The Shameful Spectacle of Friday’s Coronavirus “Vote”

Ten years ago, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) infamously proclaimed that we had to pass Obamacare to find out what was in it. On Friday, she and her House colleagues enacted one of the largest pieces of legislation in American history, a more than $2 trillion bill that represented Congress’ third piece of coronavirus-related legislation, all while refusing to take a recorded position on it.

The first coronavirus bill, signed into law on March 6, provided $8.3 billion in spending to fight the virus; the second bill, signed into law on March 18, spent another $100 billion on testing, food stamps, paid family leave, and additional subsidies to to state Medicaid programs; and the third bill, which President Trump signed last Friday, contained a broader package of unemployment and economic bailouts to businesses and families.

That Pelosi would resort to such procedural chicanery should surprise few Americans. In 2010 she wanted the House to enact Obamacare without actually voting on the legislation—the so-called “deem-and-pass” maneuver—although she eventually abandoned that strategy after a massive public outcry.

But unlike the Obamacare debate, House Republican leaders and many rank-and-file members of Congress actively participated in Pelosi’s successful attempt to deny the American people a vote on the legislation. In so doing, they abdicated their responsibilities as lawmakers and leaders out of a mixture of fear and spite.

Members of Congress Are Essential

The fear came because House lawmakers did not want to travel back to Washington to vote on the “stimulus.” The combination of several representatives and senators testing positive for coronavirus (with several others in self-isolation due to potential exposure), public advisories against large gatherings and travel, the close quarters in which members congregate in the Capitol, and the advanced age of some members made them understandably nervous about a return to Washington.

But members of Congress do not have any ordinary job. Their roles as our elected lawmakers make them essential to our democracy—and Article I, Section 6 of the Constitution recognizes them as such: “They shall in all cases, except Treason, Felony, and Breach of the Peace, be privileged from Arrest during their Attendance at the Session of their respective Houses, and in going to and returning from the same; and for any Speech or Debate in either House, they shall not be questioned in any other Place.”

While the Supreme Court has since narrowed the scope of members’ privilege from arrest, its inclusion in the nation’s founding document shows how the Framers considered full participation by all members essential to American self-rule.

Pelosi’s Incompetence Prompted the Debacle

Much of the member frustration regarding the process came not just from the fact that they had to travel to Washington, but were asked to do so on short notice—a particular difficulty given airlines’ dramatic reductions to their flight schedules. Some members could not arrive back in Washington by the time of Friday’s debate and “vote.”

But why did members have to rush back late Thursday for proceedings in the House on Friday morning? Because Pelosi mismanaged the process and then sought to blame others for her mistakes.

For starters, House members remained in their districts for most of last week only because Pelosi had sent them there. Early on March 14, House leaders dismissed members to their districts, in an attempt (ultimately successful) to force the Senate to accept the second coronavirus bill without amendments. Had the Senate made any changes to the legislation, the House would have had to return into session to ratify the Senate amendments, holding up passage. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell told his colleagues to “gag and vote for it anyway.”

Ironically enough, Pelosi not three days before dismissing her colleagues claimed, “We are the captains of the ship—we are the last to leave.” Had Pelosi kept the House in session as the Senate passed the second coronavirus bill and debated the third, members would not have needed to travel back to Washington in the first place—they would have remained here.

The speaker claimed she would give members 24 hours’ notice prior to any votes, should they become necessary. But she waited until late Thursday to tell members they would have to attend proceedings in the House beginning at 9:00 Friday morning.

Following Senate passage of the third coronavirus bill early Thursday morning, Pelosi and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) should have instructed all members to report to Washington the following day. Instead, they wasted most of Thursday playing a game of “chicken” with the rank-and-file—daring someone to demand all members attend, and then blaming that member, Rep. Thomas Massie (R-Ky.), when he insisted the House assemble a quorum of 216 members to conduct business.

A very similar scenario happened in Congress’ upper chamber two years ago. McConnell (R-Ky.) tried to ram through a spending bill at the last minute, but miscalculated when Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) raised objections. Rather than blaming McConnell for mis-managing the Senate floor, leadership staffers—and the reporters who rely on leadership staffers to spoon-feed them gossip and stories—decided to blame Paul instead.

Rep. Thomas Massie Did Not Grandstand

House leaders took the same tack with Massie last week, enlisting President Trump to attack the congressman. On Friday morning, Trump called Massie a “third rate grandstander” for insisting that members of Congress return to Washington to vote on the legislation.

But to someone well-versed in House procedure, the facts indicate otherwise. Massie had multiple other opportunities to throw sand in the proverbial gears regarding Friday’s coronavirus bill, but did not do so:

  • The House passed the rule governing debate on the bill by unanimous consent. Massie (or any member) could have objected to the House even considering the rule on Friday morning. Such an objection would have required the House Rules Committee to hold an emergency meeting, and could have postponed consideration of the bill by 24 hours. He raised no objections.
  • Massie could have demanded a vote on the rule. Demanding that vote would have required House leaders to muster a quorum of 216 members at 9:00 on Friday—a time many members were still rushing back to Washington. Massie raised no objections.
  • Massie could have demanded one or more votes on a motion to adjourn—a frequent stalling tactic the minority party in the House uses to express outrage when it feels the majority has committed a “process foul.” He never did.

If Massie truly wanted to act like a “glass-bowl,” to paraphrase a tweet by former Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), he could have done so. He could have wound the House in knots for much of Friday with procedural objections, parliamentary inquiries, motions to adjourn, and other dilatory tactics.

