Tag Archives: Bureaucrats

Five Factors That Could Interfere with Graham-Cassidy’s State Health Care Waivers

Some conservative writers—including others who write for this publication—have opined that the legislation written by Sens. Lindsay Graham (R-SC) and Bill Cassidy (R-LA) offers states the ability to innovate and reform their health care systems. Most conservatives, including this one, consider state flexibility an admirable goal.

Certainly reforming Medicaid—through a block grant or per capita cap, coupled with additional flexibility to allow states to manage their programs more freely—would go a long way towards improving care, and reducing health care costs.

But does Graham-Cassidy as written deliver on its promise regarding Obamacare insurance regulations? On the two critical questions surrounding the legislation—will it lower insurance premiums, and will it generate a system that works for states?—a textual analysis of the bill yields significant doubts. At least five issues could hinder the results its sponsors have promised, and which all conservatives hope for.

1. Subsidizing Moral Hazard

The language on the top of page 15 explicitly links waivers to funding from the new system of block grants the bill creates. Any waiver will only apply to 1) coverage provided by an insurer receiving block grant funding and 2) coverage “provided to an individual who is receiving a direct benefit (including reduced premium costs or reduced out-of-pocket costs)” under the block grant.

This requirement that each and every person subjected to a non-Obamacare-compliant plan must receive a “direct benefit” subsidized by federal taxpayers has several potential perverse consequences. By definition, it encourages moral hazard. Because individuals will know that if they are subjected to health underwriting, or an otherwise noncompliant plan, they must receive federal subsidies, it will encourage them not to buy health insurance until they need it.

It means that either states will have to extend taxpayer-subsidized benefits to highly affluent individuals (allowing them to buy noncompliant plans), or have to permit only low- and middle-income families to buy noncompliant plans (to restrict the subsidies to low-income families). Both scenarios seem politically problematic to the point of being untenable.

If states try to provide a de minimis direct benefit—say, a $1 monthly premium subsidy—to some enrollees to minimize the two problems described above, they would face high overhead costs, and a complex system to administer.

When considering the two considerations above—will the bill lower premiums, and will it work?—this provision alone seems destined to preclude either from occurring. The moral hazard could increase premiums, not lower them, driving more healthy people out of the marketplace by telling them they will receive subsidies if and when they become sick and need coverage. The requirement that every person subjected to a waiver must receive subsidized benefits appears potentially destabilizing to insurance markets, while also creating political problems and administrative complexity.

2. Encouraging Lawsuits

The provision on page 12 requiring states applying for waivers to describe “how the state intends to maintain access to adequate and affordable health insurance coverage for individuals with pre-existing conditions” presents two concerns. First, a future Democratic administration could use rulemaking to define “adequate and affordable health insurance coverage” so narrowly—prohibiting co-payments or cost-sharing of more than $5, for instance—that no state could maintain access to “adequate and affordable” coverage, thereby eliminating their ability to apply for and receive a waiver.

Second, courts have ruled that Medicaid waiver applications are subject to judicial review, a standard that would presumably apply to the Graham-Cassidy waivers as well. While a Congressional Research Service report notes that courts have traditionally given deference to the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) on waiver applications, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in 1994 did in fact strike down a California waiver application that CMS had previously approved.

If a state receives a waiver, it seems highly likely that individuals affected, with the strong encouragement of liberal activists, will seek relief in court, and point to the page 12 language to argue that the court should strike down the waiver for not providing “adequate and affordable coverage” to people with pre-existing conditions. At minimum, the ensuing legal uncertainty could place states’ waiver programs in limbo for months or even years. And only one judge, or one circuit court, that views the pre-existing condition language as applying to more than states’ waiver application could undermine the program.

Congress could theoretically include language in Graham-Cassidy precluding judicial review of administrative decisions regarding waivers, as Democrats did 13 separate times in Obamacare. But on this particular bill, such a provision likely would not pass muster with the “Byrd rule” that applies to budget reconciliation measures.

