News articles over the weekend reported that Congress later this week may repeal would Obamacare taxes—the “Cadillac tax” on high-cost health plans, and the medical device tax—as part of a larger spending bill. In reality, however, Democrats eventually agreed to repeal not one but two Obamacare industry taxes—the health insurer tax, which costs approximately $150 billion over a decade, along with the medical device tax—in exchange for repeal of the Cadillac tax, which labor unions want because of their cushy health insurance offerings.
According to The Hill:
On a separate front on ObamaCare, the spending deal repeals three major taxes that had helped fund the law’s coverage expansion. The deal will repeal a 40 percent tax on generous “Cadillac” health plans, the 2.3 percent medical device tax and the health insurance tax.
Those are major wins for the health insurance and medical device industries, which had long lobbied to lift those taxes. The Cadillac tax, in addition to providing about $200 billion in funding over 10 years, had been intended to help lower health care spending by incentivizing employers to lower costs to avoid hitting the tax.
On its face, the news sounds like a win for conservatives. Far from it. The way Congress has addressed these issues illustrates all the problems with politics, both procedural and substantive, in the nation’s capital.
Problem 1: Awful Process
Obvious considerations first: Congressional leaders in both parties want to enact the annual spending bills—which run thousands of pages, and spend trillions of dollars—before breaking for the Christmas holidays at week’s end. But congressional leaders only released text of the two bills publicly on Monday night, so there’s no way American citizens, let alone rank-and-file lawmakers, can digest it before Congress decides. As one lawmaker famously said:
The spending bills are 1,773 pages and 540 pages, respectively. (The health care provisions are in the larger of the two bills.) According to the Joint Committee on Taxation, the repeal of the three health care taxes will cost the federal government $387 billion over ten years.
Nearly ten years after a Democratic-controlled Senate passed the massive Obamacare statute on Christmas Eve—laden with pork-barrel provisions like the “Cornhusker Kickback,” the “Louisiana Purchase,” and the “Gator Aid”—a Senate run by Republicans wants to pass a similarly pork-laden spending bill. It brings to mind the old adage attributed to former House Speaker Sam Rayburn: “There is no education in the second kick of a mule.”
President Trump has likewise confronted the problem of Congress passing huge spending bills on short notice before. When presented with a similarly massive—and pork-laden—omnibus bill in March 2018, he famously proclaimed “I will never sign another bill like this again.” Time will tell if he follows through on his promise, but Congress sure isn’t acting like they think he will.
Problem 2: Raising Health Care Costs
The “Cadillac tax” in particular represents one way to address the problem of ever-increasing health costs. Current law allows employers to offer tax-free health benefits to their workers without limit. This dynamic encourages firms to provide overly generous benefits to their employees, leading to the over-consumption of health care.
By encouraging employers and employees to consume health insurance, and thus health care, more wisely, the “Cadillac tax,” despite its flaws, should work to moderate the growth in health care costs. That is, if Congress ever allows it to take effect as scheduled.
As I noted earlier this year, the left has an easy “solution” to the problem of rising health care costs: Regulations and price controls designed to bring down costs through government fiat. These price controls will lead to consequences for our health system, of course—rationing of care most notably—but they do “work,” insofar as they will arbitrarily reduce health spending.
Conservatives who oppose government price controls should embrace solutions like the “Cadillac tax” (or something like it) as one way to slow the growth in health care spending—not least because Democrats enacted the tax as part of Obamacare. Instead, many conservative lawmakers appear poised to endorse its repeal, without an alternative strategy to control health costs instead, because they find it easier to pursue the path of least resistance.
Problem 3: Lack of Discipline
The Congressional Budget Office previously estimated that repealing the “Cadillac tax” would cost the government nearly $200 billion in revenue over a decade, and larger sums in the decades after that. How does Congress propose to replace that revenue? By repealing the medical device and health insurer taxes, of course!
Therein lies the problem in Congress: The current definition of a bipartisan “deal” occurs when both sides get what they want—at the expense of taxpayers, or more specifically future generations. One article notes that “in general medical device tax repeal is more of a priority of Republicans and ‘Cadillac tax’ repeal for Democrats.” That makes this agreement combining repeal of both taxes like an episode of “Oprah’s Favorite Things,” where everyone wins a car.
Except for one minor detail: Our country already faces $23 trillion in debt, and trillion-dollar deficits as far as the eye can see. The “deal” on these two taxes alone will increase that debt by another quarter-trillion dollars (give or take). That number doesn’t include the increased spending arising from Congress’ agreement to bust its spending caps, or all the other ancillary provisions (like a bailout for coal miners) hitching a ride on the “Christmas tree” omnibus.
At some point soon, Congress’ lack of discipline—its inability to say no to spending pledges our country cannot afford—will harm our economic growth and fiscal stability. At that point, the American people will realize that, by constantly trying to play Santa Claus, lawmakers have left a multi-trillion-dollar lump of coal to the next generation, in the form of our rapidly skyrocketing debt.
UPDATE: This post was edited after publication to reflect late-breaking developments concerning the omnibus spending bills.
This post was originally published at The Federalist.