Category Archives: Social Security

Obamacare’s Secret Is Out

October 15, 2013 at 6:30 am
by Amy Payne

Timing is everything. And just as Congress’s focus seems to be drifting from Obamacare’s ravages on the economy, Americans are learning the reason this law’s implementation was postponed until after the presidential election.

That reason is becoming clear as person after person opens the mail. Insurance costs are going up. For many, not just going up—skyrocketing.

Ross, a married father of three small boys in Florida, tells us his insurance will be going up $525 per month. “I feel completely helpless,” he says.

Kevin, who also has three small boys, just found out his wife’s individual health insurance premium will be jumping from $79 per month to $311.82 per month.

“For whom exactly is the Affordable Care Act making care affordable?” asked Kevin, who lives in Alabama.

But this isn’t all. While people are receiving notices that their premiums are going up or perhaps their health plans are being discontinued, there’s a secret in Obamacare’s exchanges, too.

One of the reasons the Obamacare website has been so slow and glitchy? It requires people to enter personal information before they’re able to see insurance plan options. Health and Human Services does this so that if you’re eligible for a subsidy, you won’t see the true cost of your health plan.

Obamacare is laden with mandates that are driving up the cost of health insurance. And it didn’t stop with the original law. Federal bureaucrats are continuing to write more Obamacare regulations. One estimate is that these paper pushers have added 30 words of regulations for every word in the original law.

No small tweak to Obamacare can fix this. No small tweak can give relief to these hard-working dads who are supporting their families and getting the wind knocked out of them by hundreds of dollars in insurance hikes.

If Congress does anything less than defund Obamacare, it is turning its back on all of these suffering Americans.

Read the Morning Bell and more en español every day at Heritage Libertad.

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The President’s Legal Authority at the Debt Limit

By Andrew Kloster

Some time between the middle and the end of October, the federal government will reach a hard limit on the amount of debt it can issue, and its ability to finance governmental operations will be affected. Confusion about the debt limit abounds, and this Issue Brief will address some common questions.

What Is the Debt Limit?

The United States debt limit, or debt ceiling, is the statutorily defined amount of debt the U.S. Treasury can issue, either by borrowing from the public or issuing an intragovernmental receipt to special accounts, such as the Social Security or Medicare trust funds.[1]

The Treasury Department has to have liquidity, or cash on hand, to disburse the funds necessary to meet its contractual obligations. The federal government maintains this liquidity by managing governmental receipts (such as income tax payments) and selling debt (such as Treasury bonds).

Will a Government Shutdown Occur If the Debt Limit Is Not Raised?

The debt limit is often confused with the expiration of appropriations bills. Reaching the debt limit is distinct from a government shutdown. A government shutdown occurs when appropriations authorization expires: Unless there is a law saying that money may be spent on a project, money may not be spent on that project.[2] A debate over an appropriations bill is a debate over whether to fund a specific government function. When the government shutdown began, only certain statutorily defined “essential” government functions have continued to operate.[3]

The debate over the debt limit, however, is a debate over how to finance governmental operations—reaching the debt limit would not force a government shutdown. Currently, the debt limit is $16.699 trillion.[4] The federal government reached this limit on May 19, 2013, and Treasury has since used statutorily allowed “extraordinary measures” to avoid issuing additional debt and still have the cash on hand to finance day-to-day operations. When the Treasury exhausts these extraordinary measures, the federal government will continue operating. However, the President might decide that federal employees, for example, will not necessarily be issued checks available to cash immediately.

Even without the ability to issue additional debt, the government will continue to accrue legal obligations; it will simply not be able to immediately liquidate (pay cash for) those obligations.[5]

What Happens to the U.S. Debt If We Reach the Debt Limit?

It is impossible to tell what would happen if the debt limit is not raised.[6] If Congress and the President are unable to reach an agreement on raising the debt ceiling, markets and credit rating agencies might interpret this negatively as unwillingness of the U.S. government to honor its obligation. If the President chooses to default on all obligations rather than a few (discussed below), this could exacerbate the problem. Market perception of U.S. sovereign debt directly affects bond yields (interest rate paid) on U.S. debt, so decisions the President makes can actually save or cost the government money in the long term.