Specifically, language prohibiting judicial review would have no (or a minimal) budgetary impact, and would represent matter outside the committees with jurisdiction over the reconciliation bill (Senate Judiciary versus Senate Finance and HELP Committees), both points of order that would see the provision stricken absent 60 Senate votes (which the bill does not have) to retain it.

Given the ongoing political controversy surrounding pre-existing conditions, some moderates may view the inclusion of this phrase as critical to their support for the bill. But its inclusion could ultimately undermine the entire waiver process and one of conservatives’ prime goals from the “repeal-and-replace” process, namely relief from Washington-imposed regulatory burdens.

3. Encourages Activist Judges and Bureaucrats

Language on page 13 of the bill includes language limiting any regulatory waiver: “A health insurance issuer may not vary premium rates based on an individual’s sex or membership in a protected class under the Constitution of the United States.” Here again, a future Democratic administration, or activist judges, could easily take an expansive view of “protected class” to include age, family status, gender identity, etc., in ways that undermine the waivers’ supposed regulatory relief.

4. Allows States to Waive Only Some Regulations

While states may waive some Obamacare regulations, they can’t waive others, an internal inconsistency that belies the promise of “flexibility.” For instance, states cannot waive the under-26 mandate if they so choose. Moreover, language on page 15 prohibiting a waiver of “any requirement under a federal statute enacted before January 1, 2009” precludes states from waiving regulations that preceded Obamacare, such as those related to mental health parity.

If the sponsors believe in state flexibility, they should allow states to waive all federal insurance regulations, even ones, such as the under-26 mandate or mental health parity, they may personally support. Or better yet, they should move to repeal the regulations entirely, and let states decide which ones they want to re-enact on the state level.

5. No Funding Equals No Waivers

Because the bill explicitly ties waivers to federal funding, as noted above, the “cliff” whereby block grant funding ends in 2027 effectively ends waiver programs then as well. Such a scenario would put conservative policy-makers in the perverse position of asking Washington to increase federal spending, because any regulatory relief under Obamacare would otherwise cease.

Meaning of Federalism

The potential concerns above demonstrate how Graham-Cassidy may not provide full flexibility to states. Whether through cumbersome administrative requirements, a future Democratic administration, court rulings, or key omissions, states could find that as written, the bill’s promise of flexibility might turn into a mirage.

Given that, it’s worth remembering the true definition of federalism in the first place. Federalism should not represent states getting permission from Washington to take certain actions (and only certain actions). It should represent the people delegating some authority to the federal government, and some to the states. A bill that looked to do that—to remove the Obamacare regulatory apparatus entirely, and allow states to decide whether and what portions of the law they wish to reimpose—would help to restore the principles of federalism, and a true balance between Washington and the states.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

How Graham-Cassidy’s Funding Formula Gives Washington Unprecedented Power

The past several days have seen competing analyses over the block-grant funding formula proposed in health-care legislation by Sens. Lindsay Graham (R-SC) and Bill Cassidy (R-LA). The bill’s sponsors have one set of spreadsheets showing the potential allocation of funds to states under their plan, the liberal Center on Budget and Policy Priorities has another, and consultants at Avalere (funded in this case by the liberal Center for American Progress) have a third analysis quantifying which states would gain or lose under the bill’s funding formula.

So who’s right? Which states will end up the proverbial winners and losers under the Graham-Cassidy bill? The answer is simple: Nope.

Policy-makers arguing over minute intricacies of the funding formula miss the fact that the bill gives the executive virtually unlimited discretion to change that funding formula. Whether the statutory formula benefits a given state could well matter less than what federal bureaucrats want to do to tilt the formula in favor of, or against, that state.

While the bill’s proponents claim the legislation will increase state authority, in reality the bill gives unelected bureaucrats the power to distribute nearly $1.2 trillion in taxpayer dollars unilaterally. In so doing, the bill concentrates rather than diminishes Washington’s power—and could set the course for the “mother of all backroom deals” to pass the legislation.

A Complicated Spending Formula

To start with, the bill repeals Obamacare’s Medicaid expansion and exchange subsidies, effective in January 2020. It then replaces those two programs with a block grant totaling $1.176 trillion from 2020 through 2026. All else equal, this set of actions would disadvantage states that expanded Medicaid, because the Medicaid expansion money currently being received by 31 states (plus the District of Columbia) would be re-distributed among all 50 states.

