Tag Archives: Mitch McConnell

Top Ten Ways Senate Obamacare Bill Is #FakeRepeal

A PDF version of this document can be found here

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

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

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

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

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

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 While conservatives might support a temporary appropriation to ensure a stable transition as Obamacare is fully repealed, the bill does the former—but certainly not the latter.

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

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

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

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

Are Senate Republicans Going Soft on Obamacare’s Taxpayer Funding of Abortions?

Senate Republican leadership continue to draft their “repeal-and-replace” health care bill in secret, but it sure looks like staff are preparing for the bill to endorse Obamacare’s funding of plans that cover abortion, by re-characterizing—and mischaracterizing—how current law treats the procedure. While text is not yet publicly available and will not be until Thursday at the earliest, here’s how anonymous sources described the “new” insurance subsidies to the Wall Street Journal:

Tax credits are likely to be structured in ways similar to the [Obamacare] subsidies as a way to preserve restrictions on abortion funding, according to Senate GOP aides. Provisions restricting the use of the House bill’s tax credits to pay for abortion hit procedural hurdles in the Senate.

The [Obamacare] subsidies, which are advance tax credits paid to insurance companies to lower the cost of health-insurance premiums, currently can’t be used to cover the cost of abortions.

The problem is, though, that Obamacare does have “taxpayer-funded abortions.” And that’s not what I said—that’s what Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has said. Here’s his speech on March 17, 2010, as the House was preparing to vote on Obamacare (all emphasis added):

Americans woke up yesterday thinking they had seen everything in this debate already. Then they heard the latest….They heard that Democrats over in the House want to approve the Senate bill without actually voting on it. These Democrats want to approve a bill that rewrites one-sixth of the economy, forces taxpayers to pay for abortions, raises taxes in the middle of a recession, and slashes Medicare for seniors, without leaving their fingerprints on it.

Here’s McConnell the next week, the day after House Democrats voted for Obamacare and one day before it was signed into law: “Here is what the Democrats voted for last night: a vast expansion of the entitlement state that we cannot afford, massive cuts to Medicare, higher taxes, higher health care costs, worse care, taxpayer-funded abortions.”

Don’t consider McConnell a reliable source? The current vice president, Mike Pence, speaking in March 2010 during debate on the reconciliation bill intended to “fix” parts of Obamacare, noted that no provision in the reconciliation bill would fix its funding of abortion:

Mr. Speaker, the bill before us tonight doesn’t fix anything. It doesn’t fix the fact that this is a government takeover of health care that’s going to mandate that every American buy health insurance whether they want it or need it or not. It doesn’t fix the fact that it includes about $600 billion in job-killing tax increases in the worst economy in 30 years. It doesn’t fix the fact this bill provides public funding for elective abortion for the first time in American history.

And then there’s former House Speaker John Boehner. During his infamous “Hell no, you can’t!” speech on the House floor as that chamber was preparing to pass Obamacare, here’s what he said about the bill (soon to become law) and abortion:

Can you go home and tell your constituents with confidence that this bill respects the sanctity of all human life and that it won’t allow for taxpayer funding of abortions for the first time in 30 years? No, you cannot.

The current majority leader, current vice president, and former House speaker are all correct, of course—or at least they were seven years ago. Obamacare provides subsidies to plans that cover abortion, a significant break from the precedent used by the federal employee health plan, and one that will see more than $700 billion in taxpayer funds in the coming decade go toward plans that could cover abortion.

To repeat, the bill text is not yet available, but if it has strict pro-life protections in it, why are Senate staff suddenly trying to claim that a bill McConnell said has “taxpayer-funded abortions” in it actually prevents funding for the procedure? Are anonymous staff trying to lay the groundwork for a massive flip-flop that will alienate the entire pro-life community? Time will tell, but for those concerned about taxpayer funding of abortion, the initial soundings do not look good.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

A Delayed Medicaid Phase-Out Is No Phase-Out At All

As the Senate attempts to develop its version of Obamacare “repeal-and-replace” legislation, lawmakers have floated a lengthy phase-out of the enhanced federal match associated with Obamacare’s Medicaid expansion. Reports indicate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) has suggested a three-year phase-out running from 2020 to 2023, while Sen. Rob Portman (R-OH) and others have suggested a phase-out that would continue until 2027.

