Joe Biden’s Obamacare Gaffe Points to a Larger Truth

In Iowa just before the New Year, former Vice President Joe Biden had an interesting response to a voter’s concerns about Obamacare. The voter said his father had lost his coverage when the law’s major provisions took effect in 2014, and the “replacement” plans proved far more expensive. Asked to apologize for what PolitiFact dubbed its “Lie of the Year” for 2013—that “If you like your plan, you can keep it”—Biden demurred by claiming the following:

There’s two ways people know when something is important. One, when it’s so clear when it’s passed that everybody understands it. And no one did understand Obamacare, including the way it was rolled out. And the gentleman’s right—he said you could keep your doctor if you wanted to, and you couldn’t keep your doctor if you wanted to, necessarily. He’s dead right about that.

On its face, Biden’s comments initially resemble House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s “We have to pass the bill so that you can find out what is in it” gaffe. But in reality, they hint at a larger truth: the federal government has gotten so big and sprawling, nobody really understands it.

Pelosi’s ‘Kinsley Gaffe’

Just before Obamacare’s passage in March 2010, Pelosi made comments that conservatives have parodied for most of the ten years since:

Upon closer inspection, though, her comments centered on the political messaging about the law, rather than the underlying policy. She prefaced her infamous quote by noting that “You’ve heard about the controversies within the bill, the process about the bill.”

But in Pelosi’s view, the American people had not heard about the substance of the bill itself: “I don’t know if you have heard that it is legislation for the future.” She went on to talk a bit about preventive care measures contained in Obamacare, which in her view would lower health-care costs. She then gave her infamous quote about passing the bill “so that you can find out what is in it, away from the fog of the controversy.”

Pelosi’s statement still seems extraordinary. She admitted that, even with Barack Obama—who won the presidency in fair measure through his rhetoric—in the White House, more than 250 Democrats in the House, and 60 Democrats in the Senate, Obamacare had proven a political failure. Democrats had lost the messaging battle in 2009 and 2010, and could only hope that enacting the legislation and allowing Americans to see its purported benefits could turn the dynamic around.

But Pelosi’s comments said “we have to pass the bill so that you can find out what is in it”—emphasis on the second person. She still claimed to know the contents of the legislation, contra the recent claims of the vice president at the time.

So Much for ‘Experts’

On one level, Biden’s comments echoed Pelosi’s. He talked about “the way it was rolled out”—a likely reference to the messaging battles of 2009-10, the “debacle” of the exchange launch in late 2013, or a combination of the two.

But unlike Pelosi—who said the public didn’t understand Obamacare—Biden said that “no one did understand Obamacare.” One wonders whether the statement meant to inoculate Obama from accepting blame for his “like your plan” rhetoric, even though Obama himself apologized for misleading the public on the issue in late 2013.

Regardless, Biden’s rhetoric echoes the example of Max Baucus, at the time the chairman of the Senate Finance Committee. Asked shortly after the legislation passed whether he had read Obamacare prior to its enactment, he responded that “I don’t think you want me to waste my time to read every single word of that health care bill,” because “we hire experts” who are the only people who “know what the heck it is:”

Except that four years later, one of those “experts” who worked on Baucus’ staff at the time, Yvette Fontenot, admitted that when drafting Obamacare’s employer mandate, “We didn’t have a very good handle on how difficult operationalizing the provision would be at that time.” So, to borrow Baucus’ own phrase, even one of his self-appointed “experts” didn’t “know what the heck it is” either.

Why Expand a Government You Can’t Even Understand?

Biden’s comments once again reveal that the federal government has become too big and sprawling for anyone to understand. Yet he and his Democratic colleagues continue to push massive, multi-trillion-dollar expansions of government as part of their presidential campaigns. Sen. Elizabeth Warren goes so far as to claim that “experts” can fix just about everything that’s wrong with the world, even though Biden’s admission shows that they need to start by fixing the problems they caused.

As the old saying goes, when you’re in a hole, stop digging. That axiom applies equally to Biden’s propensity to put his foot in his mouth and Democrats’ desire to expand a government they do not understand.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

Elizabeth Warren’s Health Plan and the Limits of “Experts”

By one count, Sen. Elizabeth Warren used 9,275 words in her health care plan (that is, her original health care plan, not the one she released two weeks later, to overcome the political obstacles she created in the first version). Of that lengthy verbiage, one word stands out: “Expert” appears no fewer than 18 times in the document.

According to Warren, “the experts conclude” that her plan would cost $20.5 trillion over a decade; other “top experts…examine[d] options” to pay for that new federal spending. She cited experts in triplicate for emphasis, noting “the conclusions of expert after expert after expert” that a single-payer health care system can cover all Americans while lowering costs. Warren even pledged that “no for-profit insurance company should be able to stop anyone from seeing the expert…they need.”

Therein lies her biggest problem: In farming out every policy issue for “experts” to solve, Warren effectively insults the intelligence of American voters—telling them they’re not smart enough to solve their own problems, or even to understand the details of her proposed solutions.

