Republicans may be unable to prevent Jack Lew, the current White House chief of staff, from becoming the next Treasury secretary, but some are hopeful that, by highlighting concerns over his nomination, they can score what amounts to an important victory in Washington these days: shaming the White House into following the law.
GOP lawmakers are currently seeking information about Lew’s role in the Obama administration’s continued violation of federal law regarding the so-called Medicare trigger. Beginning in 2007, the Medicare trustees’ annual report has included a “funding warning,” essentially a determination that immediate action is necessary to shore up the program’s solvency.
By law, the administration is required to submit legislation to address the trustees’ concerns within 15 days of submitting a budget proposal. President George W. Bush fulfilled this requirement in 2008, although Congress never acted upon his proposal. President Obama has not once bothered to submit such a proposal, which would require significant reforms to the popular entitlement program.
On Tuesday, eight GOP senators sent a letter to the White House requesting documents relating to the Medicare trigger, and Lew’s role, as White House budget director, in failing to comply with the law. If confirmed as Treasury secretary, the senators note in the letter, Lew would also become chairman of the board of the Medicare trustees.
“Given that the Secretary of the Treasury will be responsible for issuing Medicare funding warnings and will serve as the Chairman of the Board of Trustees of the Medicare Trust Funds, we need a better understanding of the administration’s decision not to comply with Medicare law and Mr. Lew’s role in that decision,” they write.
The senators also asked for a detailed legislative proposal from the White House in response to the most recent Medicare-funding warning, a request that, if ignored, could serve as the primary justification for blocking, or at least delaying, Lew’s confirmation. By raising the issue, Republicans hope they can, in the words of one GOP Senate aide, “shame the president into following the law.”
“That in and of itself would be a huge victory, because the White House desperately doesn’t want to comply with the Medicare trigger,” another GOP Senate aide says. “If they did, they’d only have two options: actually make reforms, or send over a plan exposing the reality that they are perfectly content to let Medicare go bankrupt.”
This would come on the heels of another GOP victory (a victory at least by Washington standards): After years of public pressure, the Democratic majority in the Senate is preparing to draft and pass a budget for the first time since 2009. Republicans are thrilled at the prospect of waging the upcoming budget fight on equal terms. Forcing the president to confront the reality of Medicare’s precarious long-term solvency would be another step forward.
“Their strategy is to act like snipers when Paul Ryan puts forward a Medicare proposal, but they never put forward one of their own,” still another Republican Senate aide tells National Review Online. “It’s a blatant attempt to avoid an honest debate.”
Republicans will certainly raise these concerns, among others, during Lew’s confirmation hearing before the Senate Finance Committee, scheduled for February 13. Notably, four of the eight signatories to the White House letter — Senators Mike Crapo (R., Idaho), Chuck Grassley (R., Iowa), Mike Enzi (R., Wyo.), and John Cornyn (R., Texas), the minority whip — are members of the committee. The GOP has challenged the Obama administration’s refusal to act on the Medicare trigger before: In 2011, 44 senators, including minority leader Mitch McConnell (R., Ky.), signed a letter to President Obama urging him to comply with the law.
Lew’s nomination, announced in January, did not come as a surprise. Most Republicans saw it as a clear sign that President Obama had no interest in pursuing meaningful budget reforms during his second term. “The president, with this pick, should have signaled a willingness on his part to get past politics, get past being obstinate on entitlement reform, which everyone knows has to happen,” a conservative GOP Senate aide tells NRO. “Instead, he picked the exact wrong person to do that.”
Republicans generally see Lew as far more partisan, and far less qualified, than the current Treasury secretary, Timothy Geithner. “Lew will say whatever the White House wants him to say,” says another GOP aide. “Even Geithner, as loathed as he is, would never say the same things Lew has said. He admitted that our long-term obligations are unsustainable. He realized he had a commitment to actually prevent the country from falling into the ocean. Jack Lew doesn’t care about any of that.”
GOP critics, led by Senator Jeff Sessions (Ala.), ranking member on the Senate Budget Committee and the first to announce his opposition to Lew’s nomination, have raised concerns about misleading, if not inaccurate, statements Lew made in 2011 and 2012 about the president’s most recent budget proposals. As director of the Office of Management and Budget during that period, Lew helped draft Obama’s budgets for fiscal years 2012 and 2013, neither of which received a single affirmative vote in Congress.
Lew insisted that the president’s plan, which would add nearly $13 trillion to the national debt, “will get us, over the next several years, to the point where we can look the American people in the eye and say we’re not adding to the debt anymore.” PolitiFact rated Lew’s claim “false.” Sessions accused him of being complicit in “the greatest financial misrepresentation in history.”
Despite these knocks against him, Jack Lew is still likely to be confirmed as the next Treasury secretary. But if Republicans are savvy in their opposition, the debate over his nomination could be a crucial staging point for budget debates to come.
— Andrew Stiles is a political reporter for National Review.