This commentary originally appeared in The Federalist on March 22, 2017.
As the House of Representatives steamrolls toward a vote tomorrow on Republicans’ “repeal-and-replace” legislation, lawmakers weighing their vote may wish to consider a few key questions. These include:
- How did an ostensibly “technical” amendment end up withdrawing refundable tax credits from up to seven million veterans?
- Does Donald Trump—who released a specific plan early in his campaign to “ensure our veterans get the care they need wherever and whenever they need it”—realize the potentially broad-ranging effects of this “technical” amendment on veterans?
- What other supposedly “technical” language will have unintended consequences should House Republicans rush to put this legislation on the statute books without fully digesting its effects?
Conservatives have their own (justifiable) concerns with the underlying substance of the new tax credit entitlement, but this “technical” amendment provides a microcosm of the problems that result when legislators rush to judgment based on arbitrary deadlines. Just as with Obamacare itself, lawmakers may find they have to pass the bill to find out what’s in it.
Where the Conflict Comes From
As I explained last week, the original House bill had a potentially fatal flaw in its tax credit “firewall.” Language designed to ensure individuals with other forms of health insurance—such as Medicare, Medicaid, Tricare, and Veterans Affairs coverage—did not receive the credit touched upon other committees of jurisdiction in the Senate, such as Armed Services and Veterans Affairs. Under budget reconciliation procedures, a committee—the Senate Finance Committee, in this instance—cannot include subject matter outside its own jurisdiction; doing so could cause the entire bill to lose its procedural privilege as a reconciliation measure.
Due to these procedural concerns, the House released a technical amendment late Monday evening that, according to a summary, “includes the technical restructuring of the new tax credit made as a result of Senate guidance to maintain the privilege of the bill.” However, in restructuring the credit, staff—whether by accident or design—ended up eliminating eligibility for an entire class of veterans.
Pages 97-98 of the original House bill included specific language stating that veterans eligible for, but not enrolled in, VA health benefits would qualify for the credit:
‘‘(2) SPECIAL RULE WITH RESPECT TO VETERANS HEALTH PROGRAMS.—In the case of other specified coverage described in paragraph (1)(F) [i.e., VA coverage], an individual shall not be treated as eligible for such coverage unless such individual is enrolled in such coverage.
However, the “technical” amendment released Monday evening strikes that language. The replacement language, on pages 9-10 of the amendment, states that individuals qualify for the credit only if they are “not eligible for” other types of coverage, including VA coverage:
‘‘(2) The individual is not eligible for—
‘‘(A) coverage under a group health plan (within the meaning of section 5000(b)(1)) other than coverage under a plan substantially all of the coverage of which is of excepted benefits described in section 9832(c), or
‘‘(B) coverage described in section 5000A(f)(1)(A) [which includes VA coverage]
The revised language therefore means that individuals eligible for, but not enrolled in, VA coverage cannot qualify for the new insurance subsidies created by the bill.
How This Will Affect Veterans
The most recent estimates suggest about 9.1 million individuals are enrolled in VA health programs. However, a 2014 Congressional Budget Office score of veterans’ choice legislation concluded that “about 8 million [veterans] qualify to enroll in VA’s health system but have not enrolled.” Subtracting for VA enrollment gains since that CBO score leaves approximately seven million veterans eligible for, but not enrolled in, VA health programs, and thus potentially affected by the House’s “technical” change.
At least some of those seven million veterans eligible for but not enrolled in VA health programs may not qualify for the House’s new insurance subsidies for other reasons. For instance, some of those seven million veterans may have other forms of health coverage—from a current or former employer, Medicare, Tricare, etc.—that would render them ineligible for the credit regardless of their VA status.
However, given a universe of seven million veterans potentially affected by the changes, doubtless many would be actually affected by the House language. As a policy matter, it is unclear why the revised House language, by cutting off access to the credit for those eligible for but not enrolled in VA coverage, seeks to direct more people into a government-run VA health system still suffering from the effects of the wait time reporting scandal.
It is possible, and perhaps even probable, that this “technical” change was entirely unintentional, caused by harried, sleep-deprived congressional staff rushing to complete work on the bill. But it raises the obvious question: What other changes, tweaks, errors, or other unintended consequences might such rushed legislation contain?
We’ve seen this show before. In 2010, the text of Obamacare as passed failed to make clear that VA and Tricare coverage qualified as minimum benefits—making soldiers and veterans subject to taxes for violating the law’s individual mandate. Because of that drafting error, Republicans forced a vote on exempting soldiers and veterans from the mandate, before the issue was eventually resolved.
This week’s “technical” amendment, with potentially wide-reaching implications, reprises the errors of Obamacare, and demonstrates the dangers of House Republicans’ rushed strategy. With a highly compressed timetable seemingly dictating the entire process, unforced errors seem almost inevitable. President Trump has made clear his desire to move to tax reform as soon as possible—but how would he defend disqualifying up to seven million veterans from the bill’s tax credits?
Once finding out about the effects of this “technical” amendment, House leadership will quite probably move to change it—and fast. But what about the other “technical” problems lurking in the bill? Given the rushed process, doubtless more of these “bugs” and “glitches” exist. Who will find them—and when? What if they aren’t found until after the measure’s enactment, and then can’t be fixed legislatively? Lawmakers should think long and hard about these unintended consequences before they vote to assume responsibility for them for a long time to come.