Tag Archives: National Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Byrd Rule” and Abortion

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

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

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

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

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

Immigration

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Firewall Concerns

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

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

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

Broader Implications

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

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

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

Fulfilling the Promise of Obamacare Repeal

Two months ago, the American people gave lawmakers a clear mandate: Save our nation’s health-care system from the harmful effects of Obamacare. They’re sick of exorbitant premium increases. They’re frustrated with insurer drop-outs and narrow provider networks that stifle access. They want change, and they want it now.

Congress’s votes last week on a budget were the first steps toward repeal. Last January, Congress passed, and President Obama vetoed, a reconciliation bill that would eliminate more than $1 trillion in Obamacare tax increases and wind down spending on the law’s new entitlements by the time Congress can pass more sensible health-care reforms.

Now, with Republicans set to take control of the White House, that bill could be passed again and signed into law. Some have argued that doing so this year would disrupt the health-care industry, prompting insurers to exit more markets and leaving the American people in the lurch. But these critics should first acknowledge that Obamacare is leaving millions of Americans in the lurch right now. In one-third of counties, Americans have a “choice” of only one insurer on their Exchange.

That said, conservatives must proceed carefully when unraveling the government mandates crippling our health-care system. Thankfully, as I outline in a report released today, Congress and the incoming Administration have numerous tools at their disposal to bring the American people relief.

As it repeals Obamacare, Congress should work to expand the scope of last year’s reconciliation bill to include the law’s costly insurance mandates. Because reconciliation legislation must involve matters primarily of a budgetary nature, critics argue that the process cannot be used to repeal Obamacare’s insurance regulations, and that leaving the regulations in place without the subsidies will collapse insurance markets.

But Congress did not attempt to repeal the major insurance regulations during last year’s debate; it avoided the issue entirely. Consistent with past practice, Senate procedure, and the significant fiscal impact of the major regulations, it should seek to incorporate them into the measure this time around.

Congress should also include provisions in the reconciliation bill freezing enrollment in Obamacare’s Medicaid expansion upon its enactment. Currently eligible beneficiaries should be held harmless, but lawmakers should begin a path to allow those on Medicaid to transition off the rolls and into work. In a similar vein, Congress should also explore freezing enrollment in Obamacare’s insurance subsidies, provided doing so will not de-stabilize insurance markets.

The Trump administration has an important part to play as well, as it can provide regulatory flexibility to insurers and states — even within Obamacare’s confines. For instance, Obamacare gives the secretary of health and human services the sole authority to determine the time and length of the law’s open-enrollment periods. In both 2016 and 2017, those periods stretched on for three months, meaning that for at least one-quarter of the year, any American could sign up for insurance — no questions asked — immediately following a severe medical incident.

To guard against adverse selection — whereby more sick individuals than healthy ones sign up for coverage, raising insurance premiums for everyone — the Trump administration can significantly shorten enrollment periods. Next year’s open enrollment should last no more than 30 days if logistics will permit. Similar actions would restrict special enrollment periods that individuals have gamed under Obamacare, purchasing coverage outside open enrollment, racking up medical bills, and then cancelling their coverage. The Trump administration can eliminate special enrollment periods not required by statute, and require verification prior to enrollment in all other cases.

Another place for regulatory flexibility lies in the 3.5 percent “user fee” assessed for all those purchasing coverage on the federal exchange. In regulations released last month, the Obama administration essentially admitted that the actual cost of running the federal Exchange has dropped below 3.5 percent of premiums, but kept the “user fee” at current levels to increase funds for enrollment and outreach. The Trump administration should lower premiums by cutting user fees to the amount necessary for critical exchange functions, rather than spending hard-earned premium dollars promoting the partisan agenda the law represents.

The Trump administration can take other actions within the scope of Obamacare to provide a stable path to repeal. It can withdraw the mandated coverage of contraceptive services that raises premiums while forcing individuals and organizations to violate their deeply held religious beliefs. It can expand and revise the scope of essential health benefits, actuarial value, and medical-loss-ratio requirements to provide more flexibility for insurers. It can immediately withdraw guidance issued by the Obama Administration in December 2015 that paradoxically made an Obamacare “state innovation waiver” program less flexible for states. And it can build upon legislation Congress passed last month, which allowed small businesses to reimburse their employees’ insurance premiums without facing thousands of dollars in crippling fines, by extending the same flexibility to all employers.

