As featured on p. 218 of "Bloggers on the Bus," under the name "a MyDD blogger."

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Everyone Hates Baucus

Boy, Max Baucus (R-MT) sure knows how to make friends and influence people, doesn't he? He bends over backwards to please Republicans and they spurn his bill. In the process he alienates Democrats, who now... hate the concessions made in his bill and don't understand their purpose, given that it brought no Republicans along. He had to stand alone to announce his bill because nobody wants to be associated with him. Not even Kent Conrad, his best bud because he included his industry-sponsored weak co-op plan, wouldn't take the dais with him. He's become such the public face for Democratic incompetence that his very name leads to boos at Democratic events:

Workers are chanting "bullshit!" at the mere mention of Baucus' name at labor events. Health care advocacy groups use his name as a punchline, if not an obscenity. He's literally gone from the most important man in the room on health care to a potentially irrelevant one.

A dealmaker needs credibility and respect on both sides, and Baucus has lost it. The Democrats on his committee don't trust his instincts or his core commitments or his legislative skill. Nor do the Democrats outside his committee. They feel he gave away too much in return for not just too little, but nothing at all. That means the Republicans on his committee have further reason to distrust his ability to make a deal, because restive Democrats are going to want to change his bill. Meanwhile, House Democrats are enraged that he left them to suffer through August, and have little interest in passing a bipartisan compromise that doesn't come with any Republican votes [...]

Even within his committee, it's not obvious he can secure the votes of the liberals, and if he does, he almost certainly sacrifices Snowe. That means the White House and the Senate leadership are going to play the primary role in both offering concessions and guaranteeing their preservation in the process. The bill remains in Max Baucus's committee, but at this point, it's largely out of his hands.

That's a good thing, on balance, for supporters of real health reform. The media still acts as if Baucus' bill is the final bill, but that's not quite the case. His bill would require substantial changes before he could even get a majority of the vote in the Senate. And there are plenty of areas for improvement:

Subsidies. The Baucus bill is simply not affordable. Forget everything else about health care - if the coverage isn't affordable for Americans to buy into it, the reforms won't work. It won't be universal, shrinking the risk pool, and insurers will want to deny coverage or care to maximize profits in that lower risk pool. The Center for Budget and Policy Priorities tells you pretty much what you need to know. This amounts to a $140 billion dollar tax on the middle class.

One reason the Baucus bill is “cheaper” than the House bill is that it has lower subsidies. For illustration, let’s assume that the whole $140 billion difference is due to lower subsidies. Relative to the House bill, then, the Baucus bill costs the government $140 billion less; but it costs middle-income people exactly $140 billion more, since they have to buy health insurance. The difference is that in the House bill, the money comes from taxes on the very rich; in the Baucus bill, it comes out of the pockets of the middle-class people who are getting smaller subsidies. Put another way, the Baucus bill is the House bill, plus a $140 billion tax on people making around $40-80,000 per year. That’ s not only stupid policy; it’s stupid politics.

Bad Employer Incentives. The lack of an employer mandate, replaced with a terrible "free rider" policy, is completely unacceptable. Whether you believe that it incentivizes employers to not hire low-income workers, or that it incentivizes large employers to keep wages down so they can push their employees off onto Medicaid, employers have clear, giant loopholes that they can exploit to make life for their workers objectively worse.

No public option. The co-ops are crap. Almost worse than useless. Everyone knows it. The CBO admits it and they've been practically writing the bill with Baucus.

"Liberal Democrats fumed that Baucus had dropped the idea of a government-run insurance plan to compete with private insurance companies in favor of a national network of member-run cooperatives -- an alternative the CBO said seems "unlikely to establish a significant market presence in many areas of the country."

There is no mechanism for competition with the private insurance industry, which the President has viewed as a fundamental principle.

Now, the Baucus bill does do a couple OK things. It raises a decent amount of revenue through excise taxes on industry, a back-door way to cap the employer deduction. It reduces the deficit. And it provides for a gradual shift away from employer coverage and toward the exchanges, although that shift could happen quicker, similar to what Ron Wyden is proposing.

The fact that the President spoke with Jay Rockefeller, the leading critic of the Baucus bill and its co-ops, as well as Wyden and Bob Bennett, who hold the bill that would move away from the employer-based system, tells me that he's actually looking to improve the Baucus draft down the road in the process. As Matt Yglesias said today, this is tailor-made for the conference committee process:

Viewed optimistically, this is what conference committee is for. Each version of the legislation is audacious along one axis—committing major funds to affordability in the House, trying to take a serious whack at cost growth in Baucus—and a conference committee could meld them into a bill that does both. You could imagine a productive meeting that produces the kind of result I’m talking about that lets Mike Ross walk out and say he added tough cost controls to the bill, while Jay Rockefeller gets to walk out and say he beefed up affordability, and then Max Baucus and Henry Waxman get to congratulate each other on being masters of legislative compromise. Alternatively, of course, the whole thing could fall apart. But ultimately my point would be that both version of the legislation have strong points that could be combined into some very good legislation indeed.

Absolutely, though admittedly we don't live in a perfect world. For example, you could add back in the President's shift on charitable deductions from 35% to the 28% it was in the Reagan Administration, which would impact pretty much nobody and save $350 billion over 10 years, plow that into subsidies, and call it a day. The bill would remain fully paid for and everybody would be happy.

Ezra has some further thoughts on this. I would just add that the President knows he owns this bill, so regardless of whether or not it would make the insurance industry mad, he needs to get this right so it works for people.

Labels: , , , , , , , , , ,