Tag Archives: House Ways and Means Committee

AARP’s Own “Age Tax”

Over the past few weeks, AARP—an organization that purportedly advocates on behalf of seniors—has been running advertisements claiming that the House health-care bill would impose an “age tax” on seniors by allowing for greater variation in premiums. It knows of which it speaks: AARP has literally made billions of dollars by imposing its own “tax” on seniors buying health insurance policies, not to mention denying care to individuals with disabilities.

While the public may think of AARP as a membership organization that advocates for liberal causes or gives seniors discounts at restaurants and hotels, most of its money comes from selling the AARP name. In 2015, the organization received nearly three times as much revenue from “royalty fees” than it did from member dues. Most of those royalty fees come from selling insurance products issued by UnitedHealthGroup.

Only We Can Profit On the Elderly

As documented on its tax returns and in congressional oversight reports, AARP royalty fees from UnitedHealthGroup come largely from the sale of Medigap supplemental insurance plans. As the House Ways and Means Committee noted in 2011, while AARP receives a flat-sum licensing fee for branding its Medicare Advantage plans, the organization has a much sweeter deal with respect to Medigap: “State insurance rate filings show that, in 2010, AARP retained 4.95% of seniors’ premiums for every Medigap policy sold under its name. Therefore, the more seniors enroll in the AARP-branded Medigap plan, the more money AARP receives from United.”

So in the sale of Medigap plans, AARP imposes—you guessed it!—a 4.95 percent age tax on seniors. AARP not only makes more money the more people enroll in its Medigap plans, it makes more money if individuals buy more expensive insurance.

Even worse, AARP refused good governance practices that would disclose the existence of that tax to seniors at the time they apply for Medigap insurance. While working for Sen. Jim DeMint in 2012, I helped write a letter to AARP that referenced the National Association of Insurance Commissioners’ Producer Model Licensing Act.

Specifically, Section 18 of that act recommends that states require explicit disclosure to consumers of percentage-based compensation arrangements at the time of sale, due to the potential for abuse. DeMint’s letter asked AARP to “outline the steps [it] has taken to ensure that your Medigap percentage-based compensation model is in full compliance with the letter and spirit of” those requirements. AARP never gave a substantive reply to this congressional oversight request.

Don’t Screw With Obamacare, It’s Making Us Billions

AARP’s silence might stem from the fact that its hidden taxes have made the organization billions. Between 2010—the year Obamacare was signed into law—and 2015, the most recent year for which financial information is available, AARP received $2.96 billion in “royalty fees” from UnitedHealthGroup. During that same period, AARP made an additional $195.6 million in investment income from its grantor trust.

Essentially, AARP makes money off other people’s money—perhaps receiving insurance premium payments on the 1st of the month, transferring them to UnitedHealth or its other insurance affiliates on the 15th of the month, and pocketing the interest accrued over the intervening two weeks. That’s nearly $3.2 billion in profit over six years, just from selling insurance plans. AARP received much of that $3.2 billion in part because Medigap coverage received multiple exemptions in Obamacare. The law exempted Medigap plans from the health insurer tax, and medical loss ratio requirements.

Most importantly, Medigap plans are exempt from the law’s myriad insurance regulations, including Obamacare’s pre-existing condition exclusions—which means AARP can continue its prior practice of imposing waiting periods on Medigap applicants. You read that right: Not only did Obamacare not end the denial of care for pre-existing conditions, the law allowed AARP to continue to deny care for individuals with disabilities, as insurers can and do reject Medigap applications when individuals qualify for Medicare early due to a disability.

The Obama administration helped AARP in other important ways. Regulators at the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) exempted Medigap policies from insurance rate review of “excessive” premium increases, an exemption that particularly benefited AARP. Because the organization imposes its 4.95 percent “age tax” on individuals applying for coverage, AARP has a clear financial incentive to raise premiums, sell seniors more insurance than they require, and sell seniors policies that they don’t need. Yet rather than addressing these inherent conflicts, HHS decided to look the other way and allow AARP to continue its shady practices.

The Cronyism Stinks to High Heaven

Obama administration officials not only did not scrutinize AARP’s insurance abuses, they praised the organization as a model corporate citizen. Then-HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, when speaking to its 2010 convention, called AARP the “gold standard” in providing seniors with “accurate information”—even though the organization declined requests to disclose the conflicts arising from its percentage-based Medigap “royalties.” However, Sebelius’ tone is perhaps not surprising from an administration whose officials plotted with AARP executives to enact Obamacare over AARP members’ strong objections.

AARP will claim in its defense that it’s not an insurance company, which is true. Insurance companies must risk capital to pay claims, and face losses if claims exceed premiums charged. By contrast, AARP need never risk one dime. It can just sit back, license its brand, and watch the profits roll in. Its $561.9 million received from UnitedHealthGroup in 2015 exceeded the profits of many large insurers that year, including multi-billion dollar carriers like Centene, Health Net, and Molina Healthcare.

But if the AARP now suddenly cares about “taxing” the aged so much, Washington should grant them their wish. The Trump administration and Congress should investigate and crack down on AARP’s insurance shenanigans. Congress should subpoena Sebelius and Sylvia Mathews Burwell, her successor, and ask why each turned a blind eye to its sordid business practices. HHS should write to state insurance commissioners, and ask them to enforce existing best practices that require greater disclosure from entities (like AARP) operating on a percentage-based commission.

And both Congress and the administration should ask why, if AARP cares about its members as much as it claims, the organization somehow “forgot” to lobby for Medigap reforms—not just prior to Obamacare’s passage, but now. AARP’s fourth quarter lobbying report showed that the organization contacted Congress on 77 separate bills, including issues as minor as the cost of lifetime National Parks passes, yet failed to discuss Medigap reform at all.

Given that AARP made more than $3 billion in profits from the status quo—denying care to individuals with pre-existing conditions, and earning more money by generating more, and higher, premiums—its silence makes sense on one level. But if AARP really wants to make insurance markets fair, and stop “taxing” the aged, all it has to do is look in the mirror.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

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.

Will the “Byrd Bath” Turn Into a Tax Credit Bloodbath?