Discussion of both proposals to date has omitted one key fact: Implementation of either phase-out plan—and thus scaling back a major part of Obamacare, on which Republicans have run the past four election cycles—hinges almost entirely on Republicans winning another presidential election. In the case of the Portman plan, it would also hinge on continued Republican control of the White House following the 2024 election.

If Republicans do not retain the White House in 2020, it’s highly unlikely that the tens of millions of able-bodied adults Obamacare added to Medicaid will ever transition off the program rolls.

Incentivizing States to Run Out the Clock

While neither McConnell nor Portman have released bill text (or even legislative specifications) for their respective proposals, it seems likely that each would use a phase-down approach to the enhanced Medicaid match. Rather than keeping the enhanced match at 90 percent for several years then dropping it down to the regular Medicaid match rate (which ranges from 50-74 percent this year), the proposals would likely ratchet down the match rates a few percentage points at a time each year—say, from 90 percent to 85 percent to 80 percent, and so on until reaching a state’s regular match rate. This gradual phase-down would require less spending than extending the 90 percent match to 2023 (or 2027) and creating a one-year cliff as the rate drops to the regular match level.

But if the federal match only begins to slow down in 2020—and slows down gradually at that—states that adopted the Medicaid expansion would have little incentive to start phasing people off the rolls, instead waiting to see the results of that fall’s presidential election. States would only have to pay a slightly higher match rate, and only for a portion of their Medicaid expansion, because the House-passed bill allowed states to continue receiving the 90 percent match for enrollees in Medicaid as of December 31, 2019 who remain continuously enrolled.

Under this scenario, the cost to states to retain their expansion in 2020 would rise, but not appreciably—by tens or hundreds of millions, depending upon the state’s size, but certainly not by billions. Many states, particularly “blue states,” would pay this added cost, at least for one year, as the price to see what happens on November 3, 2020.

If results go poorly for Republicans on that day, then a new Democratic president—along with Republicans who never wanted to end the Medicaid expansion in the first place—would likely act quickly to undo this provision and much of the rest of whatever “repeal-and-replace” legislation Congress can enact this year. Democrats could easily enact legislation undoing the Medicaid phase-out early in 2021, before most of the phase-out the McConnell and Portman plans envision would even have gone into effect.

Accelerate the Transition

For all these reasons, it seems dangerous to wait two-and-a-half years, until the brink of the presidential election cycle, to start the transition away from the enhanced Medicaid match. Granted, some states do have triggers ending the Medicaid match immediately if said match rate ever falls below 90 percent. But it would be perfectly reasonable to give state legislatures several months to adjust their laws to the new policy environment, while beginning the transition at some point in 2018.

Moderates wishing to keep the Medicaid expansion should keep in mind that all but two members now serving voted for repeal legislation in 2015 that ended the expansion completely—not just the enhanced federal match rate, but also categorical eligibility for low-income adults—after a two-year transition. Conservatives have already made major concessions, first by including “replace” provisions on the “repeal” bill, and second by allowing the expansion to continue, albeit at the traditional Medicaid match rate.

Having promised voters for more than seven years they would dismantle Obamacare, Congress shouldn’t kick the can down the road and hope that some future Congress will keep an earlier Congress’s word and actually let provisions undoing the law go into effect. In stating that a further postponement of the Medicaid transition beyond 2020 would jeopardize passage of the legislation, the Republican Study Committee points at an important truth.

Conservatives should stand fast to the promises of repeal—and members’ own voting records—by insisting that Congress complete the transition away from the enhanced Medicaid no later than the end of this presidential term.

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.

Conservatives’ Choice: Power or Principle?

In the days immediately preceding and following the November 8 election, I observed a distinct evolution in thinking among some rightist thinkers. Some went into the election pledging an outright rebellion in the Senate should a Majority Leader Chuck Schumer use the “nuclear option” to muscle through a Hillary Clinton Supreme Court nominee, but mere days later thought that a Majority Leader Mitch McConnell should consider abolishing the filibuster to allow President Trump’s nominee a smoother path to confirmation.

