Wonkbook: One thing Issa and Obama could agree on

November 12, 2013

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(Photo by J. Scott Applewhite/AP)
(Photo by J. Scott Applewhite/AP)

Rep. Darrell Issa isn't the most popular person in the White House these days (or, you know, ever). His decision to subpoena chief technology officer Todd Park is, as far as the Obama administration is concerned, proof that he's far more interested in scoring political points than actually fixing HealthCare.gov.

But there's one place where Issa and the White House should be able to work together: IT reform.

Alongside Democrat Gerald Connolly, Issa is the sponsor of the Federal IT Acquisition Reform Act. The law is vast — it would be, by far, the most expansive overhaul of how federal IT procurement works in decades — but its core provisions track past White House requests.

The legislation makes the chief information officer of the 16 major government agencies a presidential appointee (meaning the White House can name the people it thinks best for the job rather than relying on the people who happen to be there now) and gives them much more control over IT acquisition and management. It also expands the IT acquisition workforce and pushes the government towards open-source software development and cloud computing.

The bill wouldn't fix everything, of course. Much of the government's IT problems are cultural and managerial, and the law isn't worth much if the White House doesn't take the opportunity to name and support a stronger class of CIOs.

But it's a start. And it's a way the Obama administration and Issa could show they're serious about preventing future HealthCare.gov's.

Wonkbook's Number of the Day: 40,000. That's the number of Americans who have signed up for a private health-insurance plan through Heathcare.gov. 

Wonkbook's Graph of the Day: The two recoveries in the U.S. labor market.

Wonkbook's Top 5 Stories: (1) Obamacare signups depend on what the meaning of the word "is" is; (2) Janet Yellen won't be yelling about inflation any time soon; (3) Congress just called it quits for 2013; (4) policy for veterans; and (5) no "Warsaw Pact" against global warming.

1. Top story: How many people have signed up for Obamacare?

About 40,000 Americans are said to have signed up for plans on HealthCare.gov. "Roughly 40,000 Americans have signed up for private insurance through the flawed federal online insurance marketplace since it opened six weeks ago, according to two people with access to the figures. That amount is a tiny fraction of the total projected enrollment for the 36 states where the federal government is running the online health-care exchange, indicating the slow start to the president’s initiative...The figure of 40,000 disclosed Monday did not include Medicaid sign-ups. At least 440,000 people have signed up for Medicaid through the health-care initiative, according to Avalere Health." Amy Goldstein and Sarah Kliff in The Washington Post.

Healthcare.gov enrollment falls far short of target. "Fewer than 50,000 people had successfully navigated the troubled federal health-care website and enrolled in private insurance plans as of last week, two people familiar with the matter said, citing internal government data. The figure is a fraction of the Obama administration's target of 500,000 enrollees for October. The early tally for the HealthCare.gov site, which launched Oct. 1, worries health insurers that are counting on higher enrollment to make their plans profitable." Christopher Weaver, Timothy W. Martin, and Louise Radnofsky in The Wall Street Journal.

Who counts as an Obamacare enrollee? The Obama administration settles on a definition. "The fight over how to define the new health law’s success is coming down to one question: Who counts as an Obamacare enrollee? Health insurance plans only count subscribers as enrolled in a health plan once they’ve submited a payment. That is when the carrier sends out a member card and begins paying doctor bills. When the Obama administration releases health law enrollment figures later this week, though, it will use a more expansive definition. It will count people who have purchased a plan as well as those who have a plan sitting in their online shopping cart but have not yet paid." Sarah Kliff in The Washington Post.

Insurers press for way around Healthcare.gov. "Some major health insurers are so worried about the Obama administration’s ability to fix its troubled health care website that they are pushing the government to create a shortcut that would allow them to enroll people entitled to subsidies directly rather than through the federal system...But even if such a shortcut could be designed, federal officials are concerned about protecting personal data, such as confidential financial and tax information and immigration status. The security and privacy issues are likely to overshadow any possible compromise, according to people briefed on the discussions. A more likely solution is for consumers to be able to work directly with an insurer to estimate their qualifications for a subsidy, leaving federal verification to a later date, some insurers said." Reed Abelson, Sharon LaFreniere, and Susanne Craig in The New York Times.

