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 The budgets generally repealed the Obamacare entitlements, thus allowing the Medicare reductions to bolster that program rather than financing Obamacare.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.

Health Insurance Bailout Is Subprime Redux

Stop me if you’ve heard this story before: Financial institutions, enabled and empowered by lax regulators, make unwise multi-billion-dollar bets that threaten the well-being of millions of Americans—not to mention federal taxpayers. The subprime mortgage crisis that led to the financial meltdown of 2007-08? Sure. But it also describes insurers’ risky bets on Obamacare in 2017-18.

At issue in the latter: Federal cost-sharing reduction payments, designed to reimburse insurers for providing discounted co-payments, deductibles, and the like for certain low-income households. While the text of Obamacare includes no explicit appropriation for the payments, the Obama administration decided to start providing the payments to insurers anyway when the law’s insurance exchanges opened in 2014.

By summer 2016, anyone could have seen problems on the horizon for insurers: Collyer had declared the cost-sharing payments unconstitutional; a new president would take office in January 2017, and could easily terminate the payments unilaterally, just as Obama started them unilaterally; and neither Hillary Clinton nor Donald Trump made any clear public statements confirming the payments would continue.

Worried about their potential exposure, insurers tried to fix their dilemma, but didn’t. Insurers insisted upon language in their contracts with healthcare.gov, the federally run insurance exchange, stipulating that cost-sharing reductions “will always be available to qualifying enrollees,” and allowing them to drop out of the exchange if those reductions disappeared.

But the legal and constitutional dispute does not apply to payments to enrollees. Insurers are legally bound to provide those reductions regardless. The contract provides no help to insurers on the fundamental question: Whether the federal government will reimburse them for providing individuals the reduced cost-sharing.

Likewise, despite having multiple reasons to do so, state regulators did not appear to question the uncertain status of the cost-sharing payments when approving insurers’ 2017 rates in the fall of 2016. I asked all 50 state insurance commissioners for internal documents analyzing the impact of the May 2016 court ruling declaring the payments unconstitutional on the 2017 plan year. In response, I have yet to receive a single document to indicate that regulators demonstrated concern about the incoming administration cutting off billions of dollars in federal subsidies to insurers.

Having under-reacted surrounding the cost-sharing reductions for much of 2016, insurers and insurance commissioners have spent the past several months over-reacting. Industry lobbyists have swarmed Capitol Hill demanding Congress pass an explicit appropriation for the payments—and more bailout payments besides.

But the hyperventilation regarding the cost-sharing payments sends the wrong message to financial markets: They can ignore significant risks, so long as their competitors do so as well. The “uncertainty” surrounding the payments was knowable, and known, both to insurers who tried to change their contracts with the federal exchange, and to analysts like this one. Yet insurers did not change their behavior to reflect those risks, nor did regulators require them to do so.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

Insurance Commissioners’ CSR Malpractice

Today, a Senate committee hearing will feature testimony from insurance commissioners about the status of Obamacare in their home states. It will undoubtedly feature pleas from those commissioners for billions of new dollars in federal funds to subsidize insurance markets. But before Congress spends a single dime, it should take a hard look at insurance commissioners’ compliance with their regulatory duties regarding Obamacare. On several counts, preliminary results do not look promising.

Of particular issue at today’s hearing, and in health insurance markets generally: Federal payments to insurers for cost-sharing reductions, discounts on co-payments, and deductibles provided to certain low-income individuals. Obamacare authorized those payments to insurers, but did not include an appropriation for them. Despite lacking an explicit appropriation, the Obama administration started making the payments anyway when the exchanges began operation in 2014.

By the middle of 2016, it seemed clear that the cost-sharing reduction payments lay in significant jeopardy. While the federal district court allowed the payments to continue during the Obama administration’s appeal, a final court ruling could strike them down permanently. Moreover, a new administration would commence in January 2017, and could stop the payments immediately. And neither Hillary Clinton nor Donald Trump had publicly committed to maintaining the insurer payments upon taking office.

