Every year or so Paul Ryan comes up with a glossy new plan to deal with poverty or spending on social programs. The plans never go anywhere, but they’re not really intended to: They’re designed to make the Republican Party (and Mr. Ryan himself) appear more thoughtful than it actually is on these subjects.
The one he released today is somewhat better than previous efforts, in that it doesn’t propose massive cuts in overall spending (unlike his House budgets), and would even increase the Earned Income Tax Credit, one of the government’s most successful anti-poverty programs. Democrats have also embraced a larger credit, although unlike Mr. Ryan, they would pay for it by raising taxes on the rich rather than slashing federal nutrition programs that Mr. Ryan thinks are a waste of money.
But the lack of seriousness in the plan is demonstrated by its supposedly big idea: It would combine 11 of the most important federal poverty programs into something called an “opportunity grant” that would be given to the states to spend as they see fit. The eliminated programs would include food stamps, what remains of the welfare system (known as Temporary Assistance to Needy Families), Section 8 housing vouchers, and low-income heating assistance, among others.
This technique should sound familiar. Members of Mr. Ryan’s party have spent years promoting the idea that states can do things better than Washington. As Rick Santorum repeated endlessly in 2012, “Cap it, cut it, freeze it, and block-grant it to the states.” Mr. Ryan’s running mate that year, Mitt Romney, would have turned all of Medicaid into a block grant system dumped onto the steps of 50 state capitols.
Putting programs like food stamps into a block grant means they could not be expanded on a national basis during economic emergencies, when unemployment or poverty soars. If a state were to have a budget crisis, perhaps due to tax cuts, social spending would be the first to go.
The broader problem is the sharp division between the states, which exposes the gap between Mr. Ryan’s attempt at high-mindedness and the petty grievances of the Republican majority. The proponents of these consolidation ideas know that while blue states would shoulder their responsibilities and protect their poorest residents, many red states would not. If Washington were not in the anti-poverty business, Republicans would have an opportunity to reduce spending on social programs in about half the country.
The attitude of red states toward social spending has been made brutally clear by their reaction to the Affordable Care Act. In 36 states, lawmakers refused to set up health care exchanges, putting the insurance subsidies for poor people at risk if a recent court decision is upheld. And only 27 states, including the District of Columbia, have agreed to expand their Medicaid programs. The effect on lowering the number of uninsured people in states with expanded programs is clear, but lawmakers elsewhere don’t care.
In Florida, the Republicans who rule the state have not created exchanges or expanded Medicaid, and have offered nothing to the 760,000 state residents with no insurance. The state has even banned volunteers who were helping poor people sign up for the federal exchange. The president of the Florida Senate, Don Gaetz, summed up the prevailing attitude perfectly this week: “As long as I serve in the Senate, I will never support the state of Florida serving as the instrument by which individuals and businesses are forced into a federal mandate to purchase a health insurance product they may not want.”
Mr. Ryan would never say so, but the real effect of his plan is to turn over a series of highly successful federal poverty programs into the hands of Don Gaetz and other anti-government ideologues. There’s not much doubt what the effect on poor people would be.
By: David Firestone, Taking Note, The Editorial Page Editors Blog; The New York Times, July 24, 2014
If you were perusing the conservative twitter-sphere this morning, you would have witnessed a kind of collective orgasm, as it was discovered that back in 2012, MIT economist Jonathan Gruber gave a talk to a small group in which he seemed to support the analysis of the two judges on the D.C. Circuit who ruled this week in Halbig v. Burwell that the subsidies for buying health insurance under the Affordable Care Act should go only to people who live in states that set up their own insurance exchanges. Since Gruber advised Mitt Romney on the creation of Massachusetts’ health reform (which became the model for the ACA) and then advised the White House and Congress during the preparation of the ACA reform, conservatives are now convinced they have their smoking gun: The law, they contend, was always designed to deprive millions of Americans of subsidies, and was in fact never meant to achieve that “universal coverage” that everyone involved said was its goal.
Up to the point where the Supreme Court rules on Halbig, those conservatives will be citing Gruber’s 2012 comments. A lot. But the idea that something Gruber said in response to a question in front of what looks to be around 20 people is more relevant than literally everything else that happened during the drafting and debate over this law’s passage is, to put it plainly, insane.
