Roll Call: Latest News on Capitol Hill, Congress, Politics and Elections
March 5, 2015

March 5, 2015

Obamacare Subsidies Case: Reading the Tea Leaves

Adam Liptak: “The Supreme Court on Wednesday took up the Affordable Care Act in one of the most anticipated arguments of the term, and it seemed closely divided over the fate of President Obama’s signature legislative achievement.”

“In a pleasant surprise for the administration, however, Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, who was in dissent in 2012, made several comments indicating that his vote was in play.”

“He repeatedly asked whether Congress had the constitutional authority to make states choose between setting up their own insurance exchanges and letting their citizens lose tax subsidies to help them buy insurance.”

Charles Lane continues, elaborating on the standard of constitutional avoidance: “According to Kennedy, if the challengers are reading the law correctly, then they might lose the case. To compound the irony, the precedent for Kennedy’s apparent view would be the Supreme Court’s second main holding in the last Obamacare case: that the law’s Medicaid expansion unconstitutionally coerced states, and that they should therefore be allowed to opt out of it.”

“The Medicaid opt-out, could form the basis of their defeat this time.”

Jeffrey Toobin observes that Roberts’s one question – regarding how much leeway the executive branch should have in interpreting laws – “may turn out to be extremely important.”

“The question suggests a route out of the case for Roberts—and the potential for a victory for the Obama Administration. Roberts came of age as a young lawyer in the Reagan Administration, and there he developed a keen appreciation for the breadth of executive power under the Constitution.”

“To limit the Obama Administration in this case would be to threaten the power of all Presidents, which Roberts may be loath to do. But he could vote to uphold Obama’s action in this case with a reminder that a new election is fast approaching, and Obamacare is sure to be a major point of contention between the parties.”

“A decision in favor of Obama here could be a statement that a new President could undo the current President’s interpretation of Obamacare as soon as he (or she) took office in 2017. In other words, the future of Obamacare should be up to the voters, not the justices.”

Saving Keystone

National Journal: “The ink has barely dried on President Obama’s veto of a bill to build the Keystone XL pipeline, but Republicans are already eyeing their next move.”

“Even the most ardent supporters of the controversial project acknowledge that a Senate vote to override the White House veto slated for Thursday is likely to fail. So pipeline backers are looking past this week’s doomed vote and have begun to mull attaching Keystone to an appropriations bill, the transportation reauthorization bill, or broader energy legislation.”

“A GOP aide said that no decisions have been made yet on Keystone’s Capitol Hill fate but suggested that tying the pipeline to a bill reauthorizing transportation programs, which expire at the end of May, could be the most viable option.”

“‘We think that will come up in fairly short order, and Keystone is an infrastructure project, and that’s a bill that should win broad bipartisan support so it would be much harder for the president to veto,’ the aide said.”


Uninsured Rate Continues to Edge Downward

Gallup: “The uninsured rate for the first two months of the year is down 0.6 percentage points from the fourth quarter of 2014.”

Percentage Uninsured in the U.S., by Quarter

“The uninsured rate could decline further in the first quarter if the rate in March — when more interviews will be completed after most enrollment deadlines have passed — remains steady or drops even lower. The Obama Administration will also re-open the exchanges from March 15 to April 30 for a special enrollment period aimed at getting those who realize, while paying their taxes, that they must pay a fine for not obtaining healthcare coverage in 2014. This could also drive down the uninsured rate through May.”

Posted at 4:56 a.m.

March 4, 2015

White House Strategy For Obamacare Subsidies Case: Do Nothing

New York Times: “As the Supreme Court prepares to hear arguments on Wednesday on whether to invalidate a crucial part of the president’s health care law, Obama administration officials say they are doing nothing to prepare for what could be a catastrophic defeat.”

“Administration officials insist that any steps they could take to prepare for the potential crisis would be politically unworkable and ineffective, and that pursuing them would wrongly signal to the justices that reasonable solutions existed. The do-nothing strategy is meant to reinforce for the court what White House officials believe: that a loss in the health care case would be unavoidably disastrous for millions of people.”