Let’s Let the Problem Fester to Put Trump in a Bind

How did insurance commissioners respond to this growing threat to the cost-sharing reduction payments? In at least some cases, they did nothing. For instance, in response to my public records request, the office of Dave Jones, California’s insurance commissioner, admitted that it had no documents examining the impact of last May’s court ruling on the 2017 plan bid year.

To call this lack of analysis regarding cost-sharing reductions malfeasance would put it mildly. A new president could easily have cut off those payments—payments totaling $7 billion this fiscal year—unilaterally on January 20. Yet the regulator of the state’s largest insurance market had not so much as a single e-mail considering this scenario, nor examining what his state would do in such an occurrence.

Break the Law to Fund Our Political War Against You

Indeed, insurance commissioners who remained silent last year about cost-sharing reduction payments have responded this year in alarming fashion. The commissioners’ trade association wrote to the Trump administration in May asking them “to continue full funding for the cost-sharing reduction payments for 2017 and make a commitment that such payments will continue.”

The insurance commissioners essentially demanded the Trump administration violate the Constitution. Article I, Section 9, Clause 7 of the Constitution grants Congress the sole power to appropriate funds, and the Supreme Court in a prior case (Train v. City of New York) ruled that the executive cannot thwart that will by declining to spend funds already appropriated. Under the Constitution, a president cannot spend money, or refuse to spend money, unilaterally—but that’s exactly what the insurance commissioners requested.

By implicitly conceding the unconstitutional actions by the Obama administration, and asking the Trump administration to continue those acts, the commissioners’ own letter exposes their dilemma. Why did commissioners ever assume the stability of a marketplace premised upon unconstitutional actions? And why did commissioners purportedly committed to the rule of law ask for those unconstitutional actions to continue?

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

“Problem Solvers'” Obamacare Solution: Single Payer

On Monday, a bipartisan Problem Solvers Caucus in the House released their list of “solutions” regarding Obamacare. Developed over the past several months, the list can easily be summed up in a single phrase: Single payer.

The lawmakers didn’t come out and say as much, of course, but that would be the net result. In funding more bailout spending for insurers, the proposal clearly states that Obamacare is “too big to fail”—that no amount of taxpayer funding is too great to keep insurers offering coverage on the health exchanges. Enacting that government backstop would create a de facto single-payer health-care system—only with many more well-priced insurer lobbyists around to demand more crony capitalist payments from government to their industry.

Cost-Sharing Reductions

In this scenario, how likely would you be just to give the burglar your property, so he could have the resources he needs? Probably not very. On the one hand, that would solve the burglar’s immediate problem, but the burglar broke the law—and ignoring that offense will only encourage future law-breaking.

That’s essentially the scenario facing Obamacare’s cost-sharing reduction payments, meant to subsidize discounted co-payments and deductibles for certain low-income individuals. Obamacare didn’t include an actual appropriation for the payments, so Barack Obama just made one up that didn’t exist. In essence, he stole both the constitutional spending power of Congress and taxpayer funds—recall that spending money without an appropriation is not just a civil, but a criminal, offense—to get Obamacare started.

Yet Congress seems far more worried about propping up Obamacare than holding President Obama to account—focusing solely on the outcomes to individuals, while caring not a whit for the effects on the rule of law. The Problem Solvers Caucus plan includes cost-sharing reduction payments with no accountability for the Obama Administration’s flagrant violation of the Constitution.

Reinsurance

The Problem Solvers Caucus plan also includes “stability fund” dollars designed to subsidize insurers for covering high-cost Obamacare enrollees. But here again, the proposal throws good money after bad at insurers, creating a new government program after non-partisan auditors concluded that insurers illegally received billions of dollars from the last federal bailout.