Congress and the Trump administration have many tools at their disposal to provide an orderly, stable transition toward a new, better system of health care — one that focuses on reducing costs rather than expanding government control. They can and should use every one of these tolls to bring about that change, fulfilling the promise of repeal.

This post was originally published at National Review.

Putting Obamacare in a Deep Freeze

As they debate various ways to repeal and replace Obamacare, Republicans in Congress have proposed a transition between the current regime and the more market-oriented solution they wish to create. As part of that transition, Congress should explore putting an immediate freeze on new Obamacare enrollment. Such a freeze would allow currently enrolled Americans to maintain their coverage while halting the growth in spending on the law’s costly taxpayer subsidies.

Medicaid Freeze

There are good policy reasons to include a freeze on enrollment as part of repeal legislation. The “Better Way” alternative to Obamacare released by Speaker Ryan in June proposed that “states that have not expanded Medicaid under Obamacare as of January 1, 2016…would not be able to do so.” If the House intends to freeze enrollment by preventing new states from implementing Medicaid expansion, reason dictates that it should also prevent new individuals in states that have already expanded Medicaid from joining the entitlement.

Previous research suggests that the existence of a Medicaid entitlement for the able-bodied significantly decreases job-search activity, employment, and enrollment in employer-sponsored health coverage. The Foundation for Government Accountability (FGA) has demonstrated that freezing enrollment would allow individuals currently on Medicaid to transition out of poverty and into work in a relatively short period of time, and that there is broad public support for such a move.

Freezing enrollment would also begin to unwind the inequities in the current system, which rewards states that have expanded Medicaid for discriminating against the most vulnerable. Some governors have indicated their desire to preserve the expansion in their states. But keeping Medicaid expansion in some states would set up a direct conflict with other states that are explicitly prohibited from expanding under the House Republican plan. As a compromise, Congress should instead freeze enrollment in those states that have already expanded Medicaid, as a way to begin dismantling the new entitlement for the able-bodied.

King v. Burwell

When it comes to insurance Exchanges, Republicans had previously proposed freezing enrollment in Obamacare’s subsidy regime. Last year, the Supreme Court considered the case of King v. Burwell, which had the potential to strike down taxpayer-funded subsidies in states with a federally run insurance exchange (i.e.  most of them). Ahead of that case, Senators Ron Johnson and Ben Sasse both proposed different transitional arrangements that would allow individuals receiving subsidies at the time of the ruling to continue their coverage for some period of time, without allowing new individuals to qualify for taxpayer-funded coverage.

Though the Supreme Court ultimately upheld the subsidies in King v. Burwell, the transition plans by Sasse and Johnson provide just as sensible a template now as they did then. Admittedly, insurers may not want to offer coverage where only unsubsidized individuals can join exchanges, as those unsubsidized individuals would likely be the costliest to insure. But the plans laid out by Sasse and Johnson provide two possible blueprints for unwinding Obamacare, including its taxpayer-funded exchange subsidies.

Obama Precedent

In considering the practical effects of an enrollment freeze, Republicans should examine how President Obama tried to minimize the impact of his “Lie of the Year” — “If you like your plan, you can keep it.” When millions of Americans received cancellation notices in the fall of 2013, the Obama Administration allowed individuals to keep their prior coverage temporarily. This reprieve was ultimately extended until December 2017.

By allowing some individuals to keep their pre-Obamacare coverage, Obama’s plan-cancellation “fix” solved a political problem, minimizing the number of individuals thrown off their current coverage at one time. Extending the “fix” for several years also limited disruption, as natural “churning” in insurance markets will reduce the number of individuals with affected policies between now and December 2017.

Of course, President Obama’s administrative actions in 2013 violated the law. Even liberals have acknowledged that Obama abrogated his constitutional duties by publicly advertising that his Administration would not enforce the ACA’s statutory requirements. But Congress can and should seek to minimize disruption in a legal way, by explicitly including an enrollment freeze in its repeal legislation. With Obamacare’s coverage gains coming almost entirely from Medicaid expansion, freezing enrollment will allow for a smoother transition into the new system Republicans intend to create.

