Three Reasons to Oppose the Swampy Budget Deal

On Monday, congressional leaders and the Trump administration announced agreement on legislation that would set budget and spending parameters for the next two years. The agreement would suspend the debt limit through July 2021, and establish spending levels for lawmakers to enact appropriations measures for the remainder of this Congress.

Conservatives have rightly criticized the agreement as abandoning the principles of smaller government, with a return to the trillion-dollar deficits seen under Barack Obama (and this time under a more robust economy). Among the many reasons to oppose the agreement, three in particular stand out.

1. More Spending Now

When the Budget Control Act, which established the existing spending caps, passed in the summer of 2011, Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-KY)—then the minority leader, now the majority leader—famously said it would slow down the “big government freight train.”

But in the time since that bill’s enactment, McConnell and his colleagues in Congress have repeatedly increased the Budget Control Act’s spending caps, speeding up the big government freight train over and over again.

2. More Spending Later

On one level, the agreement at least wins points for honesty, by abandoning the pretense that Congress has any interest in controlling spending. However, future generations will wish that Congress had substituted some actual fiscal discipline for profligacy.

3. No Policy Improvements

To assuage the conservative concerns about the package’s spending binge, Republican leaders have pointed to other language in the agreement. Specifically, the text states that Republican leaders and the White House would have a veto on any appropriations riders passed by the Democratic House that would seek to (for instance) defund regulatory actions by the current administration:

Congressional leaders and the Administration agree that, relative to the [Fiscal Year] 2019 regular appropriations acts, there will be no poison pills, additional new riders…other changes in policy or conventions…or any non-appropriations measures unless agreed to on a bipartisan basis by the four leaders with the approval of the President.

In theory, this language blocks Democrats from eliminating restrictions on taxpayer funding of abortion, among other liberal priorities.

If Democrats could block Republicans from enacting appropriations policy riders over the past two years, despite serving in the minority, could Republicans have blocked Democrats from enacting their own policy riders with continued control of the Senate and White House? That question should answer itself—provided Republicans had any spine (admittedly an uncertain prospect).

Instead, Republicans agreed to hundreds of billions of dollars in additional spending to “win” something they already had—an understanding that neither side would enact appropriations policy riders. Taken from the most cynical perspective, the agreement uses the pro-life community’s worries about Democratic riders—riders which both the White House and Republican Senate already had the means to stop—to rationalize congressional Republicans’ continued spending binge.

Trump came into office pledging to “drain the swamp.” But the new government spending contemplated by this agreement wouldn’t drain the swamp so much as grow it. Conservatives, and the American people as a whole, deserve better.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

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.

How Obamacare Is RAISING Premiums and Costs

The Administration has announced a conference call with press this afternoon, where Secretary Sebelius is expected to make announcements regarding Obamacare’s exchanges.  It is likely that the Administration will once again attempt to repeat the old saw that Exchanges will lower premiums.  Here’s what you need to remember about this bogus claim:

  1. Obamacare’s Exchanges will actually RAISE premiums, not lower them.  The Administration claim that Exchanges will lower premiums ignores the fact that Obamacare’s new benefit mandates will increase individual market insurance premiums overall – by an average of $2,100 per family, according to the Congressional Budget Office.  CBO also agrees that much of this increase in premiums will come from individuals being forced to buy richer coverage than they may need or want.  Politico summarized this HHS sleight-of-hand: “The Administration omits a part of CBO’s analysis.…[Obamacare] requires the purchase of benefit packages that are more comprehensive than what many Americans would otherwise buy.  These more generous benefit packages may mean higher premiums.”
  2. Candidate Obama repeatedly promised premiums would go down by $2,500 – and would go down that amount by this year.  For instance, in a speech on February 27, 2008, he said that “We’re going to work with you to lower your premiums by $2500 per family per year.  And we will not wait 20 years from now to do it or 10 years from now to do it.  We will do it by the end of my first term as President.”  Likewise, in July 2008, Jason Furman – who remains a senior economic advisor within the Administration – told the New York Times that “we think we could get to $2,500 in savings by the end of the first term, or be very close to it.”
  3. Secretary Sebelius has publicly admitted that candidate Obama’s goal of a $2,500 premium reduction will not be met.  In September 2010, she said that premium “rate increases are likely to continue to be somewhat substantial.”  And earlier this year, she conceded to questioners at both the House and Senate Appropriations Committees that premiums would not fall until at least 2014, when the Exchanges are first established.  Of course, the Exchanges actually won’t reduce premium costs, as noted in point #1 above.  Regardless, lower premiums in 2014 do NOT meet candidate Obama’s promise: he pledged premiums would go down by $2,500 “by the end of my first term as President.”
  4. Yet another survey issued this week illustrates how Obamacare is NOT controlling health costs or premium increases, both of which continue to skyrocket.  Actuaries at Milliman released their annual medical index yesterday, and it found that the total cost of health care for a family of four in a preferred provider organization rose by 6.9% this year – such that costs now exceed $20,000 for a family of four.  The record $1,335 increase in costs this year alone is far from the $2,500 cut candidate Obama promised back in 2008.