Last September, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) concluded that the Obama administration illegally funneled billions of dollars in reinsurance funds to health insurers rather than the U.S. Treasury. After taking in “assessments” (read: taxes) from employers, the text of Obamacare itself requires the government to repay $5 billion to the Treasury (to offset the cost of another Obamacare program) before paying health insurers reinsurance funds.

But when employer “assessments” generated less money than originally contemplated, the Obama administration put insurers’ needs for bailout funds over the law—and taxpayers’ interests. GAO found the Obama administration’s actions violated the law, costing taxpayers billions in the process.

Throwing Money at Problems

In general, the Problem Solvers Caucus attempts to solve problems by throwing money at them, by paying tens of billions of dollars (at minimum) to insurers. But as Margaret Thatcher pointed out four decades ago, socialism always runs out of other people’s money—a problem that the proposal wouldn’t solve, but worsen.

The Problem Solvers Caucus proposal amounts to little more than an Obamacare TARP—that’s Turning Against Repeal Promises (or Taking Away Repeal Promises, if you prefer). In abandoning the repeal cause, and setting up a federal backstop for the entire health-care system, the plan would create a de facto single-payer health-care system. Bernie Sanders would be proud.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

How Bailing Out Insurers Leads to Single Payer

The bad news for Obamacare keeps on coming. Major health carriers are leaving insurance exchanges, and other insurance co-operatives the law created continue to fail, leaving tens of thousands without health coverage. Those on exchanges who somehow manage to hold on to their insurance will face a set of massive premium increases—which will hit millions of Americans weeks before the election.

Many on the Right believe Obamacare was deliberately designed to fail, and fear that we’re on a slippery slope toward single-payer. On the other side of the spectrum, the Left hopes conservatives’ fears—and liberals’ dreams—will be answered. But is either side right?

The reality is more nuanced than the rhetoric would suggest. Whether government runs all of health care is less material than whether government pays for all of health care. The latter will, sooner or later, lead to the former. That’s why the debate over bailing out Obamacare is so important. Ostensibly “private” health insurers want tens of billions of dollars in taxpayer-funded subsidies—because they claim these subsidies are the only thing standing between a government-run “public option” or a single-payer system.

But the action insurers argue will prevent a government-run system will in reality create one. If insurers get their way, and establish the principle that both they and Obamacare are too big to fail, we will have created a de facto government-run insurance system. Whether such system is run through a handful of heavily regulated, crony capitalist “private” insurers or government bureaucrats represents a comparatively trifling detail.

The Biggest Wolf Is Not the Closest

In considering the likelihood of single-payer health care, one analogy lies in the axiom that one should shoot the wolf outside one’s front door. Single-payer health care obviously represents the biggest wolf—but not the closest. While liberals no doubt want to create a single-payer health care system—Barack Obama has repeatedly said as much—they face a navigational problem: Can you get there from here?

The answer is no—at least not in one fell swoop. Creating a single-payer system would throw 177.5 million Americans off their employer-provided health insurance. That level of disruption would be orders of magnitude greater than the cancellation notices associated with the 2013 “like your plan” fiasco, which itself prompted President Obama to beat a hasty, albeit temporary, retreat from Obamacare’s mandates. Recall too that the high taxes needed to fund a statewide single-payer effort prompted Vermont—Vermont—to abandon its efforts two years ago.

Understanding the political obstacles associated with throwing half of Americans off their current health insurance, liberals’ next strategy has focused on creating a government-run health plan to “compete” with private insurers. Hillary Clinton endorsed this approach, and Democratic senators made a new push on the issue this month. When stories of premium spikes and plan cancellations hit the fan next month, liberals will inevitably claim that a government-run plan will solve all of Obamacare’s woes (although even some liberal analysts admit the law’s real problem is a product healthy people don’t want to buy).

