In the News: Blog

It’s always good to see anyone start to acknowledge the outlines of a problem – that’s the first step toward solving it. So I was glad that the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel’s “PolitiFact” desk said I was right in pointing out how much of federal spending has slipped out of the direct control of Congress.

The newspaper was fact-checking something I said to commentator Vicki McKenna on WIBA-AM in Madison recently (the part in question starts at about 29:00). Vicki was outraged that about two-thirds of federal spending is on autopilot – “permanently” appropriated, to use the exact word that is used when talking about federal spending.

She was right to be outraged: All that Congress debates annually is about a third of federal spending, the part called “discretionary” – programs for which Congress must spend – or “appropriate” – specific sums each year. These are thousands of federal programs, from the defense budget to NASA to the maintenance bill at federal courthouses. It totaled about $1,170,000,000,000 – that’s 1.2 trillion – in fiscal year 2014, which ended Sept. 30.

Congress doesn’t appropriate money annually for the other two thirds of the budget – both the interest it owes, about $230 billion last year, and so-called “mandatory” spending, about $2,110,000,000,000, or $2.1 trillion. Mandatory spending is mostly payments the government has promised to any individuals who qualify. Examples are Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, food stamps, veterans benefits, aid for the poor – you can see the breakdown from the Congressional Budget Office here, on page 12. These are among the largest programs in the federal budget. Past Congresses set them up, one by one, and those laws generally give those programs access to however much money it takes. As the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service puts it (emphasis added):

Mandatory spending is controlled by laws other than appropriations acts. Such laws generally take the form of authorizing legislation. Authorizing legislation establishes or continues the operation of a federal program or agency, either indefinitely or for a specified period. Mandatory spending typically is provided in permanent or multi-year appropriations contained in the authorizing law, and therefore, the funding becomes available automatically each year, without further legislative action by Congress. In most cases, the authorizing law requires payment, based on a benefit formula, to an individual or entity (e.g., a state) if eligibility criteria are met.”

PolitiFact nitpicked about whether mandatory programs are really permanent – Congress can change the law. That’s true, as far as it goes. Starting in January, when the Republican Senate majority that voters chose in November at last is sworn in, it will be possible. But as you remember from civics class, bills don’t become law until the president signs them. So until President Obama starts taking seriously the unsustainable size and scope of the federal government, or until voters replace him with a president who will, the programs that make up two-thirds of federal spending really are permanently in place.

This is how we got to the point that our government is $18,000,000,000,000 (that's $18 trillion!!!) in debt. If Congress doesn’t vote on two-thirds of federal spending, it won’t prioritize it. The share of the budget that Congress doesn’t vote on annually has been growing and is due to keep growing:

This means that the representatives the people send to Washington will have ever less control over the money the government takes from the productive economy. Americans themselves will have diminishing control over their government, which will increasingly be an automated mechanism for taking money from some Americans and giving it to others – or rewarding politically powerful groups of recipients at the expense of our children and grandchildren, who will be stuck with still more debt.

This is no way to run a country or control spending. When Republicans are in majority at last in both houses of Congress, we must do what Democrats have refused to do – set a budget, then prioritize spending through a series of appropriations bills. Then we must begin reforming how Congress spends money. We need the president, and the people who will choose the next president, to understand the problem and work with us.

That starts with understanding that it is absolutely, entirely true that two-thirds of the federal budget is now outside of Congress’ annual control.

Our liberty in the United States is precious, especially our liberty to speak and write what we believe is true – and to hear others tell us truth as they understand it. Our founders believed that all men are created with the right to this freedom. The grim fact is that not everyone in the world has it – far from it.

Venezuela is a country particularly deprived of liberty, including the freedom of speech we take for granted. The socialist thugs ruling the country permit a nominally private press to exist, but as the Wall Street Journal reported this fall, the regime has managed to shut off criticism that might have come from journalists:

“Investors with business ties to President Nicolás Maduro's leftist government snapped up three major independent news outlets and scaled back critical coverage, press-freedom advocates said.