Healthcare.gov architect says he didn't know about security risks. "The chief digital architect for the federal health insurance marketplace has told congressional investigators that he was not aware of tests that indicated potential security flaws in the system, which opened to the public on Oct. 1...Chao and other administration officials are scheduled to testify Wednesday at a committee hearing on technical problems with the website, HealthCare.gov, that have frustrated millions of Americans trying to use it. In the interview, Mr. Chao said he had not seen a Sept. 3 memorandum describing potential security risks in the online insurance marketplace. The memo, from Tony Trenkle, the chief information officer at the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, noted six security problems, two of which were described as posing high risks." Robert Pear in The New York Times.

The Obamacare hearings are getting ugly. "What began as a congressional request for a bureaucrat's testimony has, over the course of a few days, escalated into an all-out Obamacare war. This is the story of the House Oversight Committee's request to have White House Chief Technology Officer Todd Park appear at a Wednesday hearing about the rollout of HealthCare.gov. The hearing, announced last Thursday, listed Park among the five witnesses - all members of the Obama administration - called to testify." Sarah Kliff in The Washington Post.

States have hit 3 percent of Obamacare sign-up goals. That’s actually not a disaster! "Avalere has worked backward from a Congressional Budget Office projection that 7 million people will enroll in the exchanges in 2014 and estimated that these 14 state-based marketplaces should account for 1.4 million of those sign-ups. It's worth noting that these figures aren't exact; some states count enrollment differently." Sarah Kliff in The Washington Post.

A bit of lightness in your morning: Watch Sarah Palin try to explain how she'd replace ObamacareCaitlin MacNeal in Talking Points Memo.

Tech troubles hit some state exchanges, too. "Oregon hasn't fully opened its website to the public and is directing residents to insurance brokers and counselors. Maryland officials Friday delayed until April the opening of its small-business exchange, so they could focus on improving a website that has prompted many residents to apply on paper...The state programs' travails highlight the complexity of the insurance exchanges and the technology, which is supposed to let consumers pick new health plans as easily as they buy airline tickets online." Spencer E. Ante and Jennifer Corbett Dooren in The Wall Street Journal.

...Like Oregon, which has enrolled a grand total of zero Oregonians. "Interviews with state officials and a review of public records by The Associated Press suggest Cover Oregon officials bit off more than they could chew and clung to their ambitious vision even when their risk management consultants raised alarms. While rushing to get the exchange done, programmers and project managers also were busy with separate complex computer projects for the Oregon Health Authority and the Department of Human Services." The Associated Press.

...And Washington quoted 8,000 Washingtonians the wrong health insurance price. "About 8,000 Washington state residents were told they qualified for more generous tax subsidies than they will actually receive when they enrolled for ObamaCare via their state's online marketplace. A technical glitch meant the Washington website sent the applicants' monthly income to a federal hub instead of their yearly income. Based on that incorrect information, consumers were told they qualified for higher tax credits and would pay less for their health insurance...Those 8,000 individuals likely will need to go through the entire application process again to see what plans at what prices they qualify for under the correct tax subsidy." Justin Sink in The Hill.

...These problems hit Medicaid, too, and not just the private insurance. "The website, HealthCare.gov, is primarily seen as a place to buy private insurance with federal subsidies, but it is also a gateway to Medicaid, which generally provides more benefits at less cost to consumers. That door has been closed for the last six weeks, with the federal government unable to transfer its files to state Medicaid programs as it is supposed to do...The Obama administration has adopted what it calls a “no wrong door” policy: If a person files an application with the exchange for private insurance but appears to be eligible for Medicaid, the exchange will automatically transfer the full application to the state Medicaid agency, and vice versa." Robert Pear in The New York Times.