One couldn’t help but hold on to one’s neck for the bad case of whiplash. Some who proudly defended the filibuster as a bastion of deliberative legislating when they feared Democrats would win the White House and take back the Senate suddenly, instead, when presented with a Republican Senate and president-elect, considered this principle a trifling inconvenience. Those situational ethics present a more fundamental question: Are conservatives willing to forego policy “victories” that might result from a raw use of power, when exercising that power violates critical philosophical principles rooted in a belief in limited government?

That’s one prism through which to view Kellyanne Conway’s announcement that the Trump administration may not enforce Obamacare’s individual mandate. Besides the fact that non-enforcement presents policy problems and makes repeal of Obamacare less likely, it violates a principle at the heart of conservatism: The rule of law.

Not Within the Law

The new president’s executive order on Obamacare, released Friday evening, instructed executive agencies to take actions “to the maximum extent permitted by law” to blunt the effects of Obamacare. There are indeed many ways the Trump administration can act within the scope of existing law to provide relief to consumers, many of which I outlined in a report last week. But blanket non-enforcement of the individual mandate doesn’t qualify as being within the law, any more than President Obama’s policy of blanket non-enforcement for certain classes of immigrants fit within statutory parameters.

Observers have noted the last administration’s many examples of executive overreach on Obamacare have given the new administration grounds to provide regulatory relief on multiple fronts. But two wrongs do not make a right. Take, for instance, the following analysis:

The Administration thus used the public pronouncements of its non-enforcement policies to encourage the regulated community to disregard provisions of [the law]. Prospectively licensing large groups of people to violate a congressional statute for policy reasons is inimical to the Take Care clause.

The quote comes from a paper by University of Michigan professor Nicholas Bagley, talking about President Obama’s 2013 “transitional policy” that allowed people facing cancellation notices to temporarily keep their pre-Obamacare plans. But the same description could apply to not enforcing the individual mandate as well. Conservatives believe that forcing individuals to purchase a product is unconstitutional—but so is an executive refusing to enforce the law. Is the answer to a constitutional violation really another constitutional violation?

Major Practical Concerns

Not enforcing portions of Obamacare also presents logistical questions. Effectively eliminating the individual mandate through non-enforcement could worsen adverse selection—when only sick individuals purchase coverage, raising premiums and driving out additional healthy enrollees. As I noted last week, the new administration does have ways within the law to mitigate against this particular problem, but it remains to be seen how effective they will be.

In many cases, non-enforcement could result in lawsuits. The Obama administration’s unilateral actions generally led to more people getting benefits—insurance subsidies, immigration status, etc.—which made it difficult to find someone with standing to sue.

By contrast, if the Trump administration decides (as some have suggested) to give insurers permission to sell policies that do not meet all of Obamacare’s mandated benefits, purchasers of said policies would have grounds to sue insurers. Obamacare’s mandated benefits are prescribed in law, and if the law is clear, its text trumps (pardon the pun) any regulatory edict from the new administration. Most insurers probably wouldn’t even bother offering such policies because of the legal jeopardy and uncertainty they would face in doing so.

Making Repeal Less Likely?

There’s another practical implication of not enforcing the mandate that should worry conservatives: ironically, it could make Obamacare’s repeal more difficult.

Over the past few weeks Washington has debated whether Congress should repeal Obamacare without enacting a simultaneous replacement. Some pundits have been forthright in admitting that they wish to do so because they fear some members of Congress have a different vision of what an alternative regime should look like. To put it bluntly, they wish to hold repeal hostage to their vision for an Obamacare “replacement.”

The executive unilaterally ending some of Obamacare’s worst effects—albeit temporarily—will take the pressure off members of Congress to do so themselves. The justifiable fear is that action on repeal will get bogged down by internecine squabbling over a vision for “replace,” making the sole movement on Obamacare an executive action—which any future president (or even the current one) could overturn.