“Using legislation, steep fines, pressure on advertisers and control of printing paper, the government during the past decade has corralled the mainstream press, said Carlos Lauria, who oversees the Americas for the Committee to Protect Journalists in New York. He and other free-speech advocates said the intimidation has deepened since Mr. Maduro was elected in April 2013 after the death of his predecessor, Hugo Chávez, with reporters detained, beaten and censored.

“Reporters Without Borders said it has collected some 500 complaints of censorship in Venezuela since 2013.”

It’s up to Venezuelans to defeat this oppression, but our country has long helped people in oppressed countries get information. We sponsor Voice of America, as one of many examples, to bring objective news from the free world into places without freedom.

That’s why I am proud to have added a provision to the Venezuela Defense of Human Rights and Civil Society Act of 2014, which passed the Senate unanimously on Monday and the House on Wednesday. The bill itself, the work of Sen. Robert Menendez, imposes targeted sanctions on those in the Venezuelan regime who oppress opposition protesters.

My amendment requires the Broadcasting Board of Governors – the U.S. agency overseeing Voice of America – to report to Congress on the obstacles faced by Venezuelans trying to obtain accurate news, to assess what our government is doing to help Venezuelans to overcome those obstacles, and to come up with a strategy for expanding our efforts.

As the Journal reported, Venezuelans are turning to blogs and other online sources to try to get honest news that the government is blocking. Our government already spends money to offer that news. We need to coordinate efforts, to better help Venezuelans get what their rulers deny them. I am pleased my colleagues in Congress agree.

It’s hard to convey how differently Washington insiders see things from the way most of us in Wisconsin do. But the videorecorded honesty of Obamacare architect Jonathan Gruber is helping make it clear.

Gruber was a health care economist famous for his ability to forecast costs. That’s why the Obama administration paid him about $400,000 to consult in the design of the “Affordable Care Act,” the 2,700-page bill with the Orwellian name that set off the chaos in health care we have all been suffering. Then Gruber started explaining to insider conferences just how harsh the law’s trade-offs are. These are the talks that are now being discovered. They’re devastating to the supporters of Obamacare, and a committee in the House is going to ask Gruber for explanations today.

So Politico, a newspaper and website written for and about Washington insiders, wrote a long article on Monday asking how Gruber could have been so devastatingly careless. “He’s a smart guy, everyone says, and he has been a hugely successful economist,” Politico writes. “So they’re all coming back to the same question: Why the hell would he say that?” The article’s conclusion is that Gruber is just too intelligent to be untruthful.

This is a problem for Democrats because Obamacare is again before the Supreme Court. A case called King vs. Burwell will examine whether Congress really meant it when the Affordable Care Act says that taxpayer subsidies for health insurance can only go to people who buy policies on state-run “exchanges,” the artificial marketplaces in Obamacare. If the law is read as written, it could ruin the administration’s system of making some people subsidize others.

So Democrats say that the law’s plain language is wrong. The Obama administration claims the subsidies really can also go to about 5 million recipients in the 36 states without their own exchanges – one of them Wisconsin.

Gruber has said otherwise. A video that came to widespread attention last week shows Gruber telling an audience in 2012:

“If you’re a state and you don’t set up an exchange, that means your citizens don’t get their tax credits. But your citizens still pay the taxes that support this bill. So you’re essentially saying to your citizens, ‘you’re going to pay all the taxes to help all the other states in the country.’”

This is on top other videos on which Gruber tells insider audiences that Obamacare was sold deceptively, with the cost hidden from taxpayers via a pitch that relied on “the stupidity of the American voter,” and that Americans couldn’t be told the truth that in Obamacare, young healthy people would pay too much to subsidize health care for others. Over and over, he told insiders that Obamacare was sold by deception to get Americans to accept something they were too dumb to like.

