Tag Archives: Lamar Alexander

What’s Congress Doing with SCHIP?

Amidst the wrangling over Obamacare, reauthorization of the State Children’s Health Insurance Program (SCHIP) expired on September 30, the end of the federal government’s fiscal year. The two committees of jurisdiction—energy and commerce in the House, and finance in the Senate—each marked up their reauthorization bills last week. But House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Greg Walden (R-OR) said Monday the bill would not come to the House floor this week.

What’s the holdup? Why the delays in bringing to the floor for votes a bill whose authorization has already expired?

Even though Republicans proposed a generous—some conservatives might argue too generous—reauthorization of SCHIP, House Democrats object because they don’t want millionaires and billionaires to pay for the new spending on children’s health insurance, and Senate Democrats object because they want to attach tens of billions of dollars in taxpayer subsidies to insurance companies.

I swear to you: I’m not making this up.

A Mixed House Package

The SCHIP reauthorization text varies little between the House and the Senate versions. On that front, conservatives may have qualms with supporting little more than a straight extension of the status quo. The bill extends—albeit for only one year, as part of a more gradual phase-out—enhanced funding to state SCHIP programs. The full 23 percent match increase would end in 2019, as under current law, while states would receive an additional 11.5 percent increase in 2020. Some states have received a 100 percent federal match for their child enrollees due to this Obamacare provision, which is a clear disincentive for states to fight fraud and improper spending.

Moreover, the bill extends Obamacare’s maintenance of effort requirement—limiting states from making changes to their programs—by an additional three years in most cases, from 2019 to 2022. The bill also does not include reforms the House proposed two years ago, which would require states to focus on covering poor children first—the program’s prime emphasis before the 2009 reauthorization signed by President Obama envisioned states expanding their programs to more affluent families.

On the positive side, however, the House did include good reforms to help pay for the new SCHIP spending. It includes several provisions designed to promote program integrity in Medicaid, including one that would effectively ensure that lottery winners, or others who receive large lump-sum payments, do not maintain coverage for this low-income program. The House bill would also increase Medicare means-testing for affluent families, reducing taxpayer subsidies for Part B (outpatient care) and Part D (prescription drug) coverage for individuals making over $160,000, and eliminating the subsidies entirely for individuals making more than $500,000.

Those pay-fors drew Democrats’ ire, and prompted the postponement of consideration on the House floor this week. To put it more bluntly: Democrats are holding children’s health hostage because they object to charging millionaires and billionaires more for Medicare. Should anyone remind them that Obamacare itself also increased Medicare means-testing for wealthy beneficiaries to pay for Obamacare?

In the Senate, a Stalemate

Meanwhile, over in the Senate—which has yet to decide how to pay for the new SCHIP spending—Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) demanded last week that the Republican majority “immediately bring this bill to the Senate floor for a vote and include much-needed bipartisan provisions to stabilize the markets, lower premiums for 2018,” and extend other programs.

Schumer made those demands despite two inconvenient truths: Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee Chairman Lamar Alexander (R-TN) and Ranking Member Patty Murray (D-WA) haven’t yet reached agreement on a bipartisan “stabilization” bill—and most states finalized their 2018 insurance premiums on September 27, weeks ago. In other words, Schumer wants to enact an agreement that doesn’t exist to achieve premium reductions that can’t happen.

A cynic might surmise that, with his talk of “stabilization” measures, Schumer wants to use SCHIP to sneak through tens of billions of dollars in cost-sharing reduction payments to insurers—a provision that might prove unpopular, and controversial, as a stand-alone measure, but could pass through relatively unnoticed as part of a larger, “Christmas tree”-sized bill.

For conservatives, the current mixed policy outcomes on SCHIP could deteriorate significantly. Weakening the House’s “pay-fors”—which seems bound to happen, given Walden’s further attempts to negotiate with Democrats—could eliminate some, if not most, of the reasons conservatives could see to vote for the measure.

While the policy outcomes seem uncertain, and could range from fair to poor, the political ramifications seem clear. In 2007 and 2008, when President George W. Bush vetoed SCHIP bills due to provisions that would have diverted the program from the low-income children for which it was designed, Democrats organized protests, and ran ads against him. This year, when Democrats are holding up an arguably too-generous SCHIP bill literally because they want to defend the wealthy and insurance companies, Republicans have responded by…negotiating with them.

If one wants reasons behind conservative discontent with Washington, look no further than this bill.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

Why the Motion to Proceed Is a Sucker’s Bet

In trying to win support for their Obamacare “repeal-and-replace” bill, Republican Senate leaders are making a process argument to their fellow senators: We know you don’t like the bill, but work to mend it, rather than ending the process. As Sen. John Thune (R-SD), the chairman of the Senate Republican Conference, argued, “We gotta get on the bill.…If we don’t at least get on the bill, we’re never going to know.”