Can the Left succeed at creating a government-run health plan? Probably not at the federal level. Liberals have noted that only one Democratic Senate candidate running this year references the so-called “public option” on his website. Thirteen Senate Democrats have yet to co-sponsor a resolution by Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Oregon) calling for a government-run plan. Such legislation faces a certain dead-end as long as Republicans control at least one chamber of Congress. Given the failure to enact a government-run plan with a 60-vote majority in 2009, an uncertain future even under complete Democratic control.

What About Single-Payer Inside States?

What then of state efforts to create a government-run health plan? The Wall Street Journal featured a recent op-ed by Scott Gottlieb on this subject. Gottlieb notes that Section 1332 of Obamacare allows for states to create and submit innovation waivers—waivers that a Hillary Clinton administration would no doubt eagerly approve from states wanting to create government-run plans. He also rightly observes that the Obama administration has abused its authority to approve costly Medicaid waivers despite supposed requirements that these waivers not increase the deficit; a Clinton administration can be counted on to do the same.

But another element of the state innovation waiver program limits the Left’s ability to generate 50 government-run health plans. Section 1332(b)(2) requires states to enact a law “that provides for state actions under a waiver.” The requirement that legislation must accompany a state waiver application will likely limit a so-called “public option” to those states with unified Democratic control. Because Obamacare, and the 2010 and 2014 wave elections it helped spark, decimated the Democratic Party, Democrats currently hold unified control in only seven states.

Even at the state level, liberals will be hard-pressed to find many states in which to create their socialist experiment of a government-run health plan. In those few targets, health insurers and medical providers—remember that government-run health plans can only “lower” costs by arbitrarily restricting payments to doctors and hospitals—will make a powerful coalition for the Left to try and overcome. Also, in the largest state, California, the initiative process means that voters—and the television ads health-care interests will use to influence them—could ultimately decide the issue, one way or the other.

So if single-payer represents the biggest wolf, but not the one closest to the door, and government-run plans represent a closer wolf, but only a limited threat at present, what does represent the wolf at the door? Simple: the wolf in sheep’s clothing.

Too Big To Fail, Redux

The wolf in sheep’s clothing comes in the form of insurance industry lobbyists, who have been arguing to Republican staff that only making the insurance exchanges work will fend off calls for a government-run plan—or, worse, single-payer. They claim that extending and expanding the law’s current bailouts—specifically, risk corridors and reinsurance—can stabilize the market, and prevent further government intrusion.

Well, they would say that, wouldn’t they. But examining the logic reveals its hollowness: If Republicans pass bad policy now, they can fend off even worse policy later. There is of course another heretofore unknown concept of conservative Republicans choosing not to pass bad policy at all.

That’s why comments suggesting that at least some Republicans believe Obamacare must be fixed no matter who is elected president on November 8 are so damaging. That premise that Congress must do something because Obamacare and its exchanges are “too big to fail” means health insurers are likewise “too big to fail.” If this construct prevails, Congress will do whatever it takes for the insurers to stay in the marketplace; if that means turning on the bailout taps again, so be it.

But once health insurers have a clear backstop from the federal government, they will take additional risk. Insurers have said so themselves. In documents provided to Congress, carriers admitted they under-priced premiums in the law’s first three years precisely because they believed they had an unlimited tap on the federal fisc to cushion their losses. Republican efforts in Congress to rein in that bailout spigot have met furious lobbying by health insurers—and attempts by the Obama administration to strike a corrupt bargain circumventing Congress’ restrictions.

Efforts to end the bailouts and claw back as much money as possible to taxpayers would shoot the wolf at the door. Giving insurers more by way of bailout funds—socializing their risk—will only encourage them to take additional risk, exacerbating a boom-and-bust cycle that will inevitably result in a federal takeover of all that risk. When the federal government provides the risk backstop, you have a government-run system, regardless of who administers it.