While most of official Washington waits for word—expected early this week—from the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) about the fiscal effects of House Republicans’ “repeal-and-replace” legislation, another, equally critical debate is taking place within the corridors of the Capitol. Arcane arguments behind closed doors about the nuances of parliamentary procedure will do much to determine the bill’s fate in the Senate—and could lead to a final product vastly altered compared to its current form.

In recent days, House leaders have made numerous comments highlighting the procedural limitations of the budget reconciliation process in the Senate. However, those statements do not necessarily mean that the legislation released last week comports with all of those Senate strictures. Indeed, my conversations with more than half a dozen current and former senior Senate staff, all of whom have long expertise in the minutiae of Senate rules and procedure, have revealed at least four significant procedural issues—one regarding abortion, two regarding immigration, and one regarding a structural “firewall”—surrounding the bill’s tax credit regime.

Those and other procedural questions explain why, according to my sources, Senate staff will spend the coming week determining whether they will need to write an entirely new bill to substitute for the House’s proposed language. The stakes involved are high: Guidance from the parliamentarian suggesting that the House bill contains fatal procedural flaws, meaning it does not qualify as a reconciliation bill, could force the House to repeat the process, starting again with a new, “clean” reconciliation measure.

It is far too premature to claim that any of these potential flaws will necessarily be fatal. The Senate parliamentarian’s guidance to senators depends on textual analysis—of the bill’s specific wording, the underlying statutes to which it refers, and the CBO scores (not yet available)—and arguments about precedent made by both parties. Senate staff could re-draft portions of the House bill to make it pass procedural muster, or make arguments to preserve the existing language that the parliamentarian accepts as consistent with Senate precedents. Nevertheless, if the parliamentarian validates even one of the four potential procedural problems, Republicans could end up with a tax credit regime that is politically unsustainable, or whose costs escalate appreciably.

In 2009, Democratic Senator Kent Conrad famously opined that passing health care legislation through budget reconciliation would make the bill look like “Swiss cheese.” (While Democrats did not pass Obamacare through reconciliation, they did use the reconciliation process to “fix” the bill that cleared the Senate on Christmas Eve 2009.) In reality, it’s much easier to repeal provisions of a budgetary nature—like Obamacare’s taxes, entitlements, and even its major regulations—through reconciliation than to create a new replacement regime. The coming week may provide firsthand proof of Conrad’s 2009 axiom.

“Byrd Rule” and Abortion

The Senate’s so-called “Byrd rule” governing debate on budget reconciliation rules—named after former Senate Majority Leader and procedural guru Robert Byrd (D-WV)— in fact consists of not one rule, but six. The six points of order (codified here) seek to keep extraneous material out of the expedited reconciliation process, preserving the Senate tradition of unlimited debate, subject to the usual 60-vote margin to break a filibuster.

The Byrd rule’s most famous test states that “a provision shall be considered extraneous if it produces changes in outlays or revenues which are merely incidental to the non-budgetary components of the legislation.” If the section in question primarily makes a policy change, and has a minimal budgetary impact, it remains in the bill only if 60 senators (the usual margin necessary to break a filibuster) agree to waive the Byrd point of order.

One example of this test may apply to the House bill’s tax credits: “Hyde amendment” language preventing the credits from funding plans that cover abortion. Such language protecting taxpayer funding of abortion coverage occurs several places throughout the bill, including at the top of page 25 of the Ways and Means title.

Over multiple decades, and numerous parliamentarians, Republican efforts to enact Hyde amendment protections through budget reconciliation have all failed. It is possible that Republicans could in the next few weeks find new arguments that allow these critical protections to remain in the House bill—but that scenario cannot be viewed as likely.

The question will then occur as to what becomes of both the credit and the Hyde protections. Some within the Administration have argued that the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) can institute pro-life protections through regulations—but Administration insiders doubt HHS’ authority to do so. Moreover, most pro-life groups publicly denounced President Obama’s March 2010 executive order—which he claimed would prevent taxpayer funding of abortion coverage in Obamacare—as 1) insufficient and 2) subject to change under a future Administration. How would those pro-life groups view a regulatory change by the current Administration any differently?

Immigration

A similarly controversial issue—immigration—brings an even larger set of procedural challenges. Apart from the separate question of whether the current verification provisions in the House bill are sufficiently robust, ANY eligibility verification regime for tax credits faces not one, but two major procedural obstacles in the Senate.

Of the six tests under the Byrd rule, some are more fatal than others. For instance, if the Hyde amendment restrictions outlined above are ruled incidental in nature, then those provisions merely get stricken from the bill unless 60 Senators vote to retain them—a highly improbable scenario in this case.

But two other tests under the Byrd rule—provisions outside a committee’s jurisdiction, and provisions making changes to Title II of the Social Security Act—are fatal not just to that particular provision, but to the entire bill, potentially forcing the process to begin all over again in the House. The eligibility verification regime touches them both.

Page 37 of the Ways and Means title of the bill requires creation of a verification regime for tax credits similar to that created under Sections 1411 and 1412 of Obamacare. As Joint Committee on Taxation Chief of Staff Tom Barthold testified last week during the Ways and Means Committee markup, verifying citizenship requires use of a database held by the Department of Homeland Security’s Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services (CIS).

That admission creates a big problem: The tax credit lies within the jurisdiction of the Senate Finance Committee—but CIS lies within the jurisdiction of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee. And because the Finance Committee’s portion of the reconciliation bill can affect only programs within the Finance Committee’s jurisdiction, imposing programmatic requirements on CIS to verify citizenship status could exceed the Finance Committee’s scope—potentially jeopardizing the entire bill.

The verification provisions in Sections 1411 and 1412 of Obamacare also require the use of Social Security numbers—triggering another potentially fatal blow to the entire bill. Senate sources report that, during when drafting the original reconciliation bill repealing Obamacare in the fall of 2015, Republicans attempted to repeal the language in Obamacare (Section 1414(a)(2), to be precise) giving the Secretary of HHS authority to collect and use Social Security numbers to establish eligibility. However, because Section 1414(a)(2) of Obamacare amended Title II of the Social Security Act, Republicans ultimately did not repeal this section of Obamacare in the reconciliation bill—because it could have triggered a point of order fatal to the legislation.

If both the points of order against the verification regime are sustained, Congress will have to re-write the bill to create an eligibility verification system that 1) does not rely on the Department of Homeland Security AND 2) does not use Social Security numbers. Doing so would create both political and policy problems. On the political side, the revised verification regime would exacerbate existing concerns that undocumented immigrants may have access to federal tax credits.

