with a merely incidental fiscal component on a budget reconciliation bill. In a colloquy memorialized in the Congressional Record, Vice President Biden, acting in his capacity as president of the Senate, overruled Grassley, and said the provisions in question did in fact comply with the “Byrd rule.”

“Grandfathered” plans do not qualify for Obamacare subsidies, and many do not qualify for any tax preference. Yet Biden held that the new requirements on “grandfathered” plans held enough of a fiscal nexus to comply with the “Byrd rule” for budget reconciliation. As a result, the “Biden precedent” allows the Senate to enact—or to repeal outright—health insurance rules through the reconciliation process.

Democrats Paved the Way for Obamacare Repeal

Moreover, the particular insurance requirements included in Section 2301(a)—especially the restrictions on employer waiting periods and the ban on rescissions—carry a relatively small fiscal impact. Because Vice President Biden ruled that Democrats could enact these comparatively small requirements in a reconciliation bill, Senate Republicans should have every right to repeal more costly restrictions, such as those on essential health benefits and actuarial value, outright through budget reconciliation, rather than relying upon the cumbersome state waiver processes included in last year’s bills.

Senate sources indicate that, recognizing the “Biden precedent” would allow for a robust Obamacare repeal, Democratic staffers tried to limit its impact last year. They argued to Elizabeth MacDonough, the Senate parliamentarian, that changes covered by that precedent were targeted in scope, technical in nature, and limited only to plans that qualify for subsidies.

But a textual analysis of the 2010 reconciliation bill shows that it changed requirements for all types of health insurance, not just “grandfathered” plans, and not just those that qualified for subsidies. And because Biden overruled Republican objections that these changes to insurance rules exceeded the scope of budget reconciliation in 2010, Republicans can and should use that precedent to undo Obamacare’s regulatory regime.

Obamacare’s insurance rules represent the beating heart of the law, necessitating a massive system of subsidies and tax increases to make this newly expensive coverage “affordable.” Because Democrats used the “Biden precedent” to impose some of those rules through budget reconciliation, Republicans have every opportunity to repeal these requirements outright through a reconciliation bill. They should take that opportunity, for removing the regulatory regime would effectively repeal Obamacare—and permanently restore health care freedom to the American people.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

Democrats’ Priorities: Corporate Welfare or Zika?

If Nero was the emperor who fiddled while Rome burned, Barack Obama must surely qualify as the president who dithered while his signature initiative rapidly crumbled. Despite a public-health emergency in sections of the southern United States, the president seems more interested in shoveling money to insurers than in stopping the threat from the Zika virus.

Last week the New York Times reported that the Obama administration was attempting yet another Obamacare relaunch, this one including a federally funded “advertising campaign featuring newly insured individuals, as well as direct appeals to young people hit by tax penalties this year for failing to enroll.” With enrollment in the law’s exchanges well below original estimates, insurers leaving in droves, and premiums ready to spike, the move seems to be a desperate attempt to increase sign-ups and keep insurers at the Obamacare table.

But the timing of the announcement could not be more incongruous. Even as the Department of Health and Human Services wastes taxpayer dollars to promote yet again a measure enacted into law six years ago — on which public opinion has remained decidedly stable (and negative) — HHS also claims that it desperately needs additional funding to fight the Zika virus. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell wrote to HHS on Friday to ask why the agency’s leaders  believe that taxpayer dollars “would be better spent propping up the failed Obamacare exchanges than other important public health priorities — such as preventing the spread of Zika.”

The fact remains, however, that HHS’s top priority is propping up the failed Obamacare experiment — a bigger priority than obeying the text of Obamacare itself. The non-partisan Congressional Research Service and other outside experts have concluded that, in implementing Obamacare’s reinsurance program, the administration violated the law by prioritizing payments to insurers over payments to the Treasury. As a result, insurers will receive billions of dollars in extra funding that legally should be returned to taxpayers.

To sum up the situation: The Obama administration is funneling billions of dollars to “greedy” insurers that Democrats hate, while Nancy Pelosi and other Democrats have called for Congress to return from its recess to pass billions of dollars in spending to fight Zika. There is, however, an easy win-win solution: Use the reinsurance funds to pay for the new Zika spending, rather than giving insurance companies another Obamacare bailout.

The Zika conference report that the House passed in June did pay for new spending on the virus by rescinding some unspent Obamacare funds. Two-thirds of the funds rescinded, however ($543 million in total), came from an account used to establish Obamacare exchanges in United States territories. With exchanges having been established for years, this “rescission” amounts to Congress agreeing not to spend money that was never going to be spent anyway — a “pay for” on paper rather than in reality.

By contrast, utilizing reinsurance funds to finance Zika spending would represent a legitimate savings to taxpayers. Such a move would reclaim billions of dollars that otherwise would have been (unlawfully) diverted to insurance companies — some of which would fund the new Zika spending, and some of which would be returned to the taxpayers to whom the funds belonged in the first place.
Using reinsurance dollars to fund a Zika package would be not only good policy but good politics as well. Most Americans would put the health of infants and pregnant women over the health of insurance companies’ bottom lines — and so should Congress. If Democrats wish to defend crony capitalism and corporate-welfare payments to insurers, that is their right. But particularly after the premium spikes hit this fall, few may wish to do so.

As the old saying goes, to govern is to choose. Senator McConnell rightly pointed out last week that this administration has prioritized its failed Obamacare experiment over protecting Americans from the Zika virus. When it comes to finding any new source to pay for new Zika spending, ending Obamacare’s reinsurance bailout should stand at the top of the priority list.

This post was originally published at National Review.