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Saturday, June 3, 2017

Another Nail In The ObamaCrapCare Coffin

Former President Barack Obama left the stage after an event last month in Milan.CreditAndreas Solaro/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
WASHINGTON — Obama administration officials knew they were on shaky ground in spending billions of dollars on health insurance subsidies without clear authority. But they did not think a long-shot court challenge by House Republicans was cause for deep concern.
For one thing, they would be out of office by the time a final ruling in the case, filed in 2014, was handed down. They also believed that a preliminary finding against the administration would ultimately be tossed out. Finally, they figured that President Hillary Clinton could take care of the problem, if necessary.
Well, they are out of office, Mrs. Clinton is not president and the uncertain status of the cost-sharing payments now looms as the biggest threat to the stability of the insurance exchanges created under the Affordable Care Act. A dubious decision made by the previous White House has handed the current administration a powerful weapon to wield against the health care legislation that it despises.
“The administration should not have found an appropriation where none existed,” said Nicholas Bagley, a University of Michigan law professor who has studied and written about the issue. “The Obama administration argument that the Affordable Care Act included an appropriation for the cost-sharing payments never held water.”
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Judge Rosemary M. Collyer agreed with that assertion last year. She ruled that the Obama administration had no explicit authority to pay as much as $130 billion over 10 years to insurance companies to cover out-of-pocket health costs for millions of lower-income Americans obtaining insurance on the new health exchanges. At the same time, she found that the Republican-led House had the standing to sue the administration — a potentially far-reaching decision that many constitutional law experts predicted would be overturned on appeal, causing the suit to be dismissed.
Then November’s election upended all the calculations. Donald J. Trump won, and his interest in defending the executive branch against the House lawsuit was nonexistent given his antipathy for the health care law.
But neither he nor congressional Republicans were in any hurry to drop the appeal initiated by the Obama administration because that would mean the subsidies would be immediately cut off, throwing the health insurance market into turmoil. Instead, the lawsuit has been essentially suspended and the payments have become a new bargaining chip in Washington. The administration is essentially doling them out on a month-to-month basis while Republicans struggle to come together on their own health care replacement plan.
Republicans say the fight over the subsidies is just one element contributing to a failure of the health care law.
“This law is in the middle of a collapse,” Speaker Paul D. Ryan told reporters before the House went on its Memorial Day break. “We need to bring down the cost of coverage, and we need to revitalize the market so that people have real choices and real access to affordable health care.”
Democrats and other critics say it is the Trump administration’s position on the cost-sharing payments that is a chief contributor to the shakiness in the market, with insurers abandoning the program or raising premiums in anticipation of the federal dollars disappearing. They say that the White House maneuvering on the subsidies is simply the latest in a series of calculated moves meant to sabotage the insurance program, starting with an order to end enforcement of the requirement that people obtain insurance.
While some Democrats acknowledge that the Obama administration left the law vulnerable to attack with the way it funded the subsidies, they say it is Republicans who will now pay politically if the program collapses on their watch.
“This would put their hands on the bloody knife,” said Senator Chris Van Hollen of Maryland, who is heading the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.
Mr. Bagley, the law school professor, agrees that Republicans would be held accountable for a failure in the marketplace. He says they should be because of the actions they have taken to undermine it.
“The biggest source for the instability in the markets in 2018 is the president,” he said, warning of a run of damaging headlines for Republicans beginning this fall if things proceed on their current course.
President Trump, Paul D. Ryan, Mike Pence and other Republican leaders celebrated the House passing the American Health Care Act last month. CreditStephen Crowley/The New York Times
Republicans dismiss such talk and say that the public knows just where the problems with the health care law originated — and it is not with them.
“The blame belongs with Obamacare,” Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Republican leader, said recently. “There’s just no serious way to now try and spin away these years and years of Obamacare failures on cost.”
The ongoing debate overlooks an underlying problem with the Affordable Care Act. In the past, disputes such as the funding fight would have been resolved with corrective legislation.
Congress has traditionally taken years to resolve disagreements and unintended consequences arising from complex pieces of social legislation, as they continue to do with Medicare, which became law in the 1960s. But the bitter partisan divide over health care has prevented any such tweaking.
What to do about the payments will no doubt arise in budget talks between Capitol Hill and the White House.
The Trump administration could try again to extract concessions from Democrats by trading a commitment to continue funding the subsidies even though the White House was unsuccessful in doing so this year.
And if the Republican effort to find a substitute to the health care law ends in failure, which now seems a real possibility, perhaps Republicans and Democrats could find a way to come together to make repairs to the Affordable Care Act and resolve doubts surrounding the payments.
But for now, the uncertainty continues to imperil both the Affordable Care Act and the politicians who could be held accountable for any failure.

