House Republicans are gearing up to grill Health and Human Services Secretary Sylvia Mathews Burwell this week over how the administration will handle any potential fallout if the Supreme Court strikes down federal subsidies for health insurance coverage in 34 states operating on the federal exchange. Burwell will testify before the House Ways and Means Committee on Wednesday, ahead of the high court’s ruling in the high-stakes case of King v. Burwell, expected later this month.
The plaintiffs in that case contend that the law’s language only provides for subsidies to people in states that created their own exchange. The Obama administration and authors of the law maintain that the law was intended to offer subsidies to all enrollees who are eligible based on their income regardless of which exchange they used.
If the court rules against the administration, an estimated 6.5 million people could lose their subsidized health coverage. If that happens, experts say it could create a ripple effect throughout health insurance markets in federal exchange states. Nearly everyone agrees that such a ruling would be devastating for millions of Americans. However, there is little agreement over what, if anything, to do to stem such fallout if the court rules for the plaintiffs.
Asked why his administration has given little guidance to states on how to prepare for the potential loss of federal insurance subsidies, President Obama on Monday said, “there is no reason why the existing exchanges should be overturned through a court case.”
King v. Burwell “should be an easy case,” Obama said. “Frankly, it probably shouldn’t even have been taken up. And since we’re going to get a ruling pretty quick, I think it’s important for us to go ahead and assume that the Supreme Court is going to do what most legal scholars who’ve looked at this would expect them to do.”
Obama added that Congress could also resolve any problems raised by a court ruling “with a one-sentence provision.”
That kind of response is unlikely to satisfy House Republicans, who are likely to again question Burwell’s previous claims that the administration does not have a “Plan B” in place if the court strikes down federal subsidies for millions of Americans.
Last week, during a Wall Street Journal breakfast, Burwell explained that the administration’s authority is limited. She added that her agency would work with states that are considering creating their own exchanges or using workarounds to avoid losing out on the federal subsidies.
“As always, we will stand ready to work with states, but in terms of administrative authority, we can’t do much,” Burwell said.
Republicans, who have long sought to repeal Obamacare, have criticized the administration for not having a contingency plan in place if the subsidies get struck down.
Although Republicans are prepared to go it alone on tax reform, President Trump suggested creating a bipartisan working group on the topic during a Wednesday meeting with senators from both parties. Some senators were open to the idea, but it doesn’t look like Republicans have much interest in slowing down the process with in-depth negotiations. “I don’t really personally see the benefit of creating additional structure. I think we’ve got all the tools we need,” said Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX), who attended the meeting, according to Politico. Democrats appear skeptical, too. Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR) said he told Trump that the distance between what Republicans were saying about their plan and what it actually does is a serious problem.
White House officials tell USA Today’s Heidi Przybyla that President Trump will include a number of compromises to limit his tax plan’s benefits for the wealthy when he promotes the blueprint next month:
“The compromises will include ending a 23.8% preferential tax rate for hedge-fund managers, or the so-called carried interest rate, White House legislative affairs director Marc Short told USA TODAY. … Retaining parts of a state and local tax deduction that benefits many middle-class families in blue states is also an area where Trump is expecting compromise.”
Trump campaigned on raising the carried interest rate, saying its beneficiaries are “getting away with murder.” But changes to the carried interest rate may run into opposition from House Republicans, and the tweaks appear unlikely to win any Democratic support.
Former Treasury Secretary Larry Summers made his distaste for the Trump administration’s tax framework clear last week when he said Republicans were using “made-up” claims about the plan and its effects. Summers expanded his criticism on Tuesday in a blog post that took aim at the report released Monday by the Council of Economic Advisers and chair Kevin Hassett, which seeks to justify the administration’s claim that its tax plan will result in a $4,000 pay raise for the average American family.
Never one to mince words, Summers says the CEA analysis is “some combination of dishonest, incompetent and absurd.” The pay raise figure is indefensible, since “there is no peer-reviewed support for his central claim that cutting the corporate tax rate from 35 to 20 percent would raise wages by $4000 per worker.” In the end, Summers says that “if a Ph.D student submitted the CEA analysis as a term paper in public finance, I would be hard pressed to give it a passing grade.”
One of the authors cited in the CEA paper also has some concerns. Harvard Business School professor Mihir Desai tweeted Tuesday that the CEA analysis “misinterprets” a 2007 paper he co-wrote on the dynamics of the corporate tax burden. Desai’s research has found a connection between business tax cuts and wage growth, but not as large as the CEA paper claims. “Cutting corporate taxes will help wages but exaggeration only serves to undercut the reasonableness of the core argument,” Desai wrote.
National Economic Council Director Gary Cohn said Monday that tax reform has to happen this year, even if it means Congress has to stay in session longer. "I think we have a unique window in time right now, but unfortunately we keep losing days to this window,” he said. “The opportunity is now." House Speaker Paul Ryan said last week he’d keep members over Christmas if that’s what it takes. And Ryan predicted Monday that tax reform would pass the House by early next month and then get through the Senate to reach the president’s desk by the end of the year. But there are plenty of skeptics out there, given the hurdles. Issac Boltansky, an analyst at the investment bank Compass Point, told Business Insider, "The idea of getting tax reform done this year is a farcical fantasy. Lawmakers have neither the time nor the capacity to formulate and clear a tax reform package in 2017."