Reporting on Politics and Policy.

July 30 2014 3:53 PM

The Great Obamacare Gaslighting of 2014

The case against Obamacare subsidies has no shortage of libertarian advocates or heroes, but the most powerful person on its side is probably Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt. In 2012, he became the first AG to sue the DHS on the same grounds as the plaintiffs in Halbig -- that the ACA referred several times to subsidies going to states that set up their own exchanges, so states that failed to do so were being illegally brought into the system by the IRS. "Should the courts decide the IRS is exceeding its authority and isn't allowed to assess the employer penalties in states that have not established their own exchanges," wrote Pruitt, "the structure of the ACA will crumble." So he wasn't going for subtlety.

Last week, a commenter at the Volokh Conspiracy discovered a speech by health care economist Jonathan Gruber, an architect of Romneycare and Obamacare, in which he appeared to endorse the "no exchange no subsidy" argument. That set off a search, by conservatives, to find Gruber saying the same in other places, and a counterattack by progressives (who cannot believe they have to prove this) pointing out that Gruber's other writing and cost-scoring assumed the subsidies for everyone. This week, Pruitt filed a motion to add Gruber's newly-uncovered quotes to the record.

Plainly, this newly-discovered evidence squarely controverts Defendants’evidence on this point, and establishes that it is far from “implausible” that the drafters or Section 36B intended to withhold tax credits and subsidies from states who declined to set up exchanges in order to place pressure on those states to set up exchanges. To the contrary, it is not only plausible, it now appears to be demonstrably true.
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Demonstrably. This is the apex, so far, of the Great Obamacare Gaslighting of 2014. To the delight of conservatives, progressive reporters like Greg Sargent and Ezra Klein keep producing evidence and interviews bolstering what seemed obvious just eight days ago. Sargent, who is a frequent target of conservative ire, came up with a tick-tock of the process that merged a HELP committee bill (a federal exchange, subsidies!) and a Finance committee bill (state exchanges) and left in excess verbiage.

But this has settled nothing. Phil Kerpen, the smart strategist who runs American Committment (and used to be a strategist at Americans for Prosperity), has used his Twitter account to tell a history of how conservatives throw their bodies against the gears, making sure states would refuse to set up exchanges, with the expectation that this could stop the law. On Monday, Kerpen tweeted a unifying theory of how liberals came to argue that the "exchange set up by the states" language was in error.

It's brilliant because, well, how can it be be debunked? Conservatives know that liberal policy reporters and columnists, like the people mentioned in this post, have been beckoned in to White House chat sessions. What did they know? When did they know it? Just asking the question, just assuming that they will not answer it honestly.

Meanwhile, the search is on for more isolated examples of liberals arguing for the importance of state exchanges. Each one feeds the theory -- which was enough for two judges in DC -- that Obamacare was always supposed to work like this, the subsidies were always conditional, and it's the liberals who are gaslighting by pretending otherwise.

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July 30 2014 1:42 PM

Burning Man Shrugged

Grover Norquist is not shy about media availibility, but yesterday was spectacularly busy. On Monday, Norquist had tweeted that he and his wife were "off to Burning Man" this year, after ages of wishing and hoping. According to Norquist's office, he got "eight or 10" calls from the press; the running joke was that reporters were never this curious about his capital gains tax stances. One of the reporters on the line was former Slate-ster Emma Roller:

Norquist insists that the drug-filled utopia in the desert shares some common values with his own group, Americans for Tax Reform.
"Burning Man was founded in '86, the same year as the Pledge, and the first Burning Man had 20 people at it, and our first Center-Right Meeting—the Wednesday Meeting—also had 20 people. So I think there's a real kinship there," Norquist says. "These are very similar operations, except we tend to wear more clothes perhaps at the Wednesday Meetings.
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But the most learned take on the news came from Brian Doherty, my friend and former colleague at Reason, whose book about Burning Man should have been a clue that anti-state radicals were fond of the festival. Doherty had reported, in 2012, on how festival founder Larry Harvey made the rounds in D.C.; it was under those circumstances that Norquist met him.

What does he make of the shock about this eventful news, Grover goes to Burning Man? "The right has a good idea of what guys on the left are like. We live in a world and a culture they dominate, we know what they think. They tend not to have a clue what conservatives do and think, all they have is a caricature." Norquist notes that it's pure ignorant prejudice to assume someone who wants to lower taxes can't possible appreciate, understand, or enjoy a culture filled with those who don't, or might not. 

Honestly, had someone like Bill Bennett or Rick Santorum decided to check out Burning Man, the proverbial man would have bitten the proverbial dog. But Norquist, perennial bard of the "Leave Us Alone Coalition," is a Burning Man natural. Modern libertarians have always overlapped with, and grown out of, the counterculture.

