Wonkbook: Will 2014 be the year Obamacare thrives?

February 13

Welcome to Wonkbook, Wonkblog’s morning policy news primer by Evan Soltas. To subscribe by e-mail, click here. Send comments, criticism, or ideas to Wonkbook at Washpost dot com. To read more by the Wonkblog team, click here.


(Photo by Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg)

Wonkbook's Number of the Day: 1.14 million. That's how many signed up for health plans in January through Obamacare's insurance marketplace. It was the first "beat" of the CBO's enrollment projections yet, which anticipated 1.06 million.

Wonkbook's Quote of the Day: “I’m getting this monkey off your back, and you’re not going to even clap?” said Speaker of the House John Boehner to the House Republican caucus after announcing the "clean" debt-ceiling deal.

Wonkbook's Graph of the Day: This is the single best website for tracking Obamacare enrollment -- after Wonkblog, of course.

Wonkbook's Top 5 Stories: (1) a win for Obamacare; (2) Congress passes clean debt-ceiling hike; (3) Furman, wonktastic; (4) NSA debate's next turn; and (5) Supreme Court can't dodge gay marriage.

1. Top story: Will 2014 be the year Obamacare thrives?

Obamacare beats its enrollment projection for January. "The Obama administration has beaten a monthly health insurance enrollment target for the first time, according to data released Wednesday showing that more than 1.14 million people signed up for health plans in January in the new insurance marketplace. The latest enrollment data from the Obama administration show that 3.3 million people have signed up for private health insurance through federal and state insurance exchanges created under the Affordable Care Act. This figure represents all enrollment from Oct. 1 through Feb. 1. It includes both people who have and have not paid their first month's premium. Of those people, 1,146,100 selected their health insurance plans in January, meaning there was a 53 percent increase enrollment last month alone. This makes January the first month that the Obama administration has beaten an enrollment target. Back in September, way before HealthCare.gov's botched launch, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services projected that 1,059,900 people would sign up for private health insurance in January." Sarah Kliff in The Washington Post.

Democrats cheer new Obamacare enrollment figures. "Congressional Democratic leaders Wednesday touted newly released enrollment figures showing that the Obama administration has beaten a monthly health insurance enrollment target for the first time as evidence that Americans are beginning to see the benefits of the new law. Speaking at the start of their annual policy retreat being held here on Maryland's Eastern Shore, House Minority Whip Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.) said he was especially pleased to see that young people enrolled at a higher rate than in December." Ed O'Keefe in The Washington Post.

@MikeGrunwald: After the wall-to-wall media frenzy over Obamacare starting slow, I bet it will be huge news that it's caught up! #notreally

The uninsured rate is at a five-year low. Is Obamacare the reason? "Gallup's newest poll shows another decline in the uninsured rate, in a survey taken in late January and early February. It found that 16 percent of American adults reported lacking insurance coverage, the lowest number Gallup has recorded since 2009...What's more interesting about this one, though, is it includes a breakdown of where people are getting health insurance--one that would suggest the health-care law played a role in this new drop. It shows that more people report getting their health insurance through the individual market and Medicaid than in the last quarter of 2013." Sarah Kliff in The Washington Post.

Problem: Still not a lot of competition on Obamacare exchanges. "Hundreds of thousands of Americans in poorer counties have few choices of health insurers and face high premiums through the online exchanges created by the health-care law, according to an analysis by The Wall Street Journal of offerings in 36 states. Consumers in 515 counties, spread across 15 states, have only one insurer selling coverage through the online marketplaces, the Journal found. In more than 80% of those counties, the sole insurer is a local Blue Cross & Blue Shield plan...The average price for a 50-year-old American to obtain the cheapest midlevel "silver plan" through HealthCare.gov—the marketplace operated by the federal government—was $406 in counties with one health insurer, the Journal found. In counties with four insurers, the average price of the cheapest comparable silver plan was $329. The price differences reflect the strategy of insurers to pick markets where they believe they can turn a profit—and avoid areas of high unemployment and a concentration of unhealthy residents they deem more risky." Timothy W. Martin and Christopher Weaver in The Wall Street Journal.

@JohnJHarwood: given latest data (3.3-M enrolled through Feb 1) won't be too surprising if Obamacare exchanges end up in 7-M neighborhood after all

Youth Obamacare enrollment groups surprised to learn that Healthcare.gov won't work on National Youth Enrollment Day. "“We just found that out,” said Aaron Smith, co-founder of the recruitment group Young Invincibles. “Obviously it’s unfortunate.” “It’s not ideal,” another Obamacare ally said." Evan McMorris-Santoro in BuzzFeed.