But the policy implications of a weaker verification regime might actually be more profound. Weaker verification would likely result in a higher score from CBO and JCT—budget scorekeepers would assume a higher incidence of fraud, raising the credits’ costs. House leaders might then have to reduce the amount of their tax credit to reflect the higher take-up of the credit by fraudsters taking advantage of lax verification. And any reduction in the credit amounts would bring with it additional political and policy implications, including lower coverage rates.

Firewall Concerns

Finally, the tax credit “firewall”—designed to ensure that only individuals without access to other health insurance options receive federal subsidies—could also present procedural concerns. Specifically, pages 27 and 28 of the bill make ineligible for the credit individuals participating in other forms of health insurance, several of which—Tricare, Veterans Administration coverage, coverage for Peace Corps volunteers, etc.—lie outside the Finance Committee’s jurisdiction.

If the Senate parliamentarian advises for the removal of references to these programs because they lie outside the Finance Committee’s jurisdiction, then participants in those programs will essentially be able to “double-dip”—to receive both the federal tax credit AND maintain their current coverage. As with the immigration provision outlined above, such a scenario could significantly increase the tax credits’ cost—requiring offsetting cuts elsewhere, which would have their own budgetary implications.

Senate sources indicate that this “firewall” concern could prove less problematic than the immigration concern outlined above. While the immigration provision extends new programmatic authority to the Administration to develop a revised eligibility verification system, the “firewall” provisions have the opposite effect—essentially excluding Tricare and other program recipients from the credit. However, if the parliamentarian gives guidance suggesting that some or all of the “firewall” provisions must go, that will have a significant impact on the bill’s fiscal impact.

Broader Implications

Both individually and collectively, these four potential procedural concerns hint at an intellectual inconsistency in the House bill’s approach—one Yuval Levin highlighted in National Review last week. House leaders claim that their bill was drafted to comply with the Senate reconciliation procedures. But the bill itself contains numerous actual or potential violations of those procedures—and amends some of Obamacare’s insurance regulations, rather than repealing them outright—making their argument incoherent.

Particularly when it comes to Obamacare’s costly insurance regulations, there seems little reason not to make the “ol’ college try,” and attempt to repeal the major mandates that have raised premium levels. According to prior CBO scores, other outside estimates, and the Obama Administration’s own estimates when releasing the regulations, the major regulations have significant budgetary effects. Republicans can and should argue to the parliamentarian that the regulations’ repeal would be neither incidental nor extraneous—their repeal would remove the terms and conditions under which Obamacare created its insurance subsidies in the first place, thus meeting the Byrd test. If successful, such efforts would provide relief on the issue Americans care most about: Reducing health costs and staggering premium increases.

When it comes to the tax credit itself, Republicans may face some difficult choices. Abortion and immigration present thorny—and controversial—issues, either one of which could sink the legislation. When it comes to the bill’s tax credits, the “Byrd bath,” in which the parliamentarian gives guidance on what provisions can remain in the reconciliation bill, could become a bloodbath. If pro-life protections and eligibility verification come out of the bill, a difficult choice for conservatives on whether or not to support tax credits will become that much harder.

This post was published at The Federalist.

The Price Nomination and the Road Ahead

In announcing the nomination of Georgia orthopedic surgeon and congressman Tom Price as Health and Human Services secretary, Donald Trump sent an important signal about his incoming administration’s desire to undertake major efforts to repeal and replace Obamacare, along with other entitlement reforms. However, Price’s nomination also illustrates why those efforts face a difficult road to passage and enactment.

As news of the Price appointment leaked out late on Monday evening, reporters spent much of their time breathlessly analyzing Dr. Price’s health-care legislation—H.R. 2300, the Empowering Patients First Act—for clues as to what it might mean for the replace effort. However, Price’s bill may be more noteworthy for what it does not include than what it does:

  • Any premium support plan for Medicare reform;
  • Any reform of Medicaid—whether block grants or per capita caps; and
  • Any spending reductions to fund the refundable portion of tax credits Price proposes as an alternative to Obamacare’s insurance subsidies.

In other words, despite releasing a 243-page health-care bill, Price hasn’t articulated his positions on many, if not most, of the important health-care issues the Republican Congress will face next year. For instance:

  • How should a premium support system under Medicare be structured? Should payments to seniors be based upon the average plan bid, the lowest plan bid, or another formula? How quickly should those payments rise in future years?
  • How quickly should Medicaid block grants, or per capita caps, rise in future years?
  • Should an Obamacare repeal-and-replace plan rely on pre-Obamacare levels of taxes and spending, or should it redirect existing Obamacare spending in a different direction?

Price’s legislative efforts are entirely silent on these and other critically important questions that Congress will need to undertake next year.

Budget Gimmicks and Magic Asterisks

As chairman of the House Budget Committee, Price earlier this year released a budget blueprint that did include some ideas for entitlement reform. However, that document included only about four pages of proposals on Medicare, Medicaid, and Obamacare—some of which focused more on making the case against Obamacare than outlining the specifics of a Republican alternative.

More importantly, even though the Republican budget document said it “gets rid of all of Obamacare,” that’s not what it did. The budget, like those issued by House Speaker Paul Ryan when he was Budget Committee chairman, assumes Obamacare’s higher levels of taxes and lower levels of Medicare spending to achieve balance within the decade. Either the budget doesn’t repeal all of Obamacare, or it assumes that Congress, after repealing Obamacare, would go back and re-enact equivalent levels of tax increases and Medicare spending reductions.

It’s particularly noteworthy that Price’s Empowering Patients First Act, which proposes a new refundable tax credit, includes only one idea to pay for said credit—a cap on the tax deductibility of employer-sponsored health coverage. Although administered through the tax code, refundable credits are considered for budgetary purposes government spending—Washington writing “refund” checks to individuals and families with no income tax liability.

While it’s difficult to determine without a Congressional Budget Office score to his bill, one could argue the chairman of the House Budget Committee proposed raising taxes (the cap on deducting employer-sponsored health coverage) to pay for new spending (the refundable portion of the tax credit/insurance subsidy).

None of these omissions by Price suggest he lacks an intricate knowledge of health policy—far from it. In fact, to the extent Price has purposefully avoided many of the political minefields omnipresent in health policy, that public silence makes his Senate confirmation more likely.