This was all while Gruber was, as Politico puts it, “Obamacare’s ‘explainer-in-chief.’”

Politico says that Democrats are “furious” at Gruber. Of course they are. He let the cat out of the bag. But Politico’s article tries to figure out why Gruber would have been so impolitically honest – as if his honesty was the problem.

It isn’t. If Jonathan Gruber had not honestly expressed the cynical truth of how Obamacare works and was passed, we would only suspect the contempt with which the administration and Democrats view the Americans who must pay for this mess. Instead, Gruber made it clear for us. His honesty was helpful.

The question Politico, the insider newspaper, never tries answering is why Democrats would design a health care “reform” so terrible that it required lies to pass. Why invent a system that needed deception and trickery and the “stupidity” of voters to work? How must Washington insiders see ordinary Americans, and how must their insider media see them, to think that an honest bill explained plainly could never work?

Why don’t Democrats trust Americans?

The newly exposed videos of Obamacare architect Jonathan Gruber revealing that the “Affordable” Care Act was sold to America with lies is a scandal, but not because it’s a shock.

Instead, they’re a scandal because they confirms something many Americans have been suspecting for a long time – that a lot of Obamacare backers knew the promises were just smoke.

Take the idea that no one would be forced to change plans – “If you like your health care plan, you can keep it,” as President Obama put it. We now know this was a lie. But at this point, what difference does it make?

It makes this difference: It’s not just that President Obama knew that millions of Americans would be forced off health plans they chose. It’s that his backers now casually admit that Americans will have to get used to shopping for new insurance – and new doctors – every year if they want their care to be affordable.

The New York Times reported this in a matter-of-fact way, saying that of course people should shop for new plans annually if they want to avoid “big price increases.”

So while it’s true that in many places, the lowest-price plan on the government-run “exchanges” is only 3% or 4% more costly than the different plan that was lowest priced last year, “people who just stay in the plan that was cheapest — and most popular — in 2014 are looking at much bigger increases. The average rate increase for those plans across the country is 9.7 percent,” the Times reports. This is in line with what another study, by a high-profile health consultancy, said on Thursday.

The figure is higher in much of Wisconsin, the Times reports. In Milwaukee, renewing what was the cheapest “silver” plan in 2014 will mean a 15.3% rate increase in 2015. In Green Bay, staying with 2014’s insurance plan will mean a 14.4% price increase.

The Times points out that this isn’t an accident. It’s the way Obamacare was designed, as a substitute for introducing real free-market reforms to restrain underlying health care costs. Instead, consumers will pay in many ways:

“Switching plans has its costs — in many cases, it means changing doctors and drug lists. It also may mean mastering new deductibles, co-payments and other benefit structures. But it’s clear that if price is the most important thing, most Americans who bought the most popular plan in 2014 would be better off switching to something new for 2015.”

And, by design, just keeping your plan won’t be easy:

“Even consumers who are sure that renewing their current plan is worth paying a higher premium should still consider returning to the marketplace website to update their information. The subsidies that middle-income shoppers receive to help them pay their premiums are based on their income and the price of a special plan in the marketplace, called the ‘benchmark.’

“People who don’t re-enter their information will receive the same subsidy as last year, regardless of what happens to their income and the benchmark. That means that it’s easy to end up underpaying and getting hit with a big bill at tax time.”

Do you remember being told any of this when Obamacare was being sold? The people who designed the system understood what was coming, at least a little. As the talkative Jonathan Gruber put it on video, they depended on American voters not catching on in time.

It isn’t just that Obamacare was sold on a foundation of lies, as the newly revealed videos from Obamacare architect Jonathan Gruber show. What is even worse is the way the Obama administration thought it was doing America a favor by lying.

Marc A. Thiessen makes this point in the Washington Post. Democrats are now desperately saying they never knew who Jonathan Gruber was, and no wonder:

“The reason Democrats are running from Gruber is the same reason conservatives should be thanking him: Gruber has exposed what liberals really think of the American people.”