Reinforce Congress’ Role

If President Trump unilaterally eliminating the individual mandate isn’t the answer, then what is? For conservatives, the solution should lie with the branch the Constitution’s Framers considered the most important: Congress, the legislative branch Article I of the Constitution establishes. Through its oversight powers, Congress has the ability to investigate and act upon regulatory overreach.

The last Congress was less feckless in blunting unilateral executive actions than some might think. Its preliminary victory in the case of House v. Burwell, regarding Obamacare’s cost-sharing subsidies to insurers, set a critical precedent that Congress has the right to litigate on matters of constitutional import—namely, the executive (in this case, the Obama administration) spending funds without an express appropriation from Congress. Hopefully the Trump administration will vacate the Obama administration’s appeal of the District Court ruling, allowing this precedent to stand.

Congress should continue to use its investigatory powers to explore executive overreach. It should obtain from the Trump administration documents regarding the cost-sharing subsidies that the Obama administration refused to disclose, despite subpoenae from Congress ordering them to do so. These documents will reveal why and how the Obama administration created an appropriation these subsidies out of whole cloth. More importantly, continuing to investigate the lawless actions of the Obama administration will send a clear message to dissuade its successors from acting similarly.

Obamacare Is Ultimately About Power

Obamacare was really never about health care so much as power—the power of government to regulate health care, tax health care, and force people to purchase health care (or at least health insurance). It seems somehow fitting that Obamacare gave the nation so many examples of executive unilateralism.

But to conservatives, the rule of law—in many ways the antithesis of raw power—stands pre-eminent. A Republican administration should not be tempted to “use unilateral actions to achieve conservative ends.” Such behavior represents a contradiction in terms. That’s why it’s important to watch the new administration’s actions closely in the coming days and weeks. Obamacare may not be worth keeping, but the rule of law is.

This post was originally 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.

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.

Have Republicans Gone Wobbly on Obamacare?

In the weeks after Saddam Hussein’s August 1990 invasion of Kuwait, British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher famously remarked to President George H.W. Bush that “this was no time to go wobbly.” The Iron Lady’s maxim could well have applied to the Senate majority leader last week, when he made comments suggesting Republicans should have a hand in “fixing” Obamacare—the law collapsing in front of our very eyes—in 2017.

In comments at a Chamber of Commerce event in Louisville last Monday, Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Kentucky) said the law “is crashing”—an obvious statement to all but the law’s most grizzled supporters. But McConnell also “said the next president will have to work with Congress to keep the situation from worsening, though he did not specifically say the health care law would be repealed.”

Those last comments in particular—about the imperative to “fix” Obamacare—should cause conservatives to remember three key points.

1. It’s Not Conservatives’ Job to Fix Liberals’ Bad Law

A crass political point, perhaps, but also an accurate one. Barack Obama, Nancy Pelosi, and Harry Reid rammed Obamacare through on a straight party-line vote, despite Republicans’ warnings, because, in President Obama’s words, “I’m feeling lucky.” These days, it’s the American people who might not be feeling so lucky, with insurers leaving the insurance exchanges in droves and premiums ready to spike.

Some might ask the reasonable question whether Republicans, as the governing party in Congress, should come together for the good of the country to make President Obama’s disastrous law work. But ask yourself what Democrats would do if the circumstances were reversed: Do you think that, if Republicans had enacted premium support for Medicare or personal accounts for Social Security on a straight-party line vote, and those new programs suffered from technical and logistical problems, Pelosi and Reid would put partisanship aside and try to fix the reformed programs? If you do, I’ve got some land to sell you.

We know Reid and Pelosi wouldn’t come together in the national interest, because they didn’t do so ten years ago to support the surge in Iraq. Instead, they passed legislation undermining the surge and calling for a troop withdrawal. The surge succeeded despite Reid and Pelosi, not because of them. So if Democrats abandoned the national interest to score political points a decade ago, why should Republicans bail them out of their Obamacare woes now?