But it also illustrates the extent of the obstacles Republicans face. If one of the few conservatives in Congress with an interest in, and knowledge of, health care achieved that reputation in part by avoiding tough choices, what will Republicans do when they have to make those difficult decisions—and trust me, they will have to—without him next year?

Legislating vs. Implementing

As chair of the House Budget Committee, and with a seat on the House Ways and Means Committee, Price would have been uniquely placed to influence a legislative debate on health care in the 115th Congress. Most of the legislative proposals—whether to repeal and replace Obamacare, or reform entitlements—will likely occur through the budget reconciliation process, where the chairs of the House and Senate Budget Committees play a key role. Price was listed as the official sponsor of the reconciliation bill repealing Obamacare that President Obama vetoed earlier this year; his name would have similarly been on any repeal bill considered under reconciliation in 2017.

Given his influential perch in Congress, Price did not accept the HHS nomination because he intends to oversee the legislative process at a close distance. He will play a key role in liaising with Congress, no doubt, but perhaps more from a “big picture” perspective—working to persuade his former legislative colleagues—than by drafting minute details with Hill staff, Ryan, and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.

Price’s nomination to HHS makes much more sense from an implementation standpoint—the opportunity to shape and mold the regulatory process. Price can lay the regulatory groundwork for repealing Obamacare and reforming entitlements. But the heavy lifting of policy will remain Congress’s purview, and Price’s record—both what it includes, and more importantly, what it excludes—illustrates that lift will be heavy indeed.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

Past as Prologue? A Review of “The System”

A young president promising hope and change takes over the White House. Immediately embarking upon a major health-care initiative, he becomes trapped amidst warring factions in his party in Congress, bickering interest groups, and an angry public, all laying the groundwork for a resounding electoral defeat.

Barack Obama, circa 2009-10? Most definitely. But the same story also applies to Bill Clinton’s first two years in office, a period marked by a health-care debate in 1993-94 that paved the way for the Republican takeover of both houses of Congress.

In their seminal work “The System,” Haynes Johnson and David Broder recount the events of 1993-94 in detail—explaining not just how the Clinton health initiative failed, but also why. Anyone following the debate on Obamacare repeal should take time over the holidays to read “The System” to better understand what may await Congress and Washington next year. After all, why spend time arguing with your in-laws at the holiday table when you can read about people arguing in Congress two decades ago?

Echoes of History

For those following events of the past few years, the Clinton health debate as profiled in “The System” provides interesting echoes between past and present. Here is Karen Ignani of the AFL-CIO, viewed as a single-payer supporter and complaining that insurance companies could still “game the system” under some proposed reforms. Ironic sentiments indeed, as Ignani went on to chair the health insurance industry’s trade association during the Obamacare debate.

There are references to health care becoming a president’s Waterloo—Johnson and Broder attribute that quote to Grover Norquist, years before Sen. Jim DeMint uttered it in 2009. Max Baucus makes an appearance—he opposed in 1994 the employer mandate he included in Obamacare in 2009—as do raucous rallies in the summer of 1994, presaging the Obamacare town halls 15 years later.

Then there are the bigger lessons and themes that helped define the larger debate:

“Events, Dear Boy, Events:” The axiom attributed to Harold Macmillan about leaders being cast adrift by crises out of their control applied to the Clintons’ health-care debate. Foreign crises in Somalia (see “Black Hawk Down”) and Haiti sapped time on the presidential calendar and press attention, and distracted messaging. During the second half of 2009, Obama spent most of his time and energy focused on health care, leading some to conclude he had turned away from solving the economic crisis.

Old Bulls and Power Centers: “The System “spends much more time profiling the chairs of the respective congressional committees—including Dan Rostenkowski at House Ways and Means, John Dingell at House Energy and Commerce, and Patrick Moynihan at Senate Finance—than would have been warranted in 2009-10. While committee chairs held great power in the early 1990s, 15 years later House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid called most of the legislative shots from their leadership offices.

Whereas the House marked up three very different versions of health-care legislation in 1993-94, all three committees started from the same chairman’s mark in 2009. With Speaker Paul Ryan, like John Boehner before him, running a much more diffuse leadership operation than Pelosi’s tightly controlled ship, it remains to be seen whether congressional leaders can drive consensus on both policy strategy and legislative tactics.

The Filibuster: At the beginning of the legislative debate in 1993, Robert Byrd—a guardian of Senate rules and procedures—pleaded for Democrats not to try and enact their health agenda using budget reconciliation procedures to avoid a filibuster. Democrats (begrudgingly) followed his advice in 1993, only to ignore his pleadings 16 years later, using reconciliation to ram through changes to Obamacare. Likewise, what and how Republicans use reconciliation, and Democrats use the filibuster, on health care will doubtless define next year’s Senate debate.

Many Obama White House operatives such as Rahm Emanuel, having lived through the Clinton debate, followed the exact opposite playbook to pass Obamacare.

They used the time between 1993 and 2009 to narrow their policy differences as a party. Rather than debating between a single-payer system and managed competition, most of the political wrangling focused on the narrower issue of a government-run “public option.” Rather than writing a massive, 1,300-page bill and dropping it on Capitol Hill’s lap, they deferred to congressional leaders early on. Rather than bashing special interest groups publicly, they cut “rock-solid deals” behind closed doors to win industry support. While their strategy ultimately led to legislative success, the electoral consequences proved eerily similar.

Lack of Institutional Knowledge

The example of Team Obama aside, Washington and Washingtonians sometimes have short memories. Recently a reporter e-mailed asking me if I knew of someone who used to work on health care issues for Vice President-elect Mike Pence. (Um, have you read my bio…?) Likewise, reporters consider “longtime advisers” those who have worked the issue since the last presidential election. While there is no substitute for experience itself, a robust knowledge of history would come in a close second.

Those who underestimate the task facing congressional Republicans would do well to read “The System.” Having read it for the first time the week of President Obama’s 2009 inauguration, I was less surprised by how that year played out on Capitol Hill than I was surprised by the eerie similarities.