This post was originally published at National Review.

Repealing “Son of Obamacare”

The election of Donald Trump brings conservatives an opportunity to repeal a misguided piece of health care legislation that cost hundreds of billions of dollars, will blow a major hole in our deficit, has led to thousands of pages of regulations, and will further undermine the integrity of the doctor-patient relationship.

Think I’m talking about Obamacare?

I am — but I’m not just talking about Obamacare.

I’m also talking about the Medicare and CHIP Reauthorization Act (MACRA), which passed last year (with a surprising level of Republican support) and contains many of the same flaws as Obamacare itself.

Just as Republicans are preparing legislation to repeal and replace Obamacare, they also need to figure out how to undo MACRA.

Last month, the Obama administration released a 2,398-page final regulation — let me say that again: a 2,398-page regulation — implementing MACRA’s physician reimbursement regime.

In the new Congress, Republicans can and should use the Congressional Review Act to pass a resolution of disapproval revoking this massive new regulation. They can then set about making the changes to Medicare that both Paul Ryan and Donald Trump have discussed: getting government out of the business of 1) fixing prices and 2) micro-managing the practice of medicine.

MACRA’S FUNDAMENTALLY FLAWED, STATIST APPROACH

Since the administration released its physician-payment regulations — nearly as long as Obamacare itself – some commentary has emphasized (rightly) the burdensome nature of the new federal regulations and mandates.

But the more fundamental point, rarely made, is that we need more than mere tweaks to free doctors from an ever-tightening grip exercised by federal overseers. After more than a half century of failed attempts at government price-setting and micro-management of medical practice, it’s time to get Washington out of the business of playing “Dr. Sam” once and for all.

In fact, even liberals tend to acknowledge this occasionally. In a May 2011 C-SPAN interview, Noam Levey of the Los Angeles Times asked then-administrator of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services Donald Berwick why he thought the federal government could use Medicare as it exists to reform the health-care system:

In nearly half a century of federal-government oversight, the federal government hasn’t succeeded in two really important things: Number one, Medicare costs are still growing substantially more quickly than the economy; and number two, that fragmented [health care] system . . . has persisted in Medicare for 46 years now. . . . Why should the public, when it hears you, when it hears the President say, “Don’t worry, this time we’re going to make it better, we’re going to give you a more efficient, higher-quality health care system,” why should they believe that the federal government can do now what it essentially hasn’t really been able to do for close to half a century? [Emphasis added]

Dr. Berwick didn’t really answer the question: He claimed that fragmented care issues “are not Medicare problems — they’re health system problems.” But in reality, liberal organizations like the Commonwealth Fund often argue Medicare can be leveraged as a model to reform the entire health care system — and that is exactly what MACRA, in defiance of historical precedent, tries to do.

When a 2012 Congressional Budget Office report examined the history of various Medicare payment demonstrations, it concluded that most had not saved money. A seminal study undertaken by MIT’s Amy Finkelstein concluded that the introduction of Medicare, and specifically its method of third-party payment, was one of the primary drivers of the growth in health-care spending during the second half of the 20th century.

After five decades of failed government control and rising costs driven by the existing Medicare program, the solution lies not in more tweaks and changes to the same program.

The answer lies in replacing that program with a system of premium support that gets the federal government out of the price-fixing business entirely.

The notion that the federal government can know the right price for inhalation therapy in Birmingham or the appropriate reimbursement for a wart removal in Boise is a fundamentally flawed and arrogant premise — one that conservatives should whole-heartedly reject.

Unfortunately, most critics of MACRA have not fully grasped this. A law that prompts the federal bureaucracy to issue a sprawling regulation of nearly 2,400 pages cannot on any level be considered conceptually sound.

Believing otherwise echoes Margaret Thatcher’s famous maxim about consensus politicians and conviction politicians: Some analysts, seeking a consensus among their fellow technocrats, push for changes to make the 2,400-page rule more palatable. But our convictions should have us automatically reject any regulation with this level of micro-management and government-enforced minutiae.