“In the current health care case, legal experts said the White House was savvy in making clear that the situation was dire. They said the justices regularly considered the broader effect of their decisions and often took into account how the executive branch or Congress might respond to a ruling.”

“Jeffrey L. Fisher, a law professor at Stanford University, said the justices are likely to talk about the administration’s lack of contingency plans when they meet behind closed doors on Friday for their first conference after hearing arguments.”

Stakes are High in Supreme Court’s Obamacare Case

Sarah Kliff: “The Supreme Court case centers on one big question: does the federal government have the legal authority to help enrollees pay for health insurance coverage?”

“If the answer is no, the subsidies go away — and health insurance gets more expensive. A lot more expensive. Without the subsidies, the average Obamacare enrollee’s 2015 premiums would increase by 256 percent.”

“And that’s just for 2015 — premium spikes would likely be bigger in 2016, when insurers have a chance to set new rates.”

king v burwell subsidies

Low Wages Are a Choice That We Can Change

Paul Krugman questions the theory that artificially raising wages “will either fail or have bad consequences. Setting a minimum wage, it’s claimed, will reduce employment and create a labor surplus.”

“But labor economists have long questioned this view. Soylent Green — I mean, the labor force — is people. And because workers are people, wages are not, in fact, like the price of butter, and how much workers are paid depends as much on social forces and political power as it does on simple supply and demand.”

“Many states set minimum wages above the federal level, and we can look at what happens when a state raises its minimum while neighboring states do not … The overwhelming conclusion from studying these natural experiments is that moderate increases in the minimum wage have little or no negative effect on employment.”

“What this means, in turn, is that engineering a significant pay raise for tens of millions of Americans would almost surely be much easier than conventional wisdom suggests. Raise minimum wages by a substantial amount; make it easier for workers to organize, increasing their bargaining power; direct monetary and fiscal policy toward full employment, as opposed to keeping the economy depressed out of fear that we’ll suddenly turn into Weimar Germany. It’s not a hard list to implement — and if we did these things we could make major strides back toward the kind of society most of us want to live in.”

Posted at 5:40 a.m.

Poll: Majority Want to Keep Obamacare Intact

The Hill: The majority of people in both parties say they would be opposed to a Supreme Court decision gutting a key provision of ObamaCare, according to a new poll.

Plaintiffs in the case, King v. Burwell, claim that people in 37 states are illegally receiving subsidies under ObamaCare. But 61 percent say they hope the subsidies are upheld, according to a national survey conducted by Hart Research Associates for the Service Employees International Union (SEIU).

Even if the Supreme Court rules against the Obama administration, most people believe the subsidies should be available to all Americans. Some 71 percent of people said it shouldn’t matter whether states set up their own exchanges in order to qualify for the subsidies — which is the central question in King v. Burwell.

The new figures reveal a major governing challenge for Republicans, who have long supported the case but remain divided on a strategy to prevent millions of people from losing their coverage and blaming the GOP.

Do Americans Care About Being Number One (Economically)?

Gallup: “Despite a major recovery in Americans’ ratings of the U.S. economy over the past five years, Americans’ views about the nation’s economic clout in the world haven’t changed. A mere 17% say the U.S. is No. 1 economically, while most say it is one of several leading economic powerhouses. When Gallup in recent years has asked Americans, in a separate question, to say who the leading economic power is, China has overtaken the United States.”

“At the same time, Americans are now more likely than they have been in the recent past to view being No. 1 as important. As the U.S. cedes its role as the world’s dominant economy to China in terms of purchasing power, it could mark a psychological shift for many Americans who, throughout their lives, have seen the United States’ world-leading economic role as a given.”

Trend: Importance of U.S. Being No. 1 in the World Economically

Posted at 5:20 a.m.