Sen. Hagan wants a probe of Obamacare. "Senators will ask the Obama administration for a full investigation into the bungled launch of HealthCare.gov, according to a letter being circulated by Sen. Kay Hagan. The North Carolina Democrat is collecting signatures this week for a letter to Government Accountability Office Comptroller General Gene Dodaro and Health and Human Services Inspector General Daniel Levinson asking for “a complete, thorough investigation to determine the causes of the design and implementation failures of HealthCare.gov.”" Burgess Everett in Politico.

Lawmakers start shopping for coverage. "[S]tarting [yesterday], lawmakers and their aides [were] able to sign up for health insurance through a special section of an online marketplace being run by the District of Columbia...The solution devised by the White House's Office of Personnel Management, based on a suggestion from District of Columbia exchange officials, calls for lawmakers and staff to use a part of the District of Columbia marketplace designed for small businesses. There, they will be able to pick from a selection of the most generous small group plans on sale in the District, and continue to pay only around a quarter of the premium themselves." Louise Radnofsky in The Wall Street Journal. 

BLINDER: Obamacare is worth it. "Choose your favorite adjective: horrible, embarrassing, inexcusable. They all fit. But a badly designed website doesn't signify a badly designed policy. The goals, principles and major design features of the ACA are barely affected by the government's health-exchange website catastrophe. If you liked the basic ideas before, you still should. If you didn't, you still shouldn't." Alan S. Blinder in The Wall Street Journal.

SUDERMAN: Time to start considering Obamacare's worst scenarios. "Thanks to rules and regulations built into the law, millions of Americans have already had their existing individual-market insurance cancelled, and estimates say that millions more cancellations are on the way. The end result could be that many people—thousands, perhaps even millions—end up with their current private insurance plans terminated due to the law, but no way to sign up for new coverage." Peter Suderman in Reason.

COHN: Spoiler alert...Everyone knew bad numbers were coming. "The statistics that really matter are the ones in December and beyond...[T]here's still time — just as long as healthcare.gov and the poorly funcitoning states are operating better by late November. And if they're not? Then the problems get a lot more serious." Jonathan Cohn in The New Republic.

Music recommendations interlude: This cover is better than anything Miley Cyrus has done or will ever do.

Top opinion

HUSZAR: Confessions of a quantitative easer. "I can only say: I'm sorry, America. As a former Federal Reserve official, I was responsible for executing the centerpiece program of the Fed's first plunge into the bond-buying experiment known as quantitative easing. The central bank continues to spin QE as a tool for helping Main Street. But I've come to recognize the program for what it really is: the greatest backdoor Wall Street bailout of all time...Despite the Fed's rhetoric, my program wasn't helping to make credit any more accessible for the average American. The banks were only issuing fewer and fewer loans. More insidiously, whatever credit they were extending wasn't getting much cheaper. QE may have been driving down the wholesale cost for banks to make loans, but Wall Street was pocketing most of the extra cash." Andrew Huszar in The Wall Street Journal.

PETHOKOUKIS: The demagoguery of rich-vs.-poor. "Don’t be surprised if a former U.S. senator from New York grabs the inequality baton from the incoming Gotham boss if she makes a White House run. A recent Time magazine analysis highlighted income inequality as one of six potential presidential campaign themes that “Hillary is test driving.” Reporter Zeke Miller noted that in a recent speech at Yale Law School, Clinton said the nation must “reverse this tide of inequality that is eating away at the social fabric of our country.”" James Pethokoukis in National Review Online.

KLEIN: Why do journalists prefer Twitter to Facebook? "Facebook is clearly dominant -- and getting more so. Pinterest -- which no journalist I know spends even a second considering -- is in second place, and it, too, is growing...The reason, I think, is that Twitter is simply more useful for our jobs. For better or worse, it's where news breaks today. It's also where a lot of real-time reporting happens...The fact that so many journalists are on Twitter has made Twitter incredibly professionally valuable to journalists." Ezra Klein in The Washington Post.

