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 In October 2011, HHS concluded it could not implement the program in an actuarially sound manner; Congress repealed the program entirely as part of the “fiscal cliff” deal enacted into law in the early days of 2013.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.

How a CBO Error Could Cost the Pharmaceutical Industry Billions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

Is the CBO Director Breaking the Law to Help Paul Ryan Bail Out Obamacare?

Why would an ostensibly nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office (CBO) director violate the law and the word he gave to Congress only a few short weeks ago? Maybe because Paul Ryan asked him to.

In late January, I wrote about how the House speaker wanted CBO to violate budget rules to make it easier for Congress to pass an Obamacare bailout. At the time, House leadership aides dismissed my theories as unfounded and inaccurate speculation. Yet buried on page 103 of Monday’s report on the budget and economic outlook, CBO did exactly what I reported on earlier this year—it changed the rules, and violated the law, to make it easier for Congress to pass an Obamacare bailout.

The Making of a Budget Gimmick

Because of the interactions between the (higher) premiums and federal premium subsidies (which went up in turn), the federal government will likely spend more on subsidies this year without making CSR payments than with them.

Therein lay the basis of the budgetary gimmick Ryan and congressional leaders wanted CBO to help them accomplish. House staffers wanted CBO to adjust its baseline and assume the higher levels of spending under the “no-CSR” scenario. By turning around and appropriating funds for CSRs, thereby lowering this higher baseline, Congress could generate budgetary “savings”—which Republicans could spend on more corporate welfare for insurers, in the form of reinsurance payments.

The Problem? It’s Illegal

As I previously noted, the House’s scheme, and CBO’s actions on Monday to perpetrate that scheme, violate the law. Section 257(b)(1) of the Gramm-Rudman-Hollings Act (available here) requires budget scorekeeping agencies to assume that “funding for entitlement authority is…adequate to make all payments required by those laws.”

Following my January post, Rep. Dave Brat (R-VA) asked CBO Director Keith Hall about this issue at a House Budget Committee hearing. Hall noted that CBO had been treating the cost-sharing reductions “as an entitlement, so it’s”—that is, the full funding of CSRs in the baseline—“remained there, unless we get direction to do something different. We’re assuming essentially that the money will be found somewhere, because it’s an entitlement.”

In a separate exchange with Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-IL) at the same hearing, Hall went even further: He said, “We’ve treated the cost-sharing reductions actually as an entitlement, at least so far until we get other direction from the Budget Committee.”

Then Comes the Flip-Flop

Yet Monday’s document on the budget outlook did exactly what Hall said mere weeks ago that CBO would not. A paragraph deep in the section on “Technical Changes in Outlays” included this nugget:

Technical revisions caused estimates of spending for subsidies for coverage purchased through the marketplaces established under the ACA and related spending to be $44 billion higher, on net, over the 2018–2027 period than in CBO’s June baseline. A significant factor contributing to the increase is that the current baseline projections reflect that the entitlement for subsidies for cost-sharing reductions (CSRs) is being funded through higher premiums and larger premium tax credit subsidies rather than through a direct appropriation.

In the span of a few weeks, then, Hall and CBO went from “We’re assuming essentially that the money [i.e., the CSR appropriation] will be found somewhere” to the exact opposite assumption. Yet the report mentions no directive from the budget committees asking CBO to change its scorekeeping methodology, likely because the committees did not give such a directive.

In analyzing the status of the Medicare trust fund, which CBO projects will become exhausted in fiscal year 2026, Footnote A of Table C-1 notes how the baseline “shows a zero [balance] rather than a cumulative negative balance in the trust fund after the exhaustion date”—because that’s what Gramm-Rudman-Hollings requires:

CBO may try to make the semantic argument, implied in the passage quoted above, that it continues to assume full funding of CSRs, albeit through indirect means (i.e., higher spending on premium subsidies) rather than “a direct appropriation.” But that violates what Hall himself said back in late January, when he laid out CBO’s position, and said it would not change absent an explicit directive—even though the budget report nowhere indicates that CBO received such direction.

It also violates sheer common sense that the budget office should assume “funding for entitlement authority is…adequate to make all payments” by assuming that the administration does not make all payments, namely the direct CSR payments to insurers.

Coming Up: An Embarrassing Spectacle

During his testimony before the House and Senate Budget Committees this week, Hall may make a spectacle of himself—and not in a good way. He will have to explain why he unilaterally changed the budgetary baseline in a way that explicitly violated his January testimony. He will also have to justify why CBO believes Gramm-Rudman-Hollings’ direction to assume full funding for “all payments” allows CBO to assume that Congress will not make direct CSR payments to insurers.