March 3, 2015

Obamacare’s Worst-Case Outcome

Ezra Klein provides a map of the worst-case outcome should the Supreme Court rule against Obamacare and eliminate health insurance subsidies purchased on federally run exchanges.

Obamacare map

“The result will be a replay of the Medicaid mess that emerged from the Supreme Court’s first Obamacare ruling.”

“In the end, some red states will end up building their own exchanges, just as some red states have accepted the Medicaid expansion. Some red states will hold out, at least for a few more years. America will develop a two-tier health-care system, in which blue states that participate in Obamacare are subsidized by red states that don’t.”

March 2, 2015

There Is a Cost to Global Political Uncertainty

Working Capital Review: “As news of Greece’s revised bailout out plan sinks in, questions turn once again around the intersection of government action(s) and global markets.”

While on the one hand “Eurozone finance ministers on Tuesday approved Greece’s plan meant to ease the hardships created by its international bailout, extending that loan program by four more months,’ the paper simultaneously adds: ‘But though the eurozone ministers were leading the negotiations on behalf of their countries, the response from two of the other creditors — the European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund — conveyed a certain skepticism of whether Greece could live up to the terms of the new agreement.'”

“Indeed, there remains great lack of clarity of what the ultimate outcome will be. “

Posted at 4:17 p.m.

The Death of American Democracy

Matthew Yglesias: “America’s constitutional democracy is going to collapse.”

“Some day … there is going to be a collapse of the legal and political order and its replacement by something else.”

“The breakdown of American constitutional democracy is a contrarian view. But it’s nothing more than the view that rather than everyone being wrong about the state of American politics, maybe everyone is right. Maybe Bush and Obama are dangerously exceeding norms of executive authority. Maybe legislative compromise really has broken down in an alarming way. And maybe the reason these complaints persist across different administrations and congresses led by members of different parties is that American politics is breaking down.”

“Within a presidential system, gridlock leads to a constitutional trainwreck with no resolution. The United States’s recent government shutdowns and executive action on immigration are small examples of the kind of dynamic that’s led to coups and putsches abroad.”

“America’s escalating game of constitutional hardball isn’t caused by personal idiosyncratic failings of individual people. Obama has made his share of mistakes, but the fundamental causes of hardball politics are structural, not personal.”

“The idea that America’s constitutional system might be fundamentally flawed cuts deeply against the grain of our political culture. But the reality is that despite its durability, it has rarely functioned well by the standards of a modern democracy.”

GOP Fears Rise Over Obamacare Insurance Subsidies Case

The Hill: “Republican fears are mounting over a Supreme Court case that the party has long hailed as its best chance to undo ObamaCare.”

“The Supreme Court will hear arguments Wednesday on a GOP-backed case that threatens to erase healthcare subsidies for 8 million people. The vast stakes are raising alarm among Republicans, particularly in the Senate, who increasingly fear a backlash at the polls if their party can’t find a fix.”

“The party has begun to fret about the fallout from King v. Burwell, fearing the sudden loss of subsidies could put pressure on lawmakers and governors to restore them.”

“Republicans are under intense pressure to present a strategy before the court meets next week to discuss the case. Even as ObamaCare remains unpopular nationally, polls show the vast majority of Americans support the subsidies.”

L.A. Times: “Ultraconservative Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Neb.) laid out the consequences starkly this week in a Wall Street Journal op-ed. ‘Chemotherapy turned off for perhaps 12,000 people, dialysis going dark for 10,000. The horror stories will be real. What will happen next is predictable: A deluge of attacks on Republicans for supposedly having caused this.'”

Ezra Klein‘s response to a Republican Obamacare alternative: “This isn’t a plan. It’s the barest possible sketch of some nascent ideas that could, one day, be used as the basis for a plan.”

“The bigger problem is there is absolutely no way House Republicans will permit Senate Republicans to save Obamacare.”