From there the formula gets more complicated. (You can read the sponsors’ description of it here.) The bill attempts to equalize per-person funding among all states by 2026, with funds tied to a state’s number of individuals with incomes between 50 percent and 138 percent of the poverty level.

The bill would adjust the funding formula to reflect both risk adjustment and actuarial value—in laymen’s terms, it would work to ensure that states with sicker-than-average individuals get more funding, and that states that choose to offer richer-than-average benefits don’t draw down excess federal funds as a result. Those adjustments would phase in over several years, with the goal of reaching per-person parity among states by 2026.

Thus far, the formula carries a logic to it. For years conservatives have complained that Medicaid’s match rate formula gives wealthy states more incentives to draw down federal funds than poor states, and that rich states like New York and New Jersey have received a disproportionate share of Medicaid funds as a result. The bill’s sponsors claim that the bill “treats all Americans the same no matter where they live.”

Would that that claim were true. Page 30 of the bill demonstrates otherwise.

The Trillion-Dollar Loophole

Page 30 of the Graham-Cassidy bill, which creates a “state specific population adjustment factor,” completely undermines the rest of the bill’s funding formula:

IN GENERAL.—For calendar years after 2020, the Secretary may adjust the amount determined for a State for a year under subparagraph (B) or (C) and adjusted under subparagraphs (D) and (E) according to a population adjustment factor developed by the Secretary.

In other words, if the secretary of Health and Human Services (HHS) doesn’t like the funding formula, he can change it however he likes. That’s a trillion-dollar loophole that leaves HHS bureaucrats with the ultimate say over how much money states will receive.

The bill does say that HHS must develop “legitimate factors” that affect state health expenditures—so it can’t allocate funding based on, say, the number of people who own red socks in Alabama. But beyond those two words, pretty much anything goes.

The bill says the “legitimate factors” for population adjustment “may include state demographics, wage rates, [and] income levels,” but it doesn’t limit the factors to those three characteristics—and it doesn’t limit the amount that HHS can adjust the funding formula to reflect those characteristics either. If a hurricane like Harvey struck Texas three years from now, Secretary Tom Price would be within his rights under the bill to cite a public health emergency and dedicate 100 percent of the federal grant funds—which total $146 billion in 2020—solely to Texas.

That scenario seems unlikely, but it shows the massive and virtually unprecedented power HHS would have under the bill to control more than $1 trillion in federal spending by executive fiat. To top it off, pages 6 through 8 of the bill create a separate pot of $25 billion to subsidize insurers for 2019 and 2020, and tell the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services administrator to “determine an appropriate procedure” for allocating the funds. That’s another blank check of $25,000,000,000 in taxpayer funds, given to federal bureaucrats to spend as they see fit.

In an op-ed over the weekend, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush (R-FL) rightly criticized Obamacare for “put[ting] enormous power in the hands of a few people in Washington.” But the Graham-Cassidy proposal he endorses would imbue federal bureaucrats with an authority over spending the likes of which Obamacare never even contemplated.

Backroom Deals Ahead

With an unprecedented level of authority granted to federal bureaucrats to determine how much funding states receive, you can easily guess what’s coming next. Unnamed Senate staffers already invoked strip-club terminology in July, claiming they would “make it rain” on moderates with hundreds of billions of dollars in “candy.” Under the current version of the bill, HHS staff now have virtual carte blanche to promise all sorts of “state specific population adjustment factors” to influence the votes of wavering senators.

The potential for even more backroom deals than the prior versions of “repeal-and-replace” demonstrates the pernicious power that trillions of dollars in spending delivers to Washington. Draining the swamp shouldn’t involve distributing money from Washington out to states, whether under a simple formula or executive discretion. It should involve eliminating Washington’s role in doling out money entirely.

That’s what Republicans promised when they said they would repeal Obamacare—to end the law’s spending, not work on “spreading the wealth around.” That’s what they should deliver.

This post was originally published in The Federalist.

