Saturday, July 29, 2017

Why Trump’s Threat to Congress is so Bonkers

Saturday on Twitter President Trump seemed to threaten to take away Congress’s health care benefits. Let me explain why this would create one of the most amazing and bizarre acts of political irony in American politics. It would expose a dozen layers of hypocrisy, possibly end up as one of Trump’s most popular acts, and it could ultimately be what takes him down.

The hypocritical history

You may wonder why Trump has the power to mess with congressmen’s and their staff’s health care benefits. It all goes back to 2010 when Democrats were writing the Affordable Care Act. In an attempt to make Democrats look like hypocrites, Republicans offered an amendment which would force Congress to get health insurance via the new ACA exchanges. This move backfired once the Democrats decided to vote for it and even used it as a selling point for their law.

The problem is the amendment, like basically everything the GOP did during the debate over the ACA, was designed only as political theater with no concern for policy. As a result, if you actually implemented the amendment as written, it would force Congress to buy insurance on the DC exchange at full price, just as millions of Americans who make over $50,000 a year but don’t have employer coverage are doing right now.

The possibility of actually having to pay the full out of pocket cost for expensive premiums, like millions of Americans currently do, caused a bipartisan freakout. Passing a special bill to fix it, though, would open any member up to attack ads, so instead Republicans and Democrats begged the Obama administration to bend regulation in a legally questionable way to fix it. Note that hypocritical Republicans endlessly attacked Obama when he used similarly legally questionable regulatory fixes to help other groups.

The solution was to stretch the interpretation of the law to effectively treat every congressional office as its own small business. That allowed the offices to use the money that previously went to their former federal employee insurance as a special subsidy to buy insurance on the exchange. One can argue this is fair, but it is not really what a technical reading of the law says, and Congress could easily change it anytime.

More importantly, not only was this hypocritical on a process level for the GOP, but also on a policy level for both parties. After all, most Republicans just voted to repeal the employer mandate, yet they freaked out at the idea of not having their own employer provide insurance . 

Similarly, Democrats promised that even the unsubsidized insurance on the Affordable Care Act exchanges would be affordable for the middle class, but they balked at actually having to pay anywhere near that much for insurance.

In addition, members of Congress from both sides have advocated for moving away from employer-provided insurance and toward people buying their own coverage. It was John McCain’s plan in 2008 and the core of the bipartisan Wyden-Bennett plan. Yet when they were almost forced to become the test bed for this move away from employers paying for insurance, they did everything to avoid the fate they wanted for everyone else.

There is no way this works

The most bonkers part is Trump is threatening to do this to get Senate Republicans to agree on an Obamacare repeal, and there is no way that would work. The GOP just proved they can’t agree to even a skinny bill. Also, given what everyone knows about John McCain, Susan Collins, and Lisa Murkowski, there is no way they would become more willing to compromise after being publicly threatened and extorted.

The insanity of what is happening next

If Trump actually follows through on this threat, it could be very popular and one executive action he takes that is well within his legal purview. He could probably even spin it as one of his only “drain the swamp” moves. 

After all, people don’t like it when Congress gets treated differently. They also dislike political stunts. The fact that Congress never fixed the problem via legislation shows they know it is a political loser.
Ironically, though, Trump’s most popular executive action could also be what brings him down. Congressional Republicans have been putting up with a lot of questionable behavior from Trump, but if he literally takes money out of their pockets, that could change. If Congressional Republicans stop defending him, the investigation flood gates would open. 

The irony of the long term impact

The final ironic twist is if Trump actually does it, the long term effect might be to make American health care more progressive, not less. Paying full price health insurance in the United States is crazy expensive -- way more expensive than it is in any other industrialized country. Maybe if everyone in Congress is forced to feel just how out of control American health insurance premiums are for a few years, they might take serious the idea of cost control.

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