BAKER: You call this a free-trade agreement? I'll show you a free-trade agreement. "Free trade is like apple pie, everyone is supposed to like it. Economists have written thousands of books and articles showing how everyone can gain from reducing trade barriers. While there is much merit to this argument, little of it applies to the trade pacts that are sold as "free-trade" agreements. These deals are about structuring trade to redistribute income upward. In addition these agreements also provide a mechanism for over-riding the democratic process in the countries that are parties to the deals. They are a tool whereby corporate interests can block health, safety, and environmental regulations that might otherwise be implemented by democratically elected officials." Dean Baker in The Guardian.

SEIB: A radicalized center? "It could take the form of an insurgent figure from within the major political parties who can galvanize what increasingly appears to be a radicalized center in the country. This radicalized center appears economically disaffected, vaguely populist and not especially ideological. It feels increasingly detached from both parties. It isn't necessarily expecting some political savior but appears primed to latch onto one, should he or she appear." Gerald F. Seib in The Wall Street Journal.

ROBINSON: The U.S. is doing better than you think. "The economy is growing much more quickly than expected. Inflation is basically nonexistent. The federal budget deficit has been slashed dramatically. The stock market is reaching all-time highs. One of our long-running wars is over, and the other is winding down. The status of the United States as the world’s preeminent economic and military power is unchallenged. So why is everyone so depressed?...In isolation, these numbers look pretty good. Compared with the rest of the world, they look really good...Slow and steady may be boring, but it’s better than many exciting alternatives." Eugene Robinson in The Washington Post.

PONNURU: Republicans shouldn't let Obama pack the courts. "One of the vacancies Democrats are trying to fill used to be held by John Roberts. After he became chief justice, Bush nominated the impeccably qualified Peter Keisler for the spot. The Democrats filibustered him, and the seat has gone empty ever since. A reasonable case can be made against filibustering judicial nominations, or for it. What can’t reasonably be argued is that Democrats should be able to use the tactic to keep a judgeship open until they have the power to fill it with a liberal, at which point Republicans have to stand down." Ramesh Ponnuru in Bloomberg.

The Red Cross's wonky embarrassment interlude: In an ad comparing the size of Typhoon Haiyan to the United States, it mis-scaled the image.

2. One thing she won't have to be Yellen about any time soon: inflation

The government’s human price scanners. "Caren is a roving, often stealthy price checker with the Bureau of Labor Statistics, one of 428 “economic assistants,” or EAs, who fan out across every state, seven days a week, to record the prices of everything from guitars to guns, cribs to cremations, farmers-market apples to food-truck cupcakes...Gaffney is on the front lines of collecting confidential data that are ultimately compiled for some of the nation’s most important economic measures, including the consumer price index." Emily Wax-Thibodeaux in The Washington Post.

How will Janet Yellen do on the big stage? We’ll find out this week. "Janet Yellen faces the Senate Banking Committee on Thursday for her confirmation hearing...since. She has served in important jobs over the last two decades, but has never been under the klieg lights that accompany a nomination to be one of the most powerful humans on earth...As for the Republicans, ironically, the more angry, spittle-filled rage emerges from Senate Republicans, the easier Yellen's job...Second, if skeptics of her nomination focus solely on the risks of inflation emerging from the Fed's easy money policies, Yellen will likely have her answer prepared every which way for how to answer the concerns. She is more likely to say something that sends markets into a tailspin or give critics ammunition to vote against her nomination if she is forced to answer less obvious questions or even inflation questions framed in novel ways." Neil Irwin in The Washington Post.

...And at the Fed, her challenge will be corralling the Fed's many voices. "Yellen seems unlikely to usher in a sharp departure from the open and consensus-oriented style of current Fed chief Ben Bernanke, who is widely admired among central-bank officials for his inclusive approach. But some former officials see her trying to get the Fed to speak with a more coherent voice...Krishna Guha, vice chairman of ISI Group, an investment research firm, and former head of communications at the New York Fed, predicted Ms. Yellen wouldn't order her colleagues to stick to a script or try to suppress dissent, but rather try to see if the committee can "find a slightly more sober, orderly way of communicating these policy debates in public."" Jon Hilsenrath and Victoria McGrane in The Wall Street Journal.

