Tag Archives: Donald Trump

Democrats’ Hypocrisy on the Trump Budget

As expected, the Left had a harsh reaction to President Trump’s first budget on its release Tuesday. Bernie Sanders called the proposed Medicaid reductions “just cruel,” the head of one liberal think-tank dubbed the budget as a whole “radical,” and on and on.

But if liberals object to these “draconian cuts,” there’s one potential solution: Look in the mirror.

Liberals’ supposed outrage over reductions to entitlements largely serving poor people would look slightly less disingenuous if they hadn’t made the same hyperbolic comments about reducing entitlement spending on middle-class and wealthy retirees. If the Left believes the budget reduces spending from anti-poverty programs too deeply, that in part stems from the president’s (flawed) conclusion that Social Security and Medicare reforms are too politically toxic to propose.

And exactly who might be to blame for creating that toxic environment?

Democrats Are Using The ‘Mediscare’ Playbook

Democrats have spent the past several political cycles running election campaigns straight out of the “Mediscare” playbook. In case anyone has forgotten, political ads have portrayed Republicans as literally throwing granny off a cliff.

This rhetoric about Republican attempts to “privatize” Medicare came despite several inconvenient truths:

  1. The “voucher” system Democrats attack for Medicare is based upon the same bidding system included in Obamacare;
  2. The Congressional Budget Office concluded one version of premium support would, by utilizing the forces of competition, actually save money for both seniors and the federal government; and
  3. Democrats—in Nancy Pelosi’s own words—“took half a trillion dollars out of Medicare” to pay for Obamacare.

Given the constant attacks from Democrats against entitlement reform, however, Donald Trump made the political decision during last year’s campaign to oppose any changes to Medicare or Social Security. He reiterated that decision in this week’s budget, by proposing no direct reductions either to Medicare or the Social Security retirement program. Office of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney said the president told him, “I promised people on the campaign trail I would not touch their retirement and I would not touch Medicare.”

That’s an incorrect and faulty assumption, of course, as both programs rapidly spiral toward insolvency. The Medicare hospital insurance trust fund has incurred a collective $132.2 billion in deficits the past eight years. Only the double-counting created by Obamacare continues to keep the Medicare trust fund afloat. The idea that President Trump should not “touch” seniors’ retirement or health care is based on the fallacious premise that they exist beyond the coming decade; on the present trajectory, they do not, at least not in their current form.

Should Bill Gates Get Taxpayer-Funded Healthcare?

That said, the president’s reticence to “touch” Social Security and Medicare comes no doubt from Democrats’ reluctance to support any reductions in entitlement spending, even to the wealthiest Americans. When Republicans first proposed additional means testing for Medicare back in 2011, then-Rep. Henry Waxman (D-CA) opposed it, saying that “if [then-House Speaker John] Boehner wants to have the wealthy contribute more to deficit reduction, he should look to the tax code.”

In other words, liberals like Henry Waxman, and others like him, wish to defend “benefits for billionaires”—the right of people like Bill Gates and Warren Buffett to receive taxpayer-funded health and retirement benefits. Admittedly, Congress passed some additional entitlement means testing as part of a Medicare bill two years ago. But the notion that taxpayers should spend any taxpayer funds on health or retirement payments to “one-percenters” would likely strike most as absurd—yet that’s exactly what current law does.

As the old saying goes, to govern is to choose. If Democrats are so violently opposed to the supposedly “cruel” savings proposals in the president’s budget, then why don’t they put alternative entitlement reforms on the table? From eliminating Medicare and Social Security payments to the highest earners, to a premium support proposal that would save seniors money, there are potential opportunities out there—if liberals can stand to tone down the “Mediscare” demagoguery. It just might yield the reforms that our country needs, to prevent future generations from drowning in a sea of debt.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

How the Media Care More About Obamacare Than the Constitution

Fewer than 12 months ago, some people—aka, yours truly—raised a warning about Obamacare’s cost-sharing reductions. The text of the law nowhere provided an appropriation for them, meaning that, as I wrote last May, the next President could shut them off unilaterally. At the time, I contacted several reporters, pointing out that such a move could have major implications for the health care law. None showed any interest in writing on the topic, and to the best of my knowledge, few if any reporters did.

Having now under-reacted regarding the issue during most of 2016, the media are compensating by over-reacting now. Since the House failed to pass “repeal-and-replace” legislation, breathless articles in multiple publications have examined the issue, whether the Trump Administration will cut off the subsidies, and whether insurers will bail on the Exchanges en masse as a result.

There’s just one little detail about the issue that many of these articles are missing. You may have heard of it: it’s called the United States Constitution.

What Exactly Is Going On With Obamacare Subsidies?

For the uninitiated, the dispute involves one of two types of Obamacare subsidies: premium subsidies to lower monthly premium costs, and cost-sharing reductions that help with things like deductibles and co-payments. The law requires insurers to reduce cost-sharing for certain low-income individuals, and provides for a system of reimbursements to repay insurers for providing said reductions.

However, Obamacare itself failed to provide any appropriation for the reimbursement payers to insurers. The lack of an explicit appropriation violates Article I, Section 9 of the Constitution, which requires that “No Money shall be drawn from the Treasury, but in Consequence of Appropriations made by Law.” Congress has the “power of the purse,” and Members of Congress believe that the Obama Administration violated that power.

To remedy that violation, the House of Representatives authorized legal action in July 2014, and filed suit in November 2014 seeking to stop the subsidies. Last May, Judge Rosemary Collyer ruled that the Obama Administration had in fact violated the Constitution by spending money without an express appropriation. The case, House v. Price (formerly House v. Burwell), remains on hold; the Obama Administration appealed Judge Collyer’s ruling last year, and the Trump Administration and the House are attempting to resolve the status of that appeal.

Over Obamacare’s first four fiscal years, the disputed payments to insurers would total approximately $20.9 billion—$2.1 billion in fiscal year 2014, $5.1 billion in fiscal year 2015, $6.1 billion in fiscal year 2016, and an estimated $7.6 billion if they continue through fiscal year 2017 (which ends September 30). Over the next 10 years, the Congressional Budget Office estimates that the payments will total $135 billion.

What’s The Media Saying About All This?

Given that background, it’s worth examining press coverage on the issue since Republicans’ “repeal-and-replace” efforts collapsed, bringing questions about the lawsuit, and the subsidy payments, to the fore:

  • Politico noted that the House’s suit argued that the Obama Administration “had paid for [the subsidies] without congressional authority”—but also quoted an expert as saying failure to appropriate funds for the subsidies would “shoot [Obamacare] in the head.”
  • A separate Politico opinion piece said that “if the Republicans want to avoid a major mess, they need to make the suit go away and make sure the subsidies keep flowing.”
  • A Wall Street Journal article said that the House calls the payments “illegal.”

All three of these stories omitted one simple word: “Constitution.” As in, a federal judge said Barack Obama’s Administration violated the Constitution. As in, one analyst thinks the House needs to make a suit protecting its constitutional authority “go away.” As in, the payments weren’t ruled “illegal”—they were ruled unconstitutional.

Granted, other stories have at least mentioned the constitutional element of the dispute. But there haven’t been many stories focusing on the constitutionality of President Obama’s actions (which even Obamacare supporters have questioned), or even how the court ruling could rein in executive unilateralism. Instead of reading about how—by spending money without an appropriation—Barack Obama “sabotaged” the Constitution, or even “shot it in the head,” the public has seen all sorts of articles suggesting that President Trump may “sabotage” Obamacare—by upholding the Constitution.

Thanks For The Double Standard, American Media

Remember: The cost-sharing subsidies involve an issue where a federal judge has already ruled that the Obama Administration violated the Constitution by giving insurers tens of billions of dollars without an appropriation—yet the press seems more focused on whether or not those payments will continue.

That response merits a thought experiment in word substitution: If a federal court had ruled that the George W. Bush Administration violated the Constitution by giving tens of billions of dollars to—let’s pick a company at random here—Halliburton, do you think the press would be more focused on the violation of the rule of law and the unconstitutional payments, or on the chaos that would result if those payments to Halliburton suddenly ceased? If you think the latter, I’ve got some land I want to sell you.

If you’re still unconvinced that reporters are in the tank for Obamacare—or at minimum guilty of significant, and quite selective, double standards when it comes to their constitutional outrage—consider this recent Politico piece about a Donald Trump tweet threatening to change libel laws:

Trump’s comments on libel, coupled with his regular attacks on reporters and news organizations, have alarmed First Amendment advocates and his critics, who warned over the course of the campaign that his posture toward news organizations revealed a lack of respect for the role a free press plays in a democracy.

This high-minded rhetoric came one paragraph after Politico, citing various legal experts, pointed out “that there are virtually no steps within the President’s power to ‘open up libel laws,’ as Trump has suggested.”

When President Trump makes an empty threat against the press—one that he has no power to follow through on—the media piles on with all manner of self-righteous indignation about the integrity of the First Amendment and undermining democracy.

But when a federal judge rules that President Obama violated (not threatened to violate, mind you, but actually violated) the Constitution by paying insurers tens of billions of dollars, the media focuses largely on how remedying that violation will impact the health care law. They seem to care more about protecting Obamacare than protecting the Constitution. Is it any wonder why people boo the press?

Spare Me Your Self-Righteousness

Within that double standard lies the major problem: the presumption that Obamacare is “too big to fail,” irrespective of whether or not the Obama Administration’s payments to insurers violated the Constitution. Some could be forgiven for thinking that the press coverage provides a disturbing lesson to future Presidents: If you violate the Constitution long enough and badly enough, it will become a norm, such that people will expect future leaders to accommodate the violation.

To all those reporters worried about President Trump’s attacks on reporters, I’ll simply posit that the Constitution is a binary choice: You either support it—all of it, even or especially the portions you find inconvenient—or you don’t. If you want the public to care about the Trump Administration’s stance towards the First Amendment, then it might be wise to give a damn about the other portions of the Constitution too.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

Five Questions About This Week’s “Repeal-and-Replace” Developments

At a Thursday morning press conference, Speaker Ryan and House leaders unveiled amendment language providing an additional $15 billion in funding for “invisible high risk pools,” which the House Rules Committee was scheduled to consider Thursday afternoon. That amendment was released following several days of conversations, but no bill text, surrounding state waivers for some (or all—reports have varied on this front) of Obamacare’s “Big Four” regulations—guaranteed issue, community rating, essential health benefits, and actuarial value. Theoretically, states could use the risk pool funds to subsidize the costs of individuals with pre-existing conditions, should they decide to waive existing Obamacare regulations regarding same.

