What’s next for the CBO rage fest?

On the second day, the Internet did some math.

One small statistic is all the kindling that D.C. needs to start a news cycle-consuming blaze. This week, the lucky rage-inducing number is 2 million. The reason? As Zachary Goldfarb and Amy Goldstein summed it up, "More than 2 million Americans who would otherwise rely on a job for health insurance will quit working, reduce their hours or stop looking for employment because of new health benefits available under the Affordable Care Act, congressional budget analysts said Tuesday." However, the Congressional Budget Office -- the source for this statistic -- didn't explain the issue eloquently enough, and many reporters didn't either, and things soon got messy.


Senator Joe Manchin, a Democrat from West Virginia, said the new report was Obamacare's Waterloo. House Speaker John Boehner said, "The middle class is getting squeezed in this economy, and this CBO report confirms that Obamacare is making it worse."

After the ominous statements from Capitol Hill came the apocalyptic headlines. The New York Post proclaimed, "Congressional Budget Office sends death blow to ObamaCare." The Wall Street Journal editorial page called Obamacare "The Jobless Care Act."

Adding fuel to the fire was a new survey from Gallup showing that Americans' opinions of the Affordable Care Act haven't improved. National Review wrote that "The CBO Just Nuked Obamacare." The Internet rushes the rate at which stories unfold, with second- or third-day analyses and reporting often published hours after news breaks, but one thing the medium still fails to excel at is providing context at quite the same speed. So, by the end of the day on Tuesday and Wednesday, the broader story of the CBO's report finally was told.

"No," the Washington Post's Glenn Kessler wrote, "CBO did not say Obamacare will kill 2 million jobs." Erik Wemple expands, "For a while this morning, the Internet was hopping with job-killing hype, when in fact the truth was vastly different. Obamacare’s impact, the CBO concluded, would lessen the supply of labor by encouraging certain folks not to work: 'The estimated reduction stems almost entirely from a net decline in the amount of labor that workers choose to supply, rather than from a net drop in businesses’ demand for labor, so it will appear almost entirely as a reduction in labor force participation and in hours worked. . . .' For someone approaching retirement, notes Kessler, Obamacare could well mean that they needn’t hold onto a bad job just to keep health insurance. That’s a far different dynamic from job-killing."

The "equivalent" part of the CBO's analysis is crucial too, Jonathan Cohn points out:  "CBO didn't actually say Obamacare would lead to 2 million fewer jobs. It said that Obamacare would lead to the "equivalent" of 2 million fewer jobs. In reality, CBO expects a much larger group of people to reduce their hours by a much smaller amount. Only a relative few will stop working altogether."

Also, there was also some inarguably good news from the CBO report that was overshadowed by that 2 million. Testifying before the House Budget Committee Thursday, Congressional Budget Office Director Douglas W. Elmendorf said the new health-care law is expected to boost demand for labor and goods in the next few years because people benefiting from its expansion of Medicaid and insurance subsidies will likely have extra money to spend. That will actually reduce unemployment, Elmendorf said. And as Michael Hiltzik notes, "the ACA is cheaper than expected" and "it will 'markedly increase' the number of Americans with health insurance."

There was also inarguably bad news, thanks to the less than elegant rollout of the law late last year: 2 million fewer people will gain coverage than originally expected.

So is this good or bad? Determining that, says Megan McArdle, is "an exercise that must be left for the reader. Social conservatives might like the idea of Obamacare effectively subsidizing stay-at-home moms in low- to middle-income families. (As it does.) Or they might object to subsidizing early retirement with taxpayer dollars. (As it does.) Liberals might have the opposite reaction: Worry that you’re subsidizing women to leave the workforce when they may have a hard time getting back in; celebrate the subsidy that allows folks to retire and start enjoying their golden years while they’re still healthy."

Steve Benen thinks that "conservatives who’ve spent the day urging Americans to look at the CBO report have inadvertently encouraged the public to review a document that supports the White House’s arguments."