A more intriguing aspect of that is how wealthy businessmen, who come to politics less out of a desire to build desert sculptures and more to prevent regulation of their businesses. That's the story suggested by Lee Fang, who covered the annual Las Vegas FreedomFest—a studiously cool conference that stands apart from the dry klatsches you see in D.C.—and ran into Don Blankenship. Yes, Don Blankenship, he of Massey Energy, he of many pro-coal rallies in West Virginia. "I’m basically looking for information and fresh ideas,” Blankenship told Fang, from the meeting, which he attended right after the Heartland Institute's annual climate change skepticism conference. “We’re in a reg-cecession." The hipness of libertarianism was a much more attractive storm port than the messy, villifiable activism he'd paid for before. This, it's pretty clear, is a reason why Pando is publishing so many pieces about the unsung past of Reason and the (increasingly well-known) background of the Koch family and Rand Paul. There's an effort to close off an escape hatch, before these people can rebrand themselves as relatable, radical, and cool.

July 30 2014 11:41 AM

New IRS Bombshell: Lois Lerner Bemoaned Right-Wing Crazies  

No, it is not over. This morning, a smaller-than-usual group of House Oversight Committee members waged a friendly IRS scandal interrogation of four conservative witnesses, from Cleta Mitchell (who's representing some Tea Party groups in a lawsuit) to David Keating (formerly at the Club for Growth, now at the Center for Competitive Politics, which is filing complaints against senators who asked for the IRS to look into 501 funding), to two Heritage Foundation scholars. Mitchell, unsurprisingly, was the most compelling witness, relaying tales of the "mom and pop" organizations that hesitated to work on politics because the IRS asked for information like "will you host candidate debates" or "where will you be speaking for the next two years."

While that was happening, the Ways and Means Committee—which has been waging its own battle for Lois Lerner's emails—released what looked to be a conversation between Lerner and an unnamed, conservative-hating employee. The conversation, as Ways and Means had it, started with Lerner appearing to respond to something about "crazies" after the 2012 election.

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An unnamed email partner tells Lerner "you should hear the whacko wing of the GOP," and all they're saying about American decline.

Her companion says "the hosts," not the callers, are the crazy ones.

And that's basically how it ends. For Republicans, it is more proof that the attitude at the IRS was poisoned, and enabled rough treatment of Tea Party groups—why wouldn't it, given how little esteem the groups were held in? 

July 30 2014 10:11 AM

Voters, Cynicism, and Immigration Reform

The current immigration debate in Congress is a very small, shrunk-down version of the one that occupied much of 2013. The White House wants $3.7 billion for emergency border funds; the House GOP is ready to supply $3 billion less than that. Part of the Republican calculus: that voters increasingly blame the president's management of the border, not the inaction of Congress, for the problems in Texas and California and Arizona (and, fine, New Mexico).

Fox News' new poll seems to back them up. By a 5-point margin (45–40), voters say the child migrants from Central America are not "refugees" deserving humanitarian aid. It's a tie, 42–42, when people are asked whether they blame Obama or the conditions in Honduras, etc., for the crisis. This result, though, might be the best for the GOP:

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How do the numbers look when you limit the question to Hispanics? Well ... they still largely think that Democrats want reform in order to lock in more reliable votes.

True, by a larger margin, they also think Republicans believe they'll lose votes in the long run.

But some level of cynicism has taken hold, which is nice if you're a Republican congressman who wants to wait out the year and win some Senate seats in states where Hispanic voters won't be terrifically relevant.

July 30 2014 8:57 AM

Virginia’s Former Governor Has the Saddest Legal Defense

The trial of former Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell began yesterday, more than a year after The Washington Post broke the news that a rich grifter named Jonnie Williams had plied the governor's family with $165,000 in gifts and loans. As a scandal, it prevented Virginia's Republican Party from building any momentum in the election to replace McDonnell, and then faded for a while. It has returned because the trial is supplying world-class levels of pathos. The Richmond Times-Dispatch reports on the argument debuted by attorney John Brownlee, of how Williams could worm his way into the McDonnell family:

Brownlee said the marriage’s disintegration, which accelerated in fall 2011, was further evidence that the couple had not conspired to help Williams or hide what they took from him.
Brownlee told jurors that McDonnell had spent virtually half his term away from home, and that his hard work and dedication took its toll on his relationship with his wife.
“She said she hated him,” Brownlee told the jury.
“He did everything he could to help Maureen and give her confidence and self-esteem,” Brownlee said, but there wasn’t enough time spent at home, or enough money.
The result, said Brownlee, was “a rift so wide” that “an outsider could invade and poison the marriage.”
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Fox News reports on what happened when McDonnell's daughter Cailin took the stand.*

While asking her about the $15,000 catering bill for her wedding reception, which Williams paid, the prosecution also admitted photos of the wedding into evidence.
At that point Cailin broke down and began sobbing. The judge called for a 10-minute break and in subsequent questioning, she explained that it is "extremely painful" to look back on her wedding. "It's like there's a black cloud over it. I wish we could have just danced in the back yard with our family and friends," she said.