Given these developments regarding risk pools and waivers and regulations (oh my!), it’s worth posing several key questions about the still-fluid discussions:

Do Republicans believe in limited executive authority, or not?

The text of the amendment regarding risk pool funding states that the Administrator of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) “shall establish…parameters for the operation of the program consistent with this section.”

That’s essentially all the guidance given to CMS to administer a $15 billion program. Following consultations with stakeholders—the text requires such discussions, but doesn’t necessarily require CMS to listen to stakeholder input—the Administration can define eligible individuals, the standards for qualification for the pools (both voluntary or automatic), the percentage of insurance premiums paid into the program, and the attachment points for insurers to receive payments from the program.

This extremely broad language raises several potential concerns:

  • Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price has previously cited the number of references to “the Secretary shall” or “the Secretary may” in Obamacare as showing his ability to modify, change, or otherwise undermine the law. Republicans who give such a broad grant of authority to the executive would allow a future Democrat Administration to return the favor.
  • Nothing in the amendment text directs funding towards the states that actually utilize the waiver process being discussed. In other words, states that opt-out of the Obamacare regulations, and wish to utilize the funds to help individuals with pre-existing conditions affected by same, could lose out on funding to those states that retain all of the Obamacare regulations.
  • The wide executive authority does little to preclude arbitrary decisions by the executive. If the Administration wants to “come after” a state or an insurer, this broad grant of power may give the Administration the ability to do so, by limiting their ability to claim program funds.

As I have previously written, some conservatives may believe that the answer to Barack Obama’s executive unilateralism is not executive unilateralism from a Republican Administration. Such a broad grant of authority to the executive in the risk pool program undermines that principle, and ultimately Congress’ Article I constitutional power.

Do Republicans believe in federalism, or not?

Section (c)(3) of the amendment text allows states to operate risk pools in their respective states, beginning in 2020. However, the text also states that the parameters under which those state pools will operate will be set at the federal level by CMS. Some may find it slightly incongruous that, even as Congress debates allowing states to opt-out of some of Obamacare’s regulations, it wants to retain control of this new pot of money at the federal level, albeit while letting states implement the federally-defined standards.

How is the new funding for “invisible high risk pools” substantively different from Obamacare’s reinsurance program?

Section (d)(5) of the amendment text requires CMS to establish “the dollar amount of claims for eligible individuals after which the program will provide payments to health insurance issuers and the proportion of such claims above such dollar amount that the program will pay.”

The amendment language echoes Section 1341(b)(2) of Obamacare, which required the Administration to establish payments to insurers for Obamacare’s reinsurance program. That existing reinsurance mechanism, like the proposed amendment text, has attachment points (an amount at which reinsurance kicks in) and co-insurance (health insurers will pay a certain percentage of claims above the attachment point, while the program funding will pay a certain percentage).

Congressional leadership previously called the $20 billion in Obamacare reinsurance funding a “bailout” and “corporate welfare.” But the $15 billion in funding under the proposed amendment echoes the Obamacare mechanism—only with more details missing and less oversight. Why do Republicans now support a program suspiciously similar to one that they previously opposed?

Why do conservatives believe any states will actually apply for regulatory waivers?

The number of states that have repealed Obamacare’s Medicaid expansion thus far is a nice round figure: Zero. Given this experience, it’s worth asking whether any state would actually take Washington up on its offer to provide regulatory relief—particularly because Congress could decide to repeal all the regulations outright, but thus far has chosen not to do so.

Moreover, if Congress places additional conditions on these waivers, as some Members have discussed, even states that want to apply for them may not qualify. Obamacare already has a waiver process under which states can waive some of the law’s regulations—including the essential health benefits and actuarial value (but not guaranteed issue and community rating). However, those waiver requirements are so strict that no states have applied for these types of waivers—Health Savings Account and other consumer-directed health care options likely do not meet the law’s criteria. If the House plan includes similarly strict criteria, the waivers will have little meaning.

Will the Administration actively encourage states to apply for regulatory waivers?

President Trump has previously stated that he wants to keep Obamacare’s pre-existing conditions provisions in place. Those statements raise questions about how exactly the Administration would implement a program seeking to waive those very protections. Would the Administration actively encourage states to apply? If so, why won’t the Administration support repealing those provisions outright—rather than requiring states to come to the federal government to ask permission?

Conversely, if the Administration wishes to discourage states from using this waiver program, it has levers to do so. As noted above, the current amendment language gives the Administration very broad leeway regarding the $15 billion risk pool program—such that the Administration could potentially deny funds to states that move to waive portions of the Obamacare regulations.

The combination of the broad grant of authority to the executive, coupled with the President’s prior comments wanting to keep Obamacare’s pre-existing conditions provision, could lead some conservatives to question whether or not they are being led into a potential “bait-and-switch” scenario, whereby the regulatory flexibility promised prior to the bill’s passage suddenly disappears upon enactment.

Lessons of the AHCA Collapse

Like the British evacuation of Dunkirk more than seven decades ago, Friday’s abrupt decision to halt proceedings on the American Health Care Act (AHCA) prior to a House vote represented victory only in that it averted an even costlier defeat—an embarrassing floor vote seemingly destined to fail, or passage of a bill unloved by wide swathes of the public and lawmakers alike.

Whether that decision is ultimately viewed as a “deliverance”—as Winston Churchill dubbed the 1940 Dunkirk evacuation—will depend in no small part on whether lawmakers can, both individually and collectively, learn the right lessons from an entirely predictable defeat.

“What went wrong?” poses an erroneous query about this bill. The question is not why it failed, but why anyone thought it might succeed. Virtually all of the premises upon which the legislation was based proved faulty, and were easily proven faulty prior to its introduction. There’s little need for Monday-morning quarterbacking if only one can see the flaws in one’s strategy on the Sunday morning prior to the game.

Republicans Need to Remember How to Govern

Leadership outlined its strategy—such as it was—in a February 27 Wall Street Journal article: “Republican leaders are betting that the only way for Congress to repeal the Affordable Care Act is to set a bill in motion and gamble that fellow GOP lawmakers won’t dare to block it.”

Irrespective of what one thinks of the bill’s policy particulars—whether the bill represents a positive, coherent governing document and vision for the health care system—this thinking demonstrates that Republicans have to re-learn not just how to govern, but also how to legislate.

As a legislative strategy, the House’s gambit represented a puerile cross between the “chickie run” in “Rebel Without a Cause” and Hans Christen Andersen’s “The Emperor’s New Clothes.” Daring lawmakers to challenge the process, and attempting to bully and browbeat them into submission—“testosterone can get you in trouble,” as Rep. Mark Sanford (R-SC) reportedly noted during one meeting—does not a durable process make. Unsurprisingly, that process broke down after a mere 18 days.

While many stories have focused on Speaker Paul Ryan, some minds might turn instead to one of his predecessors, and an axiom used by the longest-tenured House speaker, Sam Rayburn: “There is no education in the second kick of a mule.” That the outcome seems predictable—indeed, was predicted by many in private conversations—makes it no less painful politically, or personally.

In circumstances such as these, there is a fine line between learning lessons and pointing fingers. Focusing on the personalities behind the legislative failure would only further enflame tensions, while serving little productive purpose. On the other hand, understanding the reasons the legislation was in many ways doomed from the start can help prevent future calamities. Of the flawed premises that lay behind the legislative strategy, three seem particularly problematic.

1. Starting with the House

The House’s decision to consider the legislation first seemed ill-considered at the time, given the difficulties the chamber encountered the last time it moved first on repealing Obamacare. In the fall 2015, Congress considered and passed, but President Obama vetoed, repeal legislation under special budget reconciliation procedures. Passing the bill represented a “dry run” testing what a Republican Congress could do to dismantle Obamacare, but for the Democratic president who remained in the White House.

But as I noted the week after last November’s election, the House’s 2015 repeal reconciliation bill suffered from numerous procedural flaws. That legislation originally repealed Obamacare’s Independent Payment Advisory Board (IPAB), even though such Senate procedures meant that this provision, with an incidental fiscal impact, could not remain on a budget reconciliation bill. The House-reported legislation also increased the deficit in the years beyond the 10-year budget window, subjecting it to a potentially fatal point-of-order in the Senate.

The House’s 2015 reconciliation bill contained so many procedural flaws that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell had to introduce an entirely new substitute version of the legislation. Had he not, the Senate parliamentarian would have advised the Senate to strip the bill of its procedural protection as a reconciliation matter, forcing the House to start its process all over again.

Given that near-death experience fewer than 18 months ago, it made much more sense for the Senate to take the lead in crafting a reconciliation measure. At minimum, House staff needed to solicit greater feedback from the Senate regarding that chamber’s procedures during the drafting process, to ensure they wrote the bill consistent with the Senate’s budget reconciliation rules. Neither happened.

House leadership claimed they wrote their bill to comply with the Senate’s reconciliation rules. But experts in Senate procedure could readily see that AHCA as released suffered from multiple procedural flaws, several potentially fatal to the entire bill. Last week, days before its scheduled floor consideration, the relevant House committees released a managers amendment re-drafting the measure’s tax credit, precisely because of the procedural flaws in the initial version.

All of which makes one wonder why the House insisted on initiating action. The Senate not only has more detailed and arcane procedures to follow than the House, Republicans also hold a narrower majority in the upper chamber. While no more than 21 of 237  House Republicans (8.9 percent) can defect on a bill passing solely with Republican votes, no more than two of 52 Senate Republicans can defect in the upper chamber, a much narrower (3.9 percent) margin.

Due to both its procedural quirks and tighter vote margins, it made far more sense for the Senate to initiate legislative action. Yet this year, as in 2015, the House took the lead—and ran into the same procedural problems.

2. The Unrealistic Timetable

The day before House leadership released a document outlining their vision for what became AHCA, I published a lengthy analysis of the legislative environment. I concluded that any legislation featuring either comprehensive changes to Medicaid or a refundable tax credit—the former I generally favored, the latter I did not—just could not pass in the timetable allotted for it:

The likelihood that House Republicans can get a comprehensive “repeal-and-replace” bill—defined as one with either tax credits, Medicaid reform, or both—1) drafted; 2) cleared by the Senate parliamentarian; 3) scored favorably by CBO [the Congressional Budget Office]; and 4) with enough Member support to ensure it passes in time for a mark-up on March 1—two weeks from now—is a nice round number: Zero-point-zero percent.