“The idea that the Supreme Court will gut Obamacare and House Republicans will instantly vote to keep the subsidies flowing so long as states get a bit more flexibility to design their alternatives defies belief.”

An Obstacle for Obamacare Opponents?

Wall Street Journal: “Opponents of the health-care law face a potential challenge Wednesday in persuading the Supreme Court to strike down nationwide insurance subsidies: Doing so could put the law at odds with part of the court’s blockbuster health-care decision three years ago.”

“In 2012, the justices largely upheld the Affordable Care Act but ruled by a 7-2 vote that Congress couldn’t put excessive financial pressure on the states to implement a portion of the law that expanded Medicaid.”

“The pressure issue could be relevant in the latest case … States that support the health-care overhaul, along with some legal scholars, say the principle the court’s majority embraced three years ago undermines the case against the insurance subsidies. They argue the pressure on states to create their own insurance exchanges would be at least as strong as the pressure the states faced on Medicaid.”

Obamacare Legal Attack is a Marvel of Reverse-Engineered Absurdity

New York Times Editorial Board: “On Wednesday, the Supreme Court will hear oral arguments in one of the most anticipated cases of the term: King v. Burwell, a marvel of reverse-engineered legal absurdity.”

The four words in question “— ‘established by the State’ — appear in a subsection of the law dealing with the calculation of tax credits. The law’s challengers say this means that credits are available only in the 16 states that have set up their own exchanges.”

“The challengers did not innocently happen upon these words; they went all out in search of anything that might be used to gut the law they had failed to kill off once before, on constitutional grounds, in 2012.”

“After the challengers found the four-word ‘glitch,’ as they initially called it, they worked backward to fabricate a story that would make it sound intentional.”

“Congress, they claimed, sought to induce states to establish exchanges by threatening a loss of subsidies if they did not … Of course, if Congress intended to introduce a suicide clause into a major piece of federal legislation, it would have shouted it from the mountaintops and not hidden it in a short phrase deep inside a sub-sub-subsection of the law.”

“So it is no surprise that no one involved in passing or interpreting the law … thought that the subsidies would not be available on federal exchanges.”

Posted at 5:43 a.m.
Health, Judiciary

How Many Federal Dollars Does the EPA Really Gobble Up?

Inside Climate News: The Environmental Protection Agency has been accused of everything from running this country to waging an economy-destroying war on coal. But it turns out the GOP’s prime target isn’t that big after all.

The agency’s budget represents an almost invisible slice of the federal pie—less than a quarter of a percent of Obama’s proposed $4 trillion budget for the 2016 fiscal year. If approved, the EPA’s budget next year would be 16.5 percent smaller than it was in 2010.

February 27, 2015

A Lingering, Now Global, Epidemic

Washington Post: “A new comprehensive study published in The Lancet looks at the state of obesity around the world, and shares several grim observations, including that no country has managed to curb its obesity epidemic.”

“The United States, as is often the case when addressing obesity, is the country that stands out. There is good news in America: Children in the United States, after all, are less likely to be overweight today than they were in the mid 2000s. But there is also bad news: American kids are still far more likely to be overweight than kids in most other countries.”

Posted at 10:53 a.m.

Food Waste as a Threat to the Economy

The New York Times Editorial Board writes that food waste “is now being measured as a serious threat to the global environment and economy, with an estimated one-third of all the food produced in the world left uneaten at a cost of up to $400 billion a year in waste disposal and other government costs.”

“Most of the uneaten food goes to landfills where it decomposes and produces the dangerous greenhouse gas methane at a volume that amounts to an estimated 7 percent of the total emissions contributing to the global warming threat. This puts food waste by ordinary humans in third place in methane emissions behind the busy economies of China and the United States.”

According to a report by Waste and Resources Action Program, a British antiwaste organization, “by 2030, consumer food waste will cost an estimated $600 billion a year — a 50 percent increase from current costs — unless there is a wide effort to change the trend.”


When is a Republican Obamacare ‘Victory’ not a Victory?

