Tag Archives: Susan Collins

What You Need to Know about the Senate’s Obamacare “Vote-A-Rama”

It’s not a carnival ride—although it might prove even more adventurous. The Senate’s consideration of health-care legislation will soon result in a grueling series of votes dubbed “vote-a-rama.”

After 20 hours of debate on the budget reconciliation measure, equally divided between the majority and minority parties, the Senate will complete consideration of all pending amendments, with the process’ conclusion typically determined when senators exhaust all the amendments they wish to offer—not to mention themselves.

Here’s what you need to know about “vote-a-rama.”

1. It’s Physically Demanding

The “vote-a-rama” process during consideration of the 2010 reconciliation bill that “fixed” Obamacare provides an example. On Wednesday, March 24, senators began voting on amendments at 5:32 PM. Nearly nine hours later, at 2:17 on the morning of Thursday, March 25, senators had completed votes on 29 amendments. The Senate then took a brief break, re-convened at 9:45 the same morning, and disposed of a further 12 amendments over an additional four-plus hours, with a vote on final passage at 2 PM on March 25.

For 20-something or 30-something staffers—let alone senators several times their age—this lengthy process can prove grueling, with long hours, late nights, lack of sleep, and little food (or bad food) the norm.

2. It’s Mentally Confusing

Between votes on amendments, senators usually allow for brief one-minute speeches by the amendment’s proponent and an opponent (generally the majority or minority floor manager of the bill). However, as Senate procedural expert James Wallner notes, that habit has derived from custom and unanimous consent, not any formal rule. If any senator objects to the brief “well speeches” as part of “vote-a-rama,” then the Senate will vote on amendments without any debate or a summary of what the amendment does.

Even with the brief summaries by amendment sponsors, it’s often difficult for senators—and particularly Senate staff—to understand exactly what’s going on down on the Senate floor. Amendment text can occasionally change at the last minute, as can the sequence of amendments offered. On occasion, senators may have to “fly blind” without clear guidance or recommendations from their staff on how to vote. Coupled with the long hours and lack of sleep (for members and staff alike), it’s a recipe for mistaken votes and confusion.

3. It’s Hard to Pass Amendments with a Simple Majority…

As Wallner noted in an article earlier this week, the Senate’s rules essentially give preferential treatment to the underlying reconciliation bill, making it difficult to craft amendments that can pass with a simple (i.e., 50-vote) majority. The amendment must be germane (i.e., relevant) to the underlying bill, and cannot increase the deficit.

Moreover, to pass with a simple majority, an amendment must also comply with the six-part “Byrd rule” test. For instance, an amendment may not have only an incidental fiscal impact, make programmatic changes to Title II of the Social Security Act, or exceed the jurisdiction of the committees who received the reconciliation instructions (in this case, the Senate Finance and Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions committees). Other than simple motions striking particular provisions, amendments will face a difficult time running the procedural gauntlet necessary to pass on a 50-vote threshold.

4. …But It’s Easy to Get Amendment Votes

Even if an amendment does not comply with the budget reconciliation rules, senators can still offer a motion to waive those rules. The motion to waive requires the approval of three-fifths of senators sworn (i.e., 60 votes), which often does not materialize, but the motion to waive provides a way to get senators on the record on a specific issue. Many votes in a “vote-a-rama” series consist of a “motion to waive all applicable budgetary discipline”—i.e., the “Byrd rule” and other restrictions that make passing an amendment with a simple majority difficult.

5. It Will Result in Messaging Amendments

Perhaps the classic example comes from the Obamacare “vote-a-rama” in March 2010, when then-Sen. Tom Coburn (R-OK) offered an amendment that included the following language:

(b) Prohibiting Coverage of Certain Prescription Drugs—

(1) In general.–Health programs administered by the Federal Government and American Health Benefit Exchanges (as described in section 1311 of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act) shall not provide coverage or reimbursement for—

(A) prescription drugs to treat erectile dysfunction for individuals convicted of child molestation, rape, or other forms of sexual assault;

The “No Viagra for Sex Offenders” amendment drew no small amount of attention at the time, and led to political ads being run against the Democrats who voted against it (as some predicted prior to the amendment vote).