Conservatives should fight to expose this absurd and costly budget gimmick, and demand answers from Hall as to what—or, more specifically, whom—prompted his U-turn. If Hall wants to transform himself into the puppet of House leadership, and break his word to Congress in the process, he should at least be transparent about it.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

Republicans Were Against Reinsurance Before They Were For It

House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) made comments in a January radio interview supporting a “bipartisan opportunity” to fund Obamacare’s Exchanges, specifically through mechanisms like reinsurance.

How quickly the speaker forgets — or wants others to forget. Obamacare already had a reinsurance program, one that ran from 2014 through 2016. During that time, non-partisan government auditors concluded that, while implementing that reinsurance program, the Obama administration violated the law, diverting billions of dollars to insurers that should have gone to the United States Treasury. After blasting the Obama administration’s actions as the “Great Obamacare Heist,” and saying taxpayers deserved their money back, Republican leaders have for the past eighteen months done … exactly nothing to make good on their promise.

Section 1341 of Obamacare imposed a series of “assessments” (some have called them taxes) to accomplish two objectives. Section 1341 required the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to collect $5 billion, to reimburse the Treasury for the cost of another Obamacare program that operated from 2010 through 2013. The assessments also intended to provide a total of $20 billion — $10 billion in 2014, $6 billion in 2015, and $4 billion in 2016 — in reinsurance funds to health insurers subsidizing their high-cost patients.

Unfortunately, however, the “assessments” on employers offering group health coverage did not achieve the desired revenue targets. The plain text of the law indicates that, under such circumstances, HHS must repay the Treasury before it paid health insurers. But the Obama Administration did no such thing — it paid all of the available funds to insurers, while giving taxpayers (i.e., the Treasury) nothing.

The non-partisan Congressional Research Service and other outside experts agreed that the Obama administration flouted the law to give taxpayers the shaft. In September 2016, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) agreed: “We conclude that HHS lacks authority to ignore the statute’s directive to deposit amounts from collections under the transitional reinsurance program in the Treasury and instead make deposits to the Treasury only if its collections reach the amounts for reinsurance payments specified in section 1341. This prioritization of collections for payment to issuers over payments to the Treasury is not authorized.”

At the time GAO issued its ruling, Republicans denounced the Obama Administration’s actions, and pledged to fight for taxpayers’ interests: Multiple Chairmen — including the current Chairs of the House Ways and Means Committee and Senate Budget, HELP, and Finance Committees — said in a statement that, as a matter of “fairness and respect for the rule of law clearly anchored in the Constitution,” the Obama “Administration need to put an end to the Great Obamacare Heist immediately.”

Sen. John Barrasso (R-WY), Chairman of the Senate Republican Policy Committee, said that “the Administration should end this illegal scheme immediately.”

A spokesman for the House Energy and Commerce Committee said that, “We expect the Administration to comply with the independent watchdog’s opinion, halt the billions of dollars in illegal Obamacare payments to insurers, and pay back the American taxpayers what they are owed.”

Since all this (self-)righteous indignation back in the fall of 2016 — six weeks before the presidential election — what exactly have Republicans done to follow through on all their rhetoric?

In a word, nothing. No legislative actions, no hearings, no letters to the Trump Administration — nothing. Some experts have suggested that the Trump administration could file suit against insurers, seeking to reclaim taxpayers’ cash, but the administration has yet to do so.

In September 2016, outside analysts explained why the Obama administration prioritized insurers’ needs over taxpayers’ — and the rule of law: “I don’t think the Administration wants to do anything to upset insurers right now.” That same description just as easily applies to Republican congressional leaders today, making their promise to end the “Great Obamacare Heist” yet another one that has thus far gone unfulfilled — that is, if they ever intended to make good on their rhetoric in the first place.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

Why the Motion to Proceed on an Obamacare Bill Is a Sucker’s Bet

In trying to win support for their Obamacare “repeal-and-replace” bill, Republican Senate leaders are making a process argument to their fellow senators: We know you don’t like the bill, but work to mend it, rather than ending the process. As Sen. John Thune (R-SD), the chairman of the Senate Republican Conference, argued, “We gotta get on the bill.…If we don’t at least get on the bill, we’re never going to know.”

