What Mitch McConnell and Congressional Democrats Get Wrong about Entitlements

Sometimes, as parents often remind children in their youth, two wrongs don’t make a right. This held true on Tuesday, when Democrats erupted over comments by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) on entitlement reform.

In returning to “Mediscare” tactics, Democrats made several false claims about entitlements. But so did McConnell, who blithely omitted what a Republican majority did earlier this year to worsen the country’s entitlement shortfall.

What McConnell Got Wrong

McConnell spoke accurately when he said in an interview that Medicare, Social Security, and Medicaid serve as the primary drivers of our long-term debt. He stood on less firm ground when he told Bloomberg that “the single biggest disappointment of my time in Congress has been our failure to address the entitlement issue.” Contra McConnell’s claim, Congress—a Republican Congress—actually did address the entitlement issue this year: they made the problem worse.

This Republican Congress repealed a cap on Medicare spending—the first such cap in that program’s history. It did so as part of a budget-busting fiscal agreement that increased the debt by hundreds of billions of dollars. It did so even though Republicans could have retained the cap on Medicare spending while repealing the unelected, unaccountable board that Democrats included in Obamacare to enforce that spending cap.

By and large, both parties have tried for years to avoid taking on entitlement reform. But Democrats included an actual cap on Medicare spending as part of Obamacare, and Republicans turned around and repealed it at their first possible opportunity. That makes entitlements not just a bipartisan problem—it makes them a Republican problem too.

What Democrats Got Wrong

But McConnell’s comments suggested just the opposite. He noted that, while entitlements serve as the prime driver of the nation’s long-term debt, any changes to those programs “may well be difficult if not impossible to achieve when you have unified government.” McConnell said the same thing in a separate interview with Reuters on Wednesday: “We all know that there will be no solution to that, short of some kind of bipartisan grand bargain that makes the very, very popular entitlement programs in a position to be sustained. That hasn’t happened since the ’80s.”

Even though Congress needs to start reforming entitlements sooner rather than later—even if that means one political party must take the lead—McConnell indicated he would do nothing of the sort. In fact, his comments implied that Congress would not do so unless and until Democrats agreed to entitlement reform, giving the party an effective veto over any changes. Yet Democrats, who never fail to demagogue an issue, attacked him for those comments anyway.

Actually, they haven’t “earned” those benefits. Seniors may have “paid into” the system during their working lives, but the average senior citizen receives far more in benefits than he or she paid in taxes, and the gap continues to grow.

Making a Tough Job Worse

In this case, two wrongs not only did not make a right, they made our country worse off. Like outgoing Speaker of the House Paul Ryan (R-WI), McConnell wishes to absolve himself of blame for the entitlement crisis, when he made the situation worse.

On the other side, Pelosi and her fellow Democrats continue the partisan demagoguery, perpetuating the myth that seniors have “earned” their benefits because they see political advantage in defending nearly infinite amounts of government subsidies to nearly infinite numbers of people. For all their love of attacking “science deniers,” much of the left’s politics requires denying math—that unsustainable trends can continue in perpetuity.

At some point, this absurd game will have to end. When it finally does, our country might not have any money left.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

The Absurdity of the Justice Department’s Obamacare Lawsuit Intervention

Last summer, I wrote about how President Trump had created the worst of all possible outcomes regarding one Obamacare program. In threatening to cancel cost-sharing reduction payments to insurers, but not actually doing so, the administration forced insurers into raising premiums, while not complying with the rule of law by cutting off the payments outright.

Eventually, the administration finally did cut off the payments in October, but for several months, the uncertainty represented a self-inflicted wound. So too a brief filed by the Department of Justice (DOJ) late last week regarding an Obamacare lawsuit several states brought in February, which asked the court to strike down both Obamacare’s individual mandate and the most important of its federally imposed insurance regulations.

It takes a very unique set of circumstances to arrive at this level of opposition. Herewith the policy, legal, and political implications of DOJ’s actions.

Let’s Talk Policy First

Strictly as a policy matter, I agree with the general tenor of the Justice Department’s proposals. Last April, I analyzed Obamacare’s four major federally imposed insurance regulations:

  1. Guaranteed issue—accepting all applicants, regardless of health status;
  2. Community rating—charging all applicants the same premiums, regardless of health status;
  3. Essential health benefits—requiring plans to cover certain types of services; and
  4. Actuarial value—requiring plans to cover a certain percentage of each service.

I concluded that these four regulations represented a binary choice for policymakers: Either Congress should repeal them all, and allow insurers to price individuals’ health risk accordingly, or leave them all in place. Picking and choosing would likely result in unintended consequences.

The Justice Department’s brief asks the federal court to strike down the first two federal regulations, but not the last two. This outcome could have some unintended consequences, as a New York Times analysis notes.

But repealing the guaranteed issue and community rating regulations would remove the prime driver of premium increases under Obamacare. Those two regulations led rates for individual coverage to more than double from 2013 to 2017, necessitating the requirement for individuals to purchase, and employers to offer, health coverage, the subsidies to make coverage more “affordable,” and the tax increases and Medicare reductions used to fund them.

