Wonkbook: Jeff Zients gets another month to fix HealthCare.Gov

December 17, 2013

Welcome to Wonkbook, Ezra Klein and Evan Soltas's morning policy news primer. To subscribe by e-mail, click here. Send comments, criticism, or ideas to Wonkbook at Gmail dot com. To read more by Ezra and his team, go to Wonkblog.

(Photo by Charles Dharapak/AP)
(Photo by Charles Dharapak/AP)

Wonkbook's Number of the Day: $92. That's what the Energy Information Agency expects the price of oil to be in per-barrel terms in 2017, thanks to surging U.S. production and stable global demand. That would be a 15-percent drop from the current price of Brent crude.

Wonkbook's Graph of the Day: Industrial production in the U.S. just broke through its pre-recession high.

Wonkbook's Top 5 Stories: (1) HealthCare.gov is on the clock; (2) the NSA's legal house of cards; (3) Ryan-Murray looks likely to pass; (4) what's wrong with buying bonds; and (5) in the Senate, determination to finish meets determination to block.

1. Top story: Zients gets another month

Jeff Zients just got another month to work on HealthCare.gov. "Mr. Zients was to succeed Gene B. Sperling, who is leaving after three years as director of the White House National Economic Council on Jan. 1. Mr. Sperling instead will remain until at least early February to finish various projects, including preparations for the president’s State of the Union address in late January and his annual budget and to help Mr. Zients with the transition. The change in plans was not unexpected, given Mr. Zients’ preoccupation since mid-October with the overhaul of HealthCare.gov, the website that is crucial to the success of the new marketplaces for individual insurance policies under Mr. Obama’s signature Affordable Care Act." Jackie Calmes in The New York Times.

@igorbobic: Zients, Schiliro, Podesta — Obama’s staff shake-up is just a pick-up

A guide to Obamacare’s ever-changing deadlines. "The deadline for enrolling in insurance coverage that starts on Jan. 1 is Dec. 23. That's eight days later than the initial deadline of Dec. 15. But it's also eight days before the deadline to actually get your first premium payment to your insurer, which is Dec. 31 -- unless your insurance company sets the deadline later. Got all that straight? A lot of insurance shoppers, understandably, do not." Sarah Kliff in The Washington Post.

@philipaklein: CMS spox won't disclose demographic breakdown of Obamacare signups, says it will be released "at a later point." Won't say when.

How to actually sign up for Obamacare. "We’ve checked in again with our human guinea pigs to see whether the system now works. Short answer: The website has improved, but the costs are all over the place." David Weigel in Slate.

@pourmecoffee: On this day in 1773 American colonists dumped 300+ chests of tea in the Boston Harbor to protest how slow the Obamacare website was loading.

Three things we learned from today’s Obamacare update. "Window shopping has improved to include subsidies. Potential HealthCare.gov shoppers can now enter their income to get an estimate of whether they'll qualify for federal health purchasing coverage...The federal exchange has started transferring Medicaid accounts to states. This is a part of the back-end system that sends those who are likely eligible for Medicaid over to the state programs from the federal exchange." Sarah Kliff in The Washington Post.

Insurers don't want hospitals to pay premiums. "Nonprofits, including some hospitals, say paying premiums would ensure coverage for people currently uninsured who can't afford even a small monthly payment for health insurance. But insurers say they can't make a profit unless the health-insurance exchanges created by the Affordable Care Act draw a balanced mix of healthy and sicker customers. The law's rocky start, many insurers fear, has already skewed the mix toward people in worse health. Help from nonprofits or hospitals could speed the arrival of less healthy customers into the exchanges, outpacing the arrival of younger, healthier people who might not cross paths with hospitals." Louise Radnofsky and Chrisopher Weaver in The Wall Street Journal.

Explainer: Five myths about the future of ObamacareEric Patashnik and Julian Zelizer in The Washington Post.