To his credit, he didn’t do any of that. Massie cared about one thing: That members of Congress have an up-or-down vote—“yay” or “nay”—on the massive, multi-trillion-dollar bill. House leaders conspired against that reasonable request.

‘Mean Girls’ Try Their Tricks in Washington

Massie, or any member of Congress, can object that the House lacks a quorum to conduct business. Article I, Section 5 of the Constitution prescribes that a majority of members (216 at present, given several vacancies) constitutes a quorum. Given Massie’s publicly stated intent to object, the House could not pass the coronavirus bill without a majority of members present in the chamber. Hence the frantic messages from congressional leaders Thursday night seeking member attendance the next morning.

But no one member can demand a roll call vote, in which each takes a recorded “yay” or “nay” position. Article I, Section 5 of the Constitution also states that “the Yeas and Nays of the Members of either House on any question shall, at the Desire of one-fifth of those Present, be entered on the Journal.”

When debate on the bill concluded Friday afternoon, Massie suggested the absence of a quorum. The presiding officer counted, and concluded that a majority of members, many sitting in the House gallery above the chamber to observe social distancing protocols, were present. But when Massie requested a roll call vote, one-fifth of members (somewhere between 43 and 85, depending on the number of congressman present in the House chamber) would not agree, meaning the $2 trillion-plus bill passed on a voice vote, with lawmakers’ positions not recorded.

Under the most charitable interpretation, members didn’t want to force a vote when at least dozens of their colleagues could not participate, either because they remained in quarantine or couldn’t get back to Washington in time. But consider Clause 10 of Rule XX of the rules of the House for the current Congress:

The yeas and nays shall be considered as ordered when the Speaker puts the question on passage of a bill or joint resolution, or on adoption of a conference report, making general appropriations, or on final adoption of a concurrent resolution on the budget or conference report thereon. [Emphasis added.]

In just about every other circumstance, House rules require a roll-call vote on an appropriations bill like the one the House passed on Friday. This requirement did not apply to Friday’s coronavirus legislation only because the House considered it as a message from the Senate, rather than as an original bill or the report of a House-Senate conference committee.

As noted above, members had to come into town anyway, to ensure the House had a quorum to conduct business. Usual practice, as indicated by the excerpt from the House’s own rules, suggests members would record their votes publicly.

They did not even need to congregate in mass groups to vote electronically on the House floor. The clerks could have engaged in an actual roll call vote, which would have allowed members sitting in the House gallery to respond verbally from their places. Rather than following this usual practice—to say nothing of giving their own voters the respect of making their positions known on a $2 trillion bill —the House instead decided to take a passive-aggressive approach, turning Friday’s session into another real-life episode of “Mean Girls.”

To put it bluntly, members did not approve a roll-call vote to spite Massie, because Massie had the temerity to force them to come to Washington and do the job they are paid to do. Pelosi, McCarthy, and their leadership teams likely instructed rank-and-file members not to “reward bad behavior” (as one senator described the McConnell-Paul incident two years ago) and to deny Massie a recorded vote.

The members, either due to their own irritation at Massie, or fear of the consequences from leadership, politely complied. In so doing, they abdicated their responsibilities as lawmakers, prioritizing revenge and anger at Massie over conducting an open, transparent, and fully recorded vote.

Do Your Job, Congress!

Early in my career, a boss of mine offered some matter-of-fact advice that members of Congress should think about: “If you don’t like the job, don’t take the check.”

As Massie noted, grocery store clerks and many others such as nurse’s aides and orderlies in hospitals get paid far less than members of Congress’ $174,000 salary. They continue to show up on the frontlines of this pandemic day-in, day-out, performing heroically in grueling conditions. But when members of the House get asked to do their duties in public for one day, they lash out like preschoolers at the individual forcing them into service.

Massie’s solitary stand against his colleagues may cost him re-election. He faces a primary challenge in June (possibly fomented by House Republican leaders), and his opponent will no doubt use Trump’s Twitter tirade against him.

But Massie acted as he did out of the belief that our elected representatives should not add more than $2 trillion to the national debt without accepting public responsibility for their actions. Of course, to many of his congressional colleagues, Massie’s actions represent a novel—and truly revolutionary—concept: Standing up for principle.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

The Sorry Story of Congress’ Latest “Stimulus” Bill

As Yogi Berra’s infamous saying goes, it’s déjà vu all over again—and not in a good way.

I refer not just to the rapid economic slowdown, panicky markets, and multiple Federal Reserve bailouts related to the coronavirus epidemic, all of which echo the financial crisis of 2008. I speak also of Nancy Pelosi’s infamous comments a decade ago this month about Obamacare:

The House of Representatives—both Democrats and most (all but 40) Republicans—went along with legislation that not only wasn’t paid for, and didn’t contain any long-term reforms to programs desperately in need of them. They passed a bill whose cost still remains unknown (the Congressional Budget Office has yet to issue a cost estimate), which none of them had time to read—and might not even accomplish its supposed objectives.

Word emerged over the weekend that flaws in the bill require at least one, and possibly more than one, correction. The Wall Street Journal reported the House will attempt to pass “a technical fix on Monday.” But even as Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, who negotiated the package with Pelosi despite being “relatively green” on such matters, tried to minimize the objections, others weighed in more strongly.

The Capitol Hill publication Roll Call said the bill may need a “do-over” regarding its paid family leave provisions. The National Federation of Independent Business weighed in with objections after the bill’s passage in the House, saying that small firms wouldn’t receive the tax credits quickly enough, and could face cash-flow problems as a result.