Job gap widens in uneven recovery. "unemployment rate for those with less than a high-school diploma is 10.9%, compared with 3.8% for those with a college degree, and the unemployment rate for those under 25 is over 15%, versus 6.1% for those 25 or older. The jobs that are available are often low-wage or part-time. More than eight million Americans are working part time because they can't find full-time work, a figure that has improved little over the past year. Of the 2.3 million jobs added in the past year, 35% are in sectors that pay on average less than $20 per hour." Ben Casselman in The Wall Street Journal.

Three-quarters of Americans want to up minimum wage. "Three-fourths of Americans support increasing the minimum wage from the current $7.25 to $9 per hour, according to a new Gallup poll. The poll shows 76 percent support the change -- up from 71 percent in March -- while 22 percent oppose it." Aaron Blake in The Washington Post.

Expiration of U.S. federal jobless benefits set to cause a political fight. "A political fight is brewing over the looming expiry of federal jobless benefits, which would hit more than 1.3m unemployed Americans and potentially deal another setback to the US economic recovery in the first quarter of next year. Some congressional Democrats are trying to put the fate of federal unemployment benefits on the table in high-level budget talks on Capitol Hill, which are set to resume this week with a public hearing on Wednesday." James Politi in The Financial Times.

Is the Euro hurting or helping euro zone integration? "Five years of crisis have laid bare deep differences in national policies, politics and priorities across the European Union. The 28-member bloc is increasingly confronting a more fundamental problem: whether it is too unwieldy to address the multiplying array of challenges it faces. And in many ways, the most divisive issues involve the 17-member subset of the union that was supposed to give them something in common — the euro currency." Danny Hakim in The New York Times.

How Warren affects financial regulation even if she never runs for president. "the fear is not only that Warren, who channels an increasingly popular strain of Occupy Wall Street-style anti-corporatism, might win. That is viewed by many political analysts as a slim possibility. It is also that a Warren candidacy, and even the threat of one, would push Clinton to the left in the primaries and revive arguments about breaking up the nation’s largest banks, raising taxes on the wealthy and otherwise stoking populist anger that is likely to also play a big role in the Republican primaries." Ben White and Maggie Haberman in Politico.

Chinese bank added to systemic risk monitoring board. "International regulators have added Industrial and Commercial Bank of China to a list of banks that face higher capital requirements to counter the risk they pose to the financial system. The biggest bank in the world by market capitalisation, ICBC was the sole new entrant on the latest table of “globally systemically important banks” from the Financial Stability Board." Tom Braithwaite and Simon Rabinovitch in The Financial Times.

Relitigating the financial crisis. "The liquidators of two Bear Stearns hedge funds filed a lawsuit Monday against the three major U.S. rating agencies, accusing them of fraudulently assigning inflated ratings to securities in the run-up to the financial crisis. The lawsuit seeks to recover more than $1 billion from Moody’s Investors Service, Standard & Poor’s and Fitch Ratings to cover losses sustained by the hedge funds." Karen Freifeld in The Washington Post.

Gender switching interlude: Posing in motorcycle ads.

3. Congress just called it quits for 2013

The budget chief of the Pentagon is panicking. "“Frankly, I am nervous,” says Robert Hale, the Pentagon’s comptroller. And with reason. A month and half into the new fiscal year, Congress can’t seem to decide between what are three, wildly different scenarios for Hale’s world in 2014. The House endorsed most of President Barack Obama’s $527 billion request for the Defense Department in July. Last month’s stopgap CR went back to $496 billion. And DOD will drop by another $21 billion in mid-January if lawmakers do nothing to stop sequestration." David Rogers in Politico.

Explainer: The top 10 small-ball tweaks for budget confereesBrian Faler in Politico.

Congress seems to have decided it's done legislating for the year. "It’s just mid-November, but it’s quickly becoming a reality: Washington could be mostly done making laws for the year. If it isn’t evident by looking at the thin congressional calendar, top sources in both chambers are downright grim that the final eight weeks in 2013 will produce any legislative breakthroughs, like a broad budget agreement or an immigration deal. House Republicans say they will step up their oversight of the Obama administration in their final 15 days of session in 2013." Jake Sherman and Burgess Everett in Politico. 