KRUGMAN: Unskewing Obamacare. "[E]very online article I’ve seen about the latest numbers is followed by a huge number of vitriolic comments insisting that it isn’t true, that Obamacare is a total disaster. Some commenters declare that all the numbers are lies; others, getting their take from right-wing bloggers, say that all of those who have signed up but not yet paid their first premium – ahem, 47 percent of the total – will never pay and are fake enrollees. And so on. You can’t help but notice the resemblance to the “unskewing” fever of the final weeks of the 2012 election" Paul Krugman in The New York Times.

@ezraklein: As always, Obamacare news days are days when you should be following @sarahkliff

PHILIP KLEIN: Massachusetts Obamacare signups at just 5 percent of original target. "In 11 states including Connecticut, Rhode Island, New York, Maine and New Hampshire, signups are more than 100 percent of projected enrollments. On the other hand, in 13 states signups are tracking at less than 50 percent of original targets. Though supporters of the health care law have tried to point fingers at Republican states for trying to sabotage enrollment efforts, the worst-performing states were among those that were most gung-ho about implementing the law, including Massachusetts, Oregon, Maryland and the District of Columbia." Philip Klein in The Washington Examiner.

PODHORETZ: Nobody can make Obamacare work. "[H]ere we are, four years later, and the administration has spent the past six months effectively rewriting the law for both political and practical reasons. It shouldn’t be able to do this, because it is, you know, a law. The president doesn’t write laws. Congress does. He signs them and it’s his job to implement them. If he can’t write laws, he can’t rewrite them either." John Podhoretz in The New York Post.

COHN: Should we believe the new mammogram study? "As Ezekiel Emanuel, the oncologist and former Obama Administration advisor, explained to the New Republic, studies like this are a “Rorschach test” for researchers. While people who tend to be skeptical of medical intervention will see evidence that we screen too much, people who tend err on the side of early, aggressive action will find flaws with the study. Among other things, they will point out, the study is based on screenings that took place 25 years ago—when the technology itself was less sophisticated." Jonathan Cohn in The New Republic.

Music recommendations interlude: Beth Orton, "Worms."

Top opinion

TYSON: Putting America's recovery to work. "[A]s President Barack Obama argued in his recent State of the Union address, it will take more than faster economic growth for American workers to recover from the Great Recession. Extending unemployment benefits for the long-term jobless, combating the stigma against hiring them, creating more on-the-job training opportunities and apprenticeships, and raising the minimum wage are all essential steps toward a more equitable distribution of the recovery’s benefits." Laura D'Andrea Tyson in Project Syndicate.

DIONNE: Boehner's sunshine band. "From now on, it’s the Zip-a-dee-doo-dah House. The political world stopped for a moment when Speaker John Boehner broke into the jaunty old Disney tune — “My, oh my, what a wonderful day” — after a news conference in which he threw in the towel on the debt ceiling fight. He found himself trapped between the immovable object of Democrats determined that they’d never again let Republicans take the nation’s credit hostage and the irresistible force of a dysfunctional, crisis-addicted GOP majority of which he is the putative leader. Boehner decided to skip away in song." E.J. Dionne in The Washington Post.

CALOMIRIS AND MELTZER: How Dodd-Frank doubles down on too-big-too-fail. "Dodd-Frank's approach to regulating bank risk has two major flaws. First, its standards and rules require regulatory enforcement instead of giving bankers strong incentives to maintain safety and soundness of their own institutions. Second, the regulatory framework attempts to prevent any individual bank from failing, instead of preventing the collapse of the payments and credit systems." Charles W. Calomiris and Allan Meltzer in The Wall Street Journal.

'The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice' interlude: Spain will restore citizenship to the descendants of Sephardic Jews it expelled 500 years ago.

2. Congress passes clean hike of debt ceiling

Senate backs increase in debt ceiling. "The Senate voted 55 to 43 to pass a suspension of the limit on federal borrowing Wednesday, ensuring that the Treasury does not default on its more than $17 trillion debt for another year...The votes came two weeks before the Feb. 27 deadline established by Treasury Secretary Jack Lew. Financial experts had warned of havoc in financial markets if Congress didn't act by then." Wesley Lowery in The Washington Post.

The clean deal is a shift in strategy for Republicans. "When House Republicans huddled at a private retreat two weeks ago, Rep. Raul Labrador offered an unexpected proposal: Let's extend the federal borrowing limit with no strings attached and make Democrats muster the votes. Coming from one of the House's most conservative members, it was a surprising move. The Idaho lawmaker said he opposed raising the debt ceiling, but wanted his party to skip a protracted fight it was unlikely to win...Months ago, Mr. Boehner's decision might have amounted to political suicide. Today, conservatives such as Mr. Labrador are increasingly willing to substitute pragmatism for the ideological battles they say have produced diminishing returns from a Democratic-controlled Senate and White House." Kristina Peterson and Janet Hook in The Wall Street Journal.