As end-of-year health care deadline draws near, LGBT outreach intensifies. "A disproportionate number of LGBT Americans are uninsured and qualify for federal premium subsidies, which is one reason both outside groups and the administration are intensifying their efforts this week to sign them up under the law. There are several reasons for this disparty, including the fact that same-sex partners often don't qualify as family members for employer-based insurance plans and individuals sometimes lose coverage when they are fired based on their sexual orientation." Juliet Eilperin in The Washington Post.

 Music recommendations interlude: The Band, "Rag Mama Rag," 1969.

Top opinion

KLEIN: Full employment, not inequality, should be the top economic priority. "“Full employment”, I think, probably is the correct rallying cry for this age, and Baker and Bernstein’s free e-book on the topic is something you should read right now. While there are ways to reduce inequality without doing much about employment (say, by taxing the rich and using the proceeds on defense spending), it's hard to imagine full employment not doing much to reduce inequality." Ezra Klein in The Washington Post.

BARRO: Conservatives have no idea what to do about recessions. "[C]onservatives favor the same set of economic policies when the economy is weak and when it is strong; when unemployment is high and when it is low; when few homeowners are facing foreclosure and when many are. The implication is that conservatives believe there is nothing in particular the government should do about economic cycles. This is a big problem. Recessions are terrible. They create enormous misery by throwing people out of work and out of their homes. How can a political ideology have nothing to say about how to address recessions?" Josh Barro in Business Insider.

SOLOW: What Maestro Greenspan still doesn't understand. "Greenspan’s new book is obviously intended to show that his errors were only partial and that he has found useful ways to correct them, and thus to refurbish his reputation as oracle-in-chief. It fails. His argument is thematically vague and analytically weak. In the end it sounds like the same old right-wing conviction that the unregulated or very lightly regulated market knows best." Robert M. Solow in The New Republic.

PONNURU: How Pope Francis misunderstands the free market. "Much of Francis’s economic thought, though, seems to rest on the identification of free markets with extreme individualism. A generation ago, the writer Michael Novak and others were instrumental in persuading many American Catholics that markets could instead enable a creative form of community. The pope’s remarks suggest that this type of evangelizing still needs to be done." Ramesh Ponnuru in Bloomberg.

SCHEIBER: Inside the Democratic schism. "What I mean—and what I think most liberals today mean—by the term “populist” is rather literal: a politician or interest group whose power derives primarily from their appeal to lots of ordinary (read: non-wealthy, not especially connected) individuals rather than a handful of powerful (usually corporate) patrons, or the interest groups that represent them. The current incarnation of populism isn’t a matter of ideology per se, though it has obvious ideological implications. It’s about the extent to which a politician or group courts (or at least imagines herself to be courting) outsiders rather than insiders." Noam Scheiber in The New Republic.

BERNSTEIN: FHA as stimulus. "One of the more unfortunate aspects of the political response to the Great Recession has been willful ignorance about the need for policy interventions to ramp up in response to the downturn. When people become seriously ill, we tend not to jump all over them for going to the hospital. Yet opponents of government intervention continue to object to precisely that dynamic whether it’s safety net programs like food stamps or unemployment benefits, or the F.H.A.’s temporary expansion of its footprint in the housing market." Jared Bernstein in The New York Times.

It's back! interlude: Alex Pareene's annual hack list, which begins with Malcolm Gladwell and Thomas Friedman.

2. Will the NSA's legal house of cards come crashing down?

Judge deals blow to NSA spying. "A federal judge ruled Monday that the National Security Agency's collection of phone records "almost certainly" violates the Constitution, setting up a larger legal battle over long-secret counterterrorism programs. U.S. District Judge Richard Leon's sharply worded opinion labeled as "almost Orwellian" the NSA's bulk phone-surveillance program, one of several shots the judge took at the spying and its legal justifications. The ruling, in U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C., will have little immediate legal effect because the judge stayed the opinion until an expected government appeal is heard. But it likely propels the matter to higher courts and should give new momentum to efforts in Congress to rein in such surveillance." Devlin Barrett in The Wall Street Journal.