I noted last April that Republicans have a choice: They can either keep the status quo on pre-existing conditions or they can fulfill their promise to repeal Obamacare. They cannot do both. The DOJ brief acknowledges this dilemma, and that the regulations represent the heart of the Obamacare scheme.

Legal Question 1: Constitutionality

Roberts held that, while the federal government did not have the power to compel individuals to purchase health coverage under the Constitution’s Commerce Clause, Congress did have the power to impose a tax penalty on the non-purchase of coverage, and upheld the individual mandate on that basis.

But late last year, Congress set the mandate penalty to zero, with the provision taking effect next January. Both the plaintiff states and DOJ argue that, because the mandate will not generate revenue for the federal government beyond 2019, it can no longer function as a tax, and should be struck down as unconstitutional.

Ironically, if Congress took an unconstitutional act in setting the mandate penalty to zero, few seem to have spent little time arguing as much prior to the tax bill’s enactment last December. I opposed Congress’ action at the time, because I thought Congress needed to repeal more of Obamacare—i.e., the regulations discussed above. But few raised any concerns that setting the mandate penalty to zero represented an unconstitutional act:

  • While one school of thought suggests presidents should not sign unconstitutional legislation, President Trump signed the tax bill into law.
  • Likewise, President Trump did not issue a signing statement about the tax bill, seemingly indicating that the Trump administration had no concerns about the bill, constitutional or otherwise.
  • While in 2009 the Senate took a separate vote on the constitutionality of Obamacare, no one raised such a point of order during the Senate’s debate on the tax bill.
  • I used to work for one of the plaintiffs in the states’ lawsuit, the Texas Public Policy Foundation. TPPF put out no statement challenging the constitutionality of Congress’ move in the tax bill.

Legal Question 2: Severability

As others have noted, a court decision striking down the individual mandate as unconstitutional would by itself have few practical ramifications, given that Congress already set the mandate penalty to zero, beginning in January. The major fight lies in severability—either striking down the entire law, as the states request, or striking down the two major federal insurance regulations, as the Justice Department suggested last week.

The DOJ brief and the states’ original complaint both cite Section 1501(a) of Obamacare in making their claims to strike down more than just the mandate. DOJ cited that section—which called the mandate “essential to creating effective health insurance markets”—13 times in a 21-page brief, while the states cited that section 18 times in a 33-page complaint.

But that claim fails, for several reasons. First, the list of findings in Section 1501(a)(2) of the law discusses the mandate’s “effects on the national economy and interstate commerce.” In other words, this section of findings attempted to defend the individual mandate as a constitutional exercise of Congress’ power under the Commerce Clause—an argument Roberts struck down in the NFIB v. Sebelius ruling six years ago.

Second, the plaintiffs and the Justice Department briefs focus more on what a Congress eight years ago said—i.e., their non-binding findings to defend the individual mandate under the Commerce Clause—than what the current Congress did when it set the mandate penalty to zero, but left the rest of Obamacare intact. The Justice Department tried to retain a fig leaf of consistency by taking the same position regarding severability that the Obama administration did before the Supreme Court in 2012: that if the mandate falls, the guaranteed issue and community rating provisions (and only those provisions) should as well.

However, the Justice Department’s brief all but ignores Congress’s intervention last year. In a letter to Speaker of the House Paul Ryan (R-WI) regarding the lawsuit, Attorney General Jeff Sessions noted that “We presume that Congress legislates with knowledge of the [Supreme] Court’s findings.” A corollary to that maxim should find that the administration takes decisions with knowledge of Congress’ actions.

But rather than observing how this Congress zeroed out the mandate penalty while leaving the rest of Obamacare intact, DOJ claimed that the 2010 findings should control, because Congress did not repeal them. (Due to procedural concerns surrounding budget reconciliation, Senate Republicans arguably could not have repealed them in last year’s tax bill even if they wanted to.)

Third, as the brief by a series of Democratic state attorneys general—who received permission to intervene in the case—makes plain, Republican members of Congress said repeatedly during the tax bill debate last year that they were not changing any other part of the law. For instance, during the Senate Finance Committee markup of the tax bill, the committee’s chairman, Orrin Hatch (R-UT), said the following:

Let us be clear, repealing the [mandate] tax does not take anyone’s health insurance away. No one would lose access to coverage or subsidies that help them pay for coverage unless they chose not to enroll in health coverage once the penalty for doing so is no longer in effect. No one would be kicked off of Medicare. No one would lose insurance they are currently getting from insurance carriers. Nothing—nothing—in the modified mark impacts Obamacare policies like coverage for preexisting conditions or restrictions against lifetime limits on coverage….

The bill does nothing to alter Title 1 of Obamacare, which includes all of the insurance mandates and requirements related to preexisting conditions and essential health benefits.

As noted above, I want Congress to repeal more of Obamacare—all of it, in fact. But what I want to happen and what Congress did are two different things. When Congress explicitly set the mandate penalty to zero but left the rest of the law intact, I should not (and will not) go running to an activist judge trying to get him or her to ignore the will of Congress and strike all of it down regardless. That’s what liberals do.