Democrats certainly did know who Gruber was. The Obama administration paid him $392,000 to “develop proposals” for health care as Obamacare was being written, and it used him to lend credibility to the plan as it was being sold.

The Daily Signal points out that Gruber wrote a comic book in 2011 to help sell the Obamacare scheme – one in which Gruber’s character relays the lie that you can keep your plan:

“When one of the characters, a white male, tells Gruber he fears Obamacare will ‘muck up’ his existing health plan, the Obamacare architect reassures the man that if he likes his plan, he can keep it.”

The comic was lauded by the Washington Post and the New York Times as the testimony of an expert. Big-name Democrats certainly knew Gruber back then:

“Gruber’s comic book received praise from other Obamacare advocates. In a blurb, then-Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., said the book is ‘fun and informative, and it boils down the facts of health care reform for all Americans.’”

“Boils down” – since then, the videos of Gruber discussing the “stupidity” of American voters make it plain that this boiling down involved lying. Thiessen in the Washington Post points out that Gruber’s leader, President Obama, lied, too, about whether you could keep your plan and about whether the mandate to buy a plan on his “exchange” is a tax. He lied, like Gruber lied, to get Americans to buy something they didn’t want but that Obama and Gruber felt they ought to want. Thiessen writes:

“It’s one thing for Americans to suspect that their president lies to them. It’s quite another to hear a key Obama adviser boast of it.

“So thank you, Jonathan Gruber. We now know how the Obama left sees the American people. We are like children who don’t understand what is best for us. We need experts such as Jonathan Gruber to make decisions for us. If we are too ‘stupid’ to agree with them, they can use our ignorance to deceive us and enact policies we would never otherwise support. And if we’re too stupid to catch the deception, well, that’s our problem.”

I received this email from a Milwaukee woman the other day:

"I support President Obama 110%, but I have to tell you that Obamacare is NOT working for my family. The policies are just terrible and very expensive. The less expensive plans are just catastrophic and will not cover any of our average medical needs. How much money is a family expected to pay for health insurance? Am I unrealistic?

"$700-1000 a month for a somewhat decent plan, that actually covers the doctors we have come to know and trust, is a huge hit for this family. We had to drop the coverage we signed up for because we found it covered nothing, and then we had a client who didn't pay my freelancer husband. We were hoping things would be better this November, but they are not, and we are finding ourselves having to resolve to throw money out the door every month, in case of an emergency, on top of all our visits, which include my husband with MS, my 11 year old daughter with a heart condition. Did I mention that dental care is not included AT ALL??????!!!!!!!! Is there anything you can do to help?"

It won’t be easy to help. I don’t like to be the bearer of bad news, but even after the newly elected members of Congress get to Washington in January, the president who promised you’d be able to keep your doctor will still be able to veto anything Congress does to relieve the pain that the “Affordable” Care Act is imposing.

But we have to try. We just had an election. President Obama said his policies were on the ballot. The least we can do is see whether some Democrats have changed their minds about those policies, including the policy that’s causing premiums to skyrocket for Wisconsinites. I don’t expect the president would agree with what we pass, but we have to start working to undo the damage that Obamacare has already wrought.

It’s scandalous that economics professor Jonathan Gruber has been caught on video saying that Obamacare was pushed through Congress on the basis of a pack of lies because Gruber is rightly acknowledged as an “architect of Obamacare.”

What is even more telling is how long we have known that deception was involved in the “Affordable” Care Act’s expansion of government power.

The Wall Street Journal pointed out that there are now four videos on which Gruber tells insider audiences that Obamacare’s real costs were hidden from Americans who couldn’t be trusted with the truth. There’s the video where he says the “stupidity of the American voter” meant the costs had to be concealed to pass the bill. Then another emerged in which Gruber praised the way then-Sen. John Kerry figured out how to deceive voters about taxes on their insurance:

The news that the economist dubbed the “architect of Obamacare” was caught admitting that the program deliberately hid the cost from the American public is disappointing. It isn’t surprising.