Primary source: Read the opinion here.

Here's the most important paragraph from his decision: "[T]he question in this case can more properly be styled as follows: When do present-day circumstances — the evolutions in the Government’s surveillance capabilities, citizens’ phone habits, and the relationship between the NSA and telecom companies — become so thoroughly unlike those considered by the Supreme Court thirty-four years ago that a precedent like Smith simply does not apply? The answer, unfortunately for the Government, is now." Ian Millhiser in ThinkProgress.

What's so remarkable about the opinion. "[H]e sounds angry. There is a recurrent note of skepticism about the government’s representations (among other things, concerning its treatment of location data) and dismay at its standard of honesty...There are several exclamation points in this decision. Judge Leon plainly feels that he has been lied to, and that we all have been. And he seems to be done with it." Amy Davidson in The New Yorker.

What it's like to work at NSA, and what NSA thinks about NSA. "I do believe that the safeguards against unauthorized data retrieval by Agency employees can and should be improved. I do not believe that their information-gathering powers should be curtailed. Such restriction would not only hinder the Agency’s ability to gather intelligence, but also impede its ability to wage cyberwarfare. The NSA is our best hope in this war. In my mind, the Agency’s continued dominance of the Internet is absolutely worth the once-a-year one-in-three-hundred-million chance that your private data will be purposefully viewed by an NSA employee." Loren Sands-Ramshaw on his blog.

Top tech executives to meet with Obama to push for limits on surveillance. "Top executives of Apple, Google, Twitter, Facebook, Yahoo, LinkedIn and Microsoft are among 15 corporate leaders invited to the meeting. Those companies are part of a coalition that last week started a major campaign to urge Obama and Congress to curb the ability of the NSA to collect e-mails, address books, video chats and other communications of users worldwide. Companies also have lobbied for the right to publish more information on the formal surveillance requests they receive." Craig Timberg in The Washington Post.

'60 Minutes' is in huge trouble for giving the NSA PR team everything they ever wanted. "The 25-minute segment consisted mostly of NSA officials dismissing concerns that their surveillance has gotten out of hand and showing off their gadgetry to the CBS cameras. There were no anti-NSA advocates or civil libertarians interviewed on-camera for the piece." Jack Mirkinson in The Huffington Post.

Paging Dylan Matthews interlude: A list of 531 interesting-but-random Wikipedia articles.

3. Ryan-Murray looks like it'll pass

Ryan-Murray is going to pass the Senate. "A two-year budget agreement is moving within reach of Senate passage, as Republican opposition ebbed Monday and the bill seemed likely to clear a pivotal procedural vote. Democratic leaders appeared to have the 60 votes they need to advance the budget deal because five Republicans have signaled they will vote with Democrats on Tuesday's procedural question—even if they vote against the bill in the end. All 55 members of the Senate Democratic caucus are expected to vote to advance the bill." Janet Hook and Kristina Peterson in The Wall Street Journal.

That's because a number of key Republicans are signing on. "Senators Orrin G. Hatch of Utah and Johnny Isakson and Saxby Chambliss of Georgia announced their support for the measure on Monday, appearing to give it more than the 60 votes it would need to overcome a filibuster threat and bring it to a final vote, which would need only a majority. The three joined four other Republicans — Senators John McCain and Jeff Flake of Arizona, Susan Collins of Maine and Ron Johnson of Wisconsin — who have said they will vote to cut off debate." Jonathan Weisman in The New York Times.

Meanwhile, other Republicans just want another debt-ceiling fight. No, really. "Conservative lawmakers and advocacy groups are pushing GOP leaders to make big demands of President Barack Obama early next year in exchange for raising the debt limit, which the Treasury says should be raised sometime by early March for the government to continue paying all its bills...[M]any Republicans want the focus of the debt-ceiling talks to be on changes to what is known as "mandatory spending," a large chunk of the budget that includes programs such as Medicare, Social Security and food stamps." Carol E. Lee and Damian Paletta in The Wall Street Journal.