Too Cute by Half Problem 1: Legal Outcomes

The brief the Democratic attorneys general filed suggested another possible outcome—one that would not please the plaintiffs in the lawsuit. While the attorneys general attempted to defend the mandate’s constitutionality despite the impending loss of the tax penalty, they offered another solution should the court find the revised mandate unconstitutional:

Under long-standing principles of statutory construction, when a legislature purports to amend an existing statute in a way that would render the statute (or part of the statute) unconstitutional, the amendment is void, and the statute continues to operate as it did before the invalid amendment was enacted.

It remains to be seen whether the courts will find this argument credible. But if they do, a lawsuit seeking to strike down all of Obamacare could actually restore part of it, by getting the court to reinstate the tax penalties associated with the mandate.

This scenario could get worse. In 2015, the Senate parliamentarian offered guidance that Congress could set the mandate penalty to zero, but not repeal it outright, as part of a budget reconciliation bill. Republicans used this precedent to zero-out the mandate in last year’s tax bill. But a court ruling stating that Congress cannot constitutionally set the mandate penalty to zero, and must instead repeal it outright, means Senate Republicans would have to muster 60 votes to do so—an outcome meaning the mandate might never get repealed.

In June 2015, the Supreme Court issued a ruling in the case of King v. Burwell. In its opinion, the court ruled that individuals in states that did not establish their own exchanges (and used the federally run healthcare.gov instead) could qualify for health insurance subsidies. By codifying an ambiguity in the Obamacare statute in favor of the subsidies, the court’s ruling prevented the Trump administration from later taking executive action to block those subsidies.

In King v. Burwell, litigating over uncertainty in Obamacare ended up precluding a future administration from taking action to dismantle it. The same thing could happen with this newest lawsuit.

Too Cute by Half Problem 2: Legislative Action

Sooner or later, someone will recognize an easy solution exists that would solve both the problem of constitutionality and severability: Congress passing legislation to repeal the mandate outright, after the tax bill set the penalty to zero. But this scenario could lead to all sorts of inconsistent, yet politically convenient, outcomes:

  • Democrats attacking Republicans over last week’s DOJ brief might oppose repealing a (now-defanged) individual mandate, because it would remove what they view as a powerful political issue heading into November’s midterm elections;
  • Republicans afraid of Democrats’ political attacks might say they repealed a part of Obamacare (i.e., the individual mandate) outright to “protect” the rest of Obamacare (i.e., the federal regulations and other assorted components of the law) from being struck down by an activist judge; and
  • Some on the Right might oppose Congress taking action to repeal “just” the individual mandate, because they want the courts to strike down the entire law—even though such a job rightly lies within Congress’ purview.

As others have noted, these contortionistic, “Through the Looking Glass” scenarios speak volumes about the tortured basis for this lawsuit. The Trump administration should spend less time writing briefs that support legislating from the bench by unelected judges, and more time working with Congress to do its job and repeal the law itself.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

What’s Going on with Premium Increases under Obamacare?

Multiple articles in recent weeks have outlined the ways Democrats intend to use Obamacare as a wedge issue in November’s midterm elections. While only a few states have released insurer filings—and regulators could make alterations to insurers’ proposals—the preliminary filings to date suggest above-average premium increases have been higher than the underlying trend in medical costs.

Democrats claim that such premium increases come from the Trump administration and Republican Congress’s “sabotage.” But do those charges have merit? On the three primary counts discussed in detail below, the effects of the policy changes varies significantly.

End of Cost-Sharing Reduction Payments

The administration’s decision meant most insurers increased premiums for 2018, to recoup their costs for discounting cost-sharing indirectly (i.e., via premiums) rather than through direct CSR payments. However, as I previously noted, most states devised strategies whereby few if any individuals would suffer harm from those premium increases. Low-income individuals who qualify for premium subsidies would receive larger subsidies to offset their higher costs, and more affluent individuals who do not qualify for subsidies could purchase coverage away from state exchanges, where insurers offer policies unaffected by the loss of CSR payments.

These state-based strategies mean that the “sabotage” charges have little to no merit, for several reasons. First, the premium increases relating to the lack of direct CSR payments already took effect in most states for 2018; this increase represents a one-time change that will not recur in 2019.

Second, more states have announced that, for 2019, they will switch to the “hold harmless” strategy described above, ensuring that few if any individuals will incur higher premiums from these changes. Admittedly, taxpayers will pay more in subsidies, but most consumers should see no direct effects. This “sabotage” argument was disingenuous when Democrats first raised it last year, and it’s even more disingenuous now.

Eliminating the Individual Mandate Penalty

Repealing the mandate will raise premiums for 2019, although questions remain over the magnitude. The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) last month officially reduced its estimate of the mandate’s “strength” in compelling people to purchase coverage by about one-third. However, another recent study suggests that, CBO’s changes notwithstanding, the mandate had a significant impact on getting people to buy insurance—suggesting that many healthy people could drop coverage once the mandate penalty disappears.