THE NEED FOR COMPREHENSIVE REFORM

It bears worth repeating that, in addition to perpetuating the statist nature of Medicare, MACRA raised the deficit by over $100 billion in its first ten years — and more thereafter — while not fundamentally solving the long-term problem of Medicare physician-payment levels.

More than a decade ago, after President Bush and a Republican Congress passed the costly Medicare Modernization Act (MMA), creating the Part D prescription-drug entitlement, conservatives argued even after the law’s passage that the new entitlement should not take effect. If the MMA was “no Medicare reform” for including only a premium-support demonstration project, conservatives should likewise reject MACRA, which includes nothing – not even a demonstration project — to advance the premium-support reform Medicare truly needs.

Any efforts focused on building a slightly better government health-care mousetrap distract from the ultimate goal: removing the mousetrap entirely. In his 1964 speech A Time for Choosing, Reagan rejected the idea “that a little intellectual elite in a far distant capital can plan our lives for us better than we can plan them ourselves” — and Republicans should do the same today.

In the context of health care, this means not debating the details of MACRA but replacing it, sending power back to where it belongs — with the people themselves.

Last week’s election results give the new Congress an opportunity to do just that, by disapproving the MACRA rule and moving to enact comprehensive Medicare reform in its place. After more than five decades of the same statist health care policies, it’s finally time for a new approach. Here’s hoping Congress agrees.

This post was originally published at National Review.

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.

What Will Republicans Do about Obamacare Now?

For the past six years, Republicans — across Washington, and across the country — have virtually to a person run against Obamacare. Their campaign has helped them win numerous House and Senate seats, a majority of governorships, and now has given them unified control of Washington for the first time in 15 years. Like the dog that finally caught the proverbial car, Republicans will wake up Wednesday morning asking themselves — on Obamacare, as on many other issues — “What now?”

The answer might be less obvious than it first appears. Democrats used the decade and a half between the defeat of Hillary Clinton’s health plan in 1993–94 and the 2008 election to develop a consensus architecture about what their ideal health-care plan would look like. In the Democratic primaries that year, Senators Clinton and Obama disagreed strongly on the necessity of an individual mandate to purchase coverage — a difference they litigated very publicly, and at great length, during the primary campaign — but agreed on virtually everything else.

By contrast, Republicans spent comparatively little time debating the finer points of an Obamacare alternative during the presidential cycle just concluded. Donald Trump promised “something terrific” that would tear down “the lines around the states,” but details were few and far between (and occasionally self-contradictory). Speaker Ryan’s House Republican task force produced a plan, but one with few fiscal details attached, and one that few in Washington — whether media analysts or policy-makers themselves — spent time dissecting or debating.

As a result, Republicans differ on some fundamental issues — chief of which is whether an alternative to Obamacare should focus on lowering costs or expanding coverage. While conservatives have historically focused on reducing costs, some on the right have argued that any alternative to Obamacare must provide a landing point for the individuals who gained health coverage under the law. Others have dubbed any alternative plan including mechanisms such as refundable tax credits to expand coverage “Obamacare Lite” — a term likely to resurface with a vengeance in the coming days and weeks.

Speaker Ryan and Mr. Trump thus face a potential squeeze between a Republican political base adamantly opposed to Obamacare, which wants the law repealed — in its entirety, immediately — and the ramifications of doing just that. Would Republicans who passed a repeal bill through Congress last fall, only to see it vetoed by President Obama, do so again knowing it would actually get signed into law? Some lawmakers likely supported repeal in theory, not expecting that the repeal would ever get put into practice. They will face no such “easy” votes in 2017.

It remains an open question whether a bill that repealed Obamacare without a “replace” plan attached could receive enough votes from Republican lawmakers to reach a President Trump’s desk. It likewise remains an open question whether Republicans can coalesce around the details of an alternative to place on the statute books. Anyone who believes that debate or discussion will be easy, or quick, did not spend time covering the circular firing squad that enveloped congressional Democrats in both 1993–94 and 2009–10.