Democrats will almost certainly offer similar messaging amendments this year, including amendments unrelated to the bill, or even health care. They may offer amendments regarding the Russia investigation—those would likely be subject to a 60-vote threshold, as foreign policy is not germane to a budget reconciliation bill, but if Democrats wish to get Republicans on record, any vote will do.

Doubtless Democrats will offer amendments related to Donald Trump’s taxes—the reconciliation bill is in the jurisdiction of the Finance Committee, so these amendments could theoretically prove germane, but amendments specifically targeting the president (i.e., making policy, with only an incidental fiscal impact) could violate the “Byrd rule,” making them subject to a 60-vote threshold. For Democratic political consultants, the possibilities are virtually endless.

6. It May Lead to Chicanery—and ‘Strategery’

Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) has generally opposed allowing reimportation of prescription drugs from Canada or other countries, with one noteworthy exception. In December 2009, McConnell, along with several other Republicans, supported one of two reimportation amendments offered on the Senate floor.

While opposing reimportation on the merits, some Republicans supported these particular amendments because they wanted to break up the “rock-solid deal” between Democrats and Big Pharma—whereby pharma agreed to support Obamacare in exchange for a promise from Democrats not to support reimportation of prescription drugs.

As it happened, Democrats spent an entire week—from December 8 through December 15, 2009—without floor votes on amendments to Obamacare. The delay—effectively, Democrats filibustering their own bill—came in part because party leaders could not persuade fellow Democrats to vote against the reimportation amendment—and could not afford to allow the amendment to pass.

One can expect similar gamesmanship by the Democratic minority this time around, as evidenced by their tactical decision to abstain from voting on Tuesday’s motion to proceed to the bill until Republican senators mustered a majority solely from within their own ranks. If only three Republicans defect on an amendment, Democrats could have the power to play a decisive role in that amendment’s outcome. It’s an open question how they will do so.

For instance, will some or all of the 12 Democrats who voted against reimportation earlier this year—during January’s “vote-a-rama,” when the Senate passed the budget enabling the current reconciliation process—switch their votes so the amendment will pass, causing Republicans heartburn with the pharmaceutical lobby? When and how will Democrats use other tactical voting to gum up the process for Republicans? The answers range from possible to likely, but it remains to be seen exactly how the process will play out.

7. It Will Inflict Political Pain

Consider for instance a flashpoint in the reconciliation bill: Whether to defund Planned Parenthood. Two Republican senators, Susan Collins and Lisa Murkowski, have already stated they oppose defunding the organization. If one more Republican defects, Democrats would likely have the votes to strip the defunding provision. (While Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin previously supported defunding Planned Parenthood two years ago, in the immediate aftermath of sting videos featuring organization leaders, he has since reversed his position, and will presumably vote with all Democrats to strip the provision.)

To put it another way: Sen. Dean Heller (R-NV) may not just have to be the 50th vote supporting the underlying bill, he may also have to provide the 50th vote to keep the Planned Parenthood defunding provision in the legislation. Will Heller vote to defund the nation’s largest abortion provider—and what will happen to the bill if he, and the Senate as a whole, votes to strip the provision out? Senate leaders will face several of these white-knuckle amendment dramas during “vote-a-rama,” any one of which could jeopardize the entire legislation.

8. It Could Unravel the Entire Bill

Ultimately, with no agreement among Republicans to preserve the underlying bill text, and no clear roadmap on how to proceed, “vote-a-rama” could resemble pulling on the proverbial thread—one good tug and the whole thing unravels. What if Heller ends up helping to strip out Planned Parenthood defunding—and conservatives respond by blocking more funding for Medicaid expansion states? What if moderates vote to strip the “consumer freedom” amendment offered by Sen. Ted Cruz (T-TX), and conservatives retaliate by taking out the “side deals” included to assuage moderates’ concerns?