Washington Examiner: “What happens if Republicans win the Supreme Court case against Obamacare? They might end up like the dog that caught the car.”

“Next Wednesday the court will hear oral arguments in King v. Burwell, the case challenging the payment of Obamacare subsidies through the federal exchanges. If the justices bar the payment of subsidies through those exchanges, it would be both a victory for the health law’s critics and a problem for Republicans running Congress.”

“Which is why a Senate GOP working group has been meeting for months to figure out what to do should the challenge to Obamacare succeed.”

Republicans need “to find a way to continue paying subsidies to the estimated 7.5 million Americans who receive taxpayer-funded help to pay their insurance premiums through the federal Obamacare exchange.”

“The prospect of seeing those people lose their subsidies — even though some have received them for a short period of time, and even though Obamacare has imposed burdensome costs on many other Americans — is just too much for Republican lawmakers to risk.”

“Hill Republicans fear such a scenario would create huge pressure on Republican governors, who originally declined to create Obamacare exchanges in their states, to change course and set up state exchanges. The result could ultimately be an Obamacare that is even more firmly rooted and difficult to repeal than it is now — all because of a Republican ‘victory’ in court.”

Jonathan Chait points out that “Private polling by a conservative group found that ‘huge majorities’ would want Congress to restore subsidies for people who had lost them. ‘We’re worried about ads saying cancer patients are being thrown out of treatment, and Obama will be saying all Congress has to do is fix a typo,’ one staffer confesses.”

Posted at 10:36 a.m.
Health, Judiciary

Costs Could Skyrocket if Supreme Court Scraps Subsidies

The Hill: “The cost of healthcare premiums could rise as much 779 percent if the Supreme Court erases ObamaCare subsidies in a majority of states this year, according to a new study.”

“A victory for the plaintiffs in King v. Burwell would erase subsidies in 37 states using, causing premiums to spike an average of 255 percent, according to new research by the nonpartisan group Avalere Health.”

“Nine states, including Florida and North Carolina, would see premiums spike more than 300 percent. Alaska and Mississippi face the most damage, facing increases of 449 percent and 779 percent, respectively.”

Map: Avalere

Posted at 6:17 a.m.

Which Recreational Drug is the Least Safe?

Christopher Ingraham: “Compared with other recreational drugs — including alcohol — marijuana may be even safer than previously thought. And researchers may be systematically underestimating risks associated with alcohol use.”

“Those are the top-line findings of recent research published in the journal Scientific Reports, a subsidiary of Nature. Researchers sought to quantify the risk of death associated with the use of a variety of commonly used substances. They found that … weed [was] roughly 114 times less deadly than booze.”

Stop Bickering About Keystone. Focus on a National Energy Policy

The Washington Post Editorial Board believes all the attention focused on the construction of the Keystone pipeline is “misplaced.”

“It would have been better placed on the Capitol, where Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), without much fanfare, reintroduced a bill that would address the nation’s greenhouse-gas emissions in a serious way.”

“Environmentalists should have kept their sights higher, on creating a national carbon policy that would reduce demand for dirty fuels, cutting emissions by attacking the root problem.”

“Mr. Van Hollen’s market-based version is elegant and effective. It would put a slowly declining cap on the country’s carbon dioxide emissions, requiring an 80 percent cut by 2050, and rely on basic economics, not Environmental Protection Agency commands.”

“Firms putting coal, oil or natural gas into the U.S. market would have to buy permits that account for the carbon dioxide those fuels release when burned. That is, energy companies would finally have to pay the full cost of the products they sell. “

February 26, 2015

Do We Really Want Rising Wages?

Washington Post: Whether wages rise soon “depends on how much shadow unemployment is left. That’s everyone who’s not officially ‘unemployed’—not working, but actively looking for a job—but basically is.”

“The White House, as you can see above, calculates that about half the decline is due to aging, which is in line with other estimates. Another chunk is due to the crisis. And the rest is unexplained. (That’s the blue part of the graph).”