Top Ten Ways Senate Obamacare Bill Is #FakeRepeal

1.     Retains Obamacare Insurance Subsides.  The bill modifies, but does not repeal, Obamacare’s system of insurance subsidies—an expansion of the welfare state, administered through the tax code.

2.     Retains Obamacare Medicaid Expansion.           The bill as written would never repeal Obamacare’s massive expansion of Medicaid to able-bodied adults, while it would not fully eliminate the enhanced match states currently receive to cover those adults until 2024—nearly seven years from now.

3.     Expands Obamacare Insurance Subsidies.             Rather than repealing all of the law “root and branch,” as Sen. McConnell claimed was his goal, the bill instead expands eligibility for Obamacare’s subsidy regime. Some conservatives may question the need to “fix” Obamacare, when the legislation should repeal Obamacare.

4.     Retains ALL Obamacare Regulations.         While modifying some and allowing states to waive others, the bill does not repeal any of Obamacare’s onerous insurance regulations—the prime drivers of the premium spikes that have seen rates more than double since Obamacare went into effect.

5.     Retains Obamacare’s Undermining of State Sovereignty.   Because the bill keeps in place the federal mandates associated with Obamacare, states must ask permission to opt-out of just some parts of Obamacare, which remains the default standard. This turning of federalism on its head will allow Democratic Governors—and/or a future Democratic Administration—to reinstitute Obamacare mandates quickly and easily.

6.     Appropriates Obamacare Cost-Sharing Reductions.    Unlike Obamacare itself, the bill actually spends federal tax dollars on cost-sharing reductions authorized, but not appropriated, under the law. While conservatives might support a temporary appropriation to ensure a stable transition as Obamacare is fully repealed, the bill does the former—but certainly not the latter.

7.     Extends and Expands Obamacare’s Corporate Welfare Bailouts.    The bill includes not one, but two, separate “stability funds” designed to make slush fund payments to insurance companies. Between now and 2021, the bill would spend at least $65 billion on such payments—over and above the cost-sharing reduction subsidies listed above.

8.     Includes Obamacare’s Work Disincentives.    The Congressional Budget Office previously estimated that the subsidy “cliffs” included in Obamacare would discourage work—because individuals could lose thousands of dollars in subsidies by gaining one additional dollar of income—and that the law would reduce the labor supply by the equivalent of over two million jobs. The Senate bill retains those subsidy “cliffs.”

9.     Continues Obamacare Pattern of Giving Too Much Authority to Federal Bureaucrats.      The bill gives near-blanket authority to the Administration on several fronts—from creating the “stability funds” to giving Medicaid incentives to states—that would allow federal bureaucrats to abuse this excessive grant of power.

10.  Obamacare Architect Admits It’s Not Repeal.  Speaking on CNN Thursday, famed Obamacare architect Jonathan Gruber said that “this is no longer an Obamacare repeal bill—that’s good.” He continued: “If you look at what’s criticized [about] Obamacare, it was subsidies, it was regulations…this law wouldn’t really change those…It really [doesn’t] change very much.” Those admissions come from an individual who received hundreds of thousands of dollars from the Obama Administration to consult on Obamacare.

A PDF version of this document can be found on the Texas Public Policy Foundation website.

Obamacare Increasing Government Bureaucracy

Even as federal regulators take steps to constrain administrative spending by private health insurers, government overhead on health coverage has soared.

In a Health Affairs blogpost published Wednesday, David Himmelstein and Steffie Woolhandler use actuarial estimates from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services to project that between 2014 and 2022, national spending on private insurance overhead and government administration will rise by $273.6 billion related to the health-care overhaul.

The authors both favor single-payer health insurance; Mr. Himmelstein co-founded Physicians for a National Health Program, an advocacy organization directed to that end. They close their piece by saying that “In health care, public insurance gives much more bang for each buck.”

Yet overhead in the public sector is growing much faster than in the private sector.