Let me provide a partial list of people who spent over a year between the beginning of the debate over health-care reform and the passage of the law talking about the ACA, but never mentioned what was supposedly the intent of Congress that people in states using the federal exchange would be deprived of subsidies:
- Barack Obama
- Kathleen Sebelius
- Harry Reid
- Every other Democratic senator
- Nancy Pelosi
- Every other Democratic House member
- Every health-care analyst in America
- Every health-care reporter in America
- Every Republican in the Senate
- Every Republican in the House
- Every conservative opponent of the law
Ezra Klein, who wrote as much about health-care reform during this period as anyone, tweeted this morning that he interviewed Gruber dozens of times, and not only did Gruber never mention this issue, “[t]he same is true for literally everyone else I interviewed. I never heard a single person say subsidies don’t work in federal exchanges.”
As for Gruber himself, this morning he spoke to Jonathan Cohn, and here’s what he told him:
I honestly don’t remember why I said that. I was speaking off-the-cuff. It was just a mistake. People make mistakes. Congress made a mistake drafting the law and I made a mistake talking about it.
During this era, at this time, the federal government was trying to encourage as many states as possible to set up their exchanges. …
At this time, there was also substantial uncertainty about whether the federal backstop would be ready on time for 2014. I might have been thinking that if the federal backstop wasn’t ready by 2014, and states hadn’t set up their own exchange, there was a risk that citizens couldn’t get the tax credits right away. …
But there was never any intention to literally withhold money, to withhold tax credits, from the states that didn’t take that step. That’s clear in the intent of the law and if you talk to anybody who worked on the law. My subsequent statement was just a speak-o—you know, like a typo.
There are few people who worked as closely with Obama administration and Congress as I did, and at no point was it ever even implied that there’d be differential tax credits based on whether the states set up their own exchange. And that was the basis of all the modeling I did, and that was the basis of any sensible analysis of this law that’s been done by any expert, left and right.
I didn’t assume every state would set up its own exchanges but I assumed that subsidies would be available in every state. It was never contemplated by anybody who modeled or worked on this law that availability of subsidies would be conditional of who ran the exchanges.
Cohn, too, says he never spoke to anyone who mentioned this before the Halbig lawsuit. If this was actually what Congress thought the law would do, then liberals would have been freaking out about this provision for years, because it would mean that millions of people wouldn’t be able to get coverage. And conservatives would have been crowing about it for years, for the same reason. But nobody on either side was, because it was never part of Congress’s intent. It was a mistake, and one contradicted by multiple other provisions in the law.
I have no doubt that when the Halbig case is re-argued before the full D.C. Circuit, either the plaintiffs’ attorneys or one of the conservative judges will bring up Gruber’s 2012 comments. Let’s just hope it gets shot down like the baloney it is.
By: Paul Waldman, Contributing Editor, The American Prospect, July 25, 2014
“A Conservative Judiciary Run Amok”: Using Judicial Sophistry As An Instrument Of Anti-Democratic Sabotage
Retired Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens captured our ideal when he wrote of the judge as “an impartial guardian of the rule of law.”
By effectively gutting the Affordable Care Act on Tuesday, two members of a three-judge panel on the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals showed how far right-leaning jurists have strayed from such impartiality. We are confronted with a conservative judiciary that will use any argument it can muster to win ideological victories that elude their side in the elected branches of our government.
Fortunately, the D.C. Circuit ruling is unlikely to stand. On the same day the D.C. panel issued its opinion, a three-judge panel from the 4th Circuit ruled unanimously the other way, upholding the law.
There is a good chance that the 11-judge D.C. Circuit will take the decision away from its panel — something it is usually reluctant to do — and rule as a full court to affirm the ACA as commonly understood. It is virtually certain that a majority of the court’s members disagrees with the panel’s convoluted reading of the law and wants to avoid creating a needless conflict in jurisprudence with the 4th Circuit.
When Congress wrote the health law, it envisioned that the states would set up the insurance exchanges where individuals could purchase coverage. But knowing that some states might not want to set up these marketplaces themselves, it also created a federal exchange for those that bowed out. There are 36 states under the federal exchange.
The law includes a mandate requiring Americans to buy health insurance and subsidizes those who need help to pay their premiums. The law falls apart without the subsidies, which go to its central purpose: providing insurance for those who cannot afford it.
But the law was not particularly well-drafted. It’s not uniquely flawed in this respect. As Judge Andre M. Davis wrote in a concurrence to the 4th Circuit ruling: “Neither the canons of construction nor any empirical analysis suggests that congressional drafting is a perfectly harmonious, symmetrical and elegant endeavor. . . . Sausage-makers are indeed offended when their craft is linked to legislating.”