George Santayana’s saying that “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it” bears more than a grain of truth. History may not repeat itself exactly, but it does run in cycles. Those who read “The System” now will better understand the cycle about to unfold before us in the year ahead.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

Three Lessons from Last Year’s Obamacare Repeal Effort

In a move virtually ignored outside Washington and largely unnoticed even within it, last December the House and Senate passed legislation repealing much of Obamacare. President Obama promptly vetoed the measure — an obstacle that will disappear come January 20. As reporters and policymakers attempt to catch up and learn the details of a process they had not closely followed, three important lessons stand out from last year’s “dry run” at repealing Obamacare.

The Senate Should Take the Lead

The legislation in question, H.R. 3762, made it to President Obama’s desk only because Republicans used a special procedure called budget reconciliation to circumvent the Senate’s 60-vote requirement to overcome a Democratic filibuster. While reconciliation allowed the bill to make it to the president’s desk, it came with several procedural strings in the Senate. Reconciliation legislation may only consider provisions that are primarily budgetary in nature; policy changes, or policy changes with an incidental fiscal impact, will get stripped from the bill. In addition, reconciliation legislation may not increase the budget deficit.

Unfortunately, the original version of the bill the House introduced did not comply with the Senate requirements. The legislation repealed Obamacare’s Independent Payment Advisory Board (IPAB) — but because that change was primarily policy-related and not fiscal in nature, it did not pass muster with the Senate parliamentarian. Likewise, according to a cost estimate by the Congressional Budget Office, the House-passed bill would have increased the deficit in the “out years” beyond the ten-year budget window, making it subject to another point-of-order challenge that would require 60 votes to overcome. Ultimately, the legislation contained enough of these procedural flaws that Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell had to introduce a completely new substitute for the bill as it came to the Senate floor, to ensure that it would receive the procedural protections accorded to a reconciliation measure.

The arcane and technical nature of the budget-reconciliation process means that the Senate will play the key role in determining what passes — simply because Senate procedure will dictate what can pass. While the House has the constitutional prerogative to originate all tax legislation, and by custom it initiates most major spending legislation, the Senate may do well to initiate action in this particular case. House Republicans proposed an Obamacare-replacement plan earlier this year, Paul Ryan’s “A Better Way,” but what good is passing that through the House if much of it ends up on the Senate’s proverbial cutting-room floor?

Personnel Matters, Because Institutional Memory Is Scarce

The original reconciliation bill was introduced in the House on October 16, during what amounted to an interval between leaders. John Boehner had announced his intention to resign the speakership, but Paul Ryan had not yet assumed that title. And while House members played another round of “musical chairs,” staff underwent their own turnover, as Speaker Boehner’s longtime health-policy adviser departed Capitol Hill a few weeks before Boehner announced his surprise resignation.

To say that relevant leaders and committee chairs have swapped places in the House recently is putting it mildly. Not one has served in his current post for more than two years. Two years ago, Paul Ryan chaired the House Budget Committee; his reign at Ways and Means lasted a brief nine months before he assumed the speakership. Elsewhere in leadership, both Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy and Majority Whip Steve Scalise assumed their jobs after the defeat of Eric Cantor in August 2014. At the committees, Budget Committee chairman Tom Price and Ways and Means Committee chairman Kevin Brady succeeded Paul Ryan in leading their respective committees last year. And the Energy and Commerce and Education and Workforce Committees will soon choose new chairmen to assume their gavels in January.

While Senate leadership has remained more stable at the member level, most of the staff in both chambers has turned over since the Obamacare debate of 2009–10. I served in House leadership during 2009, and Senate leadership from 2010 to 2012; most of my former colleagues have long since moved on, whether to lobbying jobs, grad school, or even outside Washington altogether. Both at the member level and the staff level, the critically important institutional knowledge of what happened to Democrats — and when, why, and how — during the Obamacare debacle eight short years ago is dangerously thin.

The Washington gossip circles seem most interested in playing the parlor game of who will fill what post in the new administration. But particularly if the administration defers to Capitol Hill on policy, the true action in determining what happens to Obamacare — and what replaces it — may well lie at the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue. Both reporters and would-be job applicants should react and plan accordingly.

An Influential Troika of Senate Conservatives

In addition to its procedural shortfalls, the original House reconciliation bill represented something much less than full repeal of Obamacare. While the law as enacted contains 419 sections, four of which had already been repealed prior to last October, the House’s reconciliation bill repealed just seven of them. Admittedly, much of Obamacare contains extraneous provisions unrelated to the law’s coverage expansions: nursing-home regulations, loan-forgiveness programs, and the like. But the original House reconciliation bill left intact many of Obamacare’s tax increases and all of its coverage expansions, leaving it far short of anything that could be called full repeal.

Into the breach stepped three conservative senators: Mike Lee, Marco Rubio, and Ted Cruz. The day before the House voted to pass its reconciliation bill, they issued a joint statement calling it thin gruel indeed:

On Friday the House of Representatives is set to vote on a reconciliation bill that repeals only parts of Obamacare. This simply isn’t good enough. Each of us campaigned on a promise to fully repeal Obamacare, and a reconciliation bill is the best way to send such legislation to President Obama’s desk. If this bill cannot be amended so that it fully repeals Obamacare pursuant to Senate rules, we cannot support this bill. With millions of Americans now getting health premium increase notices in the mail, we owe our constituents nothing less.

Knowing that the bill lacked the votes to pass the chamber without support from the three conservatives, Senate leadership significantly broadened the bill’s scope. The revised version that went to the president’s desk repealed all of the law’s tax increases and all of its coverage expansions. It was not a one-sentence repeal bill that eradicated all of Obamacare from the statute books, but it came much closer to “fully repeal[ing] Obamacare pursuant to Senate rules,” as the three senators laid out in their statement.

The conservatives’ mettle will be tested once again. Already, Republican congressional sources are telling reporters that they intend to keep the law’s Medicaid expansion, albeit in a different fashion. “One of the aides said this version of the bill [that passed last year] was mostly about ‘messaging,’ and that this time, ‘We’re not going to use that package. We’re not dumb.’”

Apart from the wisdom of calling a bill that their bosses voted for less than one year ago “dumb,” the comment clarifies the obvious fissure points that will emerge in the coming weeks. Will conservatives such as Lee, Rubio, and Cruz hold out for legislation mirroring last year’s bill — and vote no if they do not receive it? Conversely, what Republican who voted for the reconciliation bill last year will object if it returns to the Senate floor? Will senators be willing to vote against something in 2017 that they voted for in 2015?