2. Hillary Clinton’s Proposed ‘Solutions’ Range from Bad to Worse

On health care, Hillary Clinton’s campaign proposals have thus far fallen largely into three buckets: 1) increasing Obamacare subsidies, paid for by tax increases; 2) creating a government-run health plan; and 3) expanding price controls against pharmaceutical companies. Conservatives should endorse exactly none of those proposals. Moreover, Clinton’s proposals would actually exacerbate the exchanges’ fundamental problem: A product too few individuals want to buy because federal regulations and mandates have driven up premiums, making the purchase of coverage irrational for all but the sickest individuals.

But McConnell’s statement that “exactly how it [Obamacare] is changed will depend on the election” implies that a Clinton victory will allow her to set the tone and agenda for negotiations on “fixing” Obamacare. It also implies that Republicans should begin negotiating against themselves, and start rationalizing ways to accept proposals coming from a President Hillary: “Well, we could live with a government-run health plan, provided it were state-based…” or “We might be able to justify billions more in spending on new subsidies if…”

In addition to representing the antithesis of good negotiation, such a strategy brings with it both policy and political risk. Negotiating changes to Obamacare on a bipartisan basis puts Republicans on the hook if those changes don’t work. Clinton’s ideas for more taxes, regulations, and spending won’t make the exchanges solvent; if anything, they will only postpone the inevitable for a while longer.

3. Ridiculous Straw Men Can’t Justify Bailouts

Insurance industry spokesmen have been flooding Republican offices on Capitol Hill making this argument: Congress has to grant insurers massive new bailouts, or the American people will end up with a government-run health plan, or worse, single-payer health care.

That argument relies on several levels of specious reasoning. Unless Republicans lose both houses of Congress in November—a possible outcome, but an unlikely one—insurers’ argument pre-supposes that a Republican Congress will vote to enact a government-run health plan, or single-payer health care. As liberals themselves have pointed out, only one Democrat running for Senate this year even mentioned the so-called “public option” on his website. So why is this government-run health plan even a concern, when Reid couldn’t enact it in 2009 with a 60-vote Senate majority?

The honest answer is it probably isn’t—insurers are just trying to scare Republicans into bailing them out. It’s the oldest straw-man argument in the book: We must do something; this is something; therefore, we must do this.

If you don’t believe me, just read the following: “Everyone in this room knows what will happen if we do nothing. Our deficit will grow. More families will go bankrupt. More businesses will close. More Americans will lose their coverage when they are sick and need it the most. And more will die as a result. We know these things to be true.”

Those words come from none other than Barack Obama, as he tried to sell Obamacare in his address to Congress in September 2009. We know where that speech led us, and we should know better than to follow such illogical reasoning again.

Phineas Taylor Barnum once famously remarked that “There’s a sucker born every minute.” Here’s hoping that Republicans will disprove that adage next year, and decline to accept the sucker’s bet associated with trying to fix an inherently unfixable law.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

Democrats’ Priorities: Obamacare or Zika?

If Nero was the emperor who fiddled while Rome burned, Barack Obama must surely qualify as the president who dithered while his signature initiative rapidly crumbled. Despite a public-health emergency in sections of the southern United States, the president seems more interested in shoveling money to insurers than in stopping the threat from the Zika virus.

Last week the New York Times reported that the Obama administration was attempting yet another Obamacare relaunch, this one including a federally funded “advertising campaign featuring newly insured individuals, as well as direct appeals to young people hit by tax penalties this year for failing to enroll.” With enrollment in the law’s exchanges well below original estimates, insurers leaving in droves, and premiums ready to spike, the move seems to be a desperate attempt to increase sign-ups and keep insurers at the Obamacare table.

But the timing of the announcement could not be more incongruous. Even as the Department of Health and Human Services wastes taxpayer dollars to promote yet again a measure enacted into law six years ago — on which public opinion has remained decidedly stable (and negative) — HHS also claims that it desperately needs additional funding to fight the Zika virus. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell wrote to HHS on Friday to ask why the agency’s leaders  believe that taxpayer dollars “would be better spent propping up the failed Obamacare exchanges than other important public health priorities — such as preventing the spread of Zika.”