A congressional source confirmed to me that concerns about the family leave provisions could prompt a rewrite that’s more than technical in nature. These developments should surprise no one acquainted with prior slapdash attempts to legislate on the fly, but they should force Congress to slow down such a ridiculous process.

TARP and Obamacare

This past weekend, House leaders released the final version of their “stimulus” legislation at 11:45 p.m. Friday night. The House’s vote on the bill ended at 12:51 a.m. Saturday—just more than an hour later. Members of Congress had a whopping 66 minutes to review the 110-page bill before voting on it. Even the Republican Study Committee, a conservative caucus in the House, barely had time to issue a 10-page summary of the bill before the vote gaveled to a close.

That the legislation needs a technical fix (and possibly more than one) merely continues Congress’ practice of passing complicated legislation members do not understand. For instance, in March 2009 Sen. Chris Dodd (D-CT) had to accept responsibility for inserting a provision into the “stimulus” at the behest of Obama administration officials that allowed AIG officials to collect more than $1 billion in bonuses, despite the firm requiring a massive bailout from the federal government via the Troubled Assets Relief Program. The entire controversy demonstrated that no one, not even the lawmakers who drafted the “stimulus” and TARP bills, fully understood the bills or their effects.

Consider too this description of the infamous Obamacare bill:

The Affordable Care Act contains more than a few examples of inartful drafting. (To cite just one, the Act creates three separate Section 1563s.) Several features of the Act’s passage contributed to that unfortunate reality. Congress wrote key parts of the Act behind closed doors, rather than through ‘the traditional legislative process.’…. As a result, the Act does not reflect the type of care and deliberation that one might expect of such significant legislation.

That description comes from Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts’s 2015 ruling in King v. Burwell, a case about whether individuals purchasing coverage from the federal exchange qualified for subsidies. Roberts’s ruling called the language a drafting error, and permitted individuals in all states to receive the subsidies. But if an innocent drafting error, the mistake had potentially far-reaching implications, which few if any members of Congress realized when they voted for the bill—without reading it, of course.

Rushing for the Exits

To call the nascent controversy surrounding the “stimulus” legislation a fiasco would put it mildly. Worse yet, much of the controversy seems unnecessary and entirely self-inflicted.

Congress had absolutely no reason to pass the bill just before 1 a.m. on Saturday. Financial markets had closed for the weekend, and the Senate had adjourned until Monday afternoon. Voting early Saturday morning, as opposed to later in the day on Saturday, or even on Sunday, didn’t accelerate passage of the bill one bit. However, it did allow members of Congress to leave Washington more quickly.

In other words, the leaders of both parties—who agreed to the rushed process leading up to the vote—made getting members out of town a bigger priority than giving members the time to do their due diligence as lawmakers. It’s an understandable instinct, given the serious consequences of the coronavirus on all Americans, particularly the older profile of many legislators. But it’s also an abdication of Pelosi’s own claim last week that “we’re the captains of this ship.”

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

Hospitals Seek to Defend Their Questionable Accounting Scams

With the federal government more than $23 trillion in debt, why should taxpayers continue to fund states’ accounting scams designed to bilk Washington out of additional Medicaid matching funds? It’s a good question, but one hospital lobbyists don’t want you to ask.

Late last year, the Trump administration released a proposed regulation designed to bring more transparency and accountability into the Medicaid program. The hospital sector in particular has begun an all-out blitz to try and overturn the rulemaking process. The need for the regulations demonstrates the problems with the current American health-care system, and how hospitals stand as one of the biggest obstacles to reform.

How the ‘Scam’ Works

The proposed regulations call for more transparency about supplemental payments within the Medicaid program. These payments, which take a variety of different forms, are considered supplemental in nature because they are not directly connected to the treatment of any one particular patient.

Many of these supplemental payments represent a way for states—and hospitals—to obtain a greater share of Medicaid matching dollars from the federal government. Hospitals, local governments, or other entities “contribute” funds to the state for the express purpose of obtaining additional Medicaid funds from Washington. Those matching funds then get funneled right back to many of the same entities that “contributed” the funds in the first place. As the old saying goes, it’s nice work if you can get it.

Over the years, even liberal groups have expressed concern about these shady funding mechanisms. In 2011, then-Vice President Joe Biden reportedly called provider taxes—in which hospitals and nursing homes pay an assessment, which gets laundered through state coffers to receive—a “scam.” Think about it: How often do you ask to pay higher taxes? Hospitals and nursing homes often propose new or higher provider taxes because they believe they will get their money back, and then some, via greater Medicaid payments.

Likewise, in 2000 the liberal Center on Budget and Policy Priorities decried the use of “Rube Goldberg-like accounting arrangements” that “use complex accounting gimmicks to secure additional federal funds for states without actual state matching contributions.” Yet two decades later, the scams continue to proliferate, because, as a 2005 government audit noted, most states have hired contingency-fee consultants for the sole purpose of bilking additional Medicaid matching funds from the federal government.

Hospitals’ Scare Tactics Rationalize Theft

The Trump administration’s proposal would make these accounting arrangements more transparent, with the goal of phasing out several of the most egregious arrangements altogether. This has prompted hospital executives to consider the proposed rule something just short of Armageddon.

During a 2008 debate on a similar set of Medicaid regulations put forward by the Bush administration, very few members of Congress even debated the regulations, as opposed to their effects on hospitals. Likewise, most hospital lobbyists and executives don’t try to defend the merits of these accounting scams. Instead, they just focus on the effects, with the typical “parade of horribles” examples: “If you end these payments, Tiny Tim will die.”