“It’s important to remember, though, that this whole time the Boomers have still been retiring, and in greater numbers than before. So if none of the shadow unemployed were coming back, the labor force would be shrinking right now. That’s why, as economist Scott Sumner argues, the labor force participation rate really is recovering even though it’s not going up: returnees are exactly balancing out retirees. It’s not as much of a recovery as we’d like, but a flat participation rate is still one.”

“The economy’s biggest problem is that workers’ wages have fallen, in inflation-adjusted terms, for 15 years now, but we kind of don’t want that to change right now. If it did, that would mean the Great Recession had pushed millions of people into early retirement. It’d be better if more of those people came back, and then wages started rising again.”

“That’s the best way to tell that the economy still has a ways to go before it’s back to normal. Higher wages should never be bad news in any sense.”

Posted at 10:53 a.m.

Obamacare Users Are a Savvy Group

Wall Street Journal: “About 1.2 million people who bought coverage on in 2014 dropped their health plan and picked a new one through the site for 2015, the Obama administration said Wednesday.”

“The extent of people’s willingness to consider shifting to a different insurance carrier came as a surprise to federal officials, said Andy Slavitt,” principal deputy administrator for the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, who will become  acting administrator.

“This is a much more active consumer than anybody expected,” Mr. Slavitt said, noting that in other programs such as the federal employees’ health plan, or Medicare prescription drug benefits, as few as 10% of customers changed plans from year to year. ‘We wanted to create maximum choice while we had maximum consumer protection,’ he said.”

Huffington Post: “One number that didn’t seem to surprise many experts was the more than 4 million people, or about half the total using the federally run website, who were using it for the first time. The “non-group” insurance market — that is, the market for people buying coverage on their own, rather than through an employer — has always been fluid.”

Posted at 7:33 a.m.

The Suprising Success of an Anti-Obamacare State

Governing: “With the end of the second open enrollment period for the Affordable Care Act, the enrollment leader is not California, the largest state in the country by population with an insurance marketplace budget of about $400 million. Instead, Florida — a state where public officials have decided against using any public dollars toward enrollment — led the way.”

“The Sunshine State boosted enrollment between last year and this year by about 600,000 people to 1.6 million total, attracting the attention of national groups focused on expanding insurance coverage. To them, the state’s own strategies, a well-coordinated and data-driven approach, made the difference.”

“The fact that Florida has more people clustered in several urban areas … is a likely factor in the state’s success. The way Florida used its federal grant support also matters a whole lot, said Jessica Kendall, who directs enrollment assistance for the national group Families USA. ‘You can find those factors in other states, but Florida was able to coordinate in ways that I haven’t seen elsewhere,’ she said.”

Posted at 6:42 a.m.

Indifference About Obamacare Ruling From Many Governors

Politico: “The Supreme Court this June could cut off millions of Americans from affordable Obamacare coverage. The response from the nation’s governors gathering in Washington this week was an assortment of shrugs.”

“For some Republican governors it was a shrug of indifference. They say the onus falls on President Barack Obama and Congress to figure out what to do if the Supreme Court invalidates Affordable Care Act subsidies in their states. And if Obamacare falls apart, well, they say, good riddance.”

“For others — among them potential 2016 contenders Scott Walker of Wisconsin and John Kasich of Ohio — it’s a shrug of uncertainty.”

“Governors are largely on the sidelines of the subsidy fight — but in the center of the 2016 map. Administration allies doing Obamacare outreach worked hard to sign up millions of people in states like Florida, Ohio and Pennsylvania, the classic presidential battlegrounds, and homes to some of the likely contenders.”

“Although the issue primarily affects states with Republican governors — Democrat-led states largely built their own insurance exchanges — a handful of Democratic governors with Republican legislatures are also grappling with how to respond. Some would like to build their own exchanges but need to figure out how to pay for it and how to overcome likely Republican opposition.”

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