Here’s what the two Republican-appointed judges on the D.C. panel did to make the sausage disappear entirely: Because the subsidies are established in a part of the law referring to state exchanges, the D.C. Circuit ruled that no one on the federal exchange is eligible for them.
Poof! There goes the health law in most of the country.
Never mind that many other parts of the law clearly assume that the subsidies apply to people on both the state and federal exchanges. And never mind that during the very long debate over the ACA, no one ever said otherwise.
In ruling to kill the subsidies for an estimated 5 million people on the federal exchange, Judge Thomas B. Griffith invents the idea that Congress may have intended to deny subsidies to people in states that didn’t set up their own exchanges as an incentive for those states to do so. But as Judge Harry T. Edwards writes in his dissent, the “incentive story is a fiction, a post hoc narrative” to justify the idea that “Congress would have wanted insurance markets to collapse in states that elected not to create their own exchanges.”
The extreme judicial activism here is obvious when you consider, as the 4th Circuit did, that even if you accept that there is ambiguity in the law, the Supreme Court’s 30-year-old precedent in Chevron v. Natural Resources Defense Council held that in instances of uncertainty, the court defers to federal agencies rather than concocting textual clarity when it doesn’t exist.
Griffith has to pretend that his cramped reading of the written text — again, a reading utterly disconnected from the reality of the law’s history — is the only one possible. From there, he goes on to force the government and those losing their subsidies to live with a patently absurd result.
Edwards’s logic is compelling: The Griffith decision “defies the will of Congress” and goes along with a “not-so-veiled attempt to gut the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act.”
As the 4th Circuit’s Davis put it, the law’s opponents are trying “to deny to millions of Americans desperately needed health insurance through a tortured, nonsensical construction” of the law.
We cannot use judicial sophistry as an instrument of anti-democratic sabotage.
By: E. J. Dionne, Jr., Opinion Writer, The Washington Post, July 23, 2014
Earlier this year, Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) thought he’d come up with a great idea: he’d file a lawsuit against the Affordable Care Act in the hopes of making coverage more expensive for Capitol Hill staff. Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner, a Republican from Johnson’s home state of Wisconsin, conceded the senator’s lawsuit was “frivolous” and an “unfortunate political stunt.”
Yesterday, in a development that was arguably even more important than it appears at first blush, a federal judge threw out the case.
A federal judge based in Green Bay has tossed a Sen. Ron Johnson’s Obamacare lawsuit targeting the health benefits for members of Congress and their staff.
The court dismissed the lawsuit, which contended the Obama administrations decision to grant employer contributions for health plans purchased through the District of Columbia’s Obamacare health exchange ran afoul of the law.
Chief Judge William C. Griesbach of the Eastern District of Wisconsin ruled that Johnson and fellow plaintiff Brooke Ericson lacked standing, siding with the argument made by the government’s lawyers.
The hurdle for Johnson’s lawyers was always going to be difficult to clear: how would the Republican senator demonstrate he’d been harmed by the health care policy he doesn’t like? Remember, when filing a lawsuit challenging the legality of a law, plaintiffs can’t just say, “I don’t like it.” They need to show how they’ve been adversely affected by it.
Johnson couldn’t, so his case was dismissed. But this is more than just a setback for one Republican senator with a partisan axe to grind; this is also likely the start of things to come for the GOP’s anti-Obama litigation.
Let’s not forget that in April, Johnson not only had high hopes for his case, he also had the enthusiastic support of his Republican colleagues. As we talked about at the time, 38 GOP senators signed onto a legal brief, urging the courts to rule in Johnson’s favor.
As these lawmakers saw it, they were fighting for the preservation of the republic. “The unlawful executive action at issue in this case is not an isolated incident,” the brief said. “Rather, it is part of an ongoing campaign by the executive branch to rewrite the Affordable Care Act on a wholesale basis.”
The courts must side with Johnson, the GOP lawmakers’ brief added, because the administration’s campaign “threatens to subvert the most basic precept of our system of government.”
It was, to be sure, a dumb and overdramatic argument. But more important, it also failed miserably – a federal judge ruled late yesterday that without standing to argue the case, far-right lawmakers will have to pursue their preservation of the republic in some other way.
One wonders if House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) took note of the developments.