At the end of “vote-a-rama,” senators could be left with an incoherent policy mess, legislation that no one would readily support. It’s the big potential downside of the freewheeling amendment strategy—but a chance that McConnell apparently feels he has no other choice but to take.

9. It’s Why Senate Leadership Is Talking about a Conference with the House

In recent days, Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn (R-TX) and others have floated the idea that, rather than having the House pass the Senate’s bill whole, sending it straight to the White House, members may instead want to have a House-Senate conference to resolve differences between the two chambers. Some have gone so far as to propose the Senate passing a “skinny” bill—repeal of the individual and employer mandates, along with the medical device tax—as a placeholder to get the reconciliation measure to a conference committee.

This strategy would have one beneficial outcome for the Senate’s Republican leadership: By allowing congressional leaders to re-write the bill in conference, it would save them from having to abide by the results of “vote-a-rama.” If, for instance, senators vote to strip out Planned Parenthood defunding, or to add in reimportation language, congressional leaders could re-write the bill in conference to negate the effects of those votes—presenting a new measure to both chambers with a binary choice to approve the bill or not. (In other words, rather than a “wrap-around bait-and-switch” on the Senate floor, senators could instead face a bait-and-switch in conference.)

That leadership has mooted a conference committee speaks to the nature of the “vote-a-rama” ahead. Despite the complaints on both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue about the lengthy nature of the health-care process, Senate leaders are now looking to extend the process further via a House-Senate conference—because they may need to regain control of the legislation after a wild and unpredictable debate on the Senate floor.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

Four Ways the Patient Freedom Act is Worse Than Obamacare

Last week, I wrote about how the Patient Freedom Act—introduced by senators Bill Cassidy (R-LA) and Susan Collins (R-ME)—would dramatically expand taxpayer funding of abortions, even when compared to Obamacare.

But that’s not the only way in which their bill (S. 191) exceeds Obamacare’s standards for government intervention. Other details of their legislation reveal why its short title serves as a misnomer.

1. It Has More Spending Than Obamacare

The PFA (text available here, and a summary available here) gives states a choice of three options regarding the health care system within their borders. They can either 1) essentially keep Obamacare in place; 2) use an allotment, based on 95 percent of a state’s Obamacare spending, to create their own insurance regime (albeit with several federal mandates remaining); or 3) go out on their own and not receive any federal funds.

Section 104 of the bill contains a complicated formula to determine state allotments for option two—the default option for states under the PFA. Section 104(b)(2) provides that states that did not expand Medicaid under Obamacare will receive 95 percent of the amount they would have received had they accepted the Medicaid expansion.

In other words, rather than reducing Obamacare’s spending, the Patient Freedom Act could well increase it—by giving new Medicaid funds to states that declined to expand.

Medicaid reform should not disadvantage states that did not expand Medicaid under Obamacare. But the proper solution to that problem does not lie in adding to Obamacare’s nearly $2 trillion in spending over the coming decade. Instead, it lies in freezing enrollment in the Medicaid expansion, unwinding that new spending, and transitioning beneficiaries over time off the rolls and into work.

2. It Repeals Health Savings Accounts (Not Obamacare)

The Patient Freedom Act includes what amounts to “Lie of the Year” redux: if you like your Health Savings Account (HSA), you can’t keep it. While the bill does not repeal any of Obamacare—the word “repeal” appears exactly zero times in its 73 pages—it effectively ends the current HSA regime, making Health Savings Accounts less attractive to individuals.

Current law makes HSAs tax-privileged in two ways. First, contributions to an HSA can be made on a pre-tax basis—either via a payroll deduction through an employer, or an above-the-line deduction on one’s annual tax return. Second, HSA distributions are not taxable when used for qualified health expenses under Obamacare.