It’s a typical leadership argument: The promised land is only one bad vote away, not two bad votes, not ten bad votes, only one bad vote away. (Until the next bad vote crops up.) But to skeptics of the bill—whether moderate or conservative—that argument should sound like a sucker’s bet.

Without a clear vision of the final legislation and an agreement from 50 Republican senators to preserve that vision on the Senate floor regardless of the amendments offered—both things that Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn (R-TX) last week admitted Republicans do not have—proceeding to the bill will result in a policy morass that could make the confusing events of the past week look tame by comparison.

As things stand now, a successful motion to proceed will result in an amendment process under which various provisions of the bill get struck—due to guidance from the parliamentarian, dissension within the Republican conference, or both. Then, a last-minute substitute amendment from Majority Leader McConnell (R-KY) will attempt to win over or buy off votes (or both), with the hope that he can dare enough Republicans not to kill the legislation just before the finish line. Here are the likely ways the bill could change—and not for the better.

The ‘Byrd Bath Bloodbath’

As I have previously written, the prior versions of the Senate bill had not gone through the “Byrd bath” testing which provisions comply with the Senate’s “Byrd rule” for budget reconciliation. Late last Friday, the Budget Committee minority staff released a list of provisions that could get stricken from the bill for not complying with the “Byrd rule,” including pro-life protections ensuring no taxpayer funding of abortion, or plans that cover abortion; funding for cost-sharing subsidies; a prohibition on Medicaid funding to certain entities, including Planned Parenthood; and a provision imposing waiting periods on individuals lacking continuous health coverage.

Multiple sources indicate that the list produced by Budget Committee Democrats comprised preliminary guidance on a prior version of the legislation. Therefore, that list should not be considered definitive—that all the enumerated provisions will get stricken.

Regardless of the specifics, the “Byrd bath” will doubtless make it more difficult for Republicans to present a coherent policy vision through budget reconciliation legislation, meaning the bill could change significantly from its introduced version on procedural grounds alone.

Death by Amendments

In calling for Republicans to vote to begin debate on the bill, Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-TN), a close McConnell ally, has argued that senators will “have a virtually unlimited opportunity…on the floor to make amendments to the bill and try to improve it.”

Alexander’s key phrase is “try to,” because the numbers are strongly stacked against Republicans wishing to offer amendments. If three of 52 Senate Republicans—only 5.8 percent of the Republican conference—defect on an amendment vote, the amendment sponsor will have to rely on Democrats to approve the amendment. And why would Democrats vote for any amendment that might help Republicans pass an Obamacare “repeal” bill?

The ‘Wraparound Bait-and-Switch’

As Politico notes, the myriad amendment votes don’t represent the end of the process—they’re merely the beginning: “At some point, [Senator] McConnell will introduce a substitute that will represent the Senate’s draft bill. It may be different than what is introduced…and could be subject to amendment on the Senate floor next week. The bill, in other words, will be a work in progress until the final vote.”

That’s exactly what happened the first time the Senate considered Obamacare legislation under reconciliation, in 2015. At the end of the process, McConnell laid down a “wrap-around” amendment—essentially, a whole new version of the bill replacing the prior substitute. Reports suggest McConnell could well do the same thing this time round: introduce a new bill just prior to the vote on final passage, then dare recalcitrant Republicans to vote against it.

Conservatives in particular should fear the “wrap-around,” for the new “goodies” potentially lurking in it. With McConnell having roughly $200 billion in taxpayer funds to distribute in the form of “candy” to members, and staff brazenly telling reporters they plan on “making it rain” on moderates by including additional cash for home-state projects, the “wrap-around” could well include all sorts of new last-minute spending intended to buy votes, and not enough time to scrutinize its contents. (Will we have to pass the bill to find out what’s in it?)

Willing Disbelief

If the Senate votes to proceed to the bill and McConnell’s office turns into a trading floor, with staff “making it rain” taxpayer funds just like they promised, senators will claim themselves “Shocked—shocked!” that the process took an ugly turn.

They shouldn’t be. The signs are as plain as day. If senators have objections to the bill now, they should vote down the motion to proceed, for the bill—likely on substance, and certainly on process—isn’t going to get much better, and almost assuredly will get worse.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

What You Need to Know About Budget Reconciliation in the Senate

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

How Will the Bill Come to the Senate Floor?

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

What’s So Important about Budget Reconciliation?

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

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

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

What Is the ‘Byrd Rule’?

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

What Are the Six Different Types of Extraneous Material?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Can the Senate Waive the ‘Byrd Rule’?

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

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

Didn’t Democrats Pass Obamacare through Budget Reconciliation?