Likewise the chances of enacting a comprehensive ‘repeal-and-replace’ bill by Congress’ Easter recess. It just won’t happen. For a bill signing ceremony for a comprehensive ‘repeal-and-replace’ bill, August recess seems a likelier, albeit still ambitious, target.

Nothing in the above passage proved inaccurate. House leadership even skipped steps in the process I outlined—going forward with markups without a CBO score, and not writing the bill to comply with Senate procedure until just before a scheduled House vote—yet still couldn’t meet their targets. This would lead most people to believe those targets were just too ambitious.

Two vignettes show the problems caused by the sheer haste of the process. First, the managers amendments released last Monday night had to be re-written on Tuesday night. In both cases, the House committees had to submit second-degree amendments “to address drafting issues,” because the original managers amendments had no fewer than ten separate drafting errors among them.

Second, the managers amendment included an extra pot of funds to increase the refundable tax credits given to those near retirement age. However, the legislation created that pot of money not by increasing the refundable credits, but by lowering thresholds for a deduction available to those who itemize medical expenses on their tax returns.

The decision to provide the additional funds through a deduction, rather than by adjusting the credits themselves, was almost certainly driven by the mechanics of budgetary scoring, and ultimately the bill’s timetable. While the Joint Committee on Taxation (JCT) could estimate the relatively straightforward financial effects of a deduction quickly, altering the tax credit levels for individuals aged 50-64 would create knock-on effects—would more individuals take the credit, would more individuals retire early and drop employer-sponsored coverage, etc.—taking CBO staff a week or more to model.

So, rather than “wasting” time coming up with a policy and finding out the effects of said policy, prior to House passage, congressional staff instead created a $90 billion “slush fund” and pledged to sort the details out later.

Just before Obamacare’s passage in March 2010, former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi infamously said “we have to pass the bill so that you can find out what is in it.” House Republicans took her multiple steps further: By including a “slush fund” designed to change later in the process, and proceeding to both committee markups and a vote on House passage without a final CBO score, congressional leadership guaranteed that anyone who voted for AHCA would not by definition have known what was intended to be in the bill, let alone the fiscal effects of such policies.

The end result was a group of members in vulnerable districts who voted for the bill in committee without a CBO score—and could suffer serious, if not fatal, political consequences for having done so. Some of these moderates hold substantial disagreements with conservatives on how to structure an Obamacare repeal. But it was not conservatives that compelled the moderates to cast a tough vote for the legislation in committee without a CBO score analyzing the bill’s fiscal and coverage impacts—it was the hyper-aggressive timetable.

3. Unproductive White House Coordination

While publicly President Trump and others made statements insisting that his administration was “100 percent behind” the House Republican plan, the divisions within the administration were an open secret on Capitol Hill. From staff to officials, many had misgivings about the policy behind the bill, the legislative tactics and strategy, or both.

Those differences helped affect the ultimate outcome. Ryan attempted to turn his legislation into a “binary choice”—either support this bill, or support Obamacare—granting conservatives some concessions during the drafting process, but few thereafter. By contrast, factions within the administration attempted to woo conservatives and fought House leadership, which resisted making changes.

Ironically, had the administration halted negotiations sooner, and demanded an immediate vote earlier last week, they might have had a better chance of winning that tally. (Whether that victory would have ultimately proved Pyrrhic is another story, but they might have eked out a victory nonetheless.) But because the White House and congressional leadership weren’t on the same page, the former’s negotiations with conservatives left moderates to slowly trickle away from the bill, such that by Friday, it was virtually impossible to find a coalition to reach 216 votes whichever way leadership turned.

Even as the momentum slowly sapped from the bill, the administration and Capitol Hill leaders remained at odds on tactics. The New York Times reported on Saturday that some in the administration wanted to hold a House vote, even an unsuccessful one, to find out who opposed President Trump. But making such a demand misunderstands the dynamic nature of votes in the House of Representatives.

While AHCA might have passed narrowly, it would not have failed narrowly. Once a critical mass of 30 or so Republican “noes” signaled the bill’s clear failure, members would have abandoned the politically unpopular legislation en masse—likely with the implicit or explicit support of House leadership. Having witnessed these “jailbreak” votes in the House, it’s possible that, had the White House forced the issue, the bottom could have fallen out on support for the bill. As a tactic to snuff out disloyal behavior, calling a vote on a doomed bill would have yielded little in the way of political intelligence—only more political damage.

Underneath Tactical Errors Is Philosophical Disagreement

Beneath the obvious tactical errors lie some fundamental disagreements within the Republican party and the conservative movement about Obamacare, the future of our health-care system, and even the role of government. As I have written elsewhere, those differences do not represent mere window-dressing. They are as sizable as they are substantive.

On the one hand, the conservative wing of the party has focused on repealing Obamacare, and lowering health costs—namely, the premiums that have risen substantially under the law. By contrast, moderates and centrists remain focused on its replacement, and ensuring that those who benefited from the law continue to have coverage under the new regime.

That divide between “repealers” and “replacers” represents a proxy for the debate between reducing costs and maximizing coverage, a debate that precedes Obamacare by several decades, if not several generations. Some have argued that facts on the ground—the individuals gaining coverage as a result of Obamacare—necessitate an approach focused on maintaining coverage numbers.

Others believe that “repeal means repeal,” that Republicans ran, and won, elections on repealing the law—including as recently as five months ago—and that breaking such a deeply ingrained pledge to voters would represent political malpractice of the highest order.

The drafters of the House bill attempted to split the ideological divide, in part by retaining the popular parts of Obamacare while minimizing the law’s drawbacks. Both the House bill and the Better Way plan that preceded it maintained Obamacare’s restrictions on pre-existing conditions, its requirement that insurers cover dependents under age 26, and its prohibition on annual and lifetime limits for health insurance.

But policy decisions come with trade-offs, and in health care in particular those trade-offs can prove troublesome. Barack Obama did not wish to impose a mandate to purchase health insurance, having fought against one during his 2008 primary campaign; but CBO scoring considerations forced him to endorse one in the bill that became Obamacare. Similarly, the “popular” insurance regulations that Republican leadership maintained in its bill were the same ones that raised premiums so appreciably when Obamacare went into effect.

The AHCA approach of repealing Obamacare’s mandates and subsidies while retaining most of its insurance regulations created what Yuval Levin, a policy wonk close to Ryan, called a “twisted, fun-house mirror approach” to prior conservative health policy that yielded “substantive incoherence.” Dropping the individual mandate while retaining most of the insurance regulations created a CBO score that showed substantial coverage losses while failing to lower premiums appreciably—the worst of all possible policy outcomes.

The ideological divisions within the Republican Party, and the incoherent muddle of legislation that attempted to bridge the two, may have been overcome had the House released its bill the morning after the election, on November 9. But it did not release the bill on November 9, or on December 9, or on January 9, or even on February 9. The House introduced its bill on March 6, with the goal of passing legislation through both chambers by April 6. That timetable didn’t envision reconciling ideological differences so much as it hoped to steamroll them. It was all-but-guaranteed not to end well.

Lessons For the Future

What then of the future? One can only but hope that Republicans follow the example of Kipling’s poem “The Lesson,” written during the Boer War: “Let us admit it fairly, as a business people should; We have had no end of a lesson: It will do us no end of good.”

But what are those lessons, and what good might result from heeding them? While the policy differences within factions of the Republican Party are sizable, the only way to bridge them lies through an open, transparent, and deliberative process—negotiating outcomes among all sides from the start, rather than imposing them from on high through fiat.

If, as President Reagan famously noted, “personnel is policy,” so too then process provides a key to optimal policy making. A good process by itself cannot create good policy, but bad process will almost assuredly result in bad policy outcomes. In the short- and long-term, five principles can provide the initial glimmer of a path forward from last Friday’s dark outcome.

1. Let the Senate Lead

The procedural details surrounding budget reconciliation, and the narrower margins in the upper chamber, both augur toward the Senate re-starting any action on health care. As a practical matter, tensions remain far too high—with tempers short, friendships among members and staff frayed, and patience thin—for the House to initiate any legislative action for at least the next few weeks.

On upcoming legislation ranging from appropriations to tax reform to additional action regarding Obamacare, the “world’s greatest deliberative body” will have to exercise its deliberative powers. The ideological gaps are no less narrow in the House than in the Senate—can Mike Lee and Susan Collins reach consensus on a path forward regarding Obamacare?—but the recriminations and scars of the past month smaller.

If the Senate, with its smaller margins and arcane procedures, can deliver a quality policy product, the House, having seen its legislation sink in mere weeks, might be much more inclined to adopt it as its own.

2. Listen

House leadership rightfully notes AHCA had its origins in the Better Way policy white paper released last June. Prior to that document’s release, leadership staff spent significant time and effort reaching out to members, interest groups, the think-tank community, and others to gain thoughts and feedback on their proposals.

But actual legislation is orders of magnitude more complex than a white paper. Moreover, Better Way and AHCA deviate from each other in multiple important respects. The Better Way proposal includes numerous provisions—incentives for wellness, conscience protections for health care professionals, and proposals to repeal sections of Obamacare regarding Medicare, and Medicare Advantage—never included in AHCA, or mentioned in any great detail as part of the House’s “three-phase” approach.

Meanwhile, AHCA doubles the funding for grants to states when compared to the Better Way proposal, and uses significantly different parameters for the state grants than the 2009 House Republican alternative to Obamacare referenced in the Better Way document.

It’s possible to speculate on why House leadership made all these changes, but leadership itself made very little attempt to communicate exactly why they made them, or even that they were making them at all. Saying that Better Way led to AHCA is like saying the Model T led to the DeLorean. The former are both health-care proposals just as the latter are both cars, but each differ in significant ways.

The process that led from Better Way to AHCA was almost as significant as the process that led from the Model T to the DeLorean, but was opaque to all but a few closely held staff. Even lawmakers who understood and supported every single element of the Better Way plan could rightfully feel whipsawed when presented with AHCA, told it was a “binary choice,” and they had to publicly support it within a few weeks of its introduction, or otherwise they would be voting to keep Obamacare in place and undermine a new president.

When the Republican Study Committee unveiled its health-care legislation in 2013, its public release culminated a months-long process of consultation and scrutiny of the legislative text itself. RSC staff reached out to dozens of policy experts (myself included), and spent hours going through the bill line-by-line to make sure the legislation would accomplish its intended goals, while keeping unintended consequences to a minimum.

AHCA would have benefited immensely from this type of under-the-radar analysis, rather than subjecting legislation not yet ready for prime time to the intense scrutiny that came with a white-hot political debate and a hyper-accelerated timeline.