The Prompt Payment Act[7] provides that the “temporary unavailability of funds to make a timely payment” does not excuse delayed payment and that the government is responsible for paying interest charges on such delayed payments. Over time, these interest penalties capitalize, so the federal government ends up paying compound interest. Depending on how the President manages payments, statutory interest payments may be greater or smaller.

What Would the President Prioritize?

While there have been proposals to cabin the authority of the executive to prioritize payments,[8] as it stands there is no statute governing how to manage government finances past the debt limit. Since governmental obligations would exceed receipts, exceeding the debt limit logically implies that at least some obligations would be delayed. These obligations would thus, by definition, be in default. There is no general “governmental default” past the debt limit; default would occur with respect to specific obligations that the President chooses not to prioritize.

There are constitutional backstops on the President’s otherwise plenary authority to prioritize payments.[9] Of these, the most important is that the President may not prioritize payment in violation of the Due Process Clause of the Fifteenth Amendment. He may not, for example, choose to pay the salaries of federal employees of one race before paying the salaries of federal employees of another race. Subject to this limitation, the President’s prioritization choices are essentially unbounded.

The President could, of course, play a game of political brinksmanship and fail to pay any obligations until the debt ceiling is raised. He could argue that all obligations are on an equal footing and that prioritizing payments violates some principle of fairness. Former Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner made statements about the political unworkability of prioritization in the past,[10] but to date, Treasury has not disavowed its legal authority in this area. Failing to prioritize debt obligations would have far-reaching consequences, however, including potentially increasing the cost of servicing the debt long after the debt limit crisis ends.

Further, to the extent that this situation would involve having cash on hand and failing to pay some receipts, this option implicates the Congressional Budget and Impoundment Act of 1974, which prevents the President from deferring any “budget authority.” This phrase is defined to include “borrowing authority, which means authority granted to a federal entity to borrow and obligate and expend the borrowed funds.”[11] Holding cash until such time that the Treasury can meet all of its payments necessarily includes deferring expenditures of borrowed funds until such time as the debt ceiling is raised, which would implicate these statutory limitations.[12]

The President could also choose to continue payments for “essential” services analogous to those defined in the appropriations context.[13] There is no statutory requirement for this decision, but the idea that there are “core” functions of the federal government that ought to remain liquid is easily understandable. Meeting debt obligations and paying military personnel might be prioritized at the expense of other obligations, such as issuing certain grants and loans to private-sector firms and to state and local governments, for example. So-called mandatory spending, such as Social Security payments, do continue during a government shutdown, but they need not be prioritized at the debt limit.[14]

The President could also pick and choose among programs he likes and those he does not like. He might direct Treasury to pay Department of Defense employees before Department of Education employees, or vice versa. Whatever decision he makes would be essentially unchallengable in court.

Ultimately, however the President chooses to manage payments, delays will accumulate and worsen until either spending is cut or the debt ceiling is raised.

Broad Authority

In brief, the President has broad authority to manage government payments to avoid defaulting on federal obligations. He can choose which payments to make and in which order, and these choices will impact the effects on the average U.S. taxpayer and the economy.

—Andrew Kloster is a Legal Fellow in the Edwin Meese III Center for Legal and Judicial Studies at The Heritage Foundation.

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A Small President on the World Stage

At the U.N., leaders hope for a return of American greatness.

The world misses the old America, the one before the crash—the crashes—of the past dozen years.

By PEGGY NOONAN

That is the takeaway from conversations the past week in New York, where world leaders gathered for the annual U.N. General Assembly session. Our friends, and we have many, speak almost poignantly of the dynamism, excellence, exuberance and leadership of the nation they had, for so many years, judged themselves against, been inspired by, attempted to emulate, resented.

As for those who are not America’s friends, some seem still confused, even concussed, by the new power shift. What is their exact place in it? Will it last? Will America come roaring back? Can she? Does she have the political will, the human capital, the old capability?

It is a world in a new kind of flux, one that doesn’t know what to make of America anymore. In part because of our president.

“We want American leadership,” said a member of a diplomatic delegation of a major U.S. ally. He said it softly, as if confiding he missed an old friend.