Act of surrender may strengthen Boehner's control. "After what one member described as “stunned silence,” the speaker quipped, “I’m getting this monkey off your back, and you’re not going to even clap?” The applause he coaxed was grudging and modest, but most rank-and-file House Republicans understood that their leader was taking the arrows from their right flank that could have been headed for them. By quickly and unilaterally ending the back-and-forth over which amendments to try to attach to a debt ceiling increase, Mr. Boehner avoided another protracted public battle within the party and, more important, steered the government away from a potentially crippling default — without forcing most of his members to vote for a debt ceiling increase." Jonathan Weisman in The New York Times.

Behind the scenes of the debt-ceiling deal. "McConnell and Cornyn tried to persuade more than five Republicans in safe seats to support the plan, but they were met with stiff resistance...McConnell and Cornyn — both facing reelection this year and battling tea party-inspired challengers in their states — took the plunge and risked the political backlash by voting to break a filibuster, the type of vote the two wily leaders have long sought to avoid in this election season. After hoping the measure passed without their fingerprints, McConnell and Cornyn were forced to own part of it by allowing it to move to a final vote with their consent, even persuading several of their colleagues to switch their votes. The leaders later voted against final passage...The end result: 12 Republicans voted to break a filibuster, advancing the measure on a 67-31 vote." Manu Raju and Burgess Everett in Politico.

Senate votes to restore military COLA benefits. "Shortly after passing a suspension of the limit on federal borrowing Wednesday, the Senate voted 95-3 to pass a bill restoring military retiree benefits that were cut last year, choosing to adopt the House's solution of extending automatic cuts to Medicare to accompany the pension increase. In a lopsided vote, the House voted Tuesday to restore the cost of living adjustment to military veterans who are younger than 62 years old, which were cut as part of December’s bipartisan budget deal. House Republicans had floated the idea of tying the repeal of military pension cuts to a bill raising the federal government’s borrowing authority, but ultimately passed a debt-ceiling increase and the military COLA restoration individually." Wesley Lowery in The Washington Post.

U.S. budget deficit in January is $10.42 billion. "The federal budget narrowed in the opening months of the fiscal year, the latest evidence of the country's improving financial outlook. The U.S. government's deficit for October through January totaled $184.02 billion, down 37% from the $290.41 billion shortfall during the same period a year earlier, the Treasury Department said Wednesday in its monthly report. The 2014 fiscal year started on Oct. 1." Jeffrey Sparshott in The Wall Street Journal.

Literary interlude: Critic or consumer?

3. Furman, wonktastic

Economist Jason Furman is the wonkiest wonk in the White House. "The 43-year-old economist, who as the chairman of the Council on Economic Advisers seems to relish a day spent describing “principal component analysis” to a befuddled White House press corps, has long been the ultimate wonk for the nation’s capital. His success in the Obama administration, ascending to the chief economist job in August, is a testament to how Washington celebrates nerds — and a lesson in what the president wants from his closest advisers." Zachary A. Goldfarb in The Washington Post.

Watch: President Obama’s top economist juggles two apples and an egg. Zachary A. Goldfarb in The Washington Post.

Union drive doesn't bother management, but Republicans fume. "State Senator Bo Watson, who represents a suburb of Chattanooga, warned on Monday that if VW’s workers voted to embrace the U.A.W., the Republican-controlled Legislature might vote against approving future incentives to help the plant expand. “The members of the Tennessee Senate will not view unionization as in the best interest of Tennessee,” Mr. Watson said at a news conference...Concerned that a U.A.W. victory would hurt Tennessee’s business climate, Gov. Bill Haslam has warned that auto parts suppliers might decide against locating in Chattanooga because they might not want to set up near a unionized VW plant." Steven Greenhouse in The New York Times.

Interview: Sen. Bob Corker can’t stand the United Auto WorkersThe Washington Post.

Obama launches fresh effort on minimum wage as part of populist election message. "President Obama on Wednesday launched a fresh effort to focus on the minimum wage ahead of this year’s midterm elections, emphasizing the populist economic message that will drive much of this year’s Democratic strategy. In a White House event, Obama signed an executive order hiking the minimum wage for federal contractors to $10.10 from $7.25 starting next year. He was following through on an announcement he had made ahead of this year’s State of the Union address." Zachary A. Goldfarb in The Washington Post.

Pelosi comes out against fast track. "Pelosi made clear on Wednesday night that she isn’t opposed to the concept of TPA, also known as fast-track authority, but she can’t support a bill introduced by Baucus, House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dave Camp (R-Mich.) and Senate Finance Committee ranking member Orrin Hatch (R-Utah)." Vicki Needham in The Hill.