To insurers, the mandate repeal represents an unknown factor shaping the market in 2019. In the short term at least, whether or not people will drop coverage in 2019 due to the mandate’s repeal matters less than what insurers—and, just as important, insurance regulators—think people will do in response. If insurers think many people will drop, then premiums could rise significantly; however, if insurers already thought the mandate weak or ineffective, then its repeal by definition would have a more limited impact.

New Coverage Options

The Trump administration’s moves to expand access to association health plans and short-term insurance coverage, while still pending, also represent a factor for insurers to consider. In this case, insurers fear that more affordable coverage that does not meet all of Obamacare’s requirements will prove attractive to young and healthy individuals, raising the average costs of the older and sicker individuals who remain in Obamacare-compliant plans.

If association plans and short-term coverage do not entice many enrollees—or if most of those enrollees had not purchased coverage to begin with—then the market changes will not affect exchange premiums that much. By contrast, if the changes entice millions of individuals to give up exchange coverage for a non-compliant but more affordable plan, then premiums for those remaining on the exchanges could rise significantly.

Estimates of the effects of these regulatory changes vary. For instance, the administration’s proposed rule on short-term plans said it would divert enrollment from exchanges into short-term plans by only about 100,000-200,000 individuals. However, CBO and some other estimates suggest higher impacts from the administration’s changes, and a potentially greater impact on premiums (because short-term and association plans would siphon more healthy individuals away from the exchanges).

But the final effect may depend on the specifics of the changes themselves. If the final rule on short-term plans does not allow for automatic renewability of the plans, they may have limited appeal to individuals, thus minimizing the effects on the exchange market.

However, those same proponents seem less interested in advertising the same study’s premium impact. The Urban researchers believe short-term plans will draw roughly 2.6 million individuals away from exchange coverage, raising premiums for those who remain by as much as 18.3 percent.

Why Prop Up Obamacare?

The selective use of data regarding short-term plans illustrates Republicans’ problem: On one hand, they want to create other, non-Obamacare-compliant, options for individuals to purchase more affordable coverage. On the other hand, if those options succeed, they will raise premiums for individuals who remain on the exchanges.

But some might argue that fixating on exchange premiums for 2019 misses the point, because Republicans should focus on developing alternatives to Obamacare. The exchanges will remain, and still offer comprehensive coverage—along with income-based premium subsidies for that—to individuals with costly medical conditions. But rather than trying to bolster the exchanges by using bailouts and “stability” packages to throw more taxpayer money at them, Republicans could emphasize the new alternatives to Obamacare-compliant plans.

Of course, if that stance presents too much difficulty for Republicans, they have another option: They could repeal the root cause of the premium increases—Obamacare’s myriad new federal insurance requirements. Of course, in Washington, following through on pledges made for the last four election cycles seems like a radical concept, but to most Americans, delivering on such a long-standing promise represents simple common sense.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

The Troubling Premise Behind the Latest Obamacare Lawsuit

On Thursday, a group of Democratic attorneys general received permission to intervene in a lawsuit filed by Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton and other Republican officials. That lawsuit, originally filed in February, seeks to strike down all of Obamacare.

The lawsuit forces me to distinguish between policy preferences and the rule of law. Strictly on the policy, I want to repeal Obamacare as much as the next conservative does. However, in this case, striking down the law through legal fiat would represent judicial activism at its worst—asking unelected judges to do what elected members of Congress took great pains to avoid.

John Roberts’ Logic

Last December, Congress set the individual mandate penalty to zero beginning in January 2019. As others previously argued, the action eliminated the basis on which the Supreme Court found the mandate constitutional. Thus, the lawsuit alleges, the court should strike down the individual mandate—and, consistent with the reasoning of four dissenting justices (Antonin Scalia, Anthony Kennedy, Clarence Thomas, and Samuel Alito) in the 2012 NFIB v. Sebelius case—all of Obamacare with it.

Congress Has Spoken

There’s one major flaw with the lawsuit’s logic: While Obamacare did not contain a severability clause, Congress in its infinite wisdom last year chose to eliminate the mandate penalty—and only the mandate penalty. Severability tests the court established work to determine first and foremost “whether the provisions will work as Congress intended,” as the dissenters noted back in 2012.

Because Congress, in the time since Obamacare passed, quite clearly eliminated only the mandate penalty, it demonstrated its intent. Regardless of whether federal courts strike down the mandate—now an edict in law unenforceable by any penalty—as unconstitutional, they cannot, and should not, strike down any other portion of the law.

Anti-Democratic Principle

In essence, the lawsuit asks the federal courts to do what Congress decided last year not to do: repeal all of Obamacare. Rather than working to persuade Congress to go back, consider health care anew, and pass the full repeal lawmakers ran on for four straight election cycles, the litigants instead hope to nullify Obamacare through a deus ex machina intervention of five of nine justices on the Supreme Court.