As I noted last week, Republicans’ path on Obamacare could prove more complicated than the new conventional wisdom in Washington suggests. If past is prologue, last year’s reconciliation bill provides one possible roadmap for how the congressional debate may play out.

This post was originally published at National Review.

House Democrats Endorse a President Trump Power Grab

Last week, eleven leading House Democrats released a brief in a lawsuit regarding Obamacare, but one that could have implications far beyond this President’s health care law. Essentially, the Democratic leaders argued that courts had no power to intervene where a President spends money not appropriated by Congress—a position that the Democrats may endorse when the President in question is one of their own party, but one they will live to regret when the executive holds differing political views.

The brief in question was an amicus curiae filing in House v. Burwell, a case involving the legality of Obamacare’s cost-sharing subsidies. The text of the law nowhere provides an explicit appropriation for such subsidies—but the Obama Administration has disbursed funds to insurers regardless. In May, United States District Court Judge Rosemary Collyer ruled for the House of Representatives, ordering the Administration to stop the subsidy payments. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and several of her Democratic colleagues filed the brief with the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, currently considering the Administration’s appeal of the District Court ruling.

The Democrats’ brief argues that the text of the law implies a subsidy for the cost-sharing subsidies, even if it did not say so outright. But more troublingly, the amicus filing discourages the Court of Appeals from even considering the merits of the case—encouraging the court instead to dismiss the case for lack of standing.

To read the lawmakers’ brief, Congress would have little recourse to the courts for relief should the executive spend money not appropriated. So long as a President at least makes an attempt to argue the existence of some appropriation, then the matter becomes what the Democrat lawmakers call “a quintessential disagreement about the proper interpretation of” statutes, one that the judicial branch should leave to the political branches. To Pelosi and her colleagues, the President violates the Constitution “any time the executive branch takes some affirmative action based on a misinterpretation of a federal statute,” since such actions involve spending money—but few if any of these violations warrant judicial intervention.

Surprisingly for a brief filed by a group of legislators, the amicus does not even articulate a clear set of circumstances when the legislature could legitimately sue the executive, other than to argue that House v. Burwell does not warrant such action. The Pelosi brief argues that not just one, but both Houses of Congress, must authorize such a suit—in other words, a Democratic-controlled Senate could block a Republican-led House from suing the President, and vice versa. It claims that a Congress injured by the President should use non-judicial means to remedy disputes, by passing corrective legislation—even though the President could veto such legislation, allowing his violations to stand unless 2/3rds of Congress agrees to rebuke him—or conducting Congressional oversight. As comforting as these remedies might sound in theory, few would likely prove effective in practice.

In an Obamacare context, House Democrats may consider complaints about the Constitution and the “power of the purse” mere trifling inconveniences. But they have just as much reason to be concerned as Republicans, for a future Administration could use the Obamacare precedents as grounds to make policy decisions few Democrats would favor.

To use a totally hypothetical example, suppose that a future President believed that—as this Administration has argued in court—that the context and structure of our nation’s immigration laws give the executive unlimited funding to build a big, beautiful wall—a yuuuuge wall, even—without Congress’ consent. Suppose also that said future President argued—as the House Democrats argued in their brief, and an Obama Administration official testified with a straight face before the House Ways and Means Committee in July—that because Congress didn’t pass legislation explicitly prohibiting it from doing so, it could spend unlimited funds on a deportation force to remove undocumented immigrants? Would Democrats value their constitutional prerogatives so lightly under those circumstances?

Call this a hunch, but I doubt that, under the immigration scenarios outlined above, the Democratic lawmakers would content themselves with the remedies they have laid forth in their brief about Obamacare’s cost-sharing subsidies. Faced with a President spending billions of dollars on a deportation force never appropriated by Congress, would Nancy Pelosi merely content herself with conducting hearings and “appeal[ing] to the public,” as her brief argues in the Obamacare context? Hardly.

The core issue surrounding the cost-sharing subsidies is not Obamacare, but the rule of law—a principle that, as Churchill noted, has existed since the barons met King John at Runnymede eight centuries ago: “Rex non debet esse sub homine, sed sub Deo et lege—the king should not be below man, but below God and the law.” A President cannot assume regal powers by spending money never granted by the peoples’ tribunes, essentially daring the courts and Congress to stop him.

That’s the point of House Republicans’ suit on the cost-sharing subsidies, and Judge Collyer’s ruling in May upholding the House’s position. And it’s a point that, their amicus brief notwithstanding, House Democrats should learn to discover and embrace. Because at some point in the future—whether immediately after tomorrow’s election, or years from now—they will find reason aplenty to cling to those important constitutional principles.

How to Stop the Obamacare Bailouts

In the coming decade, actions set in motion by the Obama administration could cost the American taxpayer over $170 billion in publicly funded health-insurance-company bailouts — a scandal I described in detail in these pages last week. Fortunately for taxpayers, however, a future administration could shut off the gushing taps of bailout dollars that President Obama has turned on. Because the bailouts in large part revolve around unilateral administration actions — decisions solely made by the executive, without even the notice-and-comment process used in normal rulemaking — the next administration could reverse those actions almost as quickly as they were introduced.

By taking the steps below, a Republican administration could preserve taxpayer funds — and restore the separation of powers this administration has so badly damaged.

RISK CORRIDORS 

One of two transitional programs for Obamacare insurers, risk corridors were designed to provide stability in the law’s early years — insurers with large profits would pay in some of their gains to reduce shortfalls by carriers with large losses. However, because insurers have lost money hand-over-fist on Obamacare exchanges, claims by loss-making insurers seeking payments have greatly exceeded receipts taken in by profit-making insurers. Congress has thus far prevented the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) from using taxpayer funds to bail out the risk corridors, but insurers are taking legal action seeking unpaid risk-corridor funds as a result.

Action: Revoke the Administration Memo Declaring a Unilateral Bailout: In November, CMS issued a short memo noting that, in 2014, insurers requested $2.87 billion in risk-corridor payments, but because other insurers only paid in $362 million to risk corridors, the administration could only pay 12.6 percent of 2014 payment requests. The memo stated that the $2.5 billion in unpaid payments represent an “obligation of the United States Government for which full payment is required.”