Mr. Himmelstein and Ms. Woolhandler combine two categories of spending—government administration and the net cost of private insurance (i.e., overhead)—to reach their estimates of administrative costs. Combining the two categories masks significant differences. While private insurance overhead is projected to rise at an average annual rate of 8.2% between 2014 and 2022, government administration is projected to rise at a 22.7% annual rate—nearly three times as fast. That’s consistent with my 2012 analysis, which noted that federal actuaries projected double-digit increases in spending on government administration for three of the first four years of Obamacare implementation (2011, 2012, and 2014).

This week federal regulators proposed extending medical-loss ratio requirements—a price control on overhead spending—to Medicaid managed-care plans. Meanwhile, several state-run insurance exchanges face financial difficulties, with structural challenges to their ability to attain self-sufficiency while limiting their charges on consumers to only a small share of premiums. The growing spending on bureaucracy reported in Health Affairs suggests that regulators should perhaps focus first on increasing efficiency and reducing government’s own costs before issuing more requirements on the private sector—such as the 653-page regulations issued Wednesday—that attempt to pass them on to consumers.

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

Obamacare and Taxes? It’s Complicated…

In a January Think Tank post, I noted potential complications the health-care law’s interactions with the tax code could present for millions of filers this season. In just the past week, we’ve seen:

* Many recipients of federal subsidies have been required to repay some of that money when they filed their taxes. Although some people overestimated their 2014 income when they applied for subsidies, and received a larger-than-expected refund as a result, the majority of subsidy recipients (52%) did the opposite, according to an H&R Block analysis released Tuesday. Those who underestimated their income and collected oversize subsidy payments in 2014 have seen their refunds reduced, H&R Block said, by an average of $530—or, approximately 17%—as the federal government collects the overage.

* Some filers are paying an average $172 in taxes for non-compliance with the individual mandate, the H&R Block analysis said.

* On Friday, the Obama administration announced that about 800,000 recipients of subsidies had been mailed incorrect tax forms. If these households have not yet filed their 2014 taxes, their tax returns—and thus their refunds—will be delayed until they receive the corrected form from the federal government.

*The administration also said Tuesday that the estimated 50,000 households that had received incorrect tax forms and had already filed their 2014 taxes would not be required to repay monies to the federal government if, because of the incorrect forms, they had underpaid their tax and subsidy obligations. The announcement did not explain why an error discovered in January was not made public until last week, or how much this leniency will cost the federal government, or whether the office or contractor responsible for the mistake will face financial penalties for its error.

Last week, the administration announced a special extension of the Obamacare enrollment period, from March 15 to April 30, for households that discovered during the tax-filing season that they were subject to the individual mandate tax. The administration said that the enrollment extension would be limited to individuals who attest they were unaware of the mandate tax penalty before filing their taxes, and that it would not return in future years. There is, however, no independent verification of people’s claims about the tax penalty, and the administration could easily find reasons to implement an open-enrollment extension in the future.

The administration’s enrollment strategy seems inclined toward leniency—for the policy reason of trying to enroll as many individuals as possible and for the political reason of avoiding actions that could make the law more unpopular. Some advocates of a longer enrollment period have cited the ability to “diminish hostility” toward the law as one reason to allow Americans a second bite at the enrollment apple.

This raises two questions. First, whether and how much executive actions such as the forgiveness associated with the tax form errors will cost taxpayers. Second, whether future administrations, which may not be as favorably inclined toward the health-care law, will take as many steps to cushion citizens from adverse effects of the law.

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

Gruber, Transparency, and IPAB

The administration faced a political firestorm last week, when videos emerged featuring MIT professor—and paid Obamacare consultant—Jonathan Gruber making comments on “the stupidity of the American voter,” and claiming that only a deliberately opaque and deceptive process was essential to the law’s enactment. But the administration may soon face a policy controversy as well—for the law features a board that can operate in nontransparent ways, and which will empower technocrats like Mr. Gruber himself.

While the Independent Payment Advisory Board, or IPAB, may bring to mind the latest Apple product offering, the reality is far different. Designed to control health spending, the board of 15 experts—nominated by the president, based in part on suggestions from congressional leaders, and confirmed by the Senate—will have the power to make binding rulings to slow the growth in Medicare outlays. Furthermore, the administration’s budget proposed giving IPAB even more authority, by reducing the caps on Medicare spending the board will be charged to enforce.