Hospitals’ reluctance to defend these opaque funding arrangements on their merits represents an implicit admission: They never should have received this money in the first place. Translation: “We stole that money fair and square—and you better let us keep stealing that money, or else” the hospital will close, people will lose their jobs, etc.

Hospitals’ Disingenuous Tactics

Some lobbyists on Capitol Hill claim they “only” want to delay the regulations, to allow for additional feedback and give hospitals time to adjust. It’s a ridiculous argument on multiple levels. First, as the policy paper from 2000 reveals, hospitals have engaged in these types of tactics for more than two decades, and they continue to grow and proliferate. The idea that hospitals need additional time to adjust to a problem they created seems laughable on its face.

Consider also what happened in 2008, when the Bush administration proposed a similar set of regulations designed to crack down on Medicaid financing abuses. Democrats passed a one-year moratorium preventing the administration from finalizing the rules, blocking them from taking effect.

Why only a one-year delay and not an outright ban? At the time, staff for the House Energy and Commerce Committee publicly stated that the moratorium “intended to delay the implementation of the Medicaid rules just long enough so that a future Administration can withdraw them.”

That’s exactly what ended up happening: The Obama administration withdrew the regulations upon taking office in 2009, so Congress didn’t have to pay for the cost associated with blocking them permanently. Hospital lobbyists asking for a delay of the regulations are hoping a Democrat wins the White House this fall, and can withdraw the regulations next year. They just won’t tell Republican staffers that their strategy is premised upon President Trump losing his re-election bid.

Let the Regulations Proceed, And Let States Decide

If the regulations went into effect today, they wouldn’t automatically lead to any hospitals closing down, or even hospitals losing any money. The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) said it would work with states to transition away from the offending transactions over time.

That said, some governors oppose the regulations for the same reason hospitals do: It would force state governors and lawmakers to make difficult choices. If the loopholes that allow states to bilk more funds out of Washington end, then states would have to pony up “real” money from their coffers to maintain payments to providers, rather than funds obtained via accounting gimmicks. Hospitals would have to compete with other important state priorities—transportation, education, corrections, etc.—to maintain their existing payments.

But as the old saying goes, to govern is to choose. Better for a state to raise taxes—and be up-front and honest about doing so—to fund its Medicaid program than for that same state to use opaque gimmicks to squeeze out more federal dollars. The latter situation amounts to a (deferred) tax increase anyway, by adding more dollars to Washington’s ever-growing debt.

After decades of delays, and with our country’s debt growing ever-larger by the day, Medicaid deserves the fiscal integrity these new regulations would bring. They should go into full effect, and sooner rather than later.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

Michael Bloomberg: Against Obamacare Before He Was For It

Last week, old footage emerged of former New York City mayor, and current Democratic presidential candidate, Michael Bloomberg talking about health care rationing. In his comments from 2011, he advocated denying costly care to older patients:

If you’re bleeding, they’ll stop the bleeding—if you need an X-ray, you’re going to have to wait. That’s just…All of these costs keep going up, nobody wants to pay any more money, and at the rate we’re going, health care is going to bankrupt us….You know, if you show up with prostate cancer, you’re 95 years old, we should say, ‘Go and enjoy. Have a nice life. Live a long life. There’s no cure, and we can’t do anything.’ If you’re a young person, we should do something about it.

Perhaps more important is why Bloomberg made those particular comments. At the time, in February 2011, he was paying condolences to a Jewish family that had lost a loved one. One of the deceased man’s family noted that the man “was in the emergency room for 73 hours before he died and…that overcrowding in emergency rooms in New York had become out of control.”

This entire episode undermines the message of Bloomberg’s current ad blitz claiming that as mayor, he expanded access to health care in New York City. Plus, what did the mayor say about ER overcrowding back in 2011? “It’s going to get worse with the health care bill [i.e., Obamacare].” He also predicted that hospitals would close as a result.

Obamacare a ‘Disgrace’

During last week’s Democrat primary debate in Las Vegas, former Vice President Joe Biden brought up some of Bloomberg’s other comments about Obamacare. Biden correctly noted that Bloomberg had called Obamacare a “disgrace.” In a June 2010 speech at Dartmouth University just after the law’s enactment, Bloomberg said “We passed a health care bill that does absolutely nothing to fix the big health care problems in this country. It is just a disgrace.”

Reporters in the past several days have highlighted some of Bloomberg’s prior comments about the law:

  • In his Dartmouth speech, Bloomberg also pointed out that Democrats “say they’ve insured or provided coverage for another 45 million people…except there’s no more doctors for 45 million people.”
  • In a 2011 radio appearance, Bloomberg said that Obamacare “did not solve the basic problems, two basic problems with health care, which…got lost in all of the negotiations as every special interest in Congress got a piece or lost a piece or negotiated about a piece.”
  • In a December 2009 appearance on “Meet the Press,” Bloomberg criticized Democrats for not reading or understanding the legislation: “I have asked congressperson after congressperson, not one can explain to me what’s in the bill, even in the House version, certainly not in the other version. And so for them to vote on a bill that they don’t understand whatsoever, really, you’ve got to question the kind of government we have.”

It’s notable that Biden didn’t mention Bloomberg’s last quote—about members of Congress not reading or understanding the legislation—in Wednesday’s debate. Of course, that might have something to do with Biden’s own recent admission that “no one did understand Obamacare”—presumably including himself, at the time the vice president of the United States.