As a matter of law, the court should do no such thing. Substituting the judgment of unelected judges for popularly elected members of Congress would further erode the institutions supporting the rule of law. The protests on both the left and right regarding last year’s health-care legislation would pale in comparison to any demonstration should five unelected judges now decide to strike down all of Obamacare, and with good reason.

Moreover, this apparent application of situational ethics—“conservatives” supporting judicial activism when it furthers their policy objectives—will only undermine future attempts to constrain legislating from the bench. When it comes to asking courts to strike down massive pieces of legislation, conservatives should be careful what they wish for, because they just might get it—not on Obamacare, but on other major bills they do support.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

The Return of the Individual Mandate

Well, that didn’t last long. Fewer than six months after Congress effectively repealed Obamacare’s individual mandate—and more than six months before that change actually takes effect, in January next year—another liberal group released a plan to reinstate it. The proposal comes as part of the Urban Institute’s recently released “Healthy America” plan.

In the interests of full disclosure: I criticized Republicans for repealing the individual mandate as part of the tax reform bill last fall. I did so not because I support requiring Americans to buy health insurance—I don’t—but because Republicans need to go further, and repeal the federal insurance regulations that represent the heart of Obamacare and necessitated enacting the mandate in the first place.

Lipstick on an Unpopular Pig?

The Urban Institute plan tries to re-brand a federal requirement to purchase insurance by never even using the term “mandate” in its proposal. Instead, the document says that “uninsured people would lose a percentage of their standard deduction (or the equivalent for the itemized deduction) when they pay income taxes….Half the lost deduction amount could be refunded the following year if the person enrolls in coverage and maintains it for the next full plan year.”

But as the saying goes, if it looks like a mandate and functions like a mandate, it’s a mandate. The paper claims that taking away a “tax benefit…would be better received politically than the additional tax penalty” under Obamacare, but functionally, that provides a distinction without a difference. Even the Urban researchers call this “loss of a tax benefit” a “penalty” later in the paper, because that’s what it is: A penalty for remaining uninsured.

The paper even includes a chart highlighting the average tax for remaining uninsured by income under the proposal, which generally mimics the tax penalties the uninsured pay under Obamacare:

Other Components of the Plan

Unfortunately, the Urban Institute plan goes well beyond merely reinstating the individual mandate, albeit in a slightly different form. It also makes other major changes to the health care system that would entrench the role of the federal government in it. It would federalize Medicaid health insurance coverage by transferring Medicaid enrollees into exchanges, supplementing benefits for low-income children and individuals with disabilities, and requiring states to keep paying their current contributions into the system. (Long-term care coverage under Medicaid would continue unchanged.)

The exchanges would have a new government-run plan—the default option for low-income enrollees automatically enrolled into coverage—and options run by private insurers. However, all plans would cap reimbursement to doctors and hospitals at Medicare rates, making premiums more “affordable” by imposing price controls that would potentially pay providers at below-market levels. The plan also proposes to “save” on prescription drugs by extending Medicaid rebates (i.e., price controls) to additional individuals.

The Urban plan also proposes much richer health coverage subsidies, consistent with its earlier 2015 proposal. Specifically:

  • Individuals with incomes below the federal poverty level would not pay either premiums or cost-sharing;
  • Individuals with incomes below 138 percent of poverty (the threshold for Obamacare’s Medicaid expansion) would not pay premiums;
  • Premium subsidies would be linked to a plan paying 80 percent of expected health care costs (i.e., actuarial value), as opposed to a 70 percent actuarial value plan under Obamacare;
  • Individuals would have to pay less of their income in premiums than under Obamacare—for instance, an individual with income just under four times poverty would pay 8.5 percent of income in premiums, as opposed to 9.56 percent under Obamacare; and
  • Unlike Obamacare, which limits eligibility for subsidies to those with incomes under four times poverty, the Urban plan would limit premium payments to 8.5 percent of income at all income levels (i.e., including for those making more than four times poverty).

Moreover, “short-term and other private insurance plans that do not comply with Healthy America regulations (consistent with [Obamacare’s] regulatory framework” would be prohibited, including association health plans and other concepts the Trump administration has proposed to give Americans more flexible coverage options.

The Urban researchers admit their plan would require significant new revenues to pay for the new subsidies—an estimated $98 billion in the first year alone. The plan only briefly discusses options to pay for this new spending, but it admits that, even if Congress hikes the payroll tax by an additional percent, raising an estimated $823 billion over ten years, “other adjustments to excise and income taxes would be needed.”

Where the Plan Fits In

At the end of their paper, the Urban researchers include a helpful chart comparing the various liberal proposals for expanded government involvement in health care—lest anyone claim that the left hand doesn’t know what the far-left hand is doing. In general:

  • Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) introduced a bill that would not go as far as the Urban plan. It incorporates the subsidy changes Urban proposed, adds a government-run plan, and imposes other regulatory changes to the exchanges, but (unlike the Urban plan) retains the status quo for Medicaid;
  • The Center for American Progress’ “Medicare Extra” proposal, which I wrote about earlier this year, goes farther than the Urban plan, by eliminating Medicaid (which the Urban plan modifies) entirely, and including more robust auto-enrollment provisions, with “Medicare Extra” the default option for all Americans; and
  • The single-payer bill introduced by Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) would go farthest of all, abolishing virtually all forms of insurance (including Medicare) and creating a single-payer health system.