IPAB has yet to be constituted. The budget sequester and other savings proposals have thus far kept Medicare spending below the targets that would trigger IPAB recommendations, and Republican leaders have indicated to President Barack Obama their disinclination to provide the White House suggestions for nominees. As a result, the president has yet to make formal nominations—not least because, if the Medicare spending target is reached, requiring IPAB to make formal recommendations to Congress, but IPAB does not do so, that power would then lie within the Department of Health and Human Services itself.

IPAB faces several characteristics that could imbue it with the lack of transparency Mr. Gruber infamously discussed in his speeches:

  • Former Obama administration official Peter Orszag wrote a piece for the New Republic in which he cited IPAB as one way to “counter the gridlock of our political institutions by making them a little less democratic.” In 2012, Politico stated that, while in the White House, Mr. Orszag had “pushed” to include the board in the law.
  • Section 3403 of Obamacare, which creates IPAB, does not require the board to conduct any open meetings. The law merely says that “the board may hold such hearings…as the board considers advisable;” it does not require IPAB to do so.
  • Likewise, while the law prohibits IPAB from “ration[ing] health care,” the term “rationing” is nowhere defined in statute. Former Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius conceded this point, and acknowledged that HHS would likely have to define “rationing” before the board could begin its work—but it has yet to do so.

Prior to the recent controversies, Mr. Gruber seemed like exactly the type of expert—an “individual with national recognition for [his] expertise in health finance and economics”—that might have received an appointment to IPAB. Interviewed for a 2011 article about who might serve on the board, Mr. Gruber didn’t rule it out entirely, while admitting that statutory restrictions on IPAB members’ outside activities might dissuade individuals from applying.

As it happens, Mr. Gruber currently serves on the board of the Massachusetts Connector, an entity charged with implementing the Commonwealth’s health care overhaul. However, to judge from comments made to reporters last week, an aide to Gov. Deval Patrick seemed keen to downplay his influence: “When his term expires at some point, that will be a decision for someone else at that time.”

But beneath the political controversy lies a philosophical question. Fifty years ago last month, Ronald Reagan summarized the concern in his “A Time for Choosing” speech:

This is the issue of this election—whether we believe in our capacity for self-government, or whether we abandon the American revolution and confess that a little intellectual elite in a far-distant capital can plan our lives for us better than we can plan them ourselves.

Therein lies the Obama administration’s bigger problem—how to reconcile a law that increases the influence of independent experts with a high-profile example of such an expert who repeatedly treated American voters with open hostility and contempt. At a time when both the health care law and the federal government itself remain historically unpopular with voters, the Gruber controversy only heightens the perceived distance between the governing and the governed.

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

A Jab from Washington at State and Local Educators

Politico reported last week about how education leaders in red and blue states alike have pushed back against federal control in education policy. Given this environment, Washington would do well not to patronize state and local leaders’ ability to manage schools and their desire to do right by their students. Yet it appears that the Department of Education has done just that.

Consider a series of proposed requirements released last month for the federal School Improvement Grants program. In examining alternatives to the requirements, the Education Department noted that it could allocate funds “without establishing any new requirements governing their use.” However, the proposal stated, in such a circumstance state and local education authorities would have to implement the congressional requirements “without key regulatory support from the Department.” The relevant passage concluded: “We do not believe that states generally possess the capacity or expertise needed to meet this responsibility with the amount of rigor expected by Congress.”

The language sends a clear message that the Department of Education does not trust state and local education leaders’ competence to implement “evidence-based, whole-school reform strateg[ies]” without “key regulatory support” from Washington–or does not trust their intentions to act in the best interests of their schoolchildren. Either way, the message does a disservice to the many men and women who put in countless hours to reform America’s schools and educate our children. It also raises the question of whether “key regulatory support” from the Department of Education means advice and technical guidance, or more federal requirements and paperwork.

The Education Department’s attitude calls to mind Ronald Reagan’s comment about the nine most terrifying words in the English language: “I’m from the government, and I’m here to help.” Small wonder that parents and local politicians of both parties are giving that supposed assistance a second look.

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

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’s Think Tank blog.

