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The Baucus Employer Mandate and the Democrats’ Strategy



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The Washington Post has another piece in today’s paper — there seems to be about one per week — on the ever-so-close “bipartisan plan” being negotiated by Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus and five of his committee colleagues.

 

Among other things, the Post provides a side-by-side analysis comparing the Finance Committee “plan” — though no one has really seen it yet — to the bills approved by the House Energy and Commerce Committee as well as the one approved by the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee. According to the Post, the emerging Baucus proposal will not include an employer mandate. Rather, it will impose a “free-rider” penalty on employers whose workers end up getting subsidized coverage through the so-called “exchanges.”

 

As I have written previously, this is a distinction without a difference. The Baucus plan would require employers to provide some level of coverage acceptable to the federal government or pay a tax to partially cover the costs of premiums for workers with incomes below 300 percent of the poverty line. Any way you look at it, that’s a “pay or play” employer mandate.

 

The reason for the semantic game is politics, of course. Senator Baucus is desperate to get the sign-off of the three Republican negotiators in the gang of six — Senators Grassley, Enzi, and Snowe — and they don’t want to be accused of supporting a job-killing “employer mandate” with unemployment heading toward 10 percent nationally. And so the “free-rider” penalty is peddled as a non-mandate “responsibility” provision.

 

The only real difference between what Sen. Baucus is trying to do and the emerging House bill is that the Baucus mandate wouldn’t apply to workers with incomes exceeding 300 percent of the poverty line. They wouldn’t be eligible for the subsidy program, and so employers wouldn’t face a penalty for not offering them qualified coverage.

 

Normally, liberals do not worry too much about the job-killing impact of employer mandates and taxes, but the Baucus plan’s differential treatment of workers by income is so transparently regressive that the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP), a liberal-leaning think tank, and the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights have begun sounding the alarm that it would discourage the hiring of low-wage workers and minorities. As reported in National Journal’s CongressDailyAM (subscription required), Wade Henderson, the Leadership Conference president, said the Baucus plan “creates a powerful incentive for employers to fire or not to hire the very people healthcare reform is supposed to help.”

 

So will these groups oppose the Baucus plan and force the committee to go back to the drawing board? Apparently not. CBPP President Bob Greenstein said in the same CongressDaily story that he expects the Finance Committee to approve the Baucus mandate but hopes it will be changed down the road. In other words, he doesn’t want to slow down the Baucus process but is confident that House Democrats will never go along with the Baucus approach if they aren’t forced into it.

 

Which raises another question. What exactly are Senators Grassley, Enzi, and Snowe negotiating, anyway?

 

It is beyond obvious that what the Obama administration and most Democrats desperately want from the “gang of six” is “to keep the process moving.” They don’t view the product of the Baucus negotiations as the final word by a long shot. They just want to get it over with. In fact, Greenstein’s comment that the Baucus mandate can be fixed later is indicative of the prevailing sentiment among Democrats. If they can just get past the Finance Committee, they surmise, political momentum will build, and a final bill will become all but inevitable. At that point, the only question will be about “what” not “if,” and Democrats would control all of the details in a conference between the House and Senate.

 

In recent days, Senate Democrats have suggested that if the Baucus negotiations don’t make progress soon, they just might try to pass health-care on an entirely partisan basis in the Senate, using the so-called “reconciliation” procedure. That would allow them to pass a bill with a simple majority instead of sixty votes. They might be able to do so. After all, there are sixty Democrats in the Senate. But, then again, such a bill would carry a lot of political baggage. More than $1 trillion in new spending over the coming decade and growing obligations in the years following, new costly requirements on low-wage workers to buy insurance without any additional financial support, new taxes on the middle class, deep cuts in Medicare benefits, job-killing mandates in a recession, and, of course, a government-run option that would displace private coverage for tens of millions of happily insured Americans.

 

Indeed, the threat by Democrats to move a bill under reconciliation seems really to be just that — a threat intended to force Senators Grassley, Enzi, and Snowe to agree to something, anything, to keep the process moving. Which is why Senate Republicans should ignore it entirely. If Democrats really thought they could pass a government-takeover of American health care over the unified objections of Republicans, they probably would have tried to do so already. The public is already uneasy about what is being considered in Washington.  The last thing they want to see is a partisan bill passed with limited debate in a highly charged environment.

 

No, it remains the case that it will be exceedingly difficult for the Democrats to try to pass a bill without any Republican support, especially in the Senate.  Which means, for Republicans, the trick is to stick together.  If they do, they will wield much power over whatever happens.



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