So much for “If you like your plan, you can keep it.” For that matter, so much for “If you like your freedom, you can keep it.” Like it or not, the Left seems insistent on terrifying the American public with what Ronald Reagan viewed as the nine most effective words to do so: “I’m from the government and I’m here to help.”

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

Michael Cohen and “The Swamp”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

Tom Price Accidentally Exposes Republicans’ Obamacare Problem

The Trump administration’s former Health and Human Services secretary could have changed his surname to Kinsley this week. Kinsley refers to columnist Michael, creator of the “Kinsley gaffe,” defined as “When a politician tells the truth—some obvious truth he isn’t supposed to say.”

Price did just that on Tuesday, when in a speech he said provisions in the tax legislation effectively eliminating the individual mandate penalty “will actually harm the pool in the exchange market, because you’ll have individuals who are younger and healthier not participating in that market, and consequently, that drives up the cost for other folks within that market.”

But the remarks prompted the typical Washington food fight. Democrats had a field day, claiming that Republicans “sabotaged” Obamacare, and that Price took a contrary position last year, when he said repealing the mandate would lower health costs.

Within 24 hours, Price attempted to “clarify” his original comments, in a statement saying that “repealing the individual mandate was exactly the right thing to do. Forcing Americans to buy something they don’t want undermines individual liberty as well as free markets.”

Ironically enough given the controversy, it’s relatively easy to reconcile both Price’s original Tuesday comments and his Wednesday statement, when taking his earlier comments in their full context.

On Tuesday, Price said repealing the individual mandate “may help, but it still is nibbling at the side.” Price is exactly right. Repealing the individual mandate, while keeping the rest of Obamacare in place, only undoes a portion of the law—and a relatively small portion at that.

Particularly when viewed from a freedom perspective, repealing the mandate seems quite insufficient. Republicans prevented some Americans from incurring tax penalties for buying a product they may not want or could not afford. But what does repealing the mandate do to give Americans the affirmative choice to buy a product they can afford? Absolutely nothing

Admittedly, the administration has put forward some helpful proposals to give consumers more choices. But any fix done solely through regulations by definition carries major limitations—most notably the fact that any future presidential administration could, and any Democratic administration likely will, attempt to undermine or reverse the executive actions.

Price’s Tuesday comments hit at the point I originally made last fall, when Congress considered the tax bill: Repealing the individual mandate while leaving the regulations in place will raise premiums. The only question is how much. Healthy individuals will have a greater reason to avoid costly Obamacare coverage, making the remaining population sicker and costlier. This dynamic also motivated Congress to consider a “stability” (i.e., bailout) bill earlier this year, which sought to blunt the effects of premium increases by throwing taxpayer money at the problem.

But as I have previously written, “It’s the regulations, stupid!” Throwing money at the problem won’t fix the underlying problem. Only fixing the problem will. Rather than criticizing Price for his candid and impolitic comments, Republicans would do better to go back and work to pass legislation repealing the Obamacare regulations—to give people the freedom to buy coverage they want, rather than just eliminating penalties for people who refuse to buy coverage they don’t need or can’t afford.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

No, Nancy Pelosi, Republicans Aren’t “Cutting” Medicare — But They Should

In a many-layered case of irony, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) attacked Republicans on Wednesday for doing something they didn’t do—but she did. In a letter to her Democratic colleagues, Pelosi wrote the tax reform bill “will lead to devastating cuts to Medicare and Medicaid.”

First things first: A slowdown in a program’s projected growth rate does not constitute a “cut.” That fact applies just as much to Republican spending proposals as Democratic ones. You don’t have to take my word for it: Multiple fact check articles discussing Obamacare’s reductions in Medicare spending pointed out that under Democrats’ law, “Medicare spending will increase each year but at a lower rate.”

Pelosi’s 2011 phraseology hit the nail on the head, because Democrats did “take” money out of Medicare to fund Obamacare’s new entitlements. While on paper the spending reductions extended the life of the Medicare trust fund, the Congressional Budget Office concluded that Obamacare did not “enhance the ability of the government to pay for future Medicare benefits.”

While the Democrat record on Medicare leaves much to be desired, so too does the Republican one. Whereas Democrats reduced Medicare spending, then diverted those savings to fund another new and costly entitlement, Republicans just last month turned around and increased Medicare spending.

In the February budget “deal,” Republicans repealed the Independent Payment Advisory Board (IPAB). While Obamacare created this unelected, unaccountable board of bureaucrats to make binding rulings regarding Medicare, it did so for a worthwhile purpose: To cap Medicare spending. As I noted last fall, Republicans could have kept the caps in place, while repealing the board. They chose not to do so. As a result, the budget “deal” raised entitlement spending rather than lowering it.