IT Failure at the Immigration Courts

One of the most underreported stories in Washington is a massive IT failure—lasting more than a month—that slowed legal proceedings at the nation’s immigration courts.

In its reporting last week, Politico quoted Dana Marks, the president of the National Association of Immigration Judges, describing the work environment: “We are now limping along, keeping the system running with paper clips and scotch tape.  It’s appalling.”

“Look at all the publicity over” HealthCare.gov, Ms. Marks went on. “Shouldn’t this have the same level of outcry and shock?  This is the docketing system for cases involving 360,000 people allegedly in US illegally.  Not all are removable, but it’s a law enforcement function.”

Reports of chaos in the nation’s immigration courts will do little to allay the concerns of House Republicans who think that the Obama administration will not—or cannot—faithfully implement any immigration legislation Congress might pass.

The immigration courts’ IT meltdown–the Justice Department announced Monday that the electronic databases that went offline April 12 are functioning again–represents another prominent example of botched implementation by federal agencies. It comes amid congressional inquiries into allegations of mismanagement and misconduct at the Department of Veterans Affairs. And the Washington Post reported this week on another facet of the troubled launch of HealthCare.gov: “The government may be paying incorrect subsidies to more than 1 million Americans for their health plans in the new federal insurance marketplace and has been unable so far to fix the errors.”

President Obama came into office attempting to restore faith and trust in government. Individually and collectively, these competency difficulties can only detract from his objective.

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

Kathleen Sebelius’ Scare Tactics

Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius is already claiming that seniors would be adversely affected by House-passed legislation defunding Obamacare. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Obamacare is the program inflicting harm on seniors—because, as Nancy Pelosi said, the law “took half a trillion dollars out of Medicare” to fund Obamacare. Defunding the law would make seniors much better off.

Several of the Secretary’s claims deserve specific responses. First, the Secretary alleged that, if Obamacare is defunded, the Administration “would not be able to pay [Medicare Advantage] plans,” and that “Medicare beneficiaries may be forced to dis-enroll from their current plans” as a result. But Secretary Sebelius has broad authority to prevent the kind of scenario she claims would happen—provided she wants to exercise it. Section 402(a) of the Social Security Act—42 U.S.C. 1395b-1—allows the Secretary

to develop and engage in experiments and demonstration projects…to determine whether, and if so which, changes in methods of payment or reimbursement…would have the effect of increasing the efficiency and economy of health services…through the creation of additional incentives to these ends.

In other words, Secretary Sebelius would have all the authority she needs to preserve the Medicare Advantage program, provided she wishes to use it.

The non-partisan Congressional Budget Office (CBO) agrees that HHS has broad legal authority to make changes to Medicare and other programs should Obamacare be defunded. Here’s what CBO said back in March 2011 about the impact of defunding Obamacare:

CBO and JCT assume that the Administration will interpret that [defunding] provision in conjunction with other statutes (including Public Laws 111-148 and 111-152) to give maximum effect to all laws wherever possible.

It’s important to note that, both in 2011 and 2013, CBO has not said that defunding Obamacare would cause Medicare Advantage enrollment to plummet, or the program to end. That’s because CBO assumes that HHS will use its existing authority to keep the Medicare Advantage program up and running—unless Secretary Sebelius wants to score political points by taking benefits away from seniors.

Second, Secretary Sebelius claims that Medicare “beneficiaries could have tremendous difficulty finding a doctor or experience delays in their care” if Obamacare is defunded. The truth, however, is that seniors will have difficulty finding access to care if Obamacare is NOT defunded. Non-partisan actuaries in the Secretary’s own department said that, within a decade, 15 percent of hospitals could become unprofitable due to Obamacare, and “might end their participation in the program, possibly jeopardizing access to care for beneficiaries.” If Secretary Sebelius is worried about beneficiaries’ access to care, she should support defunding Obamacare, not oppose it.

Secretary Sebelius’s letter may be intended to score political points, but it’s simply not accurate. Moreover, when it comes to seniors, the greater threat lies not in defunding Obamacare, but in allowing it to take effect.

This post was originally published at the Daily Signal.