The Patient Freedom Act would abolish the first tax preference while retaining the second. Individuals must contribute to an HSA using after-tax dollars, but their contributions could grow tax-free, and distributions would be tax-free when used for qualified health expenses, as under current law. Section 201(b) prohibits additional contributions to “traditional” HSAs following enactment of the bill, instead diverting new contributions to the Roth (i.e., after-tax) HSAs created by the measure. While the bill does not require individuals to convert their existing HSAs to the new Roth HSAs, account administrators (e.g., banks, mutual funds, etc.) could require their customers to do so at some point—and individuals could face a hefty tax bill when they do.

Health Savings Accounts are a proven vehicle to help control the growth of health costs. While Obamacare included new restrictions on HSAs, Democrats did not upend the accounts nearly as much as contemplated by the Patient Freedom Act. Significantly reducing the tax preferences for Health Savings Accounts would not lower health care costs. If anything, it would raise them.

3. It Supports Government-Imposed Price Controls

In recent years, some Americans have faced the problem of “surprise” medical bills. These can occur when individuals seek emergency care at (or are taken by ambulance to) an out-of-network hospital, or when some providers at a facility remain outside an insurer’s network (e.g., a surgeon and the hospital are in-network, but the anesthesiologist is out-of-network). To address these issues, Section 1001 of Obamacare included new mandates that insurers not impose prior authorization requests on emergency care, and require only in-network cost-sharing for all emergency care, regardless of whether the patient was treated at an in-network hospital or not.

Section 121(a)(2) of the Patient Freedom Act goes further than Obamacare, imposing maximum charges for emergency services: 85 percent of insurers’ usual, customary, and reasonable charges for physician care; 110 percent of Medicare payment rates for inpatient and outpatient hospital care; and acquisition costs plus $250 for drugs and biological pharmaceuticals.

While the issue of “surprise” medical bills does present a policy problem—individuals caught in the middle of stand-offs between providers and insurers regarding payment rates—there are other ways to resolve it short of government price controls. To borrow a medical metaphor, the PFA uses a blunt knife when a sharp scalpel would be more appropriate.

4. It Would Create an Automatic Enrollment Program

Sections 105(c) and 107(c) of the PFA create parameters through which states can automatically enroll their residents in health insurance—complete with restrictions on the type of coverage states can auto-enroll individuals into. While individuals can opt out of insurance should they wish to do so, this mandate-without-a-mandate could prove even more problematic than Obamacare’s requirement that all individuals purchase health coverage.

Over at the Weekly Standard, Jeffrey Anderson explains all the reasons why automatic enrollment represents bad policy. Much of it comes down to two questions: With the most recent enrollment estimates in Obamacare’s Exchanges dating back to June 30—seven months ago—how on earth will states determine who is insured, and who should be auto-enrolled in coverage, in real time? And even if states could compile all that data, why should individuals have to give their personal insurance details to another government database?

Nearly four years ago, then-Rep. Bill Cassidy said this about the IRS’ power in enforcing Obamacare:

Obamacare requires thousands of IRS agents to implement the law…They’re going to go through the small businesswoman’s books, to make sure that she actually has the number of employees that she claims, and that she has adequate insurance. That’s a little scary when you see what the IRS has been doing with their political targeting.

Granted, the PFA doesn’t have an employer mandate to enforce, but why is Sen. Cassidy’s “solution” to big government overreach at the federal level allowing states to impose their own intrusive requirements on individuals and businesses…?

Conservatives looking to repeal Obamacare should be disappointed by the ways in which the Patient Freedom Act exceeds Obamacare in several key respects, while liberals will undoubtedly oppose its (insufficient) attempts to devolve or deregulate health care to the states. Its Senate sponsors notwithstanding, the bill appears to lack a natural constituency. Or, to put it another way, if the Patient Freedom Act is the answer, then what exactly is the question?