Changing His Tune

Now that Bloomberg is running for the Democratic nomination, he’s come around to supporting Obamacare. When asked about his prior comments, a Bloomberg campaign spokesman told CNN Obamacare’s only flaw lay in the fact that it didn’t go far enough. As a result, Bloomberg’s health plan proposes more government spending, funded by higher taxes, and—in a first—price controls on the entire health-care sector, including what you can and cannot pay your doctors.

On the merits of his policy platform, I’ll give the last word to Bloomberg himself, in his June 2010 speech at Dartmouth University. While Bloomberg said President Obama started out with good intentions, he said Congress “didn’t pay attention to any of those big problems and just created another program that’s going to cost a lot of money.”

It’s an apt description of Bloomberg’s own health care plan—to say nothing of his competitors for the Democratic presidential nomination.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

Christmas Eve Vote on Obamacare Showed Washington Still Has Shame

A decade ago this morning, 60 Senate Democrats cast their final votes approving the legislation that became Obamacare. The bill took a circuitous route to enactment after Scott Brown’s surprise victory in the Massachusetts Senate contest, which occurred a few weeks after the Senate vote, in January 2010.

Brown’s election meant Republicans gained a 41st Senate seat, giving them the necessary votes to filibuster a House-Senate conference report on Obamacare. Because Democrats lacked the 60 votes to overcome a filibuster, they eventually agreed to a process amending certain budgetary and fiscal elements of the Senate bill through the reconciliation process on a 51-vote threshold.

The grubby process leading up to Obamacare’s enactment, full of parochial politics and special interest pork, cost Democrats politically. But many Americans do not realize that such machinations occur all the time in Washington—indeed, occurred just last week. When one party participates in a corrupt process, it becomes a scandal; when both parties partake, few outside the Beltway bother to notice.

Backroom Deals

The process among Democrats leading up to the final health vote resembled an open market, with each Senator making “asks” of Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV). Reid needed all 60 Democrats to vote for Obamacare to break a Republican filibuster, and the parochial provisions included in the legislation showed the lengths he would go to enact it:

Cornhusker Kickback:” The most notorious of the backroom deals came after Sen. Ben Nelson (D-NE) requested a 100 percent Medicaid match rate for his home state of Nebraska. The final manager’s amendment introduced by Reid included this earmark—Nebraska would have its entire costs of Medicaid expansion paid for by the federal government forever. But the blowback from constituents and the press became so great that Nelson asked to have the provision removed; the reconciliation measure enacted in March 2010 gave Nebraska the same treatment as all other states.

Gator Aid:” This provision, inserted at the behest of Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL), and later removed in the reconciliation bill, sought to exempt Florida seniors from much of the effects of the law’s Medicare Advantage cuts.

Louisiana Purchase:” This provision, included due to a request from Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-LA), adjusted the state’s Medicaid matching formula. Landrieu publicly defended the provision—which she said reflected the state’s circumstances after Hurricane Katrina—and it remained in law for several years, but was eventually phased out in legislation enacted February 2012.

While these three provisions captivated the public’s attention, other earmarks and pork provisions abounded inside Obamacare too—a Medicaid funding provision that helped Massachusetts; exemptions from the insurer tax for two Blue Cross carriers; a $100 million earmark for a Connecticut hospital, and health benefits for miners in Libby, Montana, courtesy of then-Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-MT).

Not only did senators try to keep these corrupt deals in the legislation—notwithstanding the public outrage they engendered—but Reid defended both the earmarks and the horse-trading process that led to their inclusion:

I don’t know if there’s a senator who doesn’t have something in this bill that’s important to them. And if they don’t have something in it that’s important to them, then it doesn’t speak well for them.

It was a far cry from Barack Obama’s 2008 (broken) campaign promise to have all his health care negotiations televised on C-SPAN, “so we will know who is making arguments on behalf of their constituents, and who are making arguments on behalf of the drug companies or the insurance companies.” And it looked like Democrats didn’t really believe in the merits of the underlying legislation, but instead voted to restructure nearly one-fifth of the American economy because they got some comparatively minor pork project for their district back home.

Déjà Vu All Over Again

Democrats lost control of the House in the 2010 elections, and political scientists have attributed much of the loss to the impact of the Obamacare vote. One study found that Obamacare cost Democrats 6 percentage points of support in the 2010 midterm elections, and at least 13 seats in Congress.

But did the rebuke Democrats received for their behavior prompt them to change their ways? Only to the extent that, when they want to ram through a massive piece of legislation no one has bothered to read, they include Republicans in the taxpayer-funded largesse.

Consider last week’s $1.4 trillion spending package: Two bills totaling more than 2,300 pages, which lawmakers introduced on Monday and voted on in the House 24 hours later. Democrats wanted to repeal one set of Obamacare taxes—and in exchange, they agreed to repeal another set of taxes that Republicans (and their K Street lobbying friends) wanted gone. The Obamacare taxes went away, but the Obamacare spending remained, thus increasing the deficit by nearly $400 billion.

And both sides agreed to increase spending in defense and non-defense categories alike. Therein lies the true definition of bipartisanship in Washington: An agreement in which both sides get what they want—courtesy of taxpayers in the next generation, who get stuck with the bill.

It remains a sad commentary on the state of affairs in the nation’s capital that the Obamacare debacle remains an anomaly—the one time when the glare of the spotlight so seared Members seeking pork projects that they dared consider forsaking their ill-gotten gains. To paraphrase the axiom about casinos, in Washington, The Swamp (almost) always wins.

“Cadillac Tax” Repeal “Deal” Is What’s Wrong with Washington

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.