3. Trust Experts

A note at the bottom of page 25 of a leaked draft of AHCA provides an important hint toward a larger issue. The bracketed note, in a passage regarding per capita cap reforms to Medicaid, calls for staff to “review with CMS [the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services] any conforming amendments required.”

Congressional staff I spoke with over the past few weeks questioned whether anyone within the relevant agencies had in fact reviewed the legislation, to provide the technical expertise necessary to ensure that AHCA could be implemented as written, and would actually result in a workable health-care system.

At the time the legislative process began, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) had relatively few political appointees—no more than a few dozen out of about 150 total spots filled, and a CMS administrator not confirmed until the week prior to the scheduled House vote. The combination of a stretched staff and mistrust between political and career appointees within the agencies could well have limited the exchange of critically important details regarding how to draft, and implement, the legislation.

In addition to working with career personnel at the agencies, congressional staff should also utilize the institutional knowledge of their predecessors. While working for the House Republican Conference in 2009, I made it a point to start the Obamacare debate by finding out what I didn’t know, reaching out to those who had gone through the “Hillarycare” debate 15 years prior. My idea came from an unlikely source—former senator Tom Daschle, who in his 2008 book “Critical” described how lawmakers went through a “Health Care University” of policy seminars in 1993. In trying to replicate those seminars for both members and staff, I hoped we could obtain some of the collective wisdom of the past that I knew I lacked.

As I had previously noted in November, most of the senior Republican health-care staff working on Capitol Hill during the Obamacare debate in 2009-10 have moved on to other posts. But they, and others like them, are not far removed from the process. Based on my experience, most would gladly offer technical guidance and expertise; in many cases, even the lobbyists would do so with “client hats” removed, in the hopes of arriving at the best possible product.

But reaching out in such a manner requires a deliberative and inclusive process; games of legislative hide-and-seek and talk of “binary choices” preclude the received wisdom of all but the select few participating in the policy-making.

4. Be Honest

The House Ways and Means Committee’s section-by-section summary of AHCA illustrates the dilemma lawmakers faced. Page three of the document, discussing verification of eligibility for the new tax credit, states that “the Secretary of the Treasury is empowered to create a system—building upon already developed systems—to deliver the credit.”

There’s just one minor detail missing: The “already developed systems” for verifying eligibility Ways and Means referenced are Obamacare eligibility systems. This goes a long way toward explaining the omission: If the House is using an Obamacare eligibility system to deliver a refundable tax credit (also included in Obamacare), how much of the law is it really repealing?

Capitol Hill leadership could never reconcile the inherent contradictions in their product. On MSNBC, Ways and Means Chairman Kevin Brady (R-TX) called AHCA “the best opportunity to deliver on our promise to repeal the awful law of Obamacare”—eliding the fact that the bill explicitly retains and utilizes portions of that “awful law.” When pressed, leadership staff relied upon absurd, legalistically parsed statements, afraid to admit that the bill retained portions of Obamacare’s infrastructure.

These Clintonian definitions—“It depends upon what the meaning of the word ‘repeal’ is”—do nothing but build mistrust among members and staff alike. At least some in the policy community felt that House leaders were relying upon Elizabeth MacDonough, the Senate’s parliamentarian, as a de facto human shield—claiming the House couldn’t repeal portions of Obamacare under budget reconciliation, when in fact leadership wouldn’t, for policy or political reasons.

The fact that House leaders claimed their bill comported with reconciliation requirements, yet had to re-write major portions of AHCA at the last minute because it did not, gives added credence to this theory.

Whenever “repeal-and-replace” legislation comes back before Congress, the leaders and committees preparing the legislation should include a list of all the major provisions of Obamacare not repealed by the measure, along with clear reasons why. Even if some members want a more robust repeal than that offered, transparency would at least prevent the corrosive mistrust—“You’re not being up-front about this, so what other things are you hiding?”—that comes from an opaque process.

5. Be Humble

More than perhaps any bill in recent memory, AHCA represented a feat of legislative hubris. As a policy matter, Obamacare imposed a more sweeping scope on the nation’s health-care system. But the tactics used to “sell” AHCA—“We’re doing this now, and in this way. Get on board, or get out of the way”—were far more brutal, and resulted in a brutal outcome, an outcome easily predicted, but the one its authors did not intend.

There is a different approach, one I’ve seen on display. Some job interviews are thoroughly unremarkable, but two during my tenure on Capitol Hill stand out—the chief of staff who described himself as a “servant leader,” one who ensures all the members of the team have the tools they need to succeed; and the legislative director who told me, “We want to make sure you have a voice.” Of course I took both jobs, and felt myself privileged to work in such inclusive and empowering environments.

In some ways, the process that led to AHCA represents the antithesis of servant leadership, with members being given a virtual ultimatum to support legislation many neither liked nor understood. But in its purest form, public service should be just that—service—to one’s constituents, and, in the case of elected congressional leaders, to the members who chose them.

A more humble, inclusive, open, and transparent process will not guarantee success. The policy differences among the disparate Republican factions are real, and may not ultimately be bridgeable. But an opaque, authoritarian, and rushed process will almost certainly guarantee failure, as it did in the case of AHCA.

Listening Is Crucial

Ultimately, the failure to legislate on AHCA lay in a failure to listen to the policy concerns of Members, and to the warning signs present from the start. One can only hope that Republicans learn from this proverbial mule-kick, and start listening to each other more carefully and more closely. That process can yield the wisdom and judgment that comes from understanding, which can only help to heal the many breaches within the party following the events of recent weeks.

On November 8, Republicans received an important gift from voters—the chance to serve the country. Recovering from last week’s setback will require leaders of a humbled party to recommit themselves to service, both to the American people and to each other, in service of a common good. The chance to serve the American people is solely within the public’s gift. That gift, if and when squandered, will likely not be renewed for a long time.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

The “Technical” Amendment That Could Affect Millions of Veterans’ Health Coverage

As the House of Representatives steamrolls toward a vote tomorrow on Republicans’ “repeal-and-replace” legislation, lawmakers weighing their vote may wish to consider a few key questions—such as:

  • How did an ostensibly “technical” amendment end up withdrawing refundable tax credits from up to seven million veterans?
  • Does Donald Trump—who released a specific plan early in his campaign to “ensure our veterans get the care they need wherever and whenever they need it”—realize the potentially broad-ranging effects of this “technical” amendment on veterans?
  • And what other supposedly “technical” language will turn out to have unintended consequences should House Republicans rush to put this legislation on the statute books without fully digesting its effects?

Conservatives have their own (justifiable) concerns with the underlying substance of the new tax credit entitlement, but this “technical” amendment provides a microcosm of the problems that result when legislators rush to judgment based on arbitrary deadlines. Just as with Obamacare itself, lawmakers may find they have to pass the bill to find out what’s in it.

The Issue

As I explained last week, the original House bill had a potentially fatal flaw in its tax credit “firewall.” Specifically, language designed to ensure individuals with other forms of health insurance—such as Medicare, Medicaid, Tricare, and VA coverage—did not receive the credit touched upon other committees of jurisdiction in the Senate, such as Armed Services and Veterans Affairs. Under budget reconciliation procedures, a committee—the Senate Finance Committee, in this instance—cannot include subject matter outside its own jurisdiction; doing so could cause the entire bill to lose its procedural privilege as a reconciliation measure.

Due to these procedural concerns, the House released a technical amendment late Monday evening that, according to a summary, “includes the technical restructuring of the new tax credit made as a result of Senate guidance to maintain the privilege of the bill.” However, in restructuring the credit, staff—whether by accident or design—ended up eliminating eligibility for an entire class of veterans.

Pages 97-98 of the original House bill included specific language stating that veterans eligible for, but not enrolled in, VA health benefits would qualify for the credit:

‘‘(2) SPECIAL RULE WITH RESPECT TO VETERANS HEALTH PROGRAMS.—In the case of other specified coverage described in paragraph (1)(F) [i.e., VA coverage], an individual shall not be treated as eligible for such coverage unless such individual is enrolled in such coverage.

However, the “technical” amendment released Monday evening strikes that language. The replacement language, on pages 9-10 of the amendment, states that individuals qualify for the credit only if they are “not eligible for” other types of coverage, including VA coverage:

‘‘(2) The individual is not eligible for—
‘‘(A) coverage under a group health plan (within the meaning of section 5000(b)(1)) other than coverage under a plan substantially all of the coverage of which is of excepted benefits described in section 9832(c), or
‘‘(B) coverage described in section 5000A(f)(1)(A) [which includes VA coverage]

The revised language therefore means that individuals eligible for, but not enrolled in, VA coverage cannot qualify for the new insurance subsidies created by the bill.

The Impact

The most recent estimates suggest about 9.1 million individuals are enrolled in VA health programs. However, a 2014 Congressional Budget Office score of veterans’ choice legislation concluded that “about 8 million [veterans] qualify to enroll in VA’s health system but have not enrolled.” Subtracting for VA enrollment gains since that CBO score leaves approximately seven million veterans eligible for, but not enrolled in, VA health programs, and thus potentially affected by the House’s “technical” change.

At least some of those seven million veterans eligible for but not enrolled in VA health programs may not qualify for the House’s new insurance subsidies for other reasons. For instance, some of those seven million veterans may have other forms of health coverage—from a current or former employer, Medicare, Tricare, etc.—that would render them ineligible for the credit regardless of their VA status.

However, given a universe of seven million veterans potentially affected by the changes, doubtless many veterans would be actually affected by the House language. And as a policy matter, it is unclear why the revised House language, by cutting off access to the credit for those eligible for but not enrolled in VA coverage, seeks to direct more people into a government-run VA health system still suffering from the effects of the wait time reporting scandal.

The Fallout

It is possible, and perhaps even probable, that this “technical” change—which in reality could affect millions of veterans—was entirely unintentional in nature, caused by harried, sleep-deprived congressional staff rushing to complete work on the bill. But it raises the obvious question: What other changes, tweaks, errors, or other unintended consequences might such rushed legislation contain?

We’ve seen this show before. In 2010, the text of Obamacare as passed failed to make clear that VA and Tricare coverage qualified as minimum benefits—making soldiers and veterans subject to taxes for violating the law’s individual mandate. Because of that drafting error, Republicans forced a vote on exempting soldiers and veterans from the mandate, before the issue was eventually resolved.