A major initial test for Mr. Trump: What to do about Obamacare’s cost-sharing subsidies, funds that the Obama administration has provided to insurers even though the text of the law itself nowhere provides an explicit appropriation for such spending. As I previously noted, Mr. Trump could immediately cut off these funds to insurers upon taking office. Such an action would be entirely consistent with House Republicans’ lawsuit against the administration for spending money not appropriated — and with the initial legal victory they received from the courts in May.

But others have reported that the Obama administration has negotiated language in insurers’ contracts for next year allowing them to cancel plans immediately should a future Trump administration cut off insurers’ access to the cost-sharing subsidies during the middle of the 2017 plan year. So what does a President Trump do? Block the subsidies — and potentially get blamed for chaos if millions of people lose their plans overnight? Or continue spending on subsidies that House Republicans have called unconstitutional, and face a federal lawsuit from members of his own party? Neither answer presents an appetizing option for the incoming administration.

After the battle of El Alamein changed the tide of World War II, Churchill remarked that the Allied victory marked not the end, nor the beginning of the end, but perhaps the end of the beginning. In the fight against Obamacare, Tuesday likewise marked not the fulfillment of a Republican campaign promise but merely the initial prerequisite necessary to reach that goal. The goal is in sight, but farther away than some might believe. Having spent years running against Obamacare, Republicans must now determine what to do about it — an outcome that few would have dreamed of even 24 short hours ago.

This post was originally published at National Review.

Obamacare’s Exchanges Have Become Medicaid-Like Ghettoes

The October surprise that Washington knew about all along finally arrived yesterday, as the Obama administration announced that premiums would increase by nearly 25 percent nationally for Obamacare’s individual insurance. With the exchanges already struggling to maintain their long-term viability, the premium increases place the administration in a political vise, as it tries to encourage people to buy a product whose price is rising even as it presents a poor value for most potential enrollees.

In the 40-page report the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) released, breaking down premium and plan information for 2017, one interesting number stands out. Among states using Healthcare.gov, the federally run exchange, the median income of enrollees in 2016 topped out at 165 percent of the federal poverty level (FPL). In other words, half of enrollees made less $40,095 for a family of four. And 81 percent earned less than $60,750 for a family of four, or less than 250 percent of the FPL.

The new data from the report further confirm that the only people buying exchange plans are those receiving massive subsidies — both the richest premium subsidies, which phase out significantly above 250 percent FPL, and cost-sharing subsidies, which phase out entirely for enrollees above the 250 percent FPL threshold. If the House of Representatives’ suit challenging the constitutionality of spending on the cost-sharing subsidies succeeds, and those funds stop flowing to insurers, Obamacare may then face an existential crisis.

Even as it stands now, however, the exchanges are little more than Medicaid-like ghettoes, attracting a largely low-income population most worried about their monthly costs. To moderate premium spikes, insurers have done what Medicaid managed-care plans do: Narrow networks. Consultants at McKinsey note that three-quarters of exchange plans in 2017 will have no out-of-network coverage, except in emergency cases. And those provider networks themselves are incredibly narrow: one-third fewer specialists than the average employer plan, and hospital networks continuing to shrink.

In short, exchange coverage looks nothing like the employer plans that more affluent Americans have come to know and like. Case in point: At a briefing last month, I asked Peter Lee, the executive director of Covered California, what health insurance he purchased for himself. He responded that he was not covered on the exchange that he himself runs but instead obtained coverage through California’s state-employee plan. Which raises obvious questions: If Covered California’s offerings aren’t good enough to compel Lee to give up his state-employee plan, how good are they? Or, to put it another way, if exchange plans aren’t good enough for someone making a salary of $420,000 a year, why are they good enough for low-income enrollees?

Therein lies Obamacare’s problem — both a political dilemma and a policy one. Insurers who specialize in Medicaid managed-care plans using narrow networks have managed to eke out small profits amid other insurers’ massive exchange losses. As a result, other carriers have narrowed their product offerings, making Obamacare plans look more and more alike: narrow networks, tightly managed care — yet ever-rising premiums.