It’s a typical leadership argument: The promised land is only one bad vote away, not two bad votes, not ten bad votes, only one bad vote away. (Until the next bad vote crops up.) But to skeptics of the bill—whether moderate or conservative—that argument should sound like a sucker’s bet.

Without a clear vision of the final legislation and an agreement from 50 Republican senators to preserve that vision on the Senate floor regardless of the amendments offered—both things that Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn (R-TX) last week admitted Republicans do not have—proceeding to the bill will result in a policy morass that could make the confusing events of the past week look tame by comparison.

As things stand now, a successful motion to proceed will result in an amendment process under which various provisions of the bill get struck—due to guidance from the parliamentarian, dissension within the Republican conference, or both. Then, a last-minute substitute amendment from Majority Leader McConnell (R-KY) will attempt to win over or buy off votes (or both), with the hope that he can dare enough Republicans not to kill the legislation just before the finish line. Here are the likely ways the bill could change—and not for the better.

The ‘Byrd Bath Bloodbath’

As I have previously written, the prior versions of the Senate bill had not gone through the “Byrd bath” testing which provisions comply with the Senate’s “Byrd rule” for budget reconciliation. Late last Friday, the Budget Committee minority staff released a list of provisions that could get stricken from the bill for not complying with the “Byrd rule,” including pro-life protections ensuring no taxpayer funding of abortion, or plans that cover abortion; funding for cost-sharing subsidies; a prohibition on Medicaid funding to certain entities, including Planned Parenthood; and a provision imposing waiting periods on individuals lacking continuous health coverage.

Multiple sources indicate that the list produced by Budget Committee Democrats comprised preliminary guidance on a prior version of the legislation. Therefore, that list should not be considered definitive—that all the enumerated provisions will get stricken.

Conversely, provisions not on the list released Friday could fail to pass Byrd muster, not least because the parliamentarian’s guidance can change. In 2015, a provision repealing Obamacare’s risk corridor program was stricken from that year’s reconciliation bill on the Senate floor, because the parliamentarian was persuaded by Democrats’ last-minute arguments.

Regardless of the specifics, the “Byrd bath” will doubtless make it more difficult for Republicans to present a coherent policy vision through budget reconciliation legislation, meaning the bill could change significantly from its introduced version on procedural grounds alone.

Death by Amendments

In calling for Republicans to vote to begin debate on the bill, Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-TN), a close McConnell ally, has argued that senators will “have a virtually unlimited opportunity…on the floor to make amendments to the bill and try to improve it.”

Alexander’s key phrase is “try to,” because the numbers are strongly stacked against Republicans wishing to offer amendments. If three of 52 Senate Republicans—only 5.8 percent of the Republican conference—defect on an amendment vote, the amendment sponsor will have to rely on Democrats to approve the amendment. And why would Democrats vote for any amendment that might help Republicans pass an Obamacare “repeal” bill?

The most likely answer: They won’t. As a result, it appears more likely that the amendment process could see Republicans stripping out other Republicans’ amendments—from Cruz’ “consumer freedom” provision to the various “side deals” included in the bill—than inserting provisions into the bill to win support. After all, if a provision is so popular that it could attract the votes of 50 Senate Republicans, why didn’t McConnell include it in the base bill to begin with?

The ‘Wraparound Bait-and-Switch’

As Politico notes, the myriad amendment votes don’t represent the end of the process—they’re merely the beginning: “At some point, [Senator] McConnell will introduce a substitute that will represent the Senate’s draft bill. It may be different than what is introduced…and could be subject to amendment on the Senate floor next week. The bill, in other words, will be a work in progress until the final vote.”

That’s exactly what happened the first time the Senate considered Obamacare legislation under reconciliation, in 2015. At the end of the process, McConnell laid down a “wrap-around” amendment—essentially, a whole new version of the bill replacing the prior substitute. Reports suggest McConnell could well do the same thing this time round: introduce a new bill just prior to the vote on final passage, then dare recalcitrant Republicans to vote against it.

Conservatives in particular should fear the “wrap-around,” for the new “goodies” potentially lurking in it. With McConnell having roughly $200 billion in taxpayer funds to distribute in the form of “candy” to members, and staff brazenly telling reporters they plan on “making it rain” on moderates by including additional cash for home-state projects, the “wrap-around” could well include all sorts of new last-minute spending intended to buy votes, and not enough time to scrutinize its contents. (Will we have to pass the bill to find out what’s in it?)