The budget deal includes a secret reward for Senate Democrats. "Because it sets a top-line budget number for 2015, Democrats won’t have to write and pass a budget resolution in the midterm election year. That means vulnerable Democrats like Sens. Mark Pryor (Ark.), Mark Begich (Alaska), Kay Hagen (N.C.) and Mary Landrieu (La.) won’t have to take tough votes as part of a budget vote-o-rama." Erik Wasson in The Hill.

History to the people interlude: Oxford and the Vatican are making high-quality copies of rare ancient manuscripts available online for free.

4. What's wrong with buying bonds? 

How the Fed's mind is changing on its bond-buying program. "Even among Fed officials who support the bond-buying program, however, there is general agreement that the Fed should taper off on its bond buying and focus on stimulating the economy by other means. It’s just a matter of timing. The broad outlines of the shift also are clear. The Fed intends to lean even more heavily on “forward guidance,” trying to hold down borrowing costs for businesses and consumers by declaring its intent to keep short-term interest rates near zero." Binyamin Appelbaum in The New York Times.

Explainer: The Fed might taper bond buying this week. Here’s everything you need to knowNeil Irwin in The Washington Post.

U.S. may cut its presence in the mortgage market. "The Federal Housing Finance Agency, the regulator for the taxpayer-owned Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, unveiled a plan in which the two mortgage finance giants would gradually reduce the maximum size of home loans they can buy. Because the government guarantees the loans bought by the two companies, the move would dial back the heavy support Washington provides the mortgage market...The Federal Housing Finance Agency said it could reduce the loan limit to $600,000 from $625,500 in the nation’s highest-cost areas, which include cities like Los Angeles, New York and Washington. The limit would drop in much of the rest of the country to $400,000 from $417,000." Reuters.

Industrial production hits first high since recession. "Industrial production, which measures the output of U.S. manufacturers, utilities and mines, surged a seasonally adjusted 1.1% from the prior month, the Federal Reserve said Monday. That was the biggest jump in a year. The ascent in part reflects big gains for volatile mining and utilities components, though underlying figures point to steadily rising demand for an array of industrial goods." Jeffrey Sparshott in The Wall Street Journal.

U.S. oil production expected to keep surging. "The annual outlook by the department’s Energy Information Agency was cited by experts as confirmation that the United States was well on its way — far faster than anticipated even a year ago — to achieving virtual energy independence. The report predicted that the increase in United States production would contribute to a decline in the world oil benchmark price over the next few years to $92 a barrel in 2017 from a 2012 average of $112 a barrel, which should translate into lower prices at the pump for consumers." Clifford Krauss and Stanley Reed in The New York Times.

Keystone XL pipeline loses support from U.S. customer. "Continental Resources, one of the companies that has committed to ship crude on TransCanada Corp's proposed Keystone XL pipeline, now says the controversial pipeline is no longer needed. Continental has signed on to ship some 35,000 barrels of its own oil from the Bakken field of North Dakota on the 1,179-mile, $5.4-billion Keystone XL line. But construction of the pipeline has been delayed for years as TransCanada has sought regulatory approvals, and Continental has since turned to railroads to get its crude to oil refineries." Cezary Podkul in Reuters.

General Motors will make a $1.3 billion investment in 5 U.S. factories. "General Motors, the nation’s largest auto company, said Monday it would spend about $1.3 billion to upgrade five factories in the Midwest, including a major overhaul of one of its highly profitable truck plants. The news followed Ford Motor’s announcement last week that it was hiring 5,000 new workers next year and introducing 16 new vehicles in North America." Bill Vlasic in The New York Times.

How tight jeans almost ruined America’s money. "Even a single fiber of spandex can ruin a batch of currency paper, degrading the strength of the material. But separating the spandex from the cotton would be a Herculean task, Rudd said. By the early 2000s, almost every pair of jeans contained at least a hint of stretch -- rendering them useless to Crane." Ylan Q. Mui in The Washington Post.