“In the past we have seen some America overreach,” said the prime minister of a Western democracy, in a conversation. “Now I think we are seeing America underreach.” He was referring not only to foreign policy but to economic policies, to the limits America has imposed on itself. He missed its old economic dynamism, its crazy, pioneering spirit toward wealth creation—the old belief that every American could invent something, get it to market, make a bundle, rise.

The prime minister spoke of a great anxiety and his particular hope. The anxiety: “The biggest risk is not political but social. Wealthy societies with people who think wealth is a given, a birthright—they do not understand that we are in the fight of our lives with countries and nations set on displacing us. Wealth is earned. It is far from being a given. It cannot be taken for granted. The recession reminded us how quickly circumstances can change.” His hope? That the things that made America a giant—”so much entrepreneurialism and vision”—will, in time, fully re-emerge and jolt the country from the doldrums.

The second takeaway of the week has to do with a continued decline in admiration for the American president. Barack Obama‘s reputation among his fellow international players has deflated, his stature almost collapsed. In diplomatic circles, attitudes toward his leadership have been declining for some time, but this week you could hear the disappointment, and something more dangerous: the sense that he is no longer, perhaps, all that relevant. Part of this is due, obviously, to his handling of the Syria crisis. If you draw a line and it is crossed and then you dodge, deflect, disappear and call it diplomacy, the world will notice, and not think better of you. Some of it is connected to the historical moment America is in.

But some of it, surely, is just five years of Mr. Obama. World leaders do not understand what his higher strategic aims are, have doubts about his seriousness and judgment, and read him as unsure and covering up his unsureness with ringing words.

A scorching assessment of the president as foreign-policy actor came from a former senior U.S. diplomat, a low-key and sophisticated man who spent the week at many U.N.-related functions. “World leaders are very negative about Obama,” he said. They are “disappointed, feeling he’s not really in charge. . . . The Western Europeans don’t pay that much attention to him anymore.”

The diplomat was one of more than a dozen U.S. foreign-policy hands who met this week with the new president of Iran, Hasan Rouhani. What did he think of the American president? “He didn’t mention Obama, not once,” said the former envoy, who added: “We have to accept the fact that the president is rather insignificant at the moment, and rely on our diplomats.” John Kerry, he said, is doing a good job.

Had he ever seen an American president treated as if he were so insignificant? “I really never have. It’s unusual.” What does he make of the president’s strategy: “He doesn’t know what to do so he stays out of it [and] hopes for the best.” The diplomat added: “Slim hope.”

This reminded me of a talk a few weeks ago, with another veteran diplomat who often confers with leaders with whom Mr. Obama meets. I had asked: When Obama enters a room with other leaders, is there a sense that America has entered the room? I mentioned de Gaulle—when he was there, France was there. When Reagan came into a room, people stood: America just walked in. Does Mr. Obama bring that kind of mystique?

“No,” he said. “It’s not like that.”

When the president spoke to the General Assembly, his speech was dignified and had, at certain points, a certain sternness of tone. But after a while, as he spoke, it took on the flavor of re-enactment. He had impressed these men and women once. In the cutaways on C-Span, some delegates in attendance seemed distracted, not alert, not sitting as if they were witnessing something important. One delegate seemed to be scrolling down on a BlackBerry, one rifled through notes. Two officials seated behind the president as he spoke seemed engaged in humorous banter. At the end, the applause was polite, appropriate and brief.

The president spoke of Iran and nuclear weapons—”we should be able to achieve a resolution” of the question. “We are encouraged” by signs of a more moderate course. “I am directing John Kerry to pursue this effort.”

But his spokesmen had suggested the possibility of a brief meeting or handshake between Messrs. Obama and Rouhani. When that didn’t happen there was a sense the American president had been snubbed. For all the world to see.

Which, if you are an American, is embarrassing.

While Mr. Rouhani could not meet with the American president, he did make time for journalists, diplomats and businessmen brought together by the Asia Society and the Council on Foreign Relations. Early Thursday evening in a hotel ballroom, Mr. Rouhani spoke about U.S.-Iranian relations.