As it stands now, the “devastating cuts to Medicare and Medicaid” that Pelosi claimed to warn her colleagues about on Wednesday seem inevitable—not because Republicans will soon pass legislation slowing the growth of entitlements, but instead because they refuse to do so. Because some Republicans remain under the misapprehension that Medicare “is underfunded,” and because liberals love running “Mediscare” campaigns designed to frighten seniors into voting Democratic, Republicans seem poised to do exactly nothing on entitlement reform for the foreseeable future.

At least, until the debt crisis arrives—which it will, and sooner than many think. With the imminent return of trillion-dollar deficits, and the federal government already $21 trillion in debt, China and other nations may not take kindly to the bipartisan profligacy perpetrated by Democrats and Republicans alike.

As I noted two years ago, if not for the double-counting fiscal gimmicks included in Obamacare, the Medicare Hospital Insurance Trust Fund would already have been exhausted, putting the program’s solvency quite literally on borrowed time.

Last month, in typically understated fashion, Pelosi tweeted about how Republicans were “plotting to destroy your Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security.” That claim implies a level of intent—that Republicans actually have a plan to reform entitlement spending—that quite clearly does not exist.

Instead, Republicans and Democrats will continue to destroy Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security in the same way they have over the past several decades. Both parties will ignore the problem and do nothing until it’s too late. It’s the most insidious type of “bipartisanship,” but in Washington, also the most common.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

Paul Ryan’s Secret, Illegal Plan to Bail Out Obamacare

While most of Washington remains consumed on the drama surrounding immigration negotiations, leaders in the House have quietly pursued other policy objectives. According to multiple sources on Capitol Hill, House leaders, particularly Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI), have concocted a plan that would 1) use a budget gimmick that arguably violates the law to 2) bail out Obamacare and 3) provide taxpayer funding to plans that cover abortion.

As a certain congressman from Wisconsin said back in 2012: “With allies like that, who needs the Left?”

Budgetary Smoke and Mirrors

In a nutshell, the gimmick under consideration would have the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) raise the budgetary baseline so Congress can lower the baseline and spend the artificial “savings.” It’s a Ponzi scheme of the first order, the kind of thing Bernie Madoff would have been proud of. Here’s how it would work.

Congress would direct CBO to assume that Obamacare’s cost-sharing reductions (CSRs) would not be paid. While the Trump administration did cut those subsidies off last October, due to the lack of a constitutional appropriation for them, the budget scorekeeping conventions (discussed in detail below) indicate that CBO should still assume the subsidies would continue. However, Congress would instruct CBO to override that precedent.

CBO would then increase the spending baseline for Obamacare, because of the interactions between CSRs and the law’s insurance premium subsidies. Essentially, eliminating the former would cause spending on the latter to rise, as insurers raise premiums to reflect the lack of CSR payments. (Under the law, insurers must reduce cost-sharing for low-income individuals regardless, so they would adjust premiums upward—as they did in most states for 2018—to reflect the cost of this regulatory mandate.) Higher premiums will lead to higher federal subsidies for those premiums, at $194 billion over a decade, according to an estimate CBO released last August.

Congress would then take the “savings” from appropriating funds for CSRs—which, as explained above, consists not of legitimate deficit reduction so much as a phony gimmick derived from playing budgetary games—and spend that money on reinsurance and other corporate welfare payments to health insurers.

There you have it: A fiscal Ponzi scheme that would give health insurers their two major desires—cost-sharing reductions and reinsurance—in one big bailout. If it passes once for a two- or three-year period, you can bet your life this scheme would turn into an Obamacare perpetual bailout machine, with insurers coming back time and time again for more crony capitalist cash.

Violates Budgeting Principles

This plan not only violates the pretense that Republicans care about repealing—as opposed to bailing out—Obamacare, but it also violates budget scorekeeping principles laid out in statute. Specifically, Section 257(b)(1) of the Balanced Budget and Emergency Deficit Control Act of 1985 (the Gramm-Rudman-Hollings statute) includes the following direction when developing the budgetary baseline: “Laws providing or creating direct spending and receipts are assumed to operate in the manner specified in those laws for each year and funding for entitlement authority is assumed to be adequate to make all payments required by those laws” (emphasis mine).

Granted, the law does not include an appropriation for HHS to make those payments. That lack of appropriation prompted the House of Representatives to sue the Obama administration for exceeding its constitutional authority, and caused the Trump administration to stop the payments last fall.

But whether an appropriation actually exists is immaterial to the separate and distinct question of whether the law requires the secretary to make payments. Obamacare includes such entitlement authority over CSRs. Therefore, under the Gramm-Rudman-Hollings Act, the budget baseline should assume that those cost-sharing reductions will be paid.

In its August 2017 report on CSRs, CBO agreed. In a section regarding the budgetary treatment of the cost-sharing payments, the budget analysts noted that “the agencies have recorded the CSR payments as direct spending (that is, spending that does not require appropriation action)—a conclusion reached because the cost-sharing subsidies were viewed as a form of entitlement authority” (parentheses in original; italics mine).