Let The Infrastructure Improvements Start!

Trump to Kick Off Infrastructure Drive With Air-Traffic Proposal

  • President has events planned in Washington, Ohio and Kentucky
  • Air-traffic system would be run by non-profit corporation
Donald Trump next week will send Congress a proposal to hand over control of the U.S. air-traffic control system to a non-profit corporation, part of a week-long push for his infrastructure plan, said Gary Cohn, the president’s chief economic adviser.
Gary Cohn
Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg
The proposal, which Trump will release on Monday in an Oval Office ceremony and Rose Garden event, will kick off what Cohn, director of the National Economic Council, called the formal launch of the president’s infrastructure initiative. Later in the week, Trump plans to travel to Ohio and Kentucky to garner support for his plan -- a key campaign promise -- to channel $1 trillion into the nation’s roads, bridges, inland waterways and other public facilities.
“We know that in many of these areas we’re falling behind, and the falling behind is affecting economic growth in the United States,’’ Cohn said on a call with reporters. “The president wants to fix the problems, and he doesn’t want to push these liabilities into the future.’’
Trump’s actions come after an initial outline of his infrastructure plan and his proposed budget sparked criticism from state and city leaders of both parties, who said they’d be left with too much of the financial burden.
For the $1 trillion plan, Trump has proposed $200 billion in federal spending on “targeted federal investments’’ in rural areas and for projects with regional or national priority, as well as for “self-help” incentives to spur states, localities and private entities to generate more of their own revenues for projects.

Shuster’s Plan

Congressional Democrats, who Trump is counting on to help get his plan through Congress, have also blasted the plan – as well as proposed 2018 budget cuts to transportation programs – and have said that significantly more direct federal funding is needed. The White House has said that it aims to have a full legislative plan for the initiative by the third quarter, although a White House official said Friday that the timing is “still open.”
Trump’s air-traffic control plan will be based largely on legislation introduced in 2016 by Representative Bill Shuster, the Pennsylvania Republican who chairs the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, according to a White House official. The official said there would be some changes from Shuster’s plan, which stalled in the face of opposition in the Senate and among some leading House Republicans, but declined to say what they would be.
While providing few specifics, Cohn said Trump’s proposal would create a new user fee to replace current taxes on aviation fuel and airline tickets. He also said there would be unspecified protections for rural airports; critics of the air-traffic plan have said it would jeopardize small airports by giving too much power to airlines and large hubs.

NextGen or Not?

While the Federal Aviation Administration is already years into a technology upgrade known as NextGen, the efficiency improvements it promises can be done more effectively outside of direct government control, say backers of the White House plan. The FAA would continue to monitor safety and write air-traffic regulations.
Most large airlines and some former high-level FAA managers favor the privatization plan, which is opposed by many Democratic lawmakers and private-aviation groups. The opponents say the current system works well, and they fear the transition would be a setback to the introduction of new technology.
About 60 countries, including Canada and the U.K., have gone to similar semi-private management of their air-traffic networks.
On June 7, Trump is scheduled to visit Ohio and Kentucky, including a stop at a location on the Ohio River that forms the border between the two states, to highlight the locks, dams and other elements of the inland waterways system crucial for moving agricultural products and other goods, Cohn said. The key principles of Trump’s plan, released May 23, called for a fee on commercial navigation to finance future capital investments.
On June 8, Trump will host governors and mayors at the White House for a bipartisan listening session, Cohn said.
Trump plans to finish the week at the Department of Transportation offices in Washington to discuss its efforts to streamline the regulatory approval and permitting process for road and rail projects, Cohn said. Approvals that can take 10 years should be done in two years or less, he added, and the White House has convened a task force of 16 agencies to examine policies, rules and laws that should be targeted to speed up the process.

