Editorial April 4, 2014

TheWeekinCongress.com

Editorial

Two Bills That Make No Sense

HR 1874

It’s like a mystery we might read or watch that, at the end, shows how the perpetrator did his nasty business while, all the time, his actions to that end were hidden in plain sight. That is what the recent budget bills seem like.

HR 1874 the Pro-Growth Budgeting Act fits well into such a scenario. The bill seems to politely suggest that the Congressional Budget Office approach to calculating the cost of bills is limited and so proposes the underlying assumption that calculations as they are currently accomplished is in the way of growth. We could do better if we do things differently, it would seem.

 The bill requires CBO to produce a report on the macroeconomic impact of legislation. In other words CBO will report not only on the cost of the bill into the future when inflation and population are added to the basic cost but its impact on markets, labor, housing and about every element of our economy it could impact. It turns out that CBO already does something like that and needs only $2 million to beef up staff and do more of it. Apparently though, no one is paying attention to those reports. ##

HR 2575

We know that Republicans want to repeal or otherwise dissemble the Affordable Care Act (ACA) as we witnessed the 52nd attempt this week with HR 2575 that would define full-time employment as 40 hours per week. The current full-time week as defined by the ACA is 30 hours per week. If an employer has over 50 full-time employees health insurance must be offered to the employees.

 So, what does this bill really do? One possibility is it frees large employers from providing the coverage or face a fine if, after removing 30 hour employees from the queue, they employ fewer than 50. From there the number of people the ACA can say it helped to get coverage would drop and the program would suffer because the fewer covered the more insurers are inclined to raise premiums.

 But that’s not all of the fallout from HR 2575; not all of the 30 hour workers would be able to get insurance or the subsidies to equal the lower cost if provided by an employer for starters. The bill represents the belief that large employers don’t want to spend the money on health insurance for their employees. For them, they can move those employees to 39 hours per week, still get pretty much full time from them but escape the cost of insuring them just as others complained that they would move 30 hour workers to 29 to avoid the cost. So, through this bill large employers are not only relieved of covering employees working 30 hours but could easily avoid insuring all their employees.

 There is another twist to this bill; the aggregate of hours worked part-time can be divided by 111 and the results would equal additional full-time employees. Under the bill that 111 is changed to 174 resulting in a smaller number and so fewer full-time employees to count toward the employer mandate.

 That having been said, the purpose of the bill’s sponsors is clear but those sponsors are mostly also supporters of austere budget measures to spend less through the sequester cuts and proposed significant cuts beyond that if the current FY 2015 House Republican budget resolution is any measure. The problem is that the bill would cost taxpayers nearly $74 billion to enact.

 What we know about such legislation is that somebody gets something out of it and. Because of that somebody else loses something. In this case that dividing line is clear; large employers win, employees lose…not only health insurance but some wages as well, and taxpayers? We get to cough up $74 billion. ##

Time to Fix Government

By Lee H. Hamilton

Hamilton

Hamilton

In 1965, the chairman of the powerful Ways and Means Committee, Wilbur Mills, brought legislation establishing Medicare and Medicaid to the floor of the U.S. House. That was my first year in Congress, and I remember vividly the moment when Mills came to the Democratic caucus to explain his plans.

Many of us had been swept into office in the 1964 Democratic wave that accompanied Lyndon Johnson’s election, and we had an overwhelming majority in Congress. We could pass any bill we wanted. But Mills argued forcefully that we shouldn’t. It was crucial, he said, that we get bipartisan support for the measure: passing the law was one thing, but what really counted was its implementation. With bipartisan support, the odds were much higher that the highly controversial measure could be rolled out effectively.

So despite the grumbling of some members of the caucus, Mills made significant accommodations to find common ground with Republicans, and eventually 70 of them — half their caucus — joined us to pass the bill.

Mills was playing a very smart game. What he understood was that in the end, Americans’ lives would be affected not by what happened in Congress, but by what the federal government did with the law it was handed.

There are times these days when a story like that, about someone in Washington caring about the government’s effectiveness, feels as quaint as a tale about knights and dragons. Plenty of good, competent people serve both in Congress and within the ranks of the executive branch, but after years of abject failure — from the response to Hurricane Katrina to the initial rollout of the Affordable Care Act to the cost overruns, delays, and mismanagement that too often characterize federal programs — it’s hard to argue that the government is filled with people who know how to make it a model of efficiency and effectiveness.

Some are too busy just trying to carry out policy. Others think government’s too big; they’re not interested in improving it, just in cutting it. Some use government to help their friends and allies. And some in Congress will be darned if they’ll let a drive for efficiency close a military base or federal office complex in their district.

I’m reminded, though, of a famous quote by Alexander Hamilton: “A government ill-executed, whatever may be the theory, in practice is poor government.” Our government has become so big, complex, and riddled with competing agendas that its performance — its ability to execute faithfully the law — is terribly compromised. As NYU Professor Paul Light points out, there are too many decision-makers, too many bases to touch, too many layers of management, too many managers in each layer, and too little accountability.

These are crucial matters to fix. Not only do Americans want to see better performance from their government, but federal executives — including the President — cannot achieve their policy objectives unless those under them are competent and high-performing. We have to rethink and transform how government does its business — not just on a one-shot basis, but constantly.

Light has probably thought harder about these issues than anyone else inside or outside government, and there are a number of recommendations he and others make:
— We have to cut the number of political appointees. In the federal government alone, they number roughly 3,000, and often don’t win their positions by merit.
— We have to reduce the layers of management, and reduce the sheer number of people employed by government.
— Outsourcing has gotten out of hand. In theory, private-sector contractors save taxpayers money. In reality, Light’s research shows, they can cost us twice as much.
— Current civil service rules make it almost impossible to hire, promote, and fire based on merit. That has to change.

Government today is highly pressured and deals with tough, complicated problems. It needs to be able to recruit and retain first-rate talent; you don’t want a second-rate lawyer negotiating a nuclear arms treaty.

Unless we deal with these problems, failure is baked into the system. The American people have to demand that the President and the Congress not just enact legislation, but also implement and manage government programs effectively and efficiently.

Lee Hamilton is Director of the Center on Congress at Indiana University. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.