Science interlude: How to be Wolverine, maybe.

4. A look at policymaking for veterans

What Obama said about veterans yesterday. "Speaking at Arlington National Cemetery on Veterans Day after placing a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknowns, Mr. Obama declared that the nation’s most recent “chapter of war is coming to an end.” But he said that Americans must not let the service of the military fade from memory. “By this time next year, the transition to Afghan-led security will be nearly complete,” he said. “The longest war in American history will end.”" Michael D. Shear in The New York Times.

The unemployment rate for recent veterans is incredibly high. "[T]he unemployment rate for recent veterans remains incredibly high — around 10 percent — and remains noticeably higher than it is for non-veterans in the same demographic group...Disability rates are much higher among veterans, and that can make a difference for their job prospects. Returning veterans have plenty of traits that should make them attractive to employers: discipline, leadership, and even specific training in areas like health care or information technology. But they also typically have less civilian work experience." Brad Plumer in The Washington Post.

One in 10 veterans lacks health insurance. Obamacare could change that. "In a research brief published in May 2012, Haley and Kenney have estimated that about 1.3 million veterans currently lack health insurance coverage. That works out to a little over 10 percent of the 12.5 million veterans in the country. An additional 0.9 million adults and children in veterans' families also lack insurance coverage. Uninsured veterans differ from insured veterans, in that the former have lower levels of education and younger average ages." Sarah Kliff in The Washington Post.

Which big companies are the best at hiring veterans? "A new analysis by the online jobs clearinghouse Bright.com shows some big companies are doing a lot more than others to help change that...Bright divided veteran hires by the total number of résumés submitted to each company. It used that ratio to rank nearly all of those companies — a few didn't have enough data to analyze — on a scale of zero to 1. The clear winner? PepsiCo. General Electric, Valero Energy, AmerisourceBergen and Caterpillar round out the top five. Bringing up the rear are Prudential, MetLife and Apple. Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac don't do so hot, either." Jim Tankersley in The Washington Post.

RIP interlude: Howard Percival, whose gift in death was to remind us all how easy and beautiful it is to care in life.

5. There won't be a "Warsaw Pact" against global warming

At climate-change summit in Warsaw, countries look to lay foundation for global pact. "Representatives of more than 190 countries gathered in Warsaw on Monday to continue debating how to deal with climate change beyond 2020, even as nations are falling further behind on their collective goal of reining in greenhouse gas emissions that are warming the planet. Major breakthroughs are not expected at the 19th session of the Conference of the Parties to the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change. Instead, these talks have been described as sessions that will lay a foundation for a global agreement to be reached in time for 2015 talks in Paris." Lenny Bernstein in The Washington Post.

Reading material interlude: The best sentences Wonkblog read today.

Wonkblog Roundup

Chris Christie: Fearless before hurricanes, meek before policy questionsEzra Klein.

Could Elizabeth Warren beat Hillary ClintonEzra Klein.

At this point, Amazon might as well just buy the Postal ServiceLydia DePillis.

Who counts as an Obamacare enrollee? The Obama administration settles on a definitionSarah Kliff.

Why do journalists prefer Twitter to FacebookEzra Klein.

One in 10 veterans lacks health insurance. Obamacare could change thatSarah Kliff.

Which big companies are the best at hiring veteransJim Tankersley.

States have hit 3 percent of Obamacare sign-up goals. That’s actually not a disaster! Sarah Kliff.

How will Janet Yellen do on the big stage? We’ll find out this weekNeil Irwin.

The unemployment rate for recent veterans is incredibly highBrad Plumer.

The Obamacare hearings are getting uglySarah Kliff.

Et Cetera

Michelle Obama is edging towards a policy role on higher educationJennifer Steinhauer in The New York Times.

Is an NSA policy shift comingAlison Smale and David E. Sanger in The New York Times.

Got tips, additions, or comments? E-mail me.

Wonkbook is produced with help from Michelle Williams.

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