This is awesome interlude: Mike Tyson wrote a review of Kierkegaard and Nietzsche, and it fabulous.

5. The Senate has a packed pre-Christmas schedule

Harry Reid fills up schedule for Congress before Christmas. "Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) laid out an ambitious schedule Monday of high-profile nominations that the chamber must tackle this week in addition to passing the bipartisan budget agreement and a defense authorization. Reid said he’s willing to hold the Senate in session until Christmas Eve to confirm nominees like Janet Yellen to chair the Federal Reserve and Alejandro Mayorkas to be the No. 2 at the Department of Homeland Security...All of Obama’s nominees hit the reset button when a new session of the Senate convenes in January, requiring the president to resubmit all of his nominees. That deadline is motivating Democrats to push ahead on as many of the president’s picks as possible." Burgess Everett in Politico.

Jeh Johnson confirmed as secretary of homeland security. "Johnson, 56, the former general counsel for the Pentagon, won confirmation on an overwhelming vote, 78 to 16, as the Senate continued churning through an end-of-session batch of nominees to fill President Obama’s Cabinet and the federal judiciary." Paul Kane in The Washington Post.

Republican senators are just going to talk, talk, talk. "Senate Republicans made plans Wednesday to stage a more than 30-hour talkathon on the chamber floor to protest Democrats’ triggering of the “nuclear option” last month. The GOP protest, which could extend into the weekend, will throw a wrench in Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s (D-Nev.) hopes of wrapping up legislative business for 2013 as soon as possible." Alexander Bolton in The Hill.

Reading material interlude: The best sentences Wonkblog read today.

Wonkblog Roundup

FDA wants more proof that anti-bacterial soaps actually workSarah Kliff.

Congress lowers the ceiling on contractor pay. It could affect more workers by lifting the floorLydia DePillis.

The one thing the federal government did on gun control since NewtownLydia DePillis.

The Fed might taper bond buying this week. Here’s everything you need to knowNeil Irwin.

Three things we learned from today’s Obamacare updateSarah Kliff.

A guide to Obamacare’s ever-changing deadlinesSarah Kliff.

Full employment, not inequality, should be the top economic priorityEzra Klein.

How tight jeans almost ruined America’s money. Ylan Q. Mui.

Remember the ‘war on coal’? Coal is losing — but only in the U.S. Brad Plumer.

Et Cetera

The Senate Conservatives Fund says it's war against Boehner and McConnellAaron Blake in The Washington Post.

Union to represent low-wage food workers at two Smithsonian museumsMichael A. Fletcher in The Washington Post.

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

Wonkbook is produced with help from Michelle Williams. 

SECTION: {section=business, subsection=null}!!!
INITIAL commentConfig: {includereply=true, canvas_permalink_id=washpost.com/8bvh5zpd9k, allow_comments=true, commentmaxlength=2000, includeshare=true, display_comments=true, canvas_permalink_app_instance=m6yzjj840m, display_more=true, moderationrequired=false, includefeaturenotification=true, canvas_allcomments_id=washpost.com/km4ey0dajm, comments_period=14, defaultsort=reverseChronological, includevoteofftopic=false, allow_videos=false, includesorts=true, markerdisplay=post_commenter:Post Commenter|staff:Post Writer|top_commenter:Post Forum|top_local:Washingtologist|top_sports:SuperFan|fact_checker:Fact Checker|post_recommended:Post Recommended|world_watcher:World Watcher|cultuer_connoisseur:Culture Connoisseur|weather_watcher:Capital Weather Watcher|post_contributor:Post Contributor, childrenitemsperpage=3, includeheader=true, includeverifiedcommenters=true, defaulttab=all, includerecommend=true, includereport=true, maxitemstop=2, source=washpost.com, allow_photos=false, maxitems=7, display_ugc_photos=false, includepause=true, canvas_allcomments_app_instance=6634zxcgfd, includepermalink=false}!!!