If this process works as outlined above, Alexander’s argument about amendments seems less an invitation to offer suggestions in an open process than a call for senators to go to McConnell’s office and work out a special deal behind closed doors in exchange for their vote.

Willing Disbelief

If the Senate votes to proceed to the bill and McConnell’s office turns into a trading floor, with staff “making it rain” taxpayer funds just like they promised, senators will claim themselves “Shocked—shocked!” that the process took an ugly turn.

They shouldn’t be. The signs are as plain as day. If senators have objections to the bill now, they should vote down the motion to proceed, for the bill—likely on substance, and certainly on process—isn’t going to get much better, and almost assuredly will get worse.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

Misinformation on Premium Increases

At the Finance Committee hearing, the witness from the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities alleged that the Congressional Budget Office claimed the health law would lower premiums.  But in reality, the Congressional Budget Office found that the Senate bill would RAISE premiums by an average $2,100 per family.  While the Administration claims that the Exchanges would reduce costs on their own, CBO found that premiums will go up because individuals would be FORCED to buy richer policies.  In other words, the increased mandates in the law – because Democrats and government bureaucrats believe that some Americans’ coverage is “insufficient” – will RAISE premiums.  Even President Obama admitted at the White House summit last February that he was incorrect in his exchanges on this matter with Sen. Alexander: “Yes, I’m paying 10 to 13 percent more” for insurance.

More Administration Misinformation on Premiums

The Administration is scheduled to release a “report” on premiums later today; while the report itself has not been released, Politico has an article summarizing its contents.  Here are the critical sentences:

“The report, to be released by HHS later today, argues that individuals and families purchasing coverage through the exchanges in 2014 will save 14-20 percent over what coverage would cost them if the law had never been enacted….

“The report’s claims are likely to be challenged by Republican opponents of health care reform. The report is based on projections contained in a November 30, 2009 analysis of the ACA. But the Administration omits a part of the CBO’s analysis, which is being used by the law’s opponents to claim that the law actually increases premiums.

“The ACA requires the purchase of benefit packages that are more comprehensive than what many Americans would otherwise buy. These more generous benefit packages may mean higher premiums, though they may also lower Americans’ out-of-pocket costs. HHS does not factor in the “benefit buy-up” because it believes comparing the cost of the same level of coverage gives a more accurate picture of the law’s effect on premiums.”

As a reminder, the Congressional Budget Office found that the Senate bill would RAISE premiums by an average $2,100 per family.  While the Administration claims that the Exchanges would reduce costs on their own, CBO found that premiums will go up because individuals would be FORCED to buy richer policies.  In other words, the increased mandates in the law – because Democrats and government bureaucrats believe that some Americans’ coverage is “insufficient” – will RAISE premiums.  Even President Obama admitted at the White House summit last February that he was incorrect in his exchanges on this matter with Sen. Alexander, and that the law will raise premiums by $2,100 on average per family in the non-group market.

What does it say about this Administration that it continues to peddle information that the President himself acknowledged was incorrect and misleading?  And how is breaking the President’s campaign promise to lower premiums by $2,500 per family “change we can believe in?”

Alexander Motion to Commit H.R. 4872 — Student Loans

Senator Alexander plans to offer a motion to commit the reconciliation bill to the HELP Committee and direct the Committee to reduce the interest rate on student loans from 6.8 percent to 5.3 percent.

Background:

  • H.R. 4872 would eliminate the Federal Family Education Loan (FFEL) program which uses private capitol to provide student loans and switch all student lending to the federally run Direct Loan (DL) program, making the U.S. Department of Education one of the nation’s largest banks.
  • CBO estimates $61 billion in total savings from the student loan provisions.  These savings are accrued when student’s pay back their loans, plus interest.

Considerations:

  • Democrats are raiding student aid and using $8.7 billion of education savings to finance their unpopular health care proposal
  • We should not be funding health care reform on the backs of hard working students.
  • If reconciliation passes the U.S. Department of Education will become one of the nation’s largest banks.  As such it should not be overcharging students and spending the proceeds on other programs.

Obama Corrects Himself on Insurance Premiums

President Obama just admitted he was incorrect in his earlier exchange with Sen. Alexander, and that the Senate bill will raise premiums by $2,100 on average per family in the non-group market.  He defended this though, saying that people would get “better” coverage – because Washington bureaucrats forced them to buy it.  But the focal point of the President’s campaign plan was that his proposal would “save $2,500 annually for [the average] family.”

How is breaking a campaign promise to raise costs for working families “change we can believe in?”