With Congress having effectively repealed its individual mandate in the tax relief bill, what should Republicans do about Obamacare now?
While eliminating a penalty for Americans who cannot afford government-approved health insurance removes a financial burden on low-income families, it does not give people the freedom to purchase the coverage they do want to buy. Doubtless the president’s October executive order, when implemented, will provide more affordable options through regulatory relief. But ensuring that relief remains intact through future administrations will require legislative action.
Thankfully, Congress has more tools at its disposal to repeal Obamacare’s regulatory morass than commonly believed. While conventional wisdom during last year’s health care debate held that Senate procedural restrictions prevent Republicans from repealing federal insurance requirements as part of a budget reconciliation measure, actual Senate precedent—as created by none other than Joe Biden—says otherwise.
How Joe Biden Used His Senate Presidency
While Democrats did not use budget reconciliation—a Senate procedure allowing bills to pass with a simple 51-vote majority, instead of the 60 votes needed to overcome a filibuster—to pass Obamacare, they did use a reconciliation bill to “fix” the law they passed. In March 2010, the Senate considered, and President Obama eventually signed, a reconciliation bill that removed the odious “Cornhusker Kickback” for Nebraska, and made other amendments to the health law.
That reconciliation bill also changed Obamacare’s regulatory regime. Specifically, Section 2301(a) of the reconciliation measure applied four insurance requirements—limiting waiting periods to join employer plans, banning lifetime limits, ending rescissions by insurers, and extending coverage to “dependents” under age 26—to “grandfathered” health plans established before the law’s enactment. In addition, Section 2301(b) of the bill amended Obamacare itself, removing language that limited under-26 “dependent” coverage to unmarried individuals.
During consideration of the reconciliation bill on the Senate floor, Iowa Republican Chuck Grassley objected to including these provisions. He argued that Section 2301 of the bill violated the Senate’s “Byrd rule,” designed to prevent the inclusion of matters with a merely incidental fiscal component on a budget reconciliation bill. In a colloquy memorialized in the Congressional Record, Vice President Biden, acting in his capacity as president of the Senate, overruled Grassley, and said the provisions in question did in fact comply with the “Byrd rule.”
This “Biden precedent” holds great import for efforts to repeal Obamacare’s regulatory regime. The Section 2301 provisions upheld as complying with the “Byrd rule” did not merely change the type of coverage that qualified for subsidies—in technical terms, altering the terms and conditions by which individuals receive payments from the government.
“Grandfathered” plans do not qualify for Obamacare subsidies, and many do not qualify for any tax preference. Yet Biden held that the new requirements on “grandfathered” plans held enough of a fiscal nexus to comply with the “Byrd rule” for budget reconciliation. As a result, the “Biden precedent” allows the Senate to enact—or to repeal outright—health insurance rules through the reconciliation process.
Democrats Paved the Way for Obamacare Repeal
Moreover, the particular insurance requirements included in Section 2301(a)—especially the restrictions on employer waiting periods and the ban on rescissions—carry a relatively small fiscal impact. Because Vice President Biden ruled that Democrats could enact these comparatively small requirements in a reconciliation bill, Senate Republicans should have every right to repeal more costly restrictions, such as those on essential health benefits and actuarial value, outright through budget reconciliation, rather than relying upon the cumbersome state waiver processes included in last year’s bills.
Senate sources indicate that, recognizing the “Biden precedent” would allow for a robust Obamacare repeal, Democratic staffers tried to limit its impact last year. They argued to Elizabeth MacDonough, the Senate parliamentarian, that changes covered by that precedent were targeted in scope, technical in nature, and limited only to plans that qualify for subsidies.
But a textual analysis of the 2010 reconciliation bill shows that it changed requirements for all types of health insurance, not just “grandfathered” plans, and not just those that qualified for subsidies. And because Biden overruled Republican objections that these changes to insurance rules exceeded the scope of budget reconciliation in 2010, Republicans can and should use that precedent to undo Obamacare’s regulatory regime.
Obamacare’s insurance rules represent the beating heart of the law, necessitating a massive system of subsidies and tax increases to make this newly expensive coverage “affordable.” Because Democrats used the “Biden precedent” to impose some of those rules through budget reconciliation, Republicans have every opportunity to repeal these requirements outright through a reconciliation bill. They should take that opportunity, for removing the regulatory regime would effectively repeal Obamacare—and permanently restore health care freedom to the American people.
Mr. Jacobs is founder and CEO of Juniper Research Group, a policy consulting firm based in Washington. He is on Twitter: @chrisjacobsHC.