This afternoon’s call should not focus on Secretary Sebelius repeating the same old, tired, and debunked claims that Obamacare will lower premiums.  The real question is whether the Secretary will finally apologize on behalf of the entire Obama Administration for failing to deliver on its broken promise to lower health costs NOW for struggling middle-class families.

Omnibus Includes More Than $1 Billion in Obamacare Funding

The recently released omnibus appropriations measure – which would spend more than $1.25 trillion in this fiscal year – includes $1,009,677,000 in funding to implement Democrats’ unpopular health care law.  That funding includes:

  • An increase of more than $80.7 million in the Department of Health and Human Services’ Departmental Management account, to enforce the new insurance mandates and regulations created in the law.  This $80 million “plus-up” is also significantly higher than the $44.9 million increase proposed in Democrats’ year-long CR.  (Provision found on page 1015 of the legislation.)
  • An increase of over $175.9 million in the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services’ Program Management account, to implement the massive Medicaid expansion and cuts to Medicare Advantage.  (Provision found on pages 1000-1001 of the legislation.)
  • Spending of $750 million from the Prevention and Public Health “slush fund” created in the law.  Among the programs receiving “slush fund” dollars are the new community transformation grant programs, which “could provide billions of dollars for walking paths, streetlights, jungle gyms, and even farmers’ markets,” provisions that have caused controversy.  (Provisions found on pages 983, 988-89, 998, and 999 of the legislation.)
  • Funding of $3 million for the National Health Care Workforce Commission created in the law, just one of the 159 boards, bureaucracies, and programs created by the majority’s government takeover of health care.  (Provision found on page 1077 of the legislation.)

On a related note, page 33 of the Labor-HHS earmark list released by the Appropriations Committee includes a $300,000 earmark for the Center for Asbestos Related Disease, based in Libby, Montana.  You will recall that health coverage for miners in Libby, Montana was one of the earmarks included in the “cash for cloture” agreement on health care last December – but that didn’t stop appropriators from including yet another earmark for Libby, Montana in the omnibus measure.

At a time when the federal government is running trillion-dollar deficits, many may view an omnibus approach to legislation as precisely the wrong way to control skyrocketing federal spending.  Moreover, many may also view the over $1 billion in new funding for the unpopular health care overhaul as a further example of misplaced priorities.

SCHIP Crowd-Out

Background:  The State Children’s Health Insurance Program, established under the Balanced Budget Act (BBA) of 1997, is a state-federal partnership originally designed to provide low-income children with health insurance—specifically, those children under age 19 from families with incomes under 200 percent of the federal poverty level (FPL), or approximately $40,000 for a family of four.  States may implement SCHIP by expanding Medicaid and/or creating a new state SCHIP program.  SCHIP received nearly $40 billion in funding over ten years as part of BBA, and legislation recently passed by Congress in December (P.L. 110-173) extended the program through March 2009, while providing additional SCHIP funds for states.

One concern of many conservatives regarding the SCHIP program relates to crowd-out—a phenomenon whereby individuals who had previously held private health insurance drop that coverage in order to enroll in a public program.  The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) analysis of H.R. 3963, a five-year SCHIP reauthorization which the President vetoed (and the House failed to override), found that of the 5.8 million children who would obtain Medicaid or SCHIP coverage under the legislation, more than one-third, or 2 million, would do so by dropping private health insurance coverage.