He appears to be intelligent, smooth, and he said all the right things—”moderation and wisdom” will guide his government, “global challenges require collective responses.” He will likely prove a tough negotiator, perhaps a particularly wily one. He is eloquent when speaking of the “haunted” nature of some of his countrymen’s memories when they consider the past 60 years of U.S.-Iranian relations.

Well, we have that in common.

He seemed to use his eloquence to bring a certain freshness, and therefore force, to perceived grievances. That’s one negotiating tactic. He added that we must “rise above petty politics,” and focus on our nations’ common interests and concerns. He called it “counterproductive” to view Iran as a threat; this charge is whipped up by “alarmists.” He vowed again that Iran will not develop a nuclear bomb, saying this would be “contrary to Islamic norms.”

I wondered, as he spoke, how he sized up our president. In roughly 90 minutes of a speech followed by questions, he didn’t say, and nobody thought to ask him.

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Obama’s doomed attempt to save his legacy

The White House adopts a strategy of deception by distraction

By Emily Miller

President Obama’s approval ratings are falling faster than skydiver Felix Baumgartner during his record-setting jump from outer space.

In a desperate move to salvage his second term, Mr. Obama threw out his top liberal agenda items — immigration, gun control and race relations — and pivoted to the economy. The problem is that the only one to blame for the five-year malaise is the current resident of the Oval Office.

The president fueled up Air Force One on Wednesday to fly to the heartland for two stops in an attempt to physically distance himself from Washington.

“It may seem hard right now, but if we’re willing to take a few bold steps — if Washington will just shake off its complacency, set aside the kind of slash-and-burn partisanship that we’ve seen over the past few years — I promise you, our economy will be stronger a year from now,” Mr. Obama said at the University of Central Missouri in Warrensburg.

The president acts like he just arrived at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue last week. He’s had four years, yet his policies have failed to create jobs and restore economic growth.

“There are days I think he forgets that he is actually president,” Reince Priebus, the chairman of the Republican National Committee, told me Thursday. “He wants to blame everyone but himself and his failure to join bipartisan efforts to create jobs, like the Keystone pipeline, is the reason we are not in a better place.”

The economy has never grown much more than by minuscule amounts during the Obama administration. Gross domestic product has grown at an anemic pace since he’s been in the White House, barely sputtering at 1.8 percent in the first quarter of 2013. Unemployment under Mr. Obama has averaged a discouraging 8.8 percent and still tops out at 7.6 percent.

Gas prices are rising again, but Mr. Obama spent a long stretch of these speeches touting the doubling of “clean energy” production on his watch. He claimed to have “saved the auto industry,” but didn’t mention that Detroit has gone bankrupt.

Most absurdly, he cited as a point of pride that “our deficits are falling at the fastest rate in 60 years.” He left out two key points: The congressional Republicans demanded spending cuts for increasing the debt ceiling, and the rate of decrease is high because the deficits themselves have been the largest red ink in U.S. history. Spending was $1.4 trillion more than revenue in 2009 and $1 trillion more in 2012.

The Congressional Budget Office projects a $642 billion deficit for this fiscal year, but that’s mostly because Mr. Obama hiked taxes on Jan. 1 to pay for his spending habits.

The president takes almost as little responsibility for his own actions as Anthony D. Weiner, the disgraced sexting addict and former congressman running for New York City mayor.

“With this endless parade of distractions and political posturing and phony scandals, Washington has taken its eye off the ball. And I am here to say this needs to stop,” the president said in a 64-minute speech at Knox College in Galesburg, Ill. “Our focus has to be on the basic economic issues that matter most to you, the people we represent.”

By “phony scandals,” Mr. Obama is referring to the Internal Revenue Service targeting conservatives and then concealing the evidence and refusing to provide testimony to a congressional committee. He is also referring to his Justice Department sneaking into the emails and phone calls of reporters who don’t support the Obama administration’s agenda.

The president’s “endless parade of distractions” would also include exposing the National Security Agency’s secret Prism program that has been spying on innocent Americans’ Internet searches, phone calls and emails.

It has also been distracting to have Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. launch an investigation into whether George Zimmerman broke federal racial discrimination laws when he killed Trayvon Martin in self-defense.

