Yesterday, the Director of the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) did everyone a favor and spoke some serious truth to power: The health care bills under consideration in Congress will make our long-term budget outlook worse, not better, Elmendorf said, and that would be very bad for our economic future.
Elmendorf’s assessment, welcome as it certainly was, shouldn’t have been a surprise to anyone, especially the Democratic authors of the bills now under consideration. They more than anyone else should know that the bills moving through their committees would add massive new entitlement spending to the federal budget while making only the most marginal of changes to the prevailing financial incentives which are pushing costs up rapidly every year. What did they think Elmendorf would say?
Still, Elmendorf’s assessment seems to have caught some Democrats by surprise, starting with the president. Just days earlier he told a gathering of skeptical Blue Dog Democrats that they should get behind the House bill because it would deliver savings beyond the ten-year window. That wasn’t a credible assertion even then (see this post from Tuesday), but, in the wake of Elmendorf’s testimony, it really has no standing.
So what’s the administration next move? Desperate times apparently call for some serious audacity.
Today, the Obama administration delivered one of the more remarkable presidential power grabs seen in recent memory (the transmittal letter is here, and a section-by-section description of the proposal is available here).
The president has decided — just days before the deadline he himself set for passage of health care bills in both chambers of Congress — that he wants to create a new and very powerful executive branch agency, the Independent Medicare Advisory Council (IMAC), which would be accountable only to him and have the authority to re-write the Medicare program from top to bottom by executive memo. Now that’s audacious.
The council would be made up of five members, all selected by the president and confirmed by the Senate. The president could fire any one of them for cause. They would have two jobs. First, each year, the council would make recommendations to the president regarding inflation updates to Medicare’s payment rates for hospitals, doctors, and other suppliers of services. Those recommendations, if approved by the president, would automatically go into effect in thirty days unless Congress passed a resolution disapproving them — which the president would also have to sign into law. Of course, if the president approved the council’s original package of recommendations, it is unlikely he would sign a congressional disapproval resolution overturning them. So, as a practical matter, the proposal would force Congress to find a two-thirds supermajority to stop presidentially-approved IMAC recommendations from going into effect.
That would be a remarkable shift of power on its own, but the president’s proposal doesn’t stop there. Not only would the council make recommendations on payment updates, it would also have the authority to propose other “Medicare reforms” which would go into effect unless Congress could muster veto override majorities in opposition. What are “Medicare reforms”? From the write-up, it seems they could be just about anything. Changes in beneficiary cost-sharing. New rules for establishing qualified hospitals and doctors. Penalties for physicians who don’t follow government guidelines. Pretty much anything except for the payroll tax and premium structure. The only parameters are that the “reforms” must improve the quality of medical care and the efficiency of Medicare operations.
The administration is touting this as a belated cost-control idea. It’s not. By itself, it doesn’t change anything, as there are no hard targets that must be hit. So it doesn’t answer the Elmendorf critique that the bills now moving in Congress, even if such a provision were added to them, don’t bend the cost-curve of governmental health spending.
Still, the fact that the administration is pushing this bill at all speaks volumes. Here’s a Democratic president telling a Democratic Congress that it can’t be trusted to run Medicare anymore. That’s stunning, especially so because Democrats, including the president, are working feverishly to exert additional governmental control over health insurance for working age Americans. If Congress can’t run Medicare well, what possible rationale is there for standing up another government-run insurance plan?
Nonetheless, the audacity is something to behold. Certainly unilateral executive branch authority to re-write entitlement programs from scratch would have come in awful handy during the Reagan and Bush years. But that may dawn on others as well. Like Medicare beneficiaries, physicians, hospitals, labs, nursing homes, and, of course, House and Senate members too. Good luck, Mr. President.