This week’s “technical” amendment, with potentially wide-reaching implications, reprises the errors of Obamacare, and demonstrates the dangers of House Republicans’ rushed strategy. With a highly compressed timetable seemingly dictating the entire process, unforced errors seem almost inevitable. President Trump has made clear his desire to move to tax reform as soon as possible—but how would he defend disqualifying up to seven million veterans from the bill’s tax credits?

Once finding out about the effects of this “technical” amendment, House leadership will quite probably move to change it—and fast. But what about the other “technical” problems lurking in the bill? Given the rushed process, doubtless more of these “bugs” and “glitches” exist. Who will find them—and when? What if they aren’t found until after the measure’s enactment, and then can’t be fixed legislatively? Lawmakers should think long and hard about these unintended consequences before they vote to assume responsibility for them for a long time to come.

Despite Trump Intervention, House GOP Still Not Repealing Obamacare

President Trump bragged that he won over many new converts to House Republicans’ “repeal-and-replace” legislation following a Friday meeting with Members of Congress at the White House. After the meeting, House leaders scheduled a vote for later this week on the measure, and introduced provisions implementing the agreement in a managers amendment package late last night.

So what tweaks did Trump promise to Congress members on Friday—and will they improve or detract from the legislation itself?

What Changes Were Announced After The Meeting?

The agreement in principle with the House Members includes several components:

  1. Abortion restrictions for Health Savings Accounts (HSAs): RSC Chairman Mark Walker (R-NC) and other pro-life Members asked for further restrictions on abortion funding. As a result, the agreement eliminates language allowing unspent tax credit dollars to get transferred into Health Savings Accounts, for fear those taxpayer dollars moved into HSAs could be used to cover abortions. However, as I noted recently, many of the other restrictions on taxpayer funding of abortion could well get stripped in the Senate, consistent with past precedent indicating that pro-life riders are incidental in their budgetary impact, and thus subject to the Senate’s “Byrd rule” preventing their inclusion on budget reconciliation.
  2. Prohibiting more states from expanding Medicaid: While this provision has been sold as ensuring no new states would expand Medicaid to able-bodied people, it does not do so—it only ensures that states that decide to expand after March 1 will receive the regular federal match levels for their able-bodied populations (i.e., not the 90-95 percent enhanced match). Neither the bill nor the managers package permanently ends the expansion to able-bodied adults—which the 2015/2016 reconciliation bill did—or ends the enhanced federal match for expansion states until January 2020, nearly three years from now.
  3. Medicaid work requirements: The agreement permits—but does not require—states to impose work requirements, a point of contention between some states and the Obama Administration. However, non-expansion states will have comparatively few beneficiaries on which to impose such requirements. Medicaid programs in non-expansion states consist largely of pregnant women, children, and elderly or disabled beneficiaries, very few of whom would qualify for the work requirements in the first place.

Medicaid: Block Grant vs. Per Capita Cap

The fourth component—allowing states to take their federal payments from a reformed Medicaid program as a block grant, instead of a per capita cap—warrants greater examination. In general, per capita caps have been viewed as a compromise between the current Medicaid program and a straight block grant fixed allotment. In the 1994-95 budget showdown with then-House Speaker Newt Gingrich, President Clinton proposed per capita caps for Medicaid as an alternative to the Republican House’s block grant plan.

A block grant and a per capita cap differ primarily in how the two handle fluctuations in enrollment: the latter adjusts federal matching funds to reflect changes in enrollment, whereas the former does not. Supporters of per capita caps often cite economic recessions as the rationale for considering their approach superior to block grants. Medicaid’s counter-cyclical nature—more people enroll during economic downturns, after losing employer-sponsored coverage—coupled with states’ balanced budget requirements, means that during recessions, states often contend with a “double whammy” of rising Medicaid rolls and declining tax revenues. Medicaid per capita caps would mitigate the effects of the first variable, giving states more latitude during tough economic times.

On the other hand, per capita caps give states a greater incentive to enroll more beneficiaries—and a greater disincentive to scrutinize potentially fraudulent applicants—because every new enrollee means greater revenue for the state (albeit capped per beneficiary).  Most notably, the per capita caps in the House bill grow at a faster rate than the block grant proposal in the managers package—per capita caps would grow at medical inflation, whereas block grants would grow with general inflation.

In general, while conservatives would support block grants to reduce the federal Medicaid commitment and encourage state economies, it remains unlikely that many states would embrace them—because it is not in their fiscal self-interest to do so,because it is not in their fiscal self-interest to do so, particularly given the disparity in the inflation measures in the House language. If true, this language may end up meaning very little.

Will This Be A Good Deal For Americans?

If Medicaid reforms comprised the entirety of the bill, they would likely be worth supporting, despite the complexities associated with the debate between expansion and non-expansion states. The move to per capita caps represents significant entitlement reform, and is consistent with the principles of federalism.

As a repeal bill, however, the measure as currently constituted falls short. The agreement on Friday made zero progress on repealing any other insurance benefit mandates in Obamacare—the primary drivers of higher premiums under the law. That’s one reason why CBO believes premiums will actually rise by 15-20 percent over the next two years. House leadership claims that the mandates must remain in place due to the procedural strictures of budget reconciliation in the Senate. But the inconsistencies in their bill—which repeals one of the mandates, modifies others, and leaves most others fully intact—contradict that rhetoric.

Moreover, by modifying rather than repealing some of the Obamacare mandates, the bill preserves the Washington-centered regulatory structure created by the law, undermining federalism and Tenth Amendment principles.

AHCA Leaves Much To Be Desired

From a fiscal standpoint generally, the bill also leaves much to be desired. It creates at least one new entitlement: refundable tax credits to purchase health insurance. It may create a second new entitlement, this one for insurance companies in the form of a “Patient and State Stability Fund,” totaling $100 billion over 10 years, which insurers will no doubt attempt to renew in a decade’s time. (The bill also does not repeal Obamacare’s risk corridor and reinsurance bailout provisions, allowing them to continue to disburse billions of dollars in claims owed to insurers.)

While CBO claimed the bill would reduce the deficit by $337 billion, the managers amendment goes to great lengths to spend all of that supposed savings—accelerating the repeal of Obamacare’s tax increases, and increasing the inflation measure for some of the per capita caps.

Moreover, it remains unclear whether the “transition” from Obamacare to the new tax credit regime will take place in January 2020 as scheduled. The CBO tables analyzing the bill’s fiscal impact clearly delineated how most of the measure’s spending reductions will hit in fiscal years 2020 and 2021—right in the middle of the presidential election cycle.

AHCA Doesn’t Fully ‘Repeal And Replace’

If President Trump or Republicans in Congress flinch on letting the transition take place as scheduled, the bill’s supposed deficit savings will disappear rapidly. Instead, conservatives could be left with “Obamacare Max”—the House bill actually expands and extends Obamacare insurance subsidies for 2018 and 2019—in perpetuity.

The bill’s lack of full repeal, the premium increases scheduled to take effect over the next two years, and the spending “cliff” hitting in 2020 leave the bill with little natural political constituency to support it. The way in which the bill falls short of repeal—by keeping Medicaid expansion, keeping Obamacare’s insurance regulations, and creating a new entitlement—makes it difficult to support from a policy perspective as well. Friday’s meeting may have brought new concessions at the margins, but it did not alter the bill’s fundamental structure, leaving it short of the repeal conservatives had been promised—and voted for mere months ago.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

How A Meghan Trainor Song Explains the Obamacare Debate

Meghan Trainor may not be known as a policy wonk, but her lyrics could prove surprisingly useful for health care analysts. In constructing an Obamacare alternative, the debate really is all about that base—or, to be more specific, multiple baselines.

Despite the lyrics to Trainor’s famous hit, the intersection of those baselines—the coverage and fiscal baselines, along with the beliefs of the Republican Party base—has caused “treble” in replacing the health law.

Health Insurance Versus Health Care Prices

The first baseline—and the one currently driving the discussion—involves the number of Americans with health insurance. Right now, many Republicans believe they must try to extend coverage to the 20 million individuals Obamacare has supposedly provided with insurance.

Of course, some of those Americans—such as yours truly—had lost their prior coverage and were forced to buy exchange policies, or obtained coverage through Obamacare’s mandate for coverage of young adults under age 26, a provision ancillary to the law’s main entitlements. Moreover, other studies suggest the 20 million number is both inflated and driven largely by Obamacare’s massive expansion of Medicaid, not individuals purchasing policies on state insurance exchanges.

The alternative to Obamacare released by America Next nearly three years ago, which I helped draft, decided to focus on what bothers Americans most about the health care system: rising costs. Any Republican alternative to Obamacare that excludes an individual mandate or employer mandate likely will not cover as many individuals as Obamacare, perhaps by a good number. That’s one reason the America Next plan centered on controlling health costs, not implementing a coverage expansion designed to compete with Obamacare.

Although conservatives would historically focus on how their policies will lower health costs, right now many Republicans appear fixated on chasing coverage numbers. House Speaker Paul Ryan and Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price both support refundable, advanceable tax credits, a policy Ryan has supported for many years. While incorporating a refundable tax credit into an Obamacare alternative will result in more Americans with health coverage—mitigating the first baseline issue—it could have other ramifications.

The Tax and Spend Baseline

The second baseline to consider when talking about Obamacare alternatives is the tax and spending baseline. If a replacement plan pre-supposes repeal of the law, should an alternative be viewed as raising or lowering taxes and spending relative to what existed with the law, or relative to what existed prior to the law?

For instance, the Congressional Budget Office estimated in 2015 that Obamacare will raise nearly $1.2 trillion in taxes over a decade. If an alternative to Obamacare would change that $1.2 trillion number to $800 billion, should that be viewed as a $400 billion tax cut relative to Obamacare itself, or a $800 billion tax increase, because Obamacare should be assumed as fully repealed?

Then There’s the Republican Base

On this front, the third base involved in this discussion, the Republican political base, has made its voice clear. Asked in a March 2014 poll conducted by America Next whether “any replacement of Obamacare must repeal all of the Obamacare taxes and not just replace them with other taxes,” 55 percent of the general public agreed. More concerning for Republican members of Congress, self-identified Republicans and conservatives agreed by much larger margins, approaching three to one. They would view any attempt to leave some of the law’s taxes or spending intact as inconsistent with pledges to repeal the law entirely.

Therein lies Republicans’ dilemma. Some Republicans believe that any credible Obamacare alternative must offer some insurance subsidy to those newly covered by the law. Several Republican alternatives already released would re-direct the funds raised by the law—whether through taxes, spending, or both—to finance new subsidy options.