The memo conceded that Congress had provided no appropriation for the $2.5 billion in risk-corridor shortfalls — indeed, Congress had specifically enacted language prohibiting CMS from spending additional taxpayer funds on risk-corridor payments. CMS had no authority to issue such a memo — and the next administration should revoke it.

Action: Refuse to Settle Risk-Corridor Lawsuits — and Refuse to Pay Claims: Insurers have filed several lawsuits seeking to collect their unpaid risk-corridor funds — lawsuits that the Obama administration will be inclined to settle. Congress prohibited CMS from using taxpayer funds to pay risk-corridor claims — but a legal settlement would be paid from the Judgment Fund of the Treasury, allowing the administration to circumvent the appropriations restrictions.

The Obama administration may, in its final days after November’s elections, attempt to settle the insurer lawsuits by paying risk-corridor claims from the Judgment Fund. Such an action would contradict opinions of the Congressional Research Service (CRS) and the Government Accountability Office (GAO). Both organizations have stated their belief that the Judgment Fund cannot be used to spend money on accounts and programs where Congress itself has declined to appropriate funds. Particularly given the views of these non-partisan legal experts, federal judges can, and should, look skeptically upon, and even overturn entirely, any conspiracy by the Obama administration and insurers to create a backdoor bailout without Congress’s explicit consent in the form of an appropriation.

The next administration should fight these insurer lawsuits tooth-and-nail, refusing to either settle the lawsuits or to use the Judgment Fund to pay any claims — unless and until Congress explicitly appropriates funds for that purpose. Under our Constitution, the power of the purse lies solely with Congress, not with unelected bureaucrats who believe they can dispense billions of dollars in taxpayer money to their crony-capitalist colleagues at will.

Potential Savings to Taxpayers: Insurers submitted $2.5 billion in unpaid risk-corridor claims for 2014. Given continued insurer losses in 2015 and 2016, a conservative estimate would suggest a total of $7.5 billion in unpaid claims for each of 2014, 2015, and 2016. Actions by a new administration could save taxpayers from this bailout totaling billions — possibly tens of billions — of dollars.

REINSURANCE 

Reinsurance, the second program intended to ease the transition to Obamacare, would, according to the text of the law, impose “fees” on all employer-provided plans from 2014 to 2016. The funds were designed to 1) repay the Treasury for the cost of another reinsurance program in place from 2010 to 2013, and 2) subsidize insurers selling Obamacare-compliant individual plans with high-cost patients.

Action: Reclaim Funds for the Treasury: While the text of Obamacare explicitly states the Obama administration should prioritize repaying the Treasury over repaying insurers, the administration has done precisely the opposite — putting payments to insurers ahead of repayments to taxpayers. The non-partisan experts at CRS have called the Obama administration’s actions a clear violation of the text of the law.

The next administration can and should limit this insurer bailout by reorienting its priorities in line with both the law and basic common sense — taxpayers deserve priority before insurers. It could also sue insurers to recoup bailout funds dispensed in error because of the Obama administration’s reckless disregard for the law.

Potential Savings to Taxpayers: While insurers appear likely to receive the full $20 billion in reinsurance payments provided for under the law from 2014 to 2016, the Treasury is set to receive far less than the $5 billion it was promised under the statute. Reorienting the reinsurance priorities to put taxpayers before insurers will likely save the public billions.

COST-SHARING SUBSIDIES

Obamacare requires insurers to provide reduced cost sharing — that is, lower deductibles and co-payments — to households with incomes under 250 percent of the federal poverty level. But the text of the law nowhere includes an explicit appropriation to subsidize the insurer-provided discounts. The Obama administration, refusing to be bothered by such trifling inconveniences as the plain text of a statute, will have already paid out $13.9 billion by the end of this fiscal year (September 30). A future administration could turn the bailout taps off within days of taking office.

Action: Turn Off the Bailout Taps Immediately: As noted in the deposition of an IRS employee recently released by the House Ways and Means Committee, the Obama administration decided to turn on these bailout taps despite the plain text of the law — and without undertaking any public notice-and-comment process. A future administration could turn the bailout taps off in a similar fashion within days of taking office.

Action: Settle the House Lawsuit: On May 12, in United States District Court, Judge Rosemary Collyer agreed with the House of Representatives in U.S. House of Representatives v. Burwell, an important constitutional case related to the cost-sharing subsidies. The House argued, and Judge Collyer agreed, that the Obama administration’s payments to insurers violated the Constitution — which, by prohibiting any payment without an explicit appropriation, gives Congress, and only Congress, the “power of the purse.”

By settling the House lawsuit, the next administration would provide another level of insurance that the bailout taps to insurers could not be re-started. The House’s suit requests a permanent injunction prohibiting the Treasury Department and the Department of Health and Human Services from spending any taxpayer funds on cost-sharing subsidies to insurers unless and until Congress provides an explicit appropriation. If the next administration agreed to such a measure by settling the House’s lawsuit in federal court, it would bind all future administrations to the same standard — restraining executive power and restoring the separation of powers.

Potential Savings to Taxpayers: The Congressional Budget Office estimates that cost-sharing subsidies will total $45 billion over the next four fiscal years — roughly the time span of the next administration — and $130 billion over a decade, meaning that a new administration could save taxpayers tens of billions, if not hundreds of billions, of dollars.

This series of actions from the next administration would save taxpayers more than $50 billion in total — $7.5 billion from risk corridors, up to $5 billion from reinsurance, and $45 billion in cost-sharing subsidies — and potentially triple that amount if the restrictions on cost-sharing subsidies become permanent.

Just as important, the next administration should also thoroughly investigate the actions taken by the Obama administration regarding these insurer bailouts for any hint of illegality. In the deposition released by the House Ways and Means Committee, the IRS’s chief risk officer noted “there was some risk to making these [cost-sharing subsidy] payments with respect to the . . . Anti-Deficiency Act,” which he recalled “has criminal penalties associated with it” for federal employees who spend money not appropriated by Congress. The chief risk officer noted that “we take [the Anti-Deficiency Act] very seriously.”