Every story from the trial is a little bit sadder. We're calling it the "crush defense," the argument that McDonnell's wife was so bored and distant that she cuddled up to Williams. It was during much of this period that McDonnell was floated as a possible vice president for Mitt Romney, which shows you how much logic applies to the quadrennial "veepstakes."

*Correction, July 30, 2014: This post originally misspelled Cailin McDonnell Young's first name.

July 29 2014 3:57 PM

The Immigration Bill, Like Every Bill, Is a Vehicle for Trolling

House Republicans met this morning for their weekly strategy session, and they came out—mostly—ready to back a scaled-down emergency immigration bill. That whole child migrant crisis at the Mexican border? Handled. The president had requested $3.7 billion in new money; House Republicans had cut that number by more than $3 billion, while repealing a 2008 law that gave Central American immigrants a separate detention path, and raiding the foreign aid budgets for Guatemala, Hondura, and El Salvador.

House conservatives were, according to other members, fairly muted. There was some griping from "the usual guys," said Rep. Devin Nunes, but no one threatening to blow up the plan.

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"I think that there is a sense among a lot of people that something has to be done," said Louisiana Rep. John Fleming. "I think there may be people willing to vote for it who think it doesn't contain what it needs to contain. Of course, my contention all along is that we never get credit if something passes the House and never makes it into law. If we pass something we know isn't going to be law, it's just political messaging. In this case, it's playing defense, covering ourselves, by saying we did something before we left."

The only possible threat, expressed by Alabama Rep. Mo Brooks, was that Senate Democrats might use this bill as a Trojan horse for a more comprehensive immigration reform.

A few hours later, Sen. Harry Reid raised that exact possibility.

"If they pass it," he said in his weekly presser, "maybe it’s an opening for us to have a conference on our comprehensive immigration reform. If they’re finally sending us something on immigration, maybe we could do that."

This drew an immediate condemnation from John Boehner, and more speedy countertrolling from Senate Republicans.

"He clearly doesn't want to do anything other than get a blank check," said Sen. John Cornyn. "I think he's trying to get the House to back down. The House has been the responsibility party here, coming up with a bipartisan solution."

July 29 2014 1:54 PM

The Official Eric Cantor Tribute Video Barely Mentions Obamacare

At this week's meeting of the House GOP conference, the assembled were shown a two-minute tribute to former Majority Leader Eric Cantor. His tenure was the only one many members had known—three years and seven months of slugging it out with the Obama administration. And in this official history, with music that sounds like something Hans Zimmer noodled around with before breakfast, the Cantor era was a time of bold, bipartisan experimentation with no compromise on Republican values.

Interesting to note what made it into the video. We see Cantor advocating the Gabriella Miller Kids First Research Act, speaking at the annual March for Life, speaking atfer a visit to a death camp in Poland, and talking up a campaign to end child trafficking. The only glancing mention of Obamacare comes when Cantor stands behind a lectern with the hashtag #SenateMustAct, and says "we're into the fight, and we want the Senate to join us." That was the hashtag (and speech) used when the House acceeded to conservative demands and tried to jam the Senate with a continuing resolution that defunded Obamacare. This vote was forced on Cantor after his original plan to stage a CR vote and a separate defund vote angered the right.

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I guess there can't be any mention of the House GOP's 2014 vote to replace Obamacare with a conservative dream bill. That plan died when Cantor lost his primary.

July 29 2014 11:58 AM

The Long Tail of “Dead Broke”

Yesterday, Fusion ran Jorge Ramos' interview with Hillary Clinton about her book, her wealth, and the pre-presidential campaign. Ramos took two hard swings at the wealth issue, and Republican tracking groups popped bottles when she stammered to talk about her "net worth." (She would only allow that her family was worth "millions.") And Ramos also asked if Clinton regretted telling Diane Sawyer that her family was "dead broke" upon leaving the White House.

"I regret it," she said. "It was inartful. It was accurate, but we are so successful and so blessed by the success we had."

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Clinton has spent a whole month apologizing for that quote. Right after she gave it, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel gave her a chance to walk it back, and she did so: "That may have not been the most artful way of saying that, you know, Bill and I have gone through a lot of different phases in our lives." Weeks later, Bill Clinton attacked the "fabricated" narrative around "dead broke," reminding a CNN reporter that the Clintons were piled up with debt in January 2001.

They've got to be sick of this by now. Maggie Haberman had it nailed three weeks ago: Hillary Clinton was "still raw over the partisan wars that hindered her husband’s legacy and left the couple with millions of dollars in legal debt." Her answer, as she told Ramos, was accurate, and it's baffling to her that this became a "gaffe." As she continued her tour, HarperCollins was printing up copies of Clinton, Inc., a tell-all by the Weekly Standard's Daniel Halper. On Page 18, Halper recalls that in 2001 "the Clintons were broke, owing a fortune in legal fees from the many investigations into their personal lives," and that they had to be loaned $1.3 by Terry McAuliffe. Until just a month ago, that was how even conservatives remembered the Clintons' departure from the White House.

But a conservative author could call the Clintons "broke." Hillary Clinton could not. In the sprawling world of Clinton defenders (whom I spent some time with, for a story going up later), this is deeply annoying.

July 29 2014 10:49 AM

What’s the Real Consultant Scandal in Georgia?

One day after it was leaked, the story about Michelle Nunn's December 2013 campaign memo has been simplified. It was a blunder, a gaffe, which Nunn (who was previously nailed for a troublesome guest at a fundraiser) cannot afford. The "problematic association" story has sunk in, even though this AJC headline gets at how far you have to leap to tie Nunn to an actual scandal: "Michelle Nunn non-profit validated grants to charity with Hamas-tied affiliate." (The verb "validate" appears because Nunn's Points of Light did not actually dispense money; the modifier "-tied" appears because Islamic Relief USA claims to be independent of the other Islamic Relief charities, for all the good that does.)

It's a fascinating picture of what is and isn't a scandal. The same day that Eliana Johnson scooped the Nunn memo, OpenSecrets reporter Russ Choma ran a long investigation of the money sloshing around a shadowy Ohio group that played big in Georgia. The story is complicated, but the gist is that Republican strategist Nick Ayers' firm has been paid by the Government Integrity Fund and the Jobs & Progress Fund.

[The Jobs & Progress Fund] more than $1.6 million into a super PAC called Citizens for a Working America. That group promptly began attacking Rep. Jack Kingston, the 11-term Georgia Republican running against David Perdue for the U.S. Senate seat vacated by Saxby Chambliss.
In June, another Ohio nonprofit, the Government Integrity Fund, poured an additional $410,000 into Citizens for a Working America as the super PAC’s attacks on Kingston — and ads supportive of Perdue — continued to roll.
One ad shortly before the runoff accused Kingston of being involved with a straw donor scheme to funnel money illegally to his campaign and hide its true source. The Jobs & Progress Fund also bought its own ads directly, spending more than $138,000 and turning up the pressure further.
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Meanwhile, Ayers was scoring a win with the David Perdue campaign. Perdue happens to be the cousin of Sonny Perdue, the first Republican governor of Georgia since Reconstruction, whose 2002 win effectively kickstarted Ayers' career. Only the political money-watchers seem to find a story or a scandal in this. Hey, it's not like anyone validated a group that is tied to a group that is barred from working in Israel because of Hamas ties.

July 29 2014 8:36 AM

What if Medicare Spending Decreased and Nobody Cared?

Nobody can agree on what caused the good news in the latest Medicare trustees report. The trustees certainly can't. In the Washington Post, Amy Goldstein writes matter-of-factly that "Medicare’s financial stability has been strengthened by the Affordable Care Act and other forces." At Vox, Sarah Kliff warns that "some senior administration officials I spoke with cautioned against reading too much into these particular figures; receipts for services rendered in 2013, for example, might trickle after the year has ended." In the Washington Examiner, Philip Klein quotes Medicare's actuary to point out that the cuts may not "be viable in the long range." And in the Boston Globe, Stephen Ohlemacher runs the bases: "Experts debate whether the health-spending slowdown is the result of a sluggish economy or represents a dividend from President Obama’s health care law, and more recent Medicare cuts by Congress." Isn't that just like the experts! 

Perhaps the best way to read the good news, that Medicare Part A spending fell from $266.8 billion to $266.2 from 2012 to 2013, is to imagine what the reaction might have been had the numbers moved the other direction. How would we be talking about the phase-in of Obamacare, and its Medicare spending reductions? Pretty obvious: We'd be branding it a disaster, failure, debacle, impeachment-fodder, etc. After all, it's four years since the law passed, and ads for Republican candidates still scorch the Democrats for "cutting $700 billion from seniors' Medicare."

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The ads are not wrong, as the doctors already dropped from Medicare Advantage eligibility will happily tell you. But the obsession of Washington's dealmakers is Medicare spending, and finding some way to prevent a demographic apocalypse. The trustees point out that the Obamacare cuts had added, since 2010, 13 years to the life expectancy of the Medicare trust fund. Democrats don't want to campaign on the cost reductions; Republicans prefer to focus on the cuts than on the savings. The result: The White House bragging about savings, some versions of the Medicare story putting it in the lede, and public awareness remaining close to nil.

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