However, based on the polling available, Republican voters disagree with this strategy. With Obamacare little discussed during the presidential campaign, and President Trump sending decidedly un-conservative signals about his policy priorities, Tea Party supporters may be more than a little surprised if an alternative to the law ends up retaining chunks of its spending and taxes.

This interplay among the base of new insureds, the spending and tax baselines, and the beliefs of the conservative base will define the House Republican alternative to Obamacare, and the legislative debate that continues to unfold. Meghan Trainor may never serve as a Washington policy analyst, but her mantra that it’s all about that base will ring true in the debate surrounding Obamacare.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

How HHS’ Proposed Rule Would Slightly Improve Obamacare

This morning, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) released a rule proposing several changes to Obamacare insurance offerings. The regulations are intended to help stabilize insurance markets and hopefully pave the way for a repeal and transition away from Obamacare.

Worth noting before discussing its specifics: The rule provides a period of notice-and-comment (albeit a shortened one) for individuals who wish to weigh in on its proposals. This decision to elicit feedback compares favorably to the Obama administration, which rushed out its 2018 Notice of Benefit and Payment Parameters without prior public comment during the “lame duck” post-election period. Because the Obama administration wanted that regulation to take effect before January 20—so President Trump could not withdraw the regulation upon taking office—HHS declined to allow the public an opportunity to weigh in before the rules went into effect.

Today’s proposed rule contains reforms designed to bring relief and stability to insurance markets:

  • A shortening of next year’s open enrollment period from three months to six weeks—a solution included in my report on ways the new administration can mitigate the effects of Obamacare. In theory, the rule could (and perhaps should) have proposed an even shorter open enrollment window, to prevent individuals from signing up after they develop health conditions.
  • A requirement for pre-enrollment verification of all special enrollment periods for people signing up on the federal exchange, healthcare.gov—again outlined in my report, and again to cut down on reports that individuals are signing up for coverage outside the annual open enrollment period, incurring costly expenses, then dropping coverage.
  • Permitting insurers to require individuals who have unpaid premium bills to pay their debts before enrolling in coverage—an attempt to stop the gaming of Obamacare’s 90-day “grace period” provision, which a sizable proportion of enrollees have used to avoid paying their premiums for up to three months.
  • Increasing the permitted range of actuarial value variation—also outlined in my report—to give insurers greater flexibility.
  • Additional flexibility on network adequacy requirements, both devolving enforcement to states and allowing insurers greater flexibility in those requirements. Some might find this change ironic—critics of Obamacare have complained about narrow physician networks, and this change will allow insurers to narrow them even further. Yet the problem with Obamacare and physician access is that insurers have been forced to narrow networks. The law’s new benefit mandates have made increasing deductibles, or cutting provider reimbursements, the only two realistic ways of controlling costs. Unless and until those statutory benefit requirements are repealed, those incentives will remain.

One key question is whether these changes by themselves will be enough to stabilize markets, and keep carriers offering coverage in 2018. Given that Aetna CEO Mark Bertolini this morning called Obamacare in a “death spiral,” and Humana announced yesterday it will exit all exchanges next year, that effect is not certain.

As my report last month outlined, the new administration can go further with regulatory relief for carriers, from further narrowing open enrollment, to reducing exchange user fees charged to insurers (and ultimately enrollees), to providing flexibility on medical loss ratio and essential benefits requirements, to withdrawing mandates to provide contraception coverage. All these changes would further improve the environment for insurers, and could induce more to remain in exchanges for 2018.

However, as my post this morning noted, the ultimate action lies with Congress. The Trump administration, and HHS under new Secretary Tom Price, have started to lay a foundation providing relief from Obamacare. Now it’s time for the legislature to take action, and deliver on their promise to the American people to repeal Obamacare.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

Obamacare Repeal Will Destroy the Republican Agenda Unless Congress Gets Smart

With Congress heading towards its first recess at week’s end, it’s time to summarize where things stand on one of Republicans’ top objectives—repealing Obamacare—and might be headed next. While those who want further details should read the entire article, the lengthy analysis below makes three main points:

  1. Congress faces far too many logistical obstacles—the mechanics of drafting bill text, procedural challenges in the Senate, budgetary scoring concerns, and political and policy disagreements—to pass a comprehensive “repeal-and-replace” bill by late March, or indeed any time before summer;
  2. Congressional leaders and President Trump face numerous pressures—both to enact other key items on their agenda, and from conservatives anxious to repeal Obamacare immediately, if not sooner—that will prevent them from spending the entire spring and summer focused primarily on Obamacare; therefore
  3. Congressional leaders will need to pare back their aspirations for a comprehensive “repeal-and-replace” bill, slim down the legislation to include repeal and any pieces of “replace” that can pass easily and swiftly with broad Republican support, and work to enact other elements of their “replace” agenda in subsequent legislation.

What Has Happened In the Last Month

Before the New Year, congressional leaders had endorsed a strategy of repealing Obamacare via special budget reconciliation procedures, using legislation that passed Congress (but President Obama vetoed) in late 2015 and early 2016 as a model. Subsequent efforts would focus on crafting an alternative to the law, whose entitlements would sunset in two or three years, to allow adequate time for a transition.

However, some observers questioned this “repeal-and-delay” strategy, arguing that insurance markets would quickly collapse without a clear vision from Congress for what will follow Obamacare. President Trump seemed to ratify these concerns when he called for “simultaneous,” or near-simultaneous, “repeal-and-replace.”

Due to Trump’s intervention and angst amongst some Republicans toward moving forward with a repeal-first approach, congressional leaders pivoted. Various press reports in the last week suggest House committees are drafting a robust “replace” package that will accompany repeal legislation. This “repeal-and-replace” bill will use the special reconciliation procedures that allow budget-related provisions to pass with a 51-vote majority (instead of the usual 60 votes needed to break a filibuster) in the Senate, with non-budgetary provisions being considered in subsequent pieces of legislation.

The press reports and strategic leaks from House offices attempt to show progress towards a quick markup—a March 1 markup date was floated in one article—and enactment before Congress next recesses, in late March. But these optimistic stories cannot hide two fundamental truths: 1) Enacting comprehensive “replace” legislation along with repeal will take far longer than anyone in Congress has yet admitted; and 2) Leadership does not have the time—due both to other must-pass legislation, and political pressure from the Right to pass repeal quickly—necessary to fashion a comprehensive “repeal-and-replace” bill.

He may not realize it at present, but in going down the simultaneous “repeal-and-replace” pathway, President Trump made a yuuuuge bet: holding the rest of legislative agenda captive to the rapid enactment of such legislation. Once it becomes more obvious that “repeal-and-replace” will not happen on its current timetable—and that other key elements of the Republican agenda are in jeopardy as a result—it seems likely that Speaker Ryan, President Trump, or both will scale back the “replace” elements of the “repeal-and-replace” bill, to allow it to pass more quickly and easily.

Adding Layers of Complexity

A Politico story last Tuesday claiming that an Obamacare alternative was coalescing in the House listed four elements of “replace” incorporated into a repeal bill: 1) incentives for health savings accounts (HSAs); 2) funding for high-risk pools for individuals with pre-existing conditions; 3) a refundable tax credit for the purchase of health insurance; and 4) comprehensive Medicaid reform in the form of per capita caps on beneficiary spending.

But every element added to a piece of legislation makes it that much more complex. Republicans have an easy template to use for repealing Obamacare: the reconciliation bill that already passed Congress. That bill has been drafted, passed procedural muster in the Senate, and received both a favorable budgetary score and enough votes for enactment.

Conversely, crafting “replace” policies will require more time, conversations with legislative counsel (the office in Congress that actually drafts legislation), discussions about policy options for implementation, and so forth.

House Republicans did engage in some of these conversations when compiling their Better Way agenda last spring. But that plan ultimately did not get translated into legislative language, and the plan itself left important details out (in some cases deliberately).

Moreover, because Republicans want to use special budget reconciliation procedures to enact this “repeal-and-replace” bill, they must consult heavily with the Senate parliamentarian, who advises the Senate on whether legislative provisions are primarily budgetary in nature, and thus can be included in a reconciliation bill. Reports last week suggested some of those discussions are underway. But if the Senate parliamentarian raises objections to the way House Republicans have drafted certain sections of their legislation, House staff may have to start from scratch and re-draft the legislative language to comply with the Senate rules.

It seems plausible that House Republicans could fairly easily incorporate some elements of their “replace” agenda—for instance, HSA incentives or funding for high-risk pools—into a repeal reconciliation bill. There are several “off-the-shelf” (i.e., previously drafted) versions of these policy options, and the budgetary effects of these changes are relatively straight-forward (i.e., few interactions with other policy elements).

But on tax credits and Medicaid reform, House Republicans face another major logistical obstacle: Analysis by the Congressional Budget Office (CBO). Longtime observers and congressional historians may recall that CBO was where Hillarycare went to die back in 1994. While Republicans are not necessarily doomed to face a similar fate two decades later, the idea that budget analysts will give “repeal-and-replace” a clean bill of fiscal health within a fortnight—or even a month—defies both credulity and history.

Running the CBO Gauntlet

As someone who worked on Capitol Hill during the Obamacare debate eight years ago, I remember the effect when CBO released one of its first scores of Democrats’ legislation. As the New York Times reported on June 17, 2009, in a piece entitled “Senate Faces Major Setback on Health Care Bill”:

The Senate Finance Committee is delaying its first public drafting session on major health care legislation until after the July Fourth recess, a lengthy setback but one that even Democrats say is critically needed to let them work on reducing the costs of the bill…. The drafting session had been scheduled for Tuesday. But new cost estimates by the Congressional Budget Office on health care proposals came in much more expensive than expected, emboldening critics and alarming Democrats.

I recall well hearing from Senate staffers about the massive fiscal gap between Democrats’ spending wish list and their revenue-raising proposals. That setback forced Democrats to go back to the drawing board, and sparked the “Gang of Six” discussions among Finance Committee Republicans and Democrats that spanned the months of July and August 2009. Eventually, Democrats did enact Obamacare, but on March 23, 2010—279 days after the CBO debacle the Times chronicled.

Given the role CBO played in delivering Hillarycare a mortal blow in the 1990s, and the more than nine-month gap between the initial (horrible) CBO scores of Obamacare and that law’s enactment, House leadership’s implication that its “repeal-and-replace” legislation can move straight to passage by receiving a clean bill of health from CBO on the first go-round seems highly unrealistic.