While the insurance industry may view more bailouts as their salvation, Obamacare’s version of TARP looks more like a TRAP. By socializing losses, purportedly to prevent single-payer health care, creating a permanent insurer bailout fund will effectively create one. While remaining mindful of the other wolves lurking, Congress should focus foremost on eliminating the one at its threshold: Undo the Obamacare bailouts, and prove this law is not too big to fail.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

Rep. Roskam Op-Ed: Dim Prospects for Debt

In these uncertain economic times, many Americans are asking important questions about the nation’s finances. Why were taxpayers asked to finance a $700 billion bailout of Wall Street – with up to $750 billion more on the way, according to the president?

Is it appropriate for the government to own portions of our biggest banks? And what happens if all this “stimulus” spending doesn’t improve the economy? Even beneath these important questions, there’s another, more fundamental issue that also needs to be addressed: Who will bail out the institution that has been trying desperately to bail out the economy – the federal government?

Let me explain. The Troubled Asset Relief Program bill; various bailouts to financial institutions, such as Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac; and passage of the $792 billion “stimulus” bill designed to improve the economy will lead to a federal deficit for the current fiscal year of nearly $1.8 trillion – more than triple the previous record.

Think that math is daunting? The long-term math is much worse, as the federal government’s impending entitlement obligations will far outstrip the losses of any subprime lender. Medicare faces 75-year obligations of $36 trillion, according to the trustees’ latest report. Add in Social Security, and the total rises to $56 trillion. That amounts to $746 billion – more than the size of the original TARP bill – per year, every year, for three generations.

Of course, these deficits have meaning only if someone is willing to finance them – and in the future, investors may not be inclined to do so. With the global economy in turmoil, investors in recent months have turned to Treasury bonds to guarantee the safety of their investments. Five, 10 or 20 years from now, businesses in a stronger China and India or an aggressive Russia may not want to finance Americans’ pension and health care costs and might choose instead to diversify their portfolios elsewhere.

The results of a loss of confidence in the dollar could be catastrophic. A rapid fall in the dollar would raise the price of imports, sparking inflation fears. Rising interest rates would increase the federal government’s borrowing costs at a time of fiscal stress. Also, higher financing costs for homeowners could depress the nation’s real estate market once again. If you think the mortgage crisis of the past two years was bad, America’s fiscal crisis, left unchecked, could unleash a real estate crash of even greater proportions.

The mortgage crisis has laid bare one truth, unpleasant for politicians to state but accurate nonetheless: Over the past several decades, we as a nation have spent more than we could afford. Doubtless there were abuses within the mortgage industry, and some people likely were misled. But the fact remains that some Americans bought too much house, too much car, too many clothes or supplies for their budgets.

Changing those habits will require collective sacrifice, self-discipline – and yes, no small share of pain – but it is essential for the long-term health and stability of our economy and our nation.

Similarly, the federal government needs to reform its spending obligations to make sure our promises to America’s seniors align with our future economic resources. These actions should look to slow the growth of health care costs and tackle the difficult choices head-on.

Unfortunately, President Obama’s proposed budget actually would increase heath care spending – a poor way to control the explosion in health costs. Moreover, the explosion of federal debt in the budget plan – $3.2 trillion in the next two years alone – will hinder the federal government’s ability to take swift and decisive action reforming entitlement spending.

Some are convinced the best way to slow growth in costs and save Medicare is for the government to spend yet more money and create new health care entitlements. The logic of this reasoning escapes me: After all, who would try to lose weight by eating more? Instead, we should focus first on saving Medicare for seniors and using Medicare as a model to slow the growth of health costs nationwide rather than enacting new budget-busting programs – only for the government to impose controls on patient care a few years from now, when exploding entitlement costs bring the federal budget to its knees.

For good and for ill, the last Congress passed in record time a $700 billion bailout for financial institutions in an attempt to stanch the current economic crisis. I only hope the current Congress will act half as quickly to stop the bleeding on America’s entitlement crisis so future generations won’t end up wondering why we didn’t act when we could.

This post was originally published at The Washington Times.