‘Experts’ Couldn’t Even Build a Website

The Massachusetts senator’s reliance on experts jives with her campaign’s unofficial slogan. No matter the issue, Warren has a plan for that—blessed by the experts—to enact her agenda. But as Mike Tyson once said, “Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.” For reasons both practical and philosophical, Warren and her technocratic ilk might benefit from some humility as they seek to remake the health care system—and the nation.

Six years ago this fall, the failure of healthcare.gov provided a searing example of the limits of expertise. After years of planning and countless federal dollars, what Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius called a “debacle” played out in slow-motion on national television. Half a century on from Halberstam’s best and brightest, Barack Obama had to concede that government was “generally not very efficient” at procurement and technology.

Another politician who invoked “experts” regarding health policy, Max Baucus, did so in August 2010. Then the chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, Baucus said he did not bother to read the Obamacare legislation he helped to draft because “It takes a real expert to know what the heck it is. We hire experts.”

Nearly four years later, one of those experts—Yvette Fontenot, who worked on Baucus’ staff during the Obamacare debate—admitted that when drafting the law’s employer mandate, “we didn’t have a very good handle on how difficult operationalizing the provision would be at that time.” Here again, remaking a health system approaching $4 trillion in size brings unintended consequences lurking at every corner.

Yet Warren and her “experts” see no such reason for caution. One of the authors of her health care paper, former Obama administration official Donald Berwick, once said, “I want to see that in the city of San Diego or Seattle there are exactly as many MRI units as needed when operating at full capacity. Not less and not more.” Implicit in his statement: Federal officials, sitting at desks in Washington, or at Medicare’s headquarters in Baltimore, can quantify and assess the “right” number of machines, facilities, and personnel in every community across the land.

Liberals Act Like Voters Are Stupid

A belief that administrators should, let alone can, effectively micromanage an entire health system requires no small amount of hubris. Indeed, Berwick said in a 2008 speech that “I cannot believe that the individual health care consumer can enforce through choice the proper configurations of a system as massive and complex as health care. That is for leaders to do.”

In this vein, Berwick echoed his Obama administration colleague Peter Orszag, who in advocating for an unelected board to make recommendations reducing health spending—a change included in Obamacare, but repealed by Congress last yearargued that “we might be a healthier democracy if we were slightly less democratic.”

From the 2004 work “What’s the Matter with Kansas?” to the post-mortems after the last presidential election, liberals continue to question why some households vote against their supposed financial interests. The “expert” mentality—as Orszag wrote, “relying more on…depoliticized commissions for certain policy decisions”—likely plays a role, as by its very nature and through its soft paternalism it disenfranchises Americans.

For instance, studies suggest most low-income individuals do not particularly value Medicaid coverage, yet neither Warren nor others on the left spend much time debating whether expanding health insurance represents the best way to help the poor. As Reagan would note, they’re from the government, and they’re here to help.

Warren thinks that to win the presidency, she must convince voters she has a plan for everything. In reality, her campaign’s hopes may rest instead on developing a plan to narrow the growing gap between the rulers—her beloved “experts”—and the ruled.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

Obamacare and the Pitfalls of Congressional Legislating

Weeks before Congress embarked on its final push to put Obamacare on the statute books, then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi infamously stated that Congress had to pass the bill “so that you can find out what’s in it.” But last week, a staffer at the heart of drafting the legislation admitted that Congress itself failed to comprehend the implications of the provisions it imposed upon the American people.

On Friday, a Capitol Hill newspaper published a story outlining the history of Obamacare’s employer mandate and whether the administration might delay its implementation still further. In the article, Yvette Fontenot—a lobbyist who helped write the bill for then-Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus and later worked on implementing the legislation at the White House—admitted that when Mr. Baucus’s staff drafted the employer mandate, “we didn’t have a very good handle on how difficult operationalizing the provision would be at that time.”

Indeed, the employer mandate has proved difficult to implement. Defining who counts as a full-time employee across a variety of industries and creating databases to track employees’ hours have taxed regulators and companies alike. While the administration has cited these difficulties in twice delaying the mandate’s implementation, the law’s critics take a different view—believing the administration postponed the mandate to avoid potential stories about job losses prior to the 2014 elections.

Likewise, the import of Ms. Fontenot’s admission. Liberals and supporters of a strong executive might argue that her comments highlight the need for agency rulemaking, rather than placing final authority in the hands of inexpert legislators and overtaxed congressional staff—essentially saving Congress from itself. House Speaker John Boehner obviously disagrees. The Ohio Republican views the impending House vote exploring legal action against the administration as one way for the legislature to regain its authority.

But more broadly, conservatives would argue that Ms. Fontenot’s comments highlight the need for a more deliberative—and more humble—Congress, one quicker to acknowledge its own flaws, and change its processes accordingly. Recall that Max Baucus—the prime congressional author of Obamacare—said four years ago that he didn’t want to “waste my time” reading the legislation, because “we hire experts.” But one of those “experts” now says she didn’t understand how one of the major portions of the bill would work. It makes a very compelling argument that Congress, rather than relying on agency employees to resolve its self-imposed problems, should instead revert to the Hippocratic oath, and focus first and foremost on doing no legislative harm.

This post was originally published at the Wall Street Journal Think Tank blog.