While restrictive HMOs with few provider choices may not dissuade heavily subsidized enrollees from signing up for exchange coverage, it likely will discourage more affluent customers. The exchanges need to increase their enrollment base. The combination of high premiums, tight provider networks, and deductibles so high as to render coverage “all but useless” will not help the exchanges attract the wealthier, and healthier, enrollees needed to create a stable risk pool. By reacting so sharply to its current customer base, insurers on exchanges could well alienate the base of potential customers they need to maintain their long-term viability. In that sense, Obamacare’s race to the bottom could become the exchanges’ undoing.

This post was originally published at National Review.

Bill Clinton’s Right: Obamacare’s Tax on Success Is “Crazy”

Taxes are back in the news on the presidential campaign trail — and this time, the controversy has nothing to do with Donald Trump. While the commentariat have seized on Bill Clinton’s description of Obamacare as “crazy,” it’s important to recognize exactly what he considered so nonsensical: the fact that Obamacare increases already sizeable government-imposed penalties on work, entrepreneurship, and success. Its perverse incentives will leave more Americans stuck in a poverty trap, making Obamacare even more warped than Bill Clinton’s description of the law.

In their full context, Clinton’s comments look more damning of the law, rather than less. Before uttering the “crazy” epithet, his remarks focused on those whose income puts them right above the cutoff line to receive federal subsidies. These people are, in the former president’s words, getting “whacked” because they have succeeded in life and in business:

The current system works fine if you’re eligible for Medicaid if you’re a lower-income working person, if you’re already on Medicare, or if you get enough subsidies on a modest income that you can afford your health care. But the people who are getting killed in this deal are the small businesspeople and individuals who make just a little too much to get in on these subsidies. Why? Because they’re not organized, they don’t have any bargaining power with insurance companies, and they’re getting whacked. So you’ve got this crazy system where all of a sudden 25 million more people have health care, and they’re out there busting it, sometimes 60 hours per week, wind up with their premiums doubled and their coverage cut in half. It is the craziest thing in the world. [Emphasis is mine.]

During the 2012 campaign, Mitt Romney was roundly criticized when he said in an interview,  “I’m not concerned about the very poor. We have a safety net there.” Bill Clinton’s comments emphasized that Obamacare is not concerned about the middle class. It’s not aimed to support those who want to rise in station in life; it actually discourages them from doing so.

And whereas Romney’s 2012 impromptu “gaffe” came in a live television interview, Obamacare represents considered policy — the result of a legislative process of nearly a year and policymaking developed long before that. As I noted in a 2013 Heritage Foundation paper, the law contains numerous subsidy cliffs that create enormous inequities. In some cases, as little as an additional dollar of income could cause the loss of thousands of dollars in premium or cost-sharing subsidies paid by the federal government, or both. “Families facing these kinds of poverty traps may ask the obvious question: If I will lose so much in government benefits by earning additional income, why work?”

The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office (CBO) has answered that question simply: In many cases, individuals will not work. A 2010 CBO report concluded that “the phaseout of the [insurance] subsidies as income rises will effectively increase marginal tax rates, which will also discourage work.” All told, the nonpartisan budget scorekeepers have concluded that the law will reduce the labor supply by the equivalent of 2 million jobs next year alone.

Obamacare only exacerbated an existing poverty trap identified by scholars on both sides of the political spectrum, including those at the left-of-center Urban Institute. As income rises above the poverty level, government-funded benefits such as Medicaid, food stamps, and the earned-income tax credit phase out or disappear altogether, eroding or eliminating much of the income effect from higher wages. If a single parent with two children can receive nearly $30,000 in government benefits with no earnings, but only about $10,000 in benefits with $35,000 in earnings, many parents may make the calculated decision that the comparatively modest net increase in family income does not justify work. Moreover, both the prior welfare system and Obamacare impose financial penalties on marriage, discouraging one of the best ways for families to rise out of poverty.

It’s ironic that Bill Clinton, the president who signed the largest tax increase in American history, would express such outrage at the way Obamacare raises effective marginal tax rates for the middle class. But for a party that purports to stand for the interests of the poor and working class, Obamacare will only work to perpetuate the cycle of poverty down to future generations. And that is perhaps the craziest idea of all.

This post was originally published at National Review.