The fact remains, however, that HHS’s top priority is propping up the failed Obamacare experiment — a bigger priority than obeying the text of Obamacare itself. The non-partisan Congressional Research Service and other outside experts have concluded that, in implementing Obamacare’s reinsurance program, the administration violated the law by prioritizing payments to insurers over payments to the Treasury. As a result, insurers will receive billions of dollars in extra funding that legally should be returned to taxpayers.

To sum up the situation: The Obama administration is funneling billions of dollars to “greedy” insurers that Democrats hate, while Nancy Pelosi and other Democrats have called for Congress to return from its recess to pass billions of dollars in spending to fight Zika. There is, however, an easy win-win solution: Use the reinsurance funds to pay for the new Zika spending, rather than giving insurance companies another Obamacare bailout.

The Zika conference report that the House passed in June did pay for new spending on the virus by rescinding some unspent Obamacare funds. Two-thirds of the funds rescinded, however ($543 million in total), came from an account used to establish Obamacare exchanges in United States territories. With exchanges having been established for years, this “rescission” amounts to Congress agreeing not to spend money that was never going to be spent anyway — a “pay for” on paper rather than in reality.

By contrast, utilizing reinsurance funds to finance Zika spending would represent a legitimate savings to taxpayers. Such a move would reclaim billions of dollars that otherwise would have been (unlawfully) diverted to insurance companies — some of which would fund the new Zika spending, and some of which would be returned to the taxpayers to whom the funds belonged in the first place.

Using reinsurance dollars to fund a Zika package would be not only good policy but good politics as well. Most Americans would put the health of infants and pregnant women over the health of insurance companies’ bottom lines — and so should Congress. If Democrats wish to defend crony capitalism and corporate-welfare payments to insurers, that is their right. But particularly after the premium spikes hit this fall, few may wish to do so.

As the old saying goes, to govern is to choose. Senator McConnell rightly pointed out last week that this administration has prioritized its failed Obamacare experiment over protecting Americans from the Zika virus. When it comes to finding any new source to pay for new Zika spending, ending Obamacare’s reinsurance bailout should stand at the top of the priority list.

This post was originally published at National Review.

Bill Summary: H.R. 3630, Senate Payroll Tax Bill Substitute

Sens. Reid and McConnell have introduced a substitute amendment for H.R. 3630, the House passed payroll tax bill.  Among other things, the substitute includes a two-month extension of Medicare payment provisions, which would prevent a 27 percent reduction in physician payments scheduled to take effect on January 1.  Per the unanimous consent request entered into yesterday evening, the vote on this payroll tax agreement will take place at 9 AM TODAY, subject to a 60-vote affirmative threshold.

The legislation provides a zero percent update in physician reimbursement levels for January and February 2012, and stipulates that the payment increase shall be disregarded for purposes of calculating SGR rates for future periods.  The bill also includes several two month extensions of expiring Medicare provisions (which are usually extended with the SGR).  The entire bill is paid for through non-health savings, namely an increase in guarantee fees for Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac mortgages.

According to CBO, the two month doc fix costs $3.6 billion over ten years, the other Medicare extenders cost $510 million, and this $4.1 billion in spending is offset by non-health provisions elsewhere in the bill, making the product fully paid for.

Medicare Physician Payment:  Provides for a 0 percent update in reimbursement levels for January and February 2012.  Provides that the payment update shall not be considered when calculating the Sustainable Growth Rate (SGR) reimbursement levels in future periods.

Medicare “Extenders:”  Extends for two months a series of Medicare and health-related provisions, all of which would expire at the end of the calendar year unless otherwise noted:

  • Section 508 hospital reclassifications;
  • Geographic floor for work;
  • Therapy caps exception process;
  • Technical component of certain physician pathology services;
  • Reimbursement raises for ambulance services;
  • Mental health reimbursements (5% increase);
  • Outpatient hold harmless provision;
  • Minimum payment for bone mass measurement;
  • Qualifying Individual (QI) program, assistance to low-income seniors in paying Medicare premiums; and
  • Transitional Medical Assistance, which provides Medicaid benefits for low-income families transitioning from welfare to work.