Just like any player moving up from the minor leagues will need time to adjust to big-league pitching, so too will any legislation with as many moving parts as a comprehensive “repeal-and-replace” bill require several, and possibly significant, adjustments and tweaks to receive a CBO score Republicans find acceptable.

While House Republicans’ Better Way plan included a much less complicated and convoluted formula for providing insurance subsidies than Obamacare, they may face other difficulties in achieving a favorable CBO score, particularly regarding to the number of Americans covered under their refundable tax credit regime. These include the following.

No Mandate:  While conservatives view the lack of a requirement to purchase insurance as a feature of any Obamacare alternative, CBO has a long history of viewing a mandate’s absence as a bug—and will score legislation accordingly. In analyzing health reform issues in a December 2008 volume, CBO published an elasticity curve showing take-up of health insurance based on various levels of federal subsidies. The curve claimed that, even with a 100 percent subsidy—the federal government giving away health insurance for “free”—only about 80 percent of individuals will actually obtain coverage. In CBO’s mind, unless the government forces individuals to buy insurance, a significant percentage will not do so.

President Obama didn’t want to include a mandate in Obamacare, not least because he campaigned against it. But CBO essentially forced Democrats to include one to receive a favorable score on the number of Americans covered. If Republicans care about matching the number of individuals insured by Obamacare (some view it as more of a priority than others), the lack of a mandate will cost them on coverage numbers. Alternative mandate-like policies such as auto-enrollment may mitigate that gap, but CBO may not view them as favorably—and they come with their own detractors.

Age-Rated Subsidies: Obamacare uses income as a major factor in calculating its insurance subsidy amounts, which creates two problems. First, because subsidies decline as individuals’ income rises, Obamacare effectively discourages work. CBO has previously calculated that, largely because of these work disincentives, the law will reduce the labor supply by the equivalent of 2.5 million full-time jobs.

Second, the process of reconciling projected income to actual earnings creates administrative complexity. It poses large paperwork burdens on the Internal Revenue Service and taxpayers alike, and requires some individuals to forfeit their refunds and pay back subsidies at tax time.

House Republicans have proposed a simpler system of insurance subsidies, based solely upon age. However, because the subsidies are solely linked to age, low-income individuals receive the same subsidy as millionaires. While much more transparent and fair, this system also does not target resources to those who would need them most. To borrow an analogy, it spreads the peanut butter (i.e., insurance subsidies) more evenly, but also more thinly, over the proverbial piece of bread (i.e., Americans seeking insurance). Given CBO’s beliefs about the likelihood of individuals purchasing insurance outlined above, this change could also cost Republicans significantly in the coverage department.

Medicaid Reform: Republicans have consistently argued that providing states with additional flexibility to manage their Medicaid programs in exchange for a defined federal contribution will allow them to reduce program spending in beneficial ways. Rhode Island’s innovative global compact waiver provides an excellent example of providing better care within an overall budget on expenditures.

However, CBO analysts have publicly taken a different view. In analyzing per capita spending caps for Medicaid—the policy option House Republicans are reportedly incorporating into their alternative—last December, CBO wrote that

States would take a variety of actions to reduce a portion of the additional costs that they would face [from the caps], including restricting enrollment. For people who lose Medicaid coverage, CBO and the staff of the Joint Committee on Taxation estimate that roughly three-quarters would become uninsured.

CBO has therefore made rather clear that it will score reforms to Medicaid as increasing the number of uninsured.

Speaker Ryan may have pushed for the comprehensive “repeal-and-replace” strategy in part to appease Republican members of Congress who want to see their alternative to Obamacare provide as many Americans with insurance as current law. But it seems highly improbable that CBO will score any Republican tax credit proposal as covering as many Americans as Obamacare. It is also not outside the realm of possibility for CBO to score an alternative as covering fewer Americans than the pre-Obamacare status quo.

The first two CBO scoring issues nixed any attempt by House Republicans to include tax credits as part of their alternative to Obamacare in 2009, when I worked in House leadership. Sources tell me unfavorable scores also nixed House Republicans’ attempt to include a refundable tax credit when the party was crafting responses to a potential Supreme Court ruling striking down the law’s subsidies in 2015. It therefore ranges from likely to certain that an initial CBO score of a comprehensive “repeal-and-replace” bill will go over about as well as it did for Republicans in 2009 and 2015—with generally poor coverage figures compared to Obamacare.

In theory, Republicans could work to surmount some of these obstacles and achieve more robust coverage figures. But such efforts would require time to sort through policy options—time that Republicans don’t currently have—and money to fund insurance subsidies, even though Republicans don’t have an obvious source of funding for them.

Pay-For Problems

Over and above the purely technical problems associated with scoring a “repeal-and-replace” bill, other issues present both policy and political concerns. To wit, if Republicans include refundable tax credits in their plan, how exactly will they finance this new spending? The possibilities range from unpalatable to implausible.

  • They could try to keep some of Obamacare’s tax increases to fund their own spending. But key Republican lawmakers and key constituency groups have strongly supported repealing all of Obamacare’s tax hikes. It seems unlikely that a bill that failed to repeal all of the law’s tax increases could gather enough votes for passage.
  • They could include their own revenue-raisers after repealing all of Obamacare’s tax hikes. For instance, House Republicans could limit the value of employer-provided health coverage. But while economists of all political stripes support such efforts as one key way to reduce health costs, members of the business community would likely oppose this measure, judging from recent news stories. Unions and the middle class likely wouldn’t be keen either. Moreover, by using limits on employer-provided health coverage as a new source of revenue rather than reforming the tax treatment of health insurance in a revenue-neutral way, Republicans would repeal Obamacare’s tax increases, but replace them with other tax increases—an unappetizing political slogan for the party to embrace.
  • They could use Medicaid reform to fund the credits, but that causes the potential problems with coverage numbers outlined above, and will likely generate additional squabbling among governors and states over the funding formula, as outlined in greater detail below.
  • They could use the remaining savings after repealing Obamacare’s tax increases and entitlements—which in the 2015/2016 reconciliation bill totaled $317.5 billion—to fund a new insurance subsidy regime. But such a move raises both policy and political problems. While Republicans could re-direct the $317.5 billion in savings during the first ten years to pay for insurance subsidies, the subsidies would likely have to expire after a decade. Creating a permanent new entitlement (the subsidies) funded by temporary savings would result in a point of order in the Senate—one that takes 60 votes, which Republicans do not have, to overcome—because budget reconciliation bills cannot increase the deficit in any year beyond the ten-year budget window. Thus any subsidies funded by the reconciliation bill’s savings would have to sunset by 2026—a far from ideal outcome. On the political side, the savings in last year’s reconciliation bill came from keeping Obamacare’s reductions in Medicare spending. If Republicans turn around and use that money to fund a new subsidy regime, they would be “raiding Medicare to fund a new entitlement”—the exact same charge Republicans used against Democrats to great effect during the debates over Obamacare.

To put it bluntly, while some Republicans may want to include refundable tax credits in their Obamacare alternative, they have no clear way—and certainly no pain-free way—to fund these credits. Even if they do push forward despite the clear obstacles, finding the right blend among the options listed above will require conversations among members and constituency groups, and multiple rounds of CBO scores for various policy options—all of which will take much more time than House leadership currently envisions.

Then There Are the Political Obstacles

Layered on top of the pay-for difficulties lie other political obstacles preventing quick enactment of a comprehensive “repeal-and-replace” package.

Medicaid: With 16 Republican governors ruling states that expanded Medicaid under Obamacare, and 17 Republican governors in states that did not, the fate of Medicaid expansion remains one of the thorniest questions surrounding repeal. Many states that did expand wish to keep their expansion, while states that did not do not want to be disadvantaged by making what they view as the conservative choice to turn down the new spending from Obamacare. Lawmakers have admitted they have yet to craft a solution on this issue. Attaching Medicaid reform to a “repeal-and-replace” measure will only complicate matters further, by giving states another issue (namely, the new funding formula for the per capita spending caps) to fight over.

House-Senate Differences: While House Republicans gear up to pass a comprehensive “repeal-and-replace” package, reports last week also indicated that Senate leadership still intends to consider legislation more closely resembling the 2015/2016 reconciliation bill. If Speaker Ryan continues to craft a “repeal-and-replace” bill while Majority Leader McConnell pushes “repeal-and-delay,” something will have to bring the two leaders to an agreement reconciling their disparate approaches.

Insurers:Those opposed to the “repeal-and-delay” strategy initially advocated by congressional leaders cited the needs of insurers as reason to pass a full “replacement” of Obamacare concurrent with repeal. Insurers will need to start submitting bids for the 2018 plan cycle by spring, and will want some certainty about how next year’s landscape will look before doing so. Hence the call for a full “repeal-and-replace,” to give insurers fast reassurances about the policy landscape going forward.

But if “full replace” will take until summer to pass—as it almost invariably will—then that argument gets turned on its head. In such circumstances, Congress should act swiftly to include some type of high-risk pool funding for those with pre-existing conditions, to prevent the insurer community from ending up with an influx of very sick, very costly enrollees.

Passing a repeal bill with high-risk pool funding may provide insurers with less certainty than a full “repeal-and-replace” measure, but it would yield infinitely more certainty than Congress arguing until September over the details of “full replace,” with the entire legal and regulatory realm in limbo as insurers must prepare for their 2018 plan offerings.

Conservatives: Some conservatives have philosophical objections to refundable tax credits, or indeed to any “replacement” legislation. Sen. Mike Lee this week called including “replacement” provisions on a repeal bill a “horrible idea.” Lee was one of three Republicans (the others being Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio) who in fall 2015 pushed for more robust repeal legislation, issuing a statement demanding that year’s reconciliation measure include the greatest amount of repeal provisions possible consistent with Senate rules. After the conservatives laid down their marker, the Senate ultimately passed, and the House ratified, the reconciliation measure repealing the law’s entitlements and all of Obamacare’s tax increases.

Some within the party have acknowledged the fractious nature of the “replace” discussions. Ramesh Ponnuru has publicly worried that some conservatives agnostic or skeptical on the merits of a “replace” plan would do nothing following repeal, and therefore wants to link repeal with replace, to force conservatives to vote for a vision of “replace.”

Such maneuvering pre-supposes that conservatives will swallow a “replace” plan they dislike to repeal Obamacare, a dicey proposition given conservatives’ success at obtaining a more robust repeal measure in 2015. It also pre-supposes that conservatives will stand idly by while leadership takes the months necessary to create full-scale “replace” legislation.