A fight that was beginning to quiet down is now rejoined because of the different interpretations of the document, and will certainly be a factor in the midterm elections..

Paul Ryan, for example, after figuring out exactly what the report meant, said he was "troubled," and that he thought the law was encouraging people "not to get on the ladder of life, to begin working, getting the dignity of work, getting more opportunities, rising the income, joining the middle class."

Expect much of the same from both sides of the debate for the rest of the week, and month, and election cycle.

In the end, this "2 million" is likely the least of the Affordable Care Act's problems. Politicians on the trail have always been more fond of an anecdote than a statistic, and as enrollees start heading to the hospital, expect doctor shortages, regions with comparably expensive premiums, and other mistakes and problems to get much attention -- things working without a hitch never warrant A1 coverage the same way disarray does.

 


WASHINGTON, DC April 13: Washington Nationals center fielder Bryce Harper (34) grounds out to Atlanta Braves starting pitcher Tim Hudson (15) in the 7th inning on April 13 2013 in Washington, DC (Photo by Jonathan Newton / The Washington Post)

A week of midterms strategizing

While the chattering classes were talking about his signature legislation, President Obama was talking insider baseball with Senate Democrats, who are worried about the midterms exactly because of the conversation that is keeping the rest of D.C. occupied. At a caucus retreat held at Nationals Stadium, Obama said "he knew he is not popular in some of the states so he would not be offended if he were not invited to visit them this year,” according to a senator interviewed by David Nakamura and Ed O'Keefe.

Lisa Mascaro set up the retreat's thematic setting thusly, "The Nationals entered last season with great promise after making the playoffs the previous year, only to end 2013 in heartache for fans. Democrats are hoping they will enjoy a better outcome this fall."

The day before, the president invited House Democrats to the White House to talk about the policies he'd like to pass -- which many House members don't want to think about given the impending elections. And last night, the party's deity of discursiveness, Bill Clinton, gave a pep talk to end the Senate retreat.

Powerful Democratic legislators have been dropping from 2014 races like flies, which means its time for Democrats to start thinking about the year ahead (and two years ahead) in earnest, for the White House to decide what role it will play in the campaign -- and how his involvement can help or hinder Obama's agenda, and for the media to start testing how much further they can abuse the phrase "charm offensive."

The early months of the year are political parties' favorite time to rethink strategy and contemplate reinvention, and the weeks before primary season will be replete with it. Just don't expect all this thinking and planning to lead to much legislation. There's an inverse relationship between the amount of legislation Congress talks about in an election year and the amount it passes.

“I can’t imagine Congress doing much more than nominations and (annual) appropriations bills,” said Jim Manley, a former Harry Reid aide interviewed by the New York Daily News. Not only do legislators terrified of attack ads want to vote on as little as possible, but the calendar this year has been designed to limit the amount of time Congress will put itself in danger of making policy. As Jonathan Weisman pointed out at the beginning of the month: The calendar, drawn up to maximize campaign time ahead of midterm elections in November, is bare bones, with the House in session just 97 days before Election Day, the last on Oct. 2, and 112 days in all. But, the oh so camera-ready strategizing must go on.

Republican senators also held their annual retreat yesterday at the Library of Congress. While Democrats debated how to protect their slim majority, Republicans were hopeful that they might win the six seats they need to take back the chamber. (Important to keep in mind that Republicans also though Mitt Romney was going to win in on Nov. 6, 2012.) The issue at hand at the retreat? “Pocketbook issues and solutions to improve the lives of middle-class Americans who’ve been hurt by the Obama economy." Last week, the House Republicans held their annual retreat in Maryland, which lead to this week's full-court press on immigration.

Jaime Fuller reports on national politics for "The Fix" and Post Politics. She worked previously as an associate editor at the American Prospect, a political magazine based in Washington, D.C.
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