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

Four Senate Republicans Propose Taxpayer Funding of Abortion

In the same week as the March for Life and the anniversary of the Roe v. Wade decision legalizing abortion nationwide, congressional Republicans are presenting strikingly different messages on the issue. While the House of Representatives on Tuesday approved legislation (H.R. 7) that would prohibit federal funding of abortions, with all House Republicans present voting for the bill, on Monday four Republican senators introduced a bill that would allow direct taxpayer funding of abortions.

That legislation, the Patient Freedom Act (the PFA, S. 191), introduced by senators Bill Cassidy (R-LA) and Susan Collins (R-ME), with Sens. Johnny Isakson (R-GA) and Shelley Moore Capito (R-WV) as original co-sponsors, would go further than Obamacare in funding abortion coverage. Whereas Obamacare provides federal funding for insurance plans that cover abortion, the Patient Freedom Act would allow for direct federal funding of abortion procedures themselves.

The PFA (text here, and a summary here) gives states a choice of three options regarding the health care system within their borders. They can:

  • Keep the regime created by Obamacare in place (i.e., the individual and employer mandates, subsidies, etc.), albeit funded at 95 percent of current levels;
  • Create a new insurance regime, funded by a rather complicated allotment formula—the allotment would equal 95 percent of the funding a state would have received under Obamacare, distributed directly to individuals through new Roth Health Savings Accounts (HSAs); or
  • Reject Obamacare entirely—and give up all federal funds associated with it.

The text of the legislation indicates a clear bias towards option two. If a state does not choose any of the three options, that state will automatically be placed in the second.

This Bill Would Repeal Abortion Restrictions

If a state chooses the second option, most of the provisions of Title I of Obamacare would not apply. That repeal would include the individual and employer mandates, and some (but not all) of the federal benefit mandates included in Obamacare.

Crucially, for states that select the second option (or the third, for that matter), the PFA would repeal Section 1303 of Obamacare, which imposes some restrictions on federal funding of abortion plans. Section 1303 permits states to prohibit abortion coverage on their insurance exchanges, and requires insurers to set up a segregation mechanism intended to keep federal insurance subsidies separate from funds that pay for abortion procedures.

Pro-life groups have attacked the Section 1303 “restrictions” as an accounting sham because money is fungible, and therefore the segregation scheme meaningless. Further, a September 2014 Government Accountability Office report noted that many insurers had not even followed the segregation regime.

However, Obamacare made an attempt, albeit a largely meaningless one, to prevent taxpayer funding of abortion. By contrast, the PFA makes no such attempt to do so.

Follow the Money

Because the PFA itself includes no restrictions on taxpayer funding of abortion, it’s critical to examine the source of funding for the new state-based allotments. While the Hyde Amendment prohibits federal funding of abortion, it does so only for appropriations provided through the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ spending bill. Other agencies covered through other spending bills must explicitly prohibit funding of abortion coverage, otherwise federal funding of abortion would be permitted—and potentially required by courts as a necessary medical service.

The Patient Freedom Act includes only one new appropriation, for a population health initiative created by Section 103(c) of the bill. Therefore, the bill relies on Obamacare’s existing funding stream—the insurance subsidies provided in the form of refundable tax credits—to finance the allotments to individuals’ Roth HSAs. Because that funding stream goes through the Department of the Treasury via the Internal Revenue Code, the Hyde Amendment restrictions do not apply—meaning that federal funds can, and will, finance abortion coverage.

The legislation the House passed on Tuesday (H.R. 7) included an explicit ban on using Obamacare subsidies to fund abortion, or plans that cover abortion. (The ban is in Section 201(a) of the bill.) Because the Patient Freedom Act uses the exact same funding stream to finance its allotments, the sponsors needed to include an explicit ban on abortion funding in their legislation. They did not.