As for the underlying policy issue, a little background is probably in order. Johnson argued that Democrats came up with a congressional subsidy in the ACA “once members realized how harmful Obamacare actually was.” That was brazenly false.
In reality, the law includes a provision that says members of Congress and their staffs have to sign up for coverage through an exchange. This became tricky because the exchange marketplaces were designed primarily for the uninsured, but Republicans said they wanted this in the law, so it’s in there.
But the story got a little more complicated when the Office of Personnel Management had to decide whether lawmakers and their staffs should also receive the same employer subsidy as everyone else, or whether everyone on Capitol Hill should face higher costs just because they work on Capitol Hill. OPM, with the blessing of the House Republican leadership, said lawmakers and aides can keep the same employer subsidy and play by the same rules as everyone else.
And that’s why Johnson sued – he wanted Capitol Hill employees to pay more for health care because it would make the right feel better. As of yesterday, the argument is a bust.
By: Steve Benen, The Maddow Blog, July 22, 2014
“Judicial Neutrality Is Nothing But A Farce”: The Latest ObamaCare Decision Makes It Official, We Need More Liberal Judges
After the passage of ObamaCare in 2010, dozens of conservative wonks, activists, and lawyers began poring over the text of the law, trying to find some legal foothold to overthrow as much of it as possible. First they argued that the law’s individual mandate was unconstitutional in NFIB vs. Sebelius, which was rejected by the Supreme Court in 2012. However, the decision weakened the law by making its expansion of Medicaid optional, which led most conservative states to reject it and deny coverage to millions of poorer Americans.
Then, in Burwell vs. Hobby Lobby, conservatives attacked the scope of the law’s mandated coverage, arguing that the inclusion of certain kinds of contraception violated the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. That one they basically won, though the damage was minimal.
You’ll know these efforts by what conservatives usually call them: “judicial activism.” It paid off again today, with a three-member panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit dealing a sharp blow to ObamaCare’s subsidy system. Adrianna McIntyre explains:
The suit alleges that subsidies should only be available in states that set up their own insurance exchanges, based on the text of the Affordable Care Act. The government can still appeal, but if it ultimately loses the case at the Supreme Court, it’s possible that federal subsidies will no longer be available to help make insurance affordable in over 30 states.
Due to what appears to many outside observers to have been poorly crafted legislative language, Congress arguably wrote a sentence that provides subsidies exclusively to state-based exchanges and not to federally facilitated ones, even while subjectively intending to provide subsidies in both cases. [Vox]
Now, Halbig v. Burwell is only a preliminary ruling. The government probably will request an “en banc” ruling before the entire appellate court, which leans to the left — thanks to Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) pushing through filibuster reform that filled its long-empty seats with President Obama’s appointees. What’s more, another ruling hours later by the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond, Virginia, upheld the ObamaCare subsidies, deferring to the government’s interpretation of the language to mean that it is authorized to dole out those subsidies. It’s possible this will all end up before the Supreme Court, increasingly America’s only policy-making body of consequence.
God only knows what the high court will decide. Thirty-six states did not create their own ObamaCare exchanges, which means that upholding Halbig would swipe the subsidies from something like 87 percent of people who bought insurance on the federal exchange — about 4.7 million of them. Premiums would shoot up by an average of 76 percent, basically crippling the law. An individual mandate is unjustifiable without subsidies for people who can’t afford insurance. Chief Justice John Roberts might balk at destroying the keystone achievement of the Obama presidency on what amounts to a trivial technicality — or he might not.
What we do know is that the concept of judicial “neutrality” is nothing but a farce. The conservative goal is to pick at any possible legal thread and mobilize the judicial system to achieve their aim of destroying the law and throwing millions of people off their health insurance, even if the underlying legal rationale is wildly tendentious or weaselly or undemocratic. There will be Republican-appointed judges who will buy such arguments wholesale, as evidenced by the conservative majority in Halbig, which didn’t even bother to hide their scorn for the government’s case.
Indeed, half the reason so many states don’t have exchanges in the first place is that a Cato Institute analyst named Michael Cannon has been crossing the nation telling them not to, with the deliberate object of maximizing the damage to ObamaCare if the courts endorsed Halbig-style reasoning.
Liberals need to jettison the impossible idea of neutral, objective judges, and just get avowed lefties appointed wherever possible. As conservatives have demonstrated, that’s simply how the system works.
By: Ryan Cooper, The Week, July 22, 2014