Doubling Down on the Double Count
Just after the new year, the Obama administration and its congressional allies tried to convince the press that passage of a health-care bill should be relatively easy and quick, because the House- and Senate-passed versions have so much in common.
Oh, really? You wouldn’t know it by listening to House liberals this week.
They are up in arms over talk that they will have no choice but to swallow hard and accept something very close to the Senate-passed bill. Their list of grievances with the handiwork of the upper chamber is rather long. For starters, they still haven’t gotten over the fact that Senate Democrats endorsed an “individual mandate” with no government-run option for people to choose. If that position prevails, House Democrats are facing the prospect of voting for legislation that would force Americans to buy coverage from the despised private insurance industry. It’s going to take many Democrats some time to work through the grief associated with that reality before they reach acceptance.
Then there is the president’s endorsement of the so-called “Cadillac tax” in the Senate bill. That’s the 40 percent excise tax that would apply to insurance plans with premiums exceeding $23,000 for family coverage. It turns out that the most expensive health-insurance plans in the United States are often provided to unionized workers. So, with this one idea, the president can kill two campaign promises with one flip-flop. He would be “taxing health benefits for the first time in history” — something he condemned John McCain for endorsing in 2008 — and he would impose hefty new taxes on the middle class. Even House Speaker Nancy Pelosi seems taken aback by this presidential display of audacity.
But House liberals have other complaints too. They also don’t like the independent Medicare commission that could make an end run around Congress to impose cuts in the program without further action in the House or Senate. Or the Senate’s employer mandate that penalizes firms only if their low-wage workers end up with subsidized coverage, thus discouraging the hiring of the very people who most need a job. Or the modest nod toward federalism in the Senate bill’s delegation of exchange administration to the states. It’s going to take time to work through these issues, all of which have the potential to disrupt the fragile coalitions assembled in the House and Senate to pass the original bills.
Indeed, for many of these items, it’s not clear that a simple “split the difference” formula will work to keep enough Democrats on board for final passage. Which is why entirely new ideas are now being floated — ideas that weren’t even considered during the year-long debate of 2009.
The latest is the proposal to impose Medicare payroll taxes on non-wage income, such as investment returns. This has been mentioned as a way to ease up on the Cadillac tax without resorting to the income-tax surtax in the House-passed bill. Of course, this is terrible policy for a whole host of reasons. It would penalize private-sector investing — putting up one more stumbling block to robust growth and job creation. And it would break the historic link between wage income and social insurance that has been a central pillar of Social Security and Medicare from the beginning.
But what’s most stunning about this latest idea is that it completely disregards the warning the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) issued regarding the Medicare provisions just before Christmas. In that better-late-than-never analysis, CBO made the point that Medicare spending and revenue provisions can’t be counted twice. They can be used either to improve the capacity of the government to pay future Medicare benefits, or to finance a new entitlement program. But the same money can’t be counted twice.
But with this latest idea, the Democrats have made it clear that they don’t care what CBO or anybody else says at this point, they plan to keep counting the money twice. If this new Medicare payroll tax on investment income were to pass, Congressional Democrats would double-count the revenue just as they are double-counting the Medicare spending cuts — saying they help improve Medicare solvency even as they also pay for the runaway entitlement spending in Obamacare.
It’s been clear for some time that the White House will say and do anything to get a bill, which is why the process of producing this legislation has been become so ugly and distasteful to the public. Unfortunately, it’s only going to get worse in coming days as desperate Democrats pull out all the stops to pass a government takeover of American health care.