Direct Funding of Abortion Procedures

Not only would the Patient Freedom Act provide federal funds to insurance plans that cover abortion, it would allow individuals to fund their abortions directly with federal funds. The federal allotments would be directly provided (using a state-based formula developed by the Department of Health and Human Services) to eligible individuals using the new Roth Health Savings Account option. Recipients can use Roth HSA funds to fund health insurance premiums, provided those premiums are for plans that meet several federal mandates, or they can use their account to fund “qualified medical expenses.”

The definition of “qualified medical expenses”—available at Section 213(d) of the Internal Revenue Code here—includes no prohibition on abortion as a medical expense. Because the Internal Revenue Code is not subject to the Hyde Amendment, that law’s restrictions would not apply. Therefore, individuals could use federal dollars deposited into their Roth HSA to fund abortion procedures.

Current law does permit some tax breaks for abortion coverage. The tax code exempts employer-provided health insurance premiums from income and payroll taxes. Because some employer plans cover abortion, individuals receive a tax benefit for abortion coverage. Likewise, individuals can currently use their HSA funds to pay for abortions, given the definition of “qualified medical expenses.”

However, in both those cases, individuals and employers are using their own money to fund abortion procedures, and receiving a tax break from the federal government for doing so. By contrast, the Patient Freedom Act goes further, allowing the direct use of the federal government’s money to cover abortions, and plans that cover abortions.

That is a significant expansion of federal abortion funding that exceeds anything in Obamacare. And it’s a strikingly odd message for the senators to send on a week when many conservatives are focusing on protecting innocent life, not using taxpayer funds to destroy it.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

Collins Amendment 3638 to H.R. 4872 — Waive Employer Mandate

Senator Collins has called up an amendment (#3638) to waive the employer mandate tax for the hiring of previously unemployed individuals.

Summary

  • The health care bill requires that all employers with at least 50 full-time employees offer their employees the “opportunity to enroll in minimum essential coverage under an eligible employer-sponsored plan.”
  • Minimum essential coverage generally means coverage that covers at least 60 percent of the actuarial value of a full-coverage plan.
  • If an employer fails to offer such coverage, and at least one full-time employee receives a premium tax credit through the exchanges created by the bill, a tax is levied on the employer equal to $2,000 multiplied by the total number of employees employed by the employer (the first 30 employees are exempt from that count).
  • This is known as a “free rider” penalty, since it is designed to punish employers who do not offer government-approved coverage, if their employees receive a tax credit in the exchange.
  • This tax raises $52 billion over the next ten years.
  • The Collins amendment waives the employer mandate tax for any new employee hired who was previously unemployed, by not including these employees in the count of “full time employees” for purposes of calculating employer mandate compliance.
  • The definition of a qualifying employee for purposes of this amendment is the same as that used in the Hatch/Schumer payroll tax credit previously considered by the Senate and included in the HIRE Act – it is an employee who sings an affidavit that he or she has not been employed for more than 40 hours during the 60-day period prior to the date of new employment.

Considerations

  • The unemployment rate is 9.7 percent and 15 million Americans are out of work; 1 in 4 of these out-of-work Americans has been out of work for 27-weeks or more.
  • The employer mandate tax punishes businesses who hire additional workers – a business with 49 workers that does not offer government-approved insurance and hires an additional worker suddenly would have to pay a $40,000 fine to the government, if even one of these employees receives a subsidy in the exchange.
  • This amendment would provide an incentive to favor the hiring of unemployed workers – this could help lower the unemployment rate, but also create an artificial preference for hiring unemployed workers instead of workers who are unemployed.
  • It is unclear how long a newly hired unemployed worker would be exempt from the mandate tax under this amendment.
  • CBO has said that the costs of the employer mandate will be passed to workers, who will see lower wages, fewer full-time jobs, and more outsourcing.
  • Although the employer mandate won’t come into existence until 2014, incentives to keep companies small such as this one will be felt today as employers plan for the future and see this looming tax increase.