The Four Most Dangerous Words in Washington

More than three decades ago, Ronald Reagan rightly characterized the nine most terrifying words in the English language: “I’m from the government, and I’m here to help.” In Washington, a quartet of four words rank close behind Reagan’s nine in their ability to terrify: What are you for?

Countless people in official Washington, from leadership staff to reporters to liberals to lobbyists, use these four words, or some variation thereof, to try to get conservatives to endorse bad policy. Their words carry with them an implicit argument: You have to be for something, rather than just opposing bad policy.

Reagan would find that reasoning nonsensical. Why do you have to be for something when all the available options undermine conservative principles—because you’re from the government and you’re here to help? It’s a lazy straw-man argument, which might explain why so many people in Washington use it, but it’s a premise that conservatives should reject.

Example 1: Drug Price Legislation

On Monday, House Republican leaders released their alternative to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s prescription drug legislation. Their very first bullet in the summary of the legislation said that the bill includes “350 pages” of provisions. (Technically, the bill has 352 pages of content, while by contrast, the Rules Committee print of Democrats’ prescription drug legislation weighs in at 275 pages.)

Republicans quite rightly criticized Pelosi almost a decade ago for the awful process she used to enact Obamacare. Remember the speaker’s infamous quote about the legislation in March 2010, which House Republicans still have on their YouTube page:

Yet including the bill’s size as the first bullet point in their summary suggests Republican leadership considers it a feature, not a bug: “Look at how substantive we are—our bill is 350 pages long!” Granted, the House Republican package consists of a grab-bag of provisions related to drug pricing, most of which existed well before this week. Some of them doubtless contain good ideas, and ideas I have previously endorsed.

But think about what went into creating this “new,” 350-page bill. A bunch of leadership staffers sat around a big desk in the Capitol, decided what bills and provisions to include in the package—and, by extension, which bills to exclude from it. I know, because I’ve sat in those types of meetings. They released the legislation on Monday, and Congress likely will vote on it late Wednesday night (early Thursday at the latest).

Republican Members of Congress won’t have time to read all 352 pages of the House Republican bill. Some of them may not have time to read even the four-page summary of the bill. And their staff, who are currently overwhelmed by the litany of issues on Congress’ December agenda, from impeachment to a massive defense policy bill to another massive spending bill to the prescription drug debate, have neither the time nor the bandwidth to provide thoughtful advice and counsel.

But most if not all Republican members of Congress will vote for this drug price alternative they have not read and many do not fully understand. Why? Because most think they need to “be for something.” Because they believe that (false) premise, they will have effectively handed their voting card to unelected leadership staffers—who may or may not actually know what they are doing—to define what Republicans are “for.” It’s no way to run a railroad, let alone the country.

Example 2: Entitlements

My article last week about Democratic presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg’s proposed long-term care entitlement prompted an e-mail from a colleague. The e-mail asked a polite variation of the question noted above: If you don’t like Buttigieg’s approach to long-term care, what would you do instead?

My response in a nutshell: Nope. As I pointed out in the original post, our country faces $23 trillion—that’s $23,000,000,000,000—in debt—and rising. We can’t afford the entitlements and government programs we have now. To even talk about creating new programs (which would face their own solvency and sustainability concerns) only gives lawmakers and the American public a permission structure to avoid the hard decisions Congress should have made years ago to right-size our entitlements.

Example 3: ‘Surprise Billing’ Legislation

On Sunday, several members of key committees announced an agreement in principle on federal legislation regarding “surprise billing,” which arises when physicians and medical providers seek to recover charges when patients obtain care out-of-network during emergencies, or when patients inadvertently see an out-of-network physician (e.g., an anesthesiologist) at an in-network hospital.

(Disclosure: I have consulted with various firms about the potential outcomes and implications of this legislation. However, these firms have not asked me for my personal policy positions on the legislation, nor have they asked me to advocate for a position on it—as my positions, as always, are mine alone.)

I wrote back in July that this issue largely represented a solution in search of a problem, for multiple reasons. First, a relatively small number of hospitals and providers impose most of the “surprise” bills. Second, states have the power to fix this issue on their own by regulating providers, even if federal law makes it difficult for states to regulate all the insurers in their state.

So why do Republicans feel the need to sign off on federal legislation addressing a problem that states can decide to fix (or not to fix) themselves? Again, because lawmakers feel the need to “be for something.” That again brings to mind Reagan’s axiom about the nine most terrifying words, and the proposition that “I’m from the government and I’m here to help” often leads to unintended consequences.

No, Don’t Just ‘Do Something’

Perhaps by this point, some observers might have come up with an obvious question: How can you win elections if you don’t try to “do something?” The question has two simple answers.

First, citizens quite obviously do not vote solely based on a candidate’s ability to “do something,” such as expand the regulatory state, the welfare state, and government in general. If conservatives want to run campaigns based on giving voters “free stuff,” but just slightly less “free stuff” than Democrats, guess how many elections the conservative would win?

Second, as noted above, the “What are you for?” question has an obvious four-word response: “We can’t afford it.” That retort sadly has the feature of truth about it, as our country cannot sustain its current levels of government spending.

Any responsible parent knows that, no matter how often his child asks, letting that child eat ice cream three times a day does not represent good parenting. Congress long since should have imposed some of that sense of discipline on itself, and the American people.

Given our current fiscal situation, many policy proposals, no matter how popular, are not fiscally sustainable. The “What are you for?” question cleverly tries to elide that debate, in ways that will only undermine conservative principles, and our country’s solvency.