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

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

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

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

More CBO Transparency Could Have Prevented Obamacare’s CLASS Debacle

Mere days into a Republican Congress, Democrats are making charges of ideological bias when it comes to the majority’s handling of the Congressional Budget Office. A group of leading Senate Democrats wrote a letter to House Speaker John Boehner specifically noting that “a CBO director should not be required to revise the score of the Affordable Care Act in order to please partisan interests.” It’s an ironic charge, given that it’s far from partisan to question why the CBO failed to perform analyses that could have predicted the collapse of an $86 billion Obamacare program — exactly what happened under its current director, Doug Elmendorf.

The program in question, Community Living Assistance Services and Supports, or CLASS, was designed to provide cash benefits for those needing long-term services and support. CLASS made it into Obamacare at the behest of then-Sen. Ted Kennedy, and over the objections of both Republicans and moderate Democrats, who considered it fiscally unsustainable; then-Senate Budget Committee Chairman Kent Conrad, D-N.D., famously dubbed CLASS “a Ponzi scheme of the first order, the kind of thing Bernie Madoff would have been proud of.” And so it proved — in October 2011, less than two years after the law’s passage, the Department of Health and Human Services determined CLASS could not be implemented in a fiscally solvent manner, and in January 2013, Congress repealed it entirely.

But Congress and the American people could have been spared this trouble had CBO performed a more thorough analysis of CLASS. In 2009, the budget agency assumed that CLASS’s administrative expenses would remain confined to three percent of premiums, even though HHS’ own actuary later called this requirement “unrealistic and undesirable.” The actuary hired by HHS went on to estimate total expenses at 20 percent of premiums — nearly seven times the level specified in the law.

The unrealistically low administrative expenses go to the heart of CLASS’s structural flaws. The program proved fiscally unsustainable because it faced a classic actuarial death spiral—a lack of healthy people paying into the pool to fund benefits for those needing care.

Had CBO formally analyzed CLASS’s administrative expenses, it likely would have concluded that the unrealistic assumptions written into the law meant premiums would eventually have to rise, benefits fall, or both, to meet the shortfall — making the program even more unattractive to healthy individuals, and further imperiling its solvency. The CBO does have models to estimate the cost of insurance; with Obamacare, it stated in November 2009 that insurance exchanges would reduce the administrative costs of individually-purchased coverage. But when it came to CLASS, CBO did not perform a similar analysis.

Likewise, CBO at no point attempted to quantify the potentially massive costs to states that CLASS would have imposed. The program would have required state Medicaid programs to create a benefit eligibility system similar to that used by the Social Security disability insurance program. That program costs nearly $3 billion to administer every year — meaning CLASS could easily have imposed costs to states of $20 billion-30 billion over a decade.

Within HHS, officials expressed concern that CLASS would “create significant new burdens on the states.” Coming at a time when governors of both parties were criticizing the “mother of all unfunded mandates” in the form of Obamacare’s Medicaid expansion, a CBO finding that CLASS imposed mandates on states in the billions, or tens of billions, would have prompted bipartisan outrage — and could have scuttled the program entirely. But from its introduction to its repeal, CBO at no point even acknowledged the significant cost to states associated with CLASS.

In fairness to CBO, the months leading up to Obamacare’s passage were by far the busiest in my time as a Capitol Hill staffer. Lack of enough hours and lack of sleep could, and did, cause details to slip through the cracks; to quote Nancy Pelosi, we really did have to pass the bill to find out what was in it. But that neither excuses nor explains why CBO has not publicly acknowledged the shortcomings outlined above, and what if anything it needs to change — whether in resources, oversight, or both — to improve its analysis going forward.

Judging from his silence on CLASS, Elmendorf may view protecting his office’s budget analysts as a prime objective of a CBO director. As much as I value loyalty, CBO’s prime loyalty should lay to Congress — and ultimately to the public, which funds both CBO and the programs it analyzes. While Elmendorf has taken measures to release more information publicly — developments I welcome — such steps generally fall into the realm of making CBO less opaque, rather than truly transparent.

Democrats’ political posturing aside, it’s not partisan to ask for a public explanation why an independent budget office did not produce analyses that could have revealed the instability of an $86 billion “Ponzi scheme” before Congress enacted it into law. In fact, the principles of good governance should compel the CBO in exactly this direction. Hopefully CBO’s next director, whoever he or she is, will move more rapidly down the road of this much-needed transparency.

This post was originally published at the Washington Examiner.