At minimum, the next administration should investigate just how seriously all Obama administration employees took the Anti-Deficiency Act, and whether they violated the law — not to mention the Constitution’s separation of powers — to shovel bailout funds to insurers. The IRS’s chief risk officer noted that then-attorney general Eric Holder and Treasury Secretary Jack Lew were personally involved in the decision to turn on the bailout taps for the cost-sharing subsidies. In addition to turning off those taps, a new administration should determine whether the Obama administration’s sweetheart deals for health insurers crossed the line from mere crony capitalism into criminal activity.

This post was originally published at National Review.

An Insight into Division over Administration Authority to Pay Obamacare Subsidies

A federal district judge ruled this month, in a lawsuit brought by House Republicans, that the Obama administration lacks the authority to pay cost-sharing subsidies to health insurers if Congress has not appropriated the funds. Some civil servants in the administration may agree.

The House Ways and Means Committee released a deposition Tuesday of David Fisher, former chief risk officer for the Internal Revenue Service. In it, Mr. Fisher recounts a series of events in late 2013 and early 2014 regarding the source and legality of Obamacare cost-sharing subsidies to insurers. The administration initially argued that the subsidies were subject to the budget sequester. By early 2014, however, it had shifted to the position that the cost-sharing subsidies were not subject to the sequester and could be paid under the appropriation authority for a separate program of premium subsidies created by the Affordable Care Act.

In the deposition, Mr. Fisher describes a January 2014 meeting at the Office of Management and Budget during which OMB staff showed—but did not allow IRS employees to retain—a memo ostensibly giving the federal government legal authority to combine the cost-sharing and premium subsidies. Mr. Fisher said the legal brief lacked a “single, main argument.” It was “almost a commentary on elements that, in total, would draw the conclusion that these payments out of the permanent appropriation would be appropriate.”

Mr. Fisher said he disagreed with OMB’s legal analysis and believed that there was “no clear reference” to an appropriation for the cost-sharing subsidies in the health-care law. He testified that the IRS’s chief financial officer and deputy chief financial officer shared his concerns. IRS Commissioner John Koskinen allowed employees to air those concerns soon after the OMB meeting, he said, but ultimately allowed the payments to proceed. Mr. Fisher testified that it was “a very strong consensus” of people in “fairly senior positions”—then-Attorney General Eric Holder had received a briefing, Mr. Fisher recalled—that the payments should proceed.

There is a notable point in the deposition: “There could be many other people who think this is about health care. To us,” Mr. Fisher said, referring to himself and others who shared his concerns, “this was not about health care.” The issue is abiding by appropriations law, he said, not least because the Anti-Deficiency Act provides criminal penalties for federal employees who spend funds not legally appropriated.

Democrats on the House Ways and Means Committee objected that Mr. Fisher was subpoenaed to testify, with Rep. Sander Levin calling it “another effort by the majority to try to undermine the Affordable Care Act.” Mr. Fisher, though, testified that he views the issue through a different prism.

Shortly before the federal ruling this month, both the House Ways and Means and the Energy and Commerce Committees issued subpoenas for internal documents relating to the cost-sharing subsidies. The panels have sought these documents for 15 months. The internal deliberations and potential conflicts raised by Mr. Fisher’s testimony could be part of the reason the administration has not released all those documents. It appears that there were questions about the legality of the cost-sharing subsidies within as well as outside the Obama administration.

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

King v. Burwell and Congressional Intent on Exchange Subsidies

In the big case to be argued before the Supreme Court on Wednesday, supporters of the health-care law maintain that nonpartisan congressional analyses of Obamacare make clear that lawmakers intended on making subsidies available to individuals in all states, even if the precise language is open to interpretation.

But  in at least one other case, the law’s supporters took the opposite tack—ignoring a bipartisan congressional analysis that came up with a conclusion they didn’t like.

Here is what’s happening:

King v. Burwell, the case to be heard Wednesday, centers on the legality of insurance subsidies being provided in states that use the federal HealthCare.gov platform. Some congressional sponsors of the health-care law have said that they clearly intended to make subsidies available to individuals in all states, regardless of whether states used their own or the federal insurance exchange.

In op-eds and amicus briefs, several members of Congress have argued that an Internal Revenue Service rule proposed in August 2011 and finalized in May 2012 that extended subsidies to individuals in both state- and federally run insurance exchanges was consistent with their intent at the time the health-care law was passed. The Congressional Budget Office “came to the same conclusion,” five lawmakers wrote in the Washington Post last October. The legislators say that because CBO assumed that subsidies would be available in all 50 states, as expressed by CBO scores for the bill when it passed, Congress’s intent was clear. But on a different issue of interpretation, several of the law’s authors undermined that logic.

The issue that prompted the about-face involves the “family glitch” related to eligibility for insurance subsidies. If one parent is offered health insurance through an employer, the entire family does not qualify for subsidies to purchase coverage through the marketplace. In March 2010, the same week the health-care bill was signed into law, the Joint Committee on Taxation issued an analysis of the legislation that said, in part, that even though “family coverage costs more than 9.5 percent of income, the family does not qualify for a tax credit regardless of whether the employee purchases self-only coverage or does not purchase self-only coverage through the employer.”

The same August 2011 proposed rule that prompted King v. Burwell also included Treasury proposals to codify the “family glitch,” consistent with the March 2010 technical explanation provided by the Joint Committee on Taxation. Yet Reps. Sander Levin and Henry Waxman—who, respectively, chaired the House Ways and Means Committee and the House Energy and Commerce Committee when the ACA was passed—wrote to Treasury in December 2011 complaining about this interpretation of the statute. Their letter argued that the Treasury interpretation of the glitch was “simply incongruent” with congressional intent and a “wrong interpretation of the law.”

When it came to the exchange subsidies, the Congressional Budget Office undertook no textual analysis of the statutory provisions at dispute in King v. Burwell. But the Joint Tax Committee did. It released a contemporaneous analysis of the provisions at issue with respect to the “family glitch.” Although Mr. Levin and Mr. Waxman say CBO’s silence suggests a presumption that subsidies should be available in all 50 states, they disregarded the contemporaneous analysis by the Joint Committee on Taxation.

Now, the former House committee chairmen could have been unaware of the JCT analysis at the time the law was passed. They could wish to argue for the most generous subsidy regime possible, regardless of the law’s technical specifics. There may be some other policy or political explanation.

But this situation highlights the pitfalls of claims regarding a law’s intent. All types of retrospective analyses could turn into self-justifying ones—which may provide little use to courts attempting to discern what a statute actually means.

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