I’ll end by noting my strong support for the First Amendment: “Congress shall make no law.” (What, you thought it contains some other words too?) If Congress spent the majority of its time stopping bad laws and policies—particularly policies considered only slightly less bad than the original proposals—maybe our country wouldn’t face the prospect of paying off a growing mountain of debt.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

November Debate Outs Democrats’ Health Care Double Speak

Ten Democratic candidates took the stage in Atlanta for the latest presidential debate on Wednesday evening, and as with the past several debates, health care played an important role. The attack lines echoed debates past: Progressives like Sens. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) pledged support for full-fledged socialized medicine, while so-called “moderates” like former Vice President Joe Biden expressed opposition to taking away Americans’ existing health plans, and raising taxes by tens of trillions of dollars to do so.

Several contradictions emerged. First, as in debates past, the controversy seemed focused more on tactics than on strategyhow quickly to take away Americans’ health insurance, rather than whether the United States should ultimately end up with a system of socialized medicine.

Warren’s Unrealistic Promises

Early in the debate, Warren tried to square the circle into which she has put herself, by first releasing a plan for full-on single payer, and then releasing a second “transition” plan last Friday. In the latter plan, Warren pledged she would pass not one but two separate major pieces of health care legislation through Congress—the first within her 100 days, the second within three years.

Warren claimed that she would provide access to “free” health care for 135 million Americans within her first 100 days in office. That number comes from the populations that she pledged in last week’s plan would have immediate access to a Medicare-type single-payer system without premiums or cost sharing: Those with incomes under 200 percent of the federal poverty level (currently $51,500 for a family of four), and all children under age 18.

The idea that Warren can introduce, let alone pass, such massive legislation within 100 days—by April 30, 2021—seems unrealistic at best. By way of comparison, the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee—the first committee to mark up the legislation that became Obamacare—did not even introduce its version of the bill until June 9, 2009, well after Barack Obama’s first 100 days in office. Barack Obama did not sign Obamacare into law until March 23, 2010, 427 days after his inauguration.

Drafting and passing a bill providing “free” health care to only 135 million people (as opposed to more than 300 million in full-on single payer) would in and of itself represent one of the largest and costliest pieces of legislation—if not the largest and costliest piece of legislation—ever considered by Congress. It would also require massive tax increases, which given the gimmicks in Warren’s plan would likely fall on the middle class.

The idea that Congress could pass such large legislation in only 100 days seems unrealistic at best, and an affront to democracy at worst. Underpinning this timetable lies the idea that “we have to pass the bill so that you can find out what’s in it,” because Democrats fear the ramifications of allowing the American people to understand the effects of their agenda before enacting it. In reality, however, trying to pass legislation that fast would quickly become a legislative morass for Warren, much like the political morass (of her own making) that she currently faces on health care.

Does Biden Believe in Choice?

Biden also spoke out of both sides of his mouth on health care. He claimed that 160 million Americans with employer-sponsored coverage like their current insurance, and that he trusts the American people to decide whether or not to join a government-run plan.

However, Biden also claimed that his plan would bring down costs and premiums for the American people. Those reductions can only materialize if people end up enrolling in the government-run health plan, because it would use raw government power to pay doctors and hospitals less.

On the one hand, Biden claims he believes in choice. But on the other hand, his rhetoric belies his desire for a given outcome, one in which people “choose” the government-run plan. As with Pete Buttigieg’s claim that a government-run plan would provide a “glide path” to single payer, both Biden’s rhetoric and the details of his plan show that he wants to sabotage private insurance to drive people into the government-run plan.

Forcing everyone into socialized medicine, and dissembling to voters while doing so: That’s the agenda the American people saw on display in Atlanta Wednesday evening.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

How Elizabeth Warren “Swift Boated” Herself on Health Care

Every four years, political analysts and commentators compare current presidential candidates to events from campaigns past. She may not want to admit it, but Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s actions on health care the past several weeks, culminating in the release of her second health plan on Friday, echo the 2004 presidential campaign of her Massachusetts colleague, former Sen. John Kerry.

During his campaign for the Democratic nomination, Kerry played up his military service at every opportunity. Howard Dean’s strident opposition to the Iraq War, coupled with his infamous on-camera implosion after the Iowa caucuses, gave Kerry an opening that he parlayed into the Democratic nomination. At the party’s convention in Boston, Kerry famously started his acceptance speech with a military salute: “I’m John Kerry, and I’m reporting for duty.”

The Swift Boat Veterans for Truth ads that ran after the Democratic convention attempted to turn Kerry’s biggest strength—his military service—into a weakness. The ads sparked controversy, and no small amount of political attention, by raising questions about Kerry’s service in Vietnam, and his activities protesting the Vietnam War following his return.

Likewise, the past several weeks have seen Warren turn her biggest strength—her wonky, “I’ve got a plan for that” persona—into a weakness. On November 1, she released her first health-care plan, replete with multiple documents highlighting supposed savings under a single-payer health-care system, and her plan for raising revenue to pay for such a system without raising taxes on the middle class.

Warren’s first plan drew mockery from her fellow Democratic candidates and conservative commentators alike for its unrealistic gimmicks and assumptions. Most notably, Warren’s plan failed to concede what one of her own advisors implicitly admitted: That an $8.8 trillion “employer contribution” would ultimately come out of the pockets of the middle class. Meanwhile, her opponents continued to hammer Warren for wanting to strip away the existing insurance of millions of Americans, including union workers who negotiated their health coverage at the bargaining table.

Her initial plan failed so badly that exactly two weeks later, Warren felt the need to reboot. She released another health plan, this one highlighting a supposed “transition period,” to get ahead of criticism from her fellow Democrats in the upcoming presidential debate.