All budgetary scorekeepers—both CBO and the Office of Management and Budget—have never disputed the validity of the entitlement, as opposed to the separate and distinct legal question of whether a valid appropriation exists. That entitlement language remains unchanged; therefore, the budgetary treatment of CSRs should remain unchanged—unless Republican leaders attempt to strong-arm CBO as an accomplice to their scheme for bailing out Obamacare.

Dropping Principles and Promises to Win An Election

After reading all this, some may wonder why Republican congressional leaders have taken the time to concoct such a scheme. In part because Congress (wrongly) repealed only the individual mandate as part of the tax reform bill, members worry about big premium spikes as a result of their actions, which will hit right around the time of the midterm elections this fall. Just as Senate staff talked openly last summer about how they structured their “stability funds” to yield premium reductions in November 2018, House leaders now want to “stabilize” the insurance markets this fall.

Or, to put it more cynically, they value preserving power more than they do their principles. Make no mistake, this plot would violate just about every principle conservatives hold dear. It makes no attempt to repeal Obamacare. Instead, it strengthens and entrenches it. It relies on budgetary smoke-and-mirrors to raise federal spending—a gimmick so laughable that it would destroy any credible claim Ryan could make toward fiscal responsibility and honest budgeting. It would also increase taxpayer funding of plans that cover abortion, because Democrats will never agree to this scheme if it includes robust pro-life protections in law, as doing so would effectively prohibit exchange plans from covering abortion.

Back in 2012, when former House Speaker Newt Gingrich attacked conservative proposals to reform Medicare, Ryan famously asked, “With allies like that, who needs the Left?” Six years later, given the shady nature of the Republican leadership scheme to bail out Obamacare, some may be saying the same thing about him.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

Congress Needs to Eat Its Spinach

The tax bill’s effective repeal of Obamacare’s individual mandate briefly reprised the “broccoli mandate”—whether, as Justice Antonin Scalia asked during Supreme Court oral arguments on Obamacare in March 2012, the federal government could compel individuals to purchase certain foods.

But instead of broccoli, spinach might serve as a more apt analogy, for the way the tax bill came to repeal the mandate demonstrates the ways Congress refuses to eat its policy spinach, following the path of least resistance in making easy choices rather than tough ones.

Avoiding Tough Choices on Taxes

Cotton said the “looks of hesitance and outright terror on the faces of my colleagues” convinced him that Republicans had to repeal the mandate as part of the tax package. Translation: Republicans thought it easier to obtain revenue from repealing the mandate than to weed out the tax code of popular tax breaks—the point of tax reform, which Republicans initially sold as a way to simplify the Internal Revenue Code.

Remember how Speaker of the House Paul Ryan (R-WI) sold tax reform as a way to allow Americans to complete their taxes on a postcard? That type of reform didn’t happen, because enacting that reform would have involved eliminating many more popular deductions than the final tax bill ended.

Revenue Neutrality and Spending

Another key point in the tax debate surrounded the issue of revenue neutrality. The “Better Way” platform released by House Republicans last year not only “envision[ed] tax reform that is revenue neutral,” it included a very clear standard for that metric: “House Republicans measure revenue neutrality by reference to a ‘current policy baseline’—i.e., achieving a level of federal revenues that is approximately $400 billion less over the ten-year [budgetary] window than the current law baseline.”

Congress may have valid justifications for reducing revenues, such as to increase economic growth, or to shrink the size of government. But the fact remains that, when faced with enacting a supposed “parade of horribles” to achieve a revenue-neutral tax bill, Congress chose to change the nature of the bill rather than to make the tough choices needed to achieve its original benchmark.

Likewise on spending reductions arising from the tax bill. Because the tax measure increased the federal deficit, the Statutory Pay-as-You-Go (PAYGO) act would normally require commensurate spending cuts offsetting the revenue loss. However, rather than allow these reductions to go into effect—or replacing the proverbial hatchet of automatic cuts with more targeted spending reductions—both Republicans and Democrats voted to exempt the tax bill from the PAYGO law, ducking another difficult choice.

Repeal Only Unpopular Parts of Obamacare

Repealing only Obamacare’s individual mandate—one of the most loathed parts of the 2010 health care law—echoes a problem Republicans faced during the “repeal-and-replace” debate last year: Many want to retain popular elements of the law, while repealing its unpopular features. Witness Republicans’ statements of support for keeping the status quo on pre-existing condition exclusions.

By repealing the unpopular parts of Obamacare but retaining the popular parts, Congress may have created an incoherent, and potentially unstable, policy that results in premium increases, infusions of taxpayer cash to “stabilize” markets, or both. Senate Republican leaders have already proposed the latter, precisely because they fear the political effects if the former occur.

Therein lies the problem with the congressional strategy: Avoiding tough choices generally only postpones them for a time—not forever. If insurers decide to leave markets after the mandate’s repeal takes effect in 2019, Congress will have to fix a problem it helped create. Likewise attempts by today’s Congress to reduce taxes, and not reduce spending, in shifting the blame to future generations.

At some point those bills will come due, so Congress might want to consider actually making some tough choices now, rather than creating even tougher choices in years to come.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.