The Fed to the Bank of England: You go first. "Newly minted Federal Reserve chief Janet Yellen is on Capitol Hill this week expounding on the economy. But the more exciting action for Fedwatchers is happening across the pond. The Bank of England is the first major central bank to cross its line in the sand for hiking interest rates. Gov. Mark Carney publicly addressed that dilemma Wednesday, and what he said could provide some clues about how the Fed will confront the same problem." Ylan Q. Mui in The Washington Post.

Yellen to snow: You go first. "The Senate Banking Committee on Wednesday postponed its Thursday hearing with Federal Reserve Chairwoman Janet Yellen. No new date has been set. The committee decided to reschedule the hearing because of a snowstorm scheduled to hit Washington Wednesday night." Victoria McGrane in The Wall Street Journal.

White House nominates Citi economist for Treasury post. "The White House on Wednesday nominated Nathan Sheets, a Citigroup economist and former Federal Reserve official, to fill the top diplomatic post at the U.S. Treasury Department. Mr. Sheets, who has been Citi's global head of international economics since 2011, is expected to start work Thursday as a senior counselor at the Treasury Department while he awaits Senate confirmation as Treasury's undersecretary for international affairs." Ian Talley in The Wall Street Journal.

An oil industry awash in crude fights out its differences. "[T]he oil producers have begun lobbying the Obama administration, Congress and the public to let them export the bounty of crude oil flowing out of new shale fields across the country. Opposing them are their erstwhile cousins, the independent refiners, who insist that they need abundant, economical domestic supplies of oil so they can compete with foreign refiners. It is a rare clash in a deeply guarded industry that involves arguments over national security, pricing at the pump and, after all is said and done, who will get a bigger share of earnings from the current drilling rush." Clifford Krauss in The New York Times.

Yikes interlude: Massive sinkhole swallows eight cars at the National Corvette Museum.

4. The next steps in the NSA debate

Cantor to give big NSA speech. "House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) plans to take on both President Obama and the rising libertarian wing of his own party in a Monday speech on national security. Cantor is delivering what his office has billed as a major address at the Virginia Military Institute in his home state, where is he expected to address ongoing developments in Iran, Syria, Russia, Libya and Afghanistan, among other global hotspots." Russell Berman in The Hill.

White House releases voluntary cybersecurity rules for critical infrastructure. "The guidelines, released Wednesday by the National Institute of Standards and Technology, stem from an executive order President Barack Obama issued last year aimed at securing the networks. The voluntary guidelines lay out steps companies can take to improve security, such as investing in active monitoring of their networks, but they don't include incentives for companies to take part. Cybersecurity experts, who have pushed for tougher rules in this area, said the new guidelines won't do much to change how companies protect their networks." Gautham Nagesh and Danny Yadron in The Wall Street Journal.

Science wonk interlude: Fusion energy milestone reported by California scientists.

5. How gay marriage makes itself unavoidable for the Supreme Court

Part of Kentucky marriage law overturned. "A federal judge in Kentucky on Wednesday struck down a portion of the state’s constitutional ban on same-sex marriage, ruling that Kentucky must recognize marriages that have been performed legally in other states. The decision was handed down on the same day that same-sex couples filed federal lawsuits challenging marriage bans in Missouri and Louisiana, and a federal judge in Texas conducted a hearing in a lawsuit seeking to strike down that state’s prohibition on same-sex marriages." Timothy Williams in The New York Times.

Gay Republican poses a challenge for party. "Carl DeMaio is one of three openly gay Republicans running for Congress this year, and he would be at least the third to serve in the House if he wins. But Mr. DeMaio on Thursday will take a step that none of them has, airing a campaign ad that features a shot of him with his same-sex partner. The clips are brief: A shot of Mr. DeMaio holding hands with his partner, Johnathan Hale, as they march in a gay pride parade in 2012, followed by a clip of the San Diego candidate waving a rainbow flag that symbolizes the gay-rights movement." Patrick O'Connor in The Wall Street Journal.

This picture will live forever interlude: 2.5 inches of snow in Raleigh, N.C., and all heck breaks loose.

Wonkblog Roundup

Watch President Obama’s top economist juggle two apples and an eggZachary A. Goldfarb.

The Fed to the Bank of England: You go firstYlan Q. Mui.

Obamacare beats a January enrollment projectionSarah Kliff.

Economist Jason Furman is the wonkiest wonk in the White HouseZachary A. Goldfarb.

The uninsured rate is at a five-year low. Is Obamacare the reasonSarah Kliff.

Sen. Bob Corker can’t stand the United Auto Workers: An annotated interviewLydia DePillis.

Et Cetera

18 House lawmakers urge softer pot policyRebecca Shabad in The Hill.

Wendy Davis says she could support 20-week abortion banAaron Blake in The Washington Post.

New head of Senate Energy Committee has environmentalists seeing redSteven Mufson in The Washington Post.

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

Wonkbook is produced with help from Michelle Williams.

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