This plan pledged that, within her first 100 days in office, Warren would work to enact “a true Medicare for All option”—one that people could select if they chose, but would not require individuals to give up their existing coverage. Only later, “no later than my third year in office,” would Warren “fight to pass legislation that would complete the transition” to a full single-payer system.

The second plan seems like a deliberate dodge, an attempt for Warren to have her cake and eat it too. The single-payer bill introduced by Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT)—which Warren has co-sponsored—contains a four-year transition plan in Title X of the underlying legislation. The single-payer bill introduced in the House by Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-WA) also includes a transition, which would take place over a two-year period. Warren’s claim that Congress should pass not one but two major bills to enact her health-care agenda sounds like an excuse for her to walk away from her commitment to single payer.

On that count, who can blame her? Evidence from the midterm elections shows that support for full-on socialized medicine cost the average Democrat in a competitive district nearly 5 percentage points of support. No wonder that even Barack Obama conceded on Friday that “the average American doesn’t think we have to completely tear down the system” and cautioned Democrats against proposing “crazy stuff,” in a not-so-subtle warning about proposals by Warren and Sanders.

But Warren now remains firmly mired in a mess of her own making. Her “I’ve got a plan for that” mantra meant she had to release a detailed health care proposal at a time political expediency might have suggested vagueness. Her Democratic rivals, to say nothing of President Trump’s re-election, can now pick apart those details over many months.

And to think those details won’t matter to the American people, or lead to additional controversy, belies past experience. When House Speaker Nancy Pelosi admitted in 2010 that “We have to pass [Obamacare] so that you can find out what’s in it,” she conceded that the legislative details matter to millions of Americans—and that such public scrutiny put Democrats in political peril.

Hours before she released her first health-care platform, an article on the issue correctly claimed that “Warren did not have a plan for this.” Her initial lack of a plan, followed by her willingness to spell out in minute relief the details of her socialized medicine plan, could prove her undoing.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

Warren Advisor Admits Her Health Plan Raises Middle Class Taxes

That didn’t last long. Five days after Sen. Elizabeth Warren released a health plan (chock full of gimmicks) that she claimed would not raise taxes on the middle class, one of the authors of that plan contradicted her claims.

In an interview with Axios published on Wednesday, but which took place before the plan’s release, Warren advisor and former Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services Administrator Donald Berwick said the following:

Q: Many people may not know their employers cover 70% or more of their entire premium — money that otherwise would go to their pay. Is this the main problem when talking about reforms?

DB: The basics are not that complicated. Every single dollar — every nickel spent on health care in this country — is coming from workers. There’s no other source. [Emphasis mine.]

Compare that phraseology to what Joe Biden’s campaign spokesperson said on Friday about Warren’s plan and its effects:

For months, Elizabeth Warren has refused to say if her health care plan would raise taxes on the middle class, and now we know why: Because it does….Senator Warren would place a new tax of nearly $9 trillion that will fall on American workers. [Emphasis mine.]

In response to the Biden campaign’s criticism, Warren said last Friday that her health plan’s projections “were authenticated by President Obama’s head of Medicare”—meaning Berwick. Unfortunately for Warren, Berwick, by virtue of his comments in his interview with Axios, also “authenticated” Biden’s attack that her required employer contribution will hit workers, and thus middle-class families.

Warren also tried to defend her plan on Friday by claiming that “the employer contribution is already part of” Obamacare. Obamacare does include an employer contribution requirement, but that requirement:

  • Is capped at no more than $3,000 per worker, far less than the average employer contribution for workers’ health coverage—$14,561 for family coverage as of 2019— which will form the initial basis of Warren’s required employer contribution;
  • Does not apply to employers at all if the firm offers “affordable” coverage—an option not available under Warren’s plan, which would make private insurance coverage “unlawful;” and
  • Will raise an estimated $74 billion in the coming decade, according to the Congressional Budget Office—less than 1 percent of the $8.8 trillion Warren claims her required employer contribution would raise.

While Obamacare and Warrencare both have employer contributions, the similarities pretty much end there. Calling the two equal would equate a log cabin to Buckingham Palace. Sure, they’re both houses, but differ greatly in size. Warren’s “contribution”—which Berwick, her advisor, admits will fall on middle-class workers—stands orders of magnitude greater than anything in Obamacare.

Public Accountability?

In the same Axios interview, Berwick highlighted what he termed a tradeoff “between public accountability and private accountability.” He continued: “By not having a publicly accountable system, we are paying an enormous price in lack of transparency.”

His comments echo prior justification of his infamous “rationing with our eyes open” quote in a 2009 interview. As he explained to The New York Times as he departed CMS in late 2011, “Someone, like your health insurance company, is going to limit what you can get….The government, unlike many private health insurance plans, is working in the daylight. That’s a strength.”

Except that Berwick, as CMS administrator, went to absurd lengths to hide from public scrutiny after his series of remarks. He would gladly meet with health-care lobbyists behind closed doors, but refused to answer questions from reporters, going so far as to duck behind curtains and request security escorts to avoid doing so.

Warren apparently has taken a lesson in opacity from Berwick’s time as CMS administrator. At first, she avoided releasing a specific health care proposal at all, only to follow up by issuing a “plan” containing so many absurd assumptions as to render it irrelevant as a serious blueprint for legislating.

Unfortunately for her, however, Berwick committed the unforgivable sin of speaking an inconvenient truth about the effects of her proposal. Eight years after leaving office as CMS administrator, Berwick, however belated and however unwittingly, delivered some much-needed public accountability for Warren’s health plan.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.