Administration Guidance:  In order to prevent policies that encourage crowd-out, and ensure that SCHIP funds are more effectively allocated to the low-income beneficiaries for whom the program was created, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS), on August 17, 2007, issued guidance to state health officials about the way CMS would evaluate proposals by states to expand their SCHIP programs to include families with incomes above 250% of the federal poverty level (FPL).  Specifically, CMS included several steps which states should take before contemplating expansions above 250% of FPL:

  • Cost sharing requirements for state plans similar to those for private plans;
  • A one-year period of uninsurance for beneficiaries prior to receiving SCHIP coverage, to ensure that individuals and families are not dropping private coverage in order to receive benefits on government rolls;
  • Monitoring of child beneficiaries’ eligibility for coverage provided by non-custodial parents;
  • Assurance that states have enrolled at least 95% of children in families below 200% of FPL who are eligible for coverage under SCHIP or Medicaid;
  • Data that private insurance coverage for targeted populations has not declined more than two percentage points in the past five years; and
  • Regular monthly reporting of enrollment data monitoring crowd-out in state plans.

The guidance intended to maximize the use of state and federal SCHIP funding by ensuring that scarce resources are targeted at the populations for whom the program was originally created, and that government funds for health insurance are not merely replacing private dollars.  CMS later used the policies embodied in the August letter to reject New York’s application to extend SCHIP to children in families making up to 400% FPL—or nearly $85,000 per year.  New York and other states are suing the federal government to overturn CMS’ decision and allow further expansion of government-funded health insurance.

On May 7, 2008, CMS issued another letter to state health officials providing further clarification on the August 17, 2007 guidance.  The letter indicated that CMS would work with states to evaluate whether the states have effectively enrolled 95% of eligible children below 200% FPL before expanding their programs up the income scale.  It also noted that CMS does not expect states to apply the anti-crowd-out provisions—including the one-year waiting period for SCHIP coverage and cost-sharing requirements comparable to private insurance plans—for unborn children or children with family incomes below 250% FPL—approximately $53,000 for a family of four.  Most importantly, the letter noted that changes made to state procedures need not be applied to current enrollees—meaning that no child need be dropped off the SCHIP rolls as a result of CMS’ August 17, 2007 letter.

Recent Legislative Developments:  On May 15, 2008, the House Energy and Commerce Committee held a legislative hearing on H.R. 5998, introduced by Reps. Frank Pallone (D-NJ) and Carol Shea-Porter (D-NH).  The legislation would prohibit the Administration from implementing its August 17, 2007 guidance letter to states regarding SCHIP crowd-out.  Press reports indicate that during the hearing, advocates of the legislation argued first that it would negatively impact enrollment in the SCHIP program, and second that the Government Accountability Office (GAO) and other experts have concluded that CMS violated the Congressional Review Act by promulgating its policy as a “guidance letter,” rather than issuing a formal rule using notice-and-comment procedures.  In response, Health Subcommittee Ranking Member Nathan Deal (R-GA) noted that the guidance process allowed for more flexibility in responding to any concerns raised by states than would a formal rule.

On the same day, an amendment by Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ) to nullify the August 17 letter was attached to the wartime supplemental spending bill at a Senate Appropriations Committee markup.  This SCHIP provision was added to legislative provisions overriding seven Medicaid anti-fraud regulations issued by CMS, which were also attached to the House version (H.R. 2642) of the supplemental spending bill.

Conclusion:  Most conservatives support enrollment and funding of the SCHIP program for the populations for whom the SCHIP program was created.  That is why in December the House passed, by a 411—3 vote, legislation reauthorizing and extending the SCHIP program through March 2009.  That legislation included an additional $800 million in funding for states to ensure that all currently eligible children will continue to have access to state-based SCHIP coverage.

However, many conservatives retain concerns about the significant expansions of SCHIP contemplated by House Democrats and their impact on reducing private health insurance coverage while increasing reliance on a government-funded program.  In this vein, the Administration’s guidance to states remains consistent with the goal of ensuring that SCHIP remains targeted toward the low-income populations for which it was designed.  Therefore, many conservatives will support the reasonable attempts by CMS to bolster the integrity of the SCHIP program while retaining state plans’ flexibility, and question efforts by Congressional Democrats—and states like New York—to encourage further expansion of government-funded health insurance financed by federal taxpayers.