If the process continues to drag on in the House, it would not surprise me one bit were conservatives to introduce a discharge petition to force a House floor vote on the 2015/2016 reconciliation bill. Conservatives in the House Freedom Caucus and the Republican Study Committee, likely in conjunction with outside conservative groups, would turn the discharge petition into a litmus test for Republican members of Congress: Are you for repeal—and repeal in the form of legislation that virtually all returning Republicans voted for one short year ago—or not?

While a discharge petition needs 218 member signatures before its sponsor can force a floor vote, the mere introduction of a discharge petition would increase the pressure on House leadership to move quickly on repeal. Moreover, it would highlight the fact that neither Speaker Ryan nor President Trump can afford to spend the entire spring and summer slogging through a long legislative process regarding Obamacare.

Now We Come to the Opportunity Costs

Most of this year’s major action items require the Obamacare reconciliation bill to pass. Once and only once that legislation passes can Congress pass a second budget, allowing for a second budget reconciliation measure to move through the Senate. Specific items held in limbo due to the Obamacare debate include the following.

Tax Reform: Republicans want to use the second reconciliation bill to overhaul the tax code. (President Trump may also want to use the tax reform bill to finance his planned infrastructure package.) But because the current budget does not include reconciliation instructions regarding revenues, Congress must pass another budget with specific reconciliation instructions before tax reform can move through the Senate with a simple (51-vote) majority. But before Congress passes another budget, it must first pass the reconciliation bill (i.e., the Obamacare bill) related to this budget.

Debt Limit: The current suspension of the debt limit expires on March 15. While the Treasury can use extraordinary measures to stave off a debt default for several months, Congress will likely have to address the debt limit prior to its August recess. As with tax reform, the debt limit (and spending and entitlement reforms to accompany same) can be enacted with a simple majority in the Senate via budget reconciliation. But, as with tax reform, doing so first requires passing another budget, which requires enacting the Obamacare reconciliation bill.

Appropriations: The current stopgap spending agreement expires on April 28. Congress will need to pass another spending measure by then—quite possibly including a request by the president for additional border security funds—and begin considering spending bills for the new fiscal year that starts September 30. Here again, passage of these legislative provisions would be greatly aided by passage of another budget to set fiscal parameters, but that cannot happen until the Obamacare reconciliation bill is on the statute books.

As other observers have begun noting, many of the major “must-pass” and “want-to-pass” pieces of legislation—tax reform; Trump’s infrastructure package; a debt limit increase; appropriations legislation; funding for border security—remain essentially captive to the Obamacare “repeal-and-replace” process. The scene resembles the airspace over New York during rush hour, with planes circling overhead while one plane (the Obamacare bill) attempts to land. Unfortunately, the longer the planes circle, one or more of them will run out of fuel, effectively crashing major pieces of the Trump/Ryan agenda due to legislative inaction and neglect.

The Available Political Options

With a legislative process for “repeal-and-replace” likely to take months longer than currently advertised, and a series of other competing priorities contingent on it, Speaker Ryan and President Trump face three options.

Punt: Focus on passing the other agenda items first, and come back to Obamacare later;

Plow Ahead: Remain on the current course, knowing that Obamacare will jeopardize much of Trump’s and Ryan’s other agenda items; or

Pivot/Pare Back: Return to something approaching last year’s reconciliation bill, and postpone major “replace” legislation until a future reconciliation measure.

Given the current environment, the third option seems the clear “least bad” outcome. The first would represent a major political setback, effectively admitting defeat on the president’s top agenda item and betraying Republicans’ seven-year-long commitment to repeal that conservatives sharply opposed to Obamacare will never forget, and may never forgive. The second jeopardizes, if not completely sacrifices, most of the party’s legislative agenda, including items the president will want to tout in his re-election bid.

Therefore, it seems likely that Ryan, Trump, or both will eventually move to pare back the current comprehensive “repeal-and-replace” legislation towards something more closely resembling the 2015/2016 repeal reconciliation bill.

The legislation may include elements of “replace,” but only those with a clear fiscal nexus (due to the Senate’s rules regarding reconciliation) and broad support among Republicans. HSA incentives and funding for high-risk pools might qualify. But more robust provisions, such as Medicaid reforms or refundable tax credits, will likely get jettisoned for the time being, to help pass slimmed down legislation yet this spring.

Time’s a Wastin’

To sum up: The likelihood that House Republicans can get a comprehensive “repeal-and-replace” bill—defined as one with either tax credits, Medicaid reform, or both—1) drafted; 2) cleared by the Senate parliamentarian; 3) scored favorably by CBO; and 4) with enough member support to ensure it passes in time for a mark-up on March 1—two weeks from now—is a nice round number: Zero-point-zero percent.

Likewise the chances of enacting a comprehensive “repeal-and-replace” bill by Congress’ Easter recess. It just won’t happen. For a bill signing ceremony for a comprehensive “repeal-and-replace” bill, August recess seems a likelier, albeit still ambitious, target.

Republicans have already blown through two deadlines on “repeal-and-replace”: the January 27 deadline for committees to report reconciliation measures to the House and Senate Budget Committees, and the President’s Day recess, the original tentative deadline for getting repeal legislation to President Trump’s desk. Any further delays will accelerate both conservative angst and the same types of process stories from the media—“Republicans arguing amongst themselves on repealing Obamacare”—that plagued Democrats from the summer of 2009 through the law’s enactment.

Some may find this analysis harsh, or even impertinent. Some may want to take issue with my assumptions—Newt Gingrich would no doubt dispute CBO’s scoring methods, long and loudly. But policy-making involves crafting solutions given the way things are, not the way we wish them to be. And every day that goes by while Congress remains on the current “repeal-and-replace” pathway—which seems increasingly like a strategic box canyon—will only jeopardize the success of other critical policy priorities.

For all his wealth, Trump gets the same amount of one thing as everyone else: Time. For that reason, his administration and Speaker Ryan should re-assess their current strategy on Obamacare—the sooner the better. Time’s a wastin’, and the entire Republican agenda is at stake.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

How to Repeal Obamacare–And What Comes Next

Secretary of Health and Human Services Tom Price’s confirmation early Friday morning marks both an end and a beginning. While his installation after a bitter nomination battle formally begins the Trump administration’s work on healthcare, Price will also seek to bring about the end of former President Barack Obama’s unpopular and unaffordable healthcare law.

Dismantling Obamacare should be a three-fold process, involving coordination among HHS, the rest of the administration, and the Republican-led Congress. The steps can occur concurrently, but all must take place to prevent people from suffering any further from Obamacare’s ill effects.

Having assumed his post, Price should use the regulatory apparatus at his disposal to bring immediate relief from Obamacare. Press reports indicate the administration has already taken steps in that regard, sending a package of insurance stabilization rules to the Office of Management and Budget for clearance prior to their release, potentially as soon as Friday afternoon.

The reports suggest the administration is considering many of the proposals to provide regulatory flexibility that I included in a report analyzing repeal last month. Specifically, the administration may reduce the length of the annual open enrollment period and require verification of individuals seeking special enrollment periods outside of open enrollment. These are two critical steps to prevent individuals from signing up for insurance after they become sick.

The administration is also considering additional flexibility with regards to Obamacare’s benefit mandates, allowing additional variation in the expected percentage of health costs plans cover, for instance.

In many cases, the administration and Price have significant latitude to provide flexibility, but that latitude is not unlimited. Until Congress acts, Obamacare remains on the statute books. While regulators can reinterpret the law, they cannot ignore it. Already, the liberal-leaning AARP has threatened legal action over one of the new administration’s rumored regulatory changes.

These legal constraints illustrate why Congress should act, preferably sooner rather than later, in passing legislation repealing Obamacare. Congress should use as the basis for action the repeal bill it passed in the fall of 2015, which Obama vetoed early last year. That bill repealed all of the law’s tax increases, and sunset the law’s coverage expansions after a two-year period to allow for an appropriate transition.

While the 2015 legislation should represent the initial template for Obamacare’s repeal, Congress can and should go further. Legislators should also seek to repeal the law’s insurance regulations, which have raised premiums and caused millions to receive cancellation notices.

Although some assume Congress cannot repeal the regulations using budget reconciliation — the special process that allows legislation to pass with a 51-vote majority, rather than the usual 60 votes, in the Senate — that may not be accurate. The Congressional Budget Office and others have made estimates showing the significant budgetary impact of these costly regulations. Republicans should use those cost estimates, and past Senate precedent, to enact repeal of the major insurance provisions using the special budget reconciliation procedures.

While adding repeal of the insurance regulations to the 2015 measure, Congress should also ease the transition away from Obamacare by freezing enrollment in the law’s new entitlements upon enactment of the repeal bill. It makes no sense to allow millions of individuals to continue enrolling in a program Congress has just voted to end. Especially with respect to the law’s massive expansion of Medicaid to the able-bodied, freezing enrollment would allow individuals currently on Obamacare to retain their coverage, while starting a process to transition away from the law’s spending and allow individuals to transition off the rolls and into employer-based coverage.

When thinking about a post-Obamacare world, Congress and the new administration should have three priorities: lowering costs, lowering costs and lowering costs.

Americans of all political stripes view lowering health costs as their number-one priority, and it isn’t even close. While candidate Obama promised in 2008 that his health plan would lower costs by an average $2,500 per family per year, the bill he signed into law instead raised costs and premiums for millions.

The answer to the top health concern lies not in new spending and taxes to subsidize health insurance (the failed Obamacare formula) but in reducing the underlying costs of care.

Reducing costs involves equalizing the tax treatment of health insurance, limiting current tax preferences that encourage over-consumption of health insurance and health care. But this must be done in a way that does not raise tax burdens overall. Lowering costs should include incentives for wellness and promote health savings accounts, the expansion of which could reduce health expenditures by billions of dollars.

States have a big role to play in the health debate, both in lowering costs and protecting individuals with pre-existing conditions.

Congress can and should provide states with incentives to reduce insurance benefit mandates that drive up the cost of care. Congress should guarantee that individuals with pre-existing conditions have access to coverage, but give states funding, and let them decide the best route — whether through high-risk pools, or some other risk transfer mechanism — to ensure access to care. While not the panacea President Trump and others have claimed, Congress should allow individuals to shop across state lines for the coverage that best suits their needs.

These changes will not require a 2,700-page piece of legislation like Obamacare. They should not even be considered a “replacement” for Obamacare. But they would have an impact in reducing health costs, the issue Americans care most about. They would represent a new beginning after the canceled policies and premium spikes associated with Obamacare.

 This post was originally published in the Washington Examiner.