UGC FROM ARTICLE: !!!

FINAL commentConfig: {includereply=true, canvas_permalink_id=washpost.com/8bvh5zpd9k, allow_comments=true, commentmaxlength=2000, includeshare=true, display_comments=true, canvas_permalink_app_instance=m6yzjj840m, display_more=true, moderationrequired=false, includefeaturenotification=true, canvas_allcomments_id=washpost.com/km4ey0dajm, comments_period=14, defaultsort=reverseChronological, includevoteofftopic=false, allow_videos=false, includesorts=true, markerdisplay=post_commenter:Post Commenter|staff:Post Writer|top_commenter:Post Forum|top_local:Washingtologist|top_sports:SuperFan|fact_checker:Fact Checker|post_recommended:Post Recommended|world_watcher:World Watcher|cultuer_connoisseur:Culture Connoisseur|weather_watcher:Capital Weather Watcher|post_contributor:Post Contributor, childrenitemsperpage=3, includeheader=true, includeverifiedcommenters=true, defaulttab=all, includerecommend=true, includereport=true, maxitemstop=2, source=washpost.com, allow_photos=false, maxitems=7, display_ugc_photos=false, includepause=true, canvas_allcomments_app_instance=6634zxcgfd, includepermalink=false}!!
Comments
SECTION: {section=business, subsection=null}!!!
INITIAL commentConfig: {includereply=true, canvas_permalink_id=washpost.com/8bvh5zpd9k, allow_comments=true, commentmaxlength=2000, includeshare=true, display_comments=true, canvas_permalink_app_instance=m6yzjj840m, display_more=true, moderationrequired=false, includefeaturenotification=true, canvas_allcomments_id=washpost.com/km4ey0dajm, comments_period=14, defaultsort=reverseChronological, includevoteofftopic=false, allow_videos=false, includesorts=true, markerdisplay=post_commenter:Post Commenter|staff:Post Writer|top_commenter:Post Forum|top_local:Washingtologist|top_sports:SuperFan|fact_checker:Fact Checker|post_recommended:Post Recommended|world_watcher:World Watcher|cultuer_connoisseur:Culture Connoisseur|weather_watcher:Capital Weather Watcher|post_contributor:Post Contributor, childrenitemsperpage=3, includeheader=true, includeverifiedcommenters=true, defaulttab=all, includerecommend=true, includereport=true, maxitemstop=2, source=washpost.com, allow_photos=false, maxitems=7, display_ugc_photos=false, includepause=true, canvas_allcomments_app_instance=6634zxcgfd, includepermalink=false}!!!

UGC FROM ARTICLE: !!!

FINAL commentConfig: {includereply=true, canvas_permalink_id=washpost.com/8bvh5zpd9k, allow_comments=true, commentmaxlength=2000, includeshare=true, display_comments=true, canvas_permalink_app_instance=m6yzjj840m, display_more=true, moderationrequired=false, includefeaturenotification=true, canvas_allcomments_id=washpost.com/km4ey0dajm, comments_period=14, defaultsort=reverseChronological, includevoteofftopic=false, allow_videos=false, includesorts=true, markerdisplay=post_commenter:Post Commenter|staff:Post Writer|top_commenter:Post Forum|top_local:Washingtologist|top_sports:SuperFan|fact_checker:Fact Checker|post_recommended:Post Recommended|world_watcher:World Watcher|cultuer_connoisseur:Culture Connoisseur|weather_watcher:Capital Weather Watcher|post_contributor:Post Contributor, childrenitemsperpage=3, includeheader=true, includeverifiedcommenters=true, defaulttab=all, includerecommend=true, includereport=true, maxitemstop=2, source=washpost.com, allow_photos=false, maxitems=7, display_ugc_photos=false, includepause=true, canvas_allcomments_app_instance=6634zxcgfd, includepermalink=false}!!
Show Comments
Most Read Business
Next Story
Neil Irwin · December 16, 2013