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Tax writers promise 50 years of secrecy for senators’ suggestions

By Bernie Becker

The Senate’s top tax writers have promised their colleagues 50 years worth of secrecy in exchange for suggestions on what deductions and credits to preserve in tax reform.

Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.) and the panel’s top Republican, Sen. Orrin Hatch (Utah), assured lawmakers that any submission they receive will be kept under lock and key by the committee and the National Archives until the end of 2064.

Deeming the submissions confidential, the Senate’s top tax writers have said only certain staff members — 10 in all — will get direct access to a senator’s written suggestions. Each submission will also be given its own ID number and be kept on password-protected servers, with printed versions kept in locked safes.

The promise of confidentiality was revealed just two days before the deadline for senators to participate in the Finance Committee’s “blank slate” process, which puts the onus on lawmakers to argue for what credits and deductions should be kept in a streamlined tax code.

A Finance Committee aide said Baucus and Hatch were trying to prove to colleagues that they were making secrecy a priority. Officials on the panel circulated the news to senators in a memo that was dated last Friday.

“The letter was done at the request of offices to provide some assurance that the committee would not make their submissions public,” the aide said. “Sens. Baucus and Hatch are going out of their way to assure their colleagues they will keep the submissions in confidence.”

Keeping the submissions confidential for a half century, the aide added, was “standard operating procedure for sensitive materials, including investigation materials.”

The lengths Baucus and Hatch have gone to reassure their colleagues underscores the importance the tax writers are placing on the blank-slate plan, and it shows they are working hard to ensure that all 100 senators engage in the process.

Baucus told The Hill he fully expects more senators to participate in writing because of the secrecy guarantee.

“Several senators have said to me how important that is to them,” Baucus said. “It’s quite significant.”

It also illustrates the enormous pressure being brought to bear by K Street lobbyists, who are working furiously to protect their clients and the tax provisions that benefit them.

The move raises the stakes for Baucus and Hatch, who stand to lose credibility if the submissions start to leak out despite their vow to keep them in the vault.

Baucus announced this week that the Finance panel would mark up a tax reform bill this fall, after he has a chance during the August recess to consider his colleagues’ submissions. He suggested that the senators who take part in the blank-slate process would have greater influence.

From the start of the process, senators have expressed concerns that Baucus and Hatch wouldn’t be able to keep their proposals private. Given the enormous amount of money on the line — more than $1 trillion a year in tax expenditures are up for possible elimination — blowback from interest groups and businesses could easily derail the process.

The blank slate, some senators argue, forces them to choose sides on tax breaks that can have fervent backers back home and make them appear to be favoring special interests.

Hatch stressed that he still expects a fair number of GOP senators to give him oral suggestions, and Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.) told The Hill that he thought all Republicans would decide against putting ideas down on paper.

“We’re getting a lot of input regardless,” Hatch said. “All I want is input. I don’t care how they do it, whether it’s in writing or whether it’s personally.”

Under the confidential procedures set by the Finance panel, other committee staffers will only be allowed to handle senators’ suggestions if supervised by at least of the 10 authorized staffers.

Both the Democratic and Republican sides will receive a copy of a submission, and authorized staffers are supposed to log when copies of those proposals are made, who made them and how many.

The submissions can be released publicly, the memo says, if they’re scrubbed of any way of identifying the senator behind them.

But the confidentiality agreement might not be enough to get some senators off the sidelines.

Many have questioned whether it makes sense to move forward on the blank-slate approach when Democrats and Republicans have yet to resolve their long-standing differences about revenue.

While Republicans want the additional revenue from a simplified code to be used solely for lowering tax rates, Democrats want some of the windfall to go toward paying down the deficit.

Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) stressed that he didn’t think any leaks would come out of the committee, even as he said he didn’t think it would have much impact on what senators actually write.

“If anything comes out, it’s certainly not going to be attributable to the leadership of the committee or the staff,” Cardin said. “It’ll be some other way it comes out, which is always possible.”

Still, Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.), who said that all Republicans were meeting one-on-one with Hatch, added that the two top tax writers were taking a chance.

“I think that, unfortunately for them, people around here tend to believe that anything in Washington — there are no secrets,” Thune said. “But they’re doing their best.”

“That should be somewhat reassuring,” Thune added. “I think people will feel a little bit more freedom.”

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