The Dirty Little Secret of Hillary Clinton’s Health Plan

On Monday, President Bill Clinton committed a Kinsley gaffe, criticizing Obamacare as “the craziest thing in the world,” whereby small business owners “wind up with their premiums doubled and their coverage cut in half.” In response to her husband’s accurate depiction of Obamacare’s problems, Hillary said on Tuesday: “We got to fix what’s broken and keep what works, . . . We’re going to tackle it and we’re going to fix it.” Secretary Clinton is exactly correct — if by “fix” she means enacting a proposal that could line the pockets of businesses to the tune of nearly a trillion dollars while simultaneously jacking up premiums and deductibles for millions of Americans.

Hillary Clinton’s plan for a new federal tax credit to subsidize out-of-pocket costs for all Americans will encourage businesses to make their health benefits skimpier — raising premiums, co-payments, and deductibles — because they know that the new tax credit will pick up the difference for the hardest-hit families. While Secretary Clinton’s other major health-care proposals (to increase federal subsidies on insurance exchanges and to create a government-run “public option” on them) would apply only to those without employer-based coverage, the out-of-pocket tax credit would apply to both insurance that is employer-based and insurance that is individually purchased.

In analyzing her proposals, the liberal Commonwealth Fund noted that Secretary Clinton’s out-of-pocket tax credit would affect a pool of 177.5 million potentially eligible Americans, which is more than four times as many as those who would be eligible to avail themselves of the government-run “public option.” The broader reach for the tax credit, plus its generous amount (up to $2,500 per individual or $5,000 per family for out-of-pocket spending that exceeds 5 percent of income) creates a sizable cost for the federal government: net spending of $90.3 billion in 2018 alone, according to the Commonwealth analysis. In 2009, President Obama made this pledge to Congress: “The plan I’m proposing will cost around $900 billion over ten years.” But one element alone of Secretary Clinton’s plan will cost at least that much — and probably more than $1 trillion.

The Commonwealth analysis of Clinton’s plan attempts to estimate how much the out-of-pocket tax credit will reduce health-care expenses for middle-class and working-class families. What the Commonwealth researchers did not mention in the report, and instead buried in a technical appendix, is this doozy of an asterisk: “Potentially, this [tax credit] approach gives firms an incentive to increase workers’ premium contributions, so that more workers are eligible to claim the credit.”

The Commonwealth researchers did not even attempt to model the impact of the tax credit on the actual behavior of businesses, claiming that employers might not know their workers’ income or out-of-pocket expenses, and saying they could not make decisions based on incomplete information. Nonsense. Even if businesses decide not to increase employees’ premium contributions, they could jack up deductibles instead. A firm could raise its deductible by $2,500, offer all workers a $1,000 bonus — to help employees whose out-of-pocket costs don’t meet the 5 percent of income threshold to obtain the tax credit, or assist workers’ cash flow until they receive it — and still come out ahead.

Whether by accident or design, the Commonwealth researchers assumed that employers will not respond to incentives — an assumption that belies three years of experience with Obamacare’s exchanges. Thousands of Americans have gamed the law’s special enrollment periods to sign up for coverage outside the annual enrollment window, incurred above-average costs – and then dropped their coverage at above-average rates, un-enrolling after returning to health. And because Section 1412 of the law allows enrollees a three-month grace period before insurers can drop their coverage for non-payment, one insurer found that 21 percent of its customers didn’t bother to pay their premiums last December, because the law effectively said they didn’t have to.

Given the ways in which Americans have gamed Obamacare’s morass of new regulations to create a system of barely functioning insurance exchanges, it beggars belief to think that businesses would not similarly work to maximize profit. According to the Kaiser Family Foundation’s survey of employer-sponsored health plans, only 23 percent of workers face a deductible above $2,000. With the average deductible rising 12 percent last year, firms would now have an even greater incentive to privatize their gains – because the new tax credit would allow them to socialize their workers’ losses by moving them to the federal fisc.

Why would Secretary Clinton propose a costly plan that encourages large businesses to pocket profits while jacking up costs on struggling families? Simple: The plan will make employer coverage less desirable, and it might even make the Obamacare exchanges look attractive by comparison. If liberals’ end goal is to erode employer-provided health coverage and migrate all Americans to government-run exchanges, offering a tax credit that will effectively erode that coverage faster isn’t a bad way to start.