Avik Roy of Forbes explains the story of the devastating admission by MIT economist Jonathan Gruber:

“New video surfaced in which Gruber said that 'the stupidity of the American voter' made it important for him and Democrats to hide Obamacare’s true costs from the public. 'That was really, really critical for the thing to pass,' said Gruber. 'But I’d rather have this law than not.' In other words, the ends—imposing Obamacare upon the public—justified the means.

"The new Gruber comments come from a panel discussion that he joined on October 17, 2013 at the University of Pennsylvania’s Leonard Davis Institute of Health Economics. He was joined on the panel by Penn health economist Mark Pauly. Patrick Howley of the Daily Caller was the first to flag Gruber’s remarks.”

This isn’t Gruber’s first embarrassing moment of candor about Obamacare. The law says that federal subsidies can only go to people living in states that set up their own government-run “exchanges,” and not to people in states, like Wisconsin, that instead rely on the federal exchange. Democrats claim this is a mistake or a misunderstanding of the law because it would throw a wrench in their plans to shift costs around. Gruber, however, was caught on video in 2012 saying that the law was supposed to do what Democrats now say it doesn’t do. He said it was a surreptitious way of forcing states to go along with the law.

Now, the new video shows him admitting another way Obamacare was trying to fool the public. The White House hurried to deny that what Gruber said was true, but this was the same White House that said if you liked your doctor, you could keep your doctor. Judge the latest denial accordingly.

Meanwhile, Forbes’ Roy points out that the so-called Affordable Care Act, which instituted Obamacare, really was too bad a deal to pass honestly:

"Gruber made an argument that many of Obamacare’s critics have long made, including me. It’s that the law’s complex system of insurance regulation is a way of concealing from voters what Obamacare really is: a huge redistribution of wealth from the young and healthy to the old and unhealthy. In the video, Gruber points out that if Democrats had been honest about these facts, and that the law’s individual mandate is in effect a major tax hike, Obamacare would never have passed Congress.

“ 'Mark [Pauly] made a couple of comments that I do want to take issue with, one about transparency in financing and the other is about moving from community rating to risk-rated subsidies. You can’t do it politically. You just literally cannot do it, okay, transparent financing…and also transparent spending.' Gruber said. 'In terms of risk-rated subsidies, if you had a law which said that healthy people are going to pay in—you made explicit that healthy people pay in and sick people get money, it would not have passed, okay. Lack of transparency is a huge political advantage. And basically, call it the stupidity of the American voter or whatever, but basically that was really, really critical for the thing to pass…Look, I wish Mark was right that we could make it all transparent, but I’d rather have this law than not.’ ”

And we do have the law. It is transferring costs — not just risk, as insurance would, but actual known costs — from some people to others. This makes health coverage costlier than it needs to be for many people. The scheme also involves taxes, mandates and regulations enough already to stifle innovation and push doctors toward leaving their profession. It has done nothing to make health care more affordable — Wisconsinites routinely tell me of health premiums rising by rates well into the double digits — and it did so for only a small increase in the share of uninsured people who gained health coverage.

So it’s not surprising that this terrible bargain passed by deception, or that the program’s architect thinks that Americans were too stupid to be trusted with the truth. It is disappointing, but when the president’s most high-profile promise about the program was judged the lie of the year by PolitiFact, it isn’t surprising.

Small companies are increasingly dropping the idea of providing their employees with health insurance, the Wall Street Journal reports, and assuming that workers instead will be fine if they’re dumped onto Obamacare’s government-run “exchanges.”

I told you long ago that this would happen: Employers will see the chance to save money and make their workers eligible for government subsidies. They will act accordingly.

Insurers who sell coverage to small companies are now noticing the trend, the paper reports. They’re seeing faster declines in that line of business than they had expected. The Wall Street Journal explains employers’ thinking: