Two birds with one stone: CBO boosts efforts to undo ObamaCare mandate in tax reform

A path to tax reform through reconciliation just got a little easier — if Senate Republicans dare to take it. The Congressional Budget Office backed down from an earlier declaration of an intent to change its methodology for calculating the impact of the individual mandate in ObamaCare, a change it said would significantly reduce its budgetary impact. Instead, the CBO stuck to its consistent methodology and reported this morning that repealing the individual mandate would save $338 billion over the next ten years:

Late this afternoon CBO will publish an updated estimate of the effects of repealing the individual mandate requiring people to have health insurance meeting specified standards and that imposes penalties on those without an exemption who do not comply.

In that document, CBO and the staff of the Joint Committee on Taxation estimate that repealing that mandate starting in 2019 would reduce federal budget deficits by $338 billion between 2018 and 2027 relative to CBO’s most recent baseline. Other information about the policy’s effects on the budget, health insurance coverage, and premiums will be included in today’s report.

That would go a long way to solving a problem that has split the Republican caucus in the Senate. In fact, it might get Republicans all the way across the finish line, assuming they take advantage of it. In order to qualify for reconciliation, the finished tax reform bill cannot add to the deficit outside of the boundaries of the recently passed budget resolution, which has a 10-year, $1.5 trillion deficit, which was controversial enough to draw a no vote from Rand Paul last month. If the red ink goes beyond that point, the bill can’t qualify for reconciliation.

And … it’s gonna be close:

The GOP’s tax bill would add $1.7 trillion to the national debt over the course of a decade, and increase the country’s debt-to-GDP ratio by 5.9 percentage points, according to the Congressional Budget Office.

The CBO analysis found that the bill would cut revenues by $1.4 trillion, which falls within the level Republicans allowed themselves in their budget resolution, but the additional cost of debt servicing would mean that the overall debt would increase by $1.7 trillion.

The solution appears simple — just add in the mandate repeal, and suddenly the bill falls below the $1.5 trillion mark again. There might even be enough room to narrow or eliminate other “revenue enhancers,” such as raising the gas tax or a 5% “fee” on residential deliveries, which have conservatives wondering when the GOP became the home for tax hikes. All of this is necessitated by the rules of reconciliation for the tax reform bill, plus a complete inability to seriously reduce spending.

But wait, one might ask: doesn’t reconciliation only apply to budgetary and tax matters? Ah, but the mandate is a tax, you’ll recall, a position affirmed by the Supreme Court a few years ago. Chief Justice John Roberts bent over backward to approve the mandate, falling back on Congress’ power to levy taxes. As such, the mandate becomes entirely germane to the budget debate and tax reform. It also becomes a back door to undoing ObamaCare by letting the air out of its tires rather than just stopping the entire car, which — to say the least — is a far from the optimal strategy in either scenario.

It’s precisely that uncontrolled approach — a Jenga-esque strategy — that has Republicans reluctant to adopt it. Bloomberg reports this morning that Senate Republicans may simply end up with no other options:

They may pursue a risky strategy to make up the shortfall: repealing the 2010 Affordable Care Act’s individual mandate. House Republicans are edging closer to accepting President Donald Trump’s suggestion to combine their tax legislation with a repeal of the mandate that all individuals purchase health insurance, according to a person who’s helping to draft the tax bill.

While the move would give House tax writers an estimated $416 billion in sorely needed offsets for the deep rate cuts they want, it risks alienating GOP senators, who voted down a measure that would have repealed the so-called individual mandate last summer. …

It may gain even more traction after a report showed that changing one of the international provisions — effectively gutting a controversial proposal to tax U.S. companies’ payments to related foreign affiliates — along with some other last-minute changes from Monday evening would increase the 10-year deficit that the tax bill would produce by $160.7 billion, to $1.57 trillion, according to the Joint Committee on Taxation. The tax legislation must stay under the $1.5 trillion limit set in Congress’s 2018 budget resolution to avoid the threat of a Democratic filibuster in the Senate that could kill it.

Still, House Freedom Caucus Chairman Mark Meadows doubted that the repeal of the Obamacare mandate would be included in the House bill. “There is a concern about having the health-care debate and tax reform happen simultaneously,” Meadows said earlier Tuesday. “House leadership hasn’t specifically said that but the indication, if I’m reading between the lines, is there’s no way it gets in the House version.”

In one sense, such a move could give Republicans the opportunity to claim success on their two biggest agenda items this session. A failure to repeal ObamaCare or to do much of anything else in Congress so far this year is likely a large contributing factor to last night’s utter debacle in Virginia. Republicans who face re-election next year have new reasons to start thinking outside the box and chalk up a few wins. Combining tax reform with a mandate repeal would kill two birds with one stone, at least in the short run.

In the long run, though, Senate Republicans may be very leery about the impact of repealing the mandate while leaving the rest of ObamaCare in place. If the death spiral accelerates and the markets collapse, they’ll get the blame, and that might take place just as voters go to the polls next November. Would any of the balkers over the summer suddenly take that risk? Susan Collins? Lisa Murkowski? John McCain? Bueller? Bueller?

No one said governing would be easy. Let’s see if Republicans can manage an attempt at it.

Jazz Shaw Jul 03, 2022 10:01 AM ET