This post was originally published at National Review

A Victory for Taxpayers — And the Rule of Law

Once again, President Obama’s vaunted pen and phone have run into trouble with the law. This time, the nonpartisan Government Accountability Office (GAO), acting in its function as comptroller general, concluded that the administration has implemented Obamacare’s reinsurance program in an illegal and impermissible manner. Rather than focusing first on repaying the Treasury, as the text of the statute requires, the administration has placed its first and highest priority on bailing out insurers.

In an opinion requested by numerous members of Congress and released this afternoon, the GAO explained:

We conclude that HHS [Health and Human Services] lacks authority to ignore the statute’s directive to deposit amounts from collections under the transitional reinsurance program in the Treasury and instead make deposits to the Treasury only if its collections reach the amounts for reinsurance payments specified in section 1341. This prioritization of collections for payment to issuers over payments to the Treasury is not authorized. 

As I have previously explained, the reinsurance funds collected from employers had two – distinct purposes: first, to repay Treasury for the $5 billion cost of a separate program in place from 2010 through 2013; and, second to subsidize insurers selling Obamacare plans to high-cost patients during the law’s first three years.

When collections from employers turned out to be less than expected, HHS prioritized the second objective to the exclusion of the first – an action that, according to the GAO, violates the plain text of the statute. As the opinion noted, “the fact that HHS’s collections ultimately fell short of the projected amounts does not alter the meaning of the statute.” The memo continued that, because agencies must “‘effectuate the statutory scheme as much as possible’ . . . HHS continues to have an obligation to carry out the statutory scheme using a method reflective of the specified amounts even though actual collections were lower than projected.” As a result, the GAO concluded that the Department has no authority to divert to insurers approximately $3 billion in reinsurance contributions that should be allocated to the Treasury.

The GAO legal team found HHS’s justification for its actions to date unpersuasive:

HHS’s position regarding prioritization of collections for reinsurance payments appears to be driven solely by the factual circumstances presented here, namely, lower than expected collections. However, a funding shortfall does not give an agency “a hinge for enlarging its discretion to decide which [priorities] to fund.” 

The law isn’t a Chinese menu, where federal bureaucrats can pick and choose which portions they wish to follow. They must follow all of the law, as closely as possible — even the portions they disagree with.

In reaching its conclusion, the GAO agreed with the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service and with other outside experts, each of whom said that HHS had violated the law in a way that was not subject to regulatory deference. And while the GAO’s reinsurance opinion is the most recent legal smackdown of the Obama administration’s craven efforts to bail out insurers, it is by no means the first: In May, Judge Rosemary Collyer ruled that the administration violated the constitution by spending funds on cost-sharing subsidies that Congress never appropriated.

More and more insurers are announcing their departure from Obamacare’s exchanges — Blue Cross Blue Shield announced this month that it is pulling out of the Obamacare marketplace in Nebraska and in most of Tennessee. Given these implosions, the return of $3 billion in taxpayer funds to the Treasury represents a blow to HHS’s bailout strategy. It demonstrates the law’s fundamentally flawed design, whereby the administration can keep insurers offering coverage on exchanges only by flouting the law to give them billions of dollars in taxpayer funds they do not deserve.

Conservatives should applaud the members of Congress who requested this ruling, which helps to staunch the flow of crony-capitalist dollars to insurers. Much more work remains, however. Congress should also act to protect its power of the purse with respect to Obamacare’s risk corridors — ensuring that the administration does not fund through a backroom legal settlement the payments to insurers that Congress explicitly prohibited two years ago. When they return in November, members should step up their oversight of both the risk-corridor and reinsurance programs: They should find out why HHS acted in such an illegal manner in the first place and whether insurance-company lobbyists encouraged the administration to violate the statute’s plain text.

For now, however, conservatives should rightly celebrate the legal victory that GAO’s opinion represents. Obamacare represented a massive increase in government spending and a similarly large increase in government authority. Today’s opinion has clipped both — a victory for taxpayers and the rule of law.

This post was originally published at National Review.