Pressure Is Up On China And North Korea

Defense Secretary Mattis turns up heat on North Korea and China

SINGAPORE -- U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis turned up the heat on North Korea and its main benefactor, China, on Saturday, calling the North Koreans a "clear and present danger" and chastising the Chinese for coercive behavior in the South China Sea. 
His sharp words for both countries suggest he believes China will, out of self-interest, exert leverage on North Korea to halt its nuclear and missile programs even as Washington pushes Beijing to change course in the South China Sea. 
Speaking at an international security conference in Singapore, Mattis said the Trump administration is encouraged by China's renewed commitment to working with the U.S. and others to rid North Korea of its nuclear weapons. He also said he thinks China ultimately will see it as a liability rather than an asset. 
China blocked tough new sanctions against North Korea that the United States pushed in the U.N. Security Council on Friday. However, the Security Council did vote unanimously to add 15 individuals and four entities linked to the North's nuclear and missile programs to a U.N. sanctions blacklist. 
In his speech to the Shangri-La Dialogue, sponsored by the International Institute for Strategic Studies, Mattis sought to balance his hopeful comments on China with sharp criticism of what he called Beijing's disregard for international law by its "indisputable militarization" of artificial islands in disputed areas of the South China Sea

Secretary of Defense James Mattis speaks at the 16th IISS Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore June 3, 2017.

"We oppose countries militarizing artificial islands and enforcing excessive maritime claims unsupported by international law," he said. "We cannot and will not accept unilateral, coercive changes to the status quo." 
In an interview on CBS News' "Face the Nation" on Sunday, Mattis told host John Dickerson that "a conflict in North Korea ... would be probably the worst kind of fighting in most people's lifetimes."  
Rep. Mac Thornberry, a Republican from Texas and chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, told a news conference later that he believed Mattis had effectively stressed the U.S. commitment to allies in the Asia-Pacific region. 
"He was very clear, very strong," said Thornberry, who led a bipartisan congressional delegation on an Asia tour and attended Saturday's Singapore conference. 
Overall, Mattis' speech struck a positive, hopeful tone for cooperation and peace in the Asia-Pacific region, where he and his predecessors have made it a priority to nurture and strengthen alliances and partnerships. 
"While competition between the U.S. and China, the world's two largest economies, is bound to occur, conflict is not inevitable," he said. "Our two countries can and do cooperate for mutual benefit. We will pledge to work closely with China where we share common cause." 
He was, however, unrelentingly critical of North Korea, a politically and economically isolated nation whose leaders have long viewed the United States as a military threat, in part because of periodic U.S. military exercises with South Korea, which the North sees as preparations for attacks aimed at destroying its ruling elite. 
He called North Korea an "urgent military threat." In a question-and-answer session with his audience of national security experts from across the globe, Mattis was asked whether the U.S. might attack the North pre-emptively and without warning South Korea in advance.
"We're working diplomatically, economically, we're trying to exhaust all possible alternatives to avert this race for a nuclear weapon in violation of ... the United Nations' restrictions on North Korea's activities," he said. 
"We want to stop this. We consider it urgent," he added. 
The U.S. has about 28,500 troops permanently based in South Korea, a defense treaty ally. 
"North Korea's continued pursuit of nuclear weapons and the means to deliver them is not new," Mattis said in his prepared remarks. 
"But the regime has increased the pace and scope of its efforts," he added, alluding to the North's series of nuclear device tests in recent years and an accelerated pace of missile tests seemingly aimed at building a rocket with enough range to hit the U.S. 
"While the North Korean regime has a long record of murder of diplomats, of kidnapping, killing of sailors and criminal activity, its nuclear weapons program is maturing as a threat to all," Mattis said. "As a matter of national security, the United States regards the threat from North Korea as a clear and present danger." 
Mattis made no mention of President Donald Trump's decision to pull the U.S. out of the Paris climate change agreement
The issue arose briefly during questions from his audience, but Mattis did not address it directly. An Australian questioner asked, in light of Mr. Trump's abandonment of an international trade deal known as the Trans-Pacific Partnership, and his withdrawal from the Paris climate deal, "why should we not fret that we are present at the destruction of" a global rules-based order? 
"There's going to be fresh approaches taken" to various issues by Mr. Trump, Mattis said, while making it clear that he personally believes the U.S. needs to avoid isolationist tendencies. 
"Like it or not, we're part of the world," he said.