Wonkbook: A big week ahead for Obamacare

March 11, 2014

Welcome to Wonkbook, Wonkblog’s morning policy news primer by Puneet Kollipara. 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 Jonathan Alcorn/Reuters)

Wonkbook’s Number of the Day: 15.9 percent. That's the percentage of adult Americans without health insurance, according to new survey data from Gallup.

Wonkbook’s Chart of the Day: The top White House economist’s favorite graph might restore your faith in the future.

Wonkbook's Top 5 Stories: (1) Uninsured rate drops; (2) the Snowden saga continues; (3) White House optimism on economy; (4) Democrats pull climate all-nighter; and (5) Senate passes military sexual assault bill.

1. Drop in uninsured rate kicks off big week for Obamacare

Health law cited as U.S. uninsured rate drops. "The share of Americans without health insurance is dropping to the lowest levels since President Barack Obama took office, but sign-ups under his health care law lag among Hispanics — a big pool of potential beneficiaries. With just three weeks left to enroll on the new insurance exchanges, the Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index, finds that 15.9 percent of U.S. adults are uninsured thus far in 2014, down from 17.1 percent for the last three months — or calendar quarter— of 2013....The drop of 1.2 percentage points in the uninsured rate translates to about 3 million people gaining coverage. Gallup said the proportion of Americans who are uninsured is on track to drop to the lowest quarterly level it measured since 2008, before Obama took office." Associated Press.

Read: The poll's findings. Gallup.

Explainer: Five takeaways from Gallup’s poll on the uninsured. Jason Millman in The Washington Post.

Story compilation: With 3 weeks left in enrollment period, Obama administration's sign-up rush is on. Kaiser Health News.

@maevereston: Big Wk for White House on Obamacare. As Mar 31 deadline approaches, @BarackObama will talk to @WebMD while continuing push to Moms & Latinos

But yet another change to the health care law as administration scratches drug rule. "The Obama administration, in an abrupt about-face, said on Monday it would drop proposed changes to Medicare drug coverage that met wide opposition on grounds they would harm health benefits for the elderly and disabled....The proposals were opposed by both Republicans and Democrats in Congress. The Republican Party had already begun to look for ways to leverage popular anger over the changes into campaign attacks on Democratic incumbents who could be vulnerable in November's election showdown for control of Congress." David Morgan in Reuters.

Republicans keep up the Obamacare attack. "House Republicans will bring three bills to the floor for votes this week that would expand religious and military exemptions under ObamaCare....GOP leaders are treating the three ObamaCare bills as 'suspension' legislation, which means they will get a shorter debate and must pass with a two-thirds majority vote....The bills under consideration are a far cry from the full or partial repeal legislation House leaders have called up before, and each has attracted at least some degree of bipartisan support. That gives them a chance of passing the House with bipartisan momentum." Pete Kasperowicz in The Hill.

House GOP also to hold vote this week on bill linking 'doc fix' to individual mandate delay. "GOP leaders intend to vote on legislation this week, aides say, to delay the individual mandate in order to fund a 'doc fix' that avoids a 24 percent pay cut to physicians under Medicare — which will automatically take effect on April 1 unless Congress acts. Inaction would disrupt the health care system, in part by causing many doctors to stop accepting Medicare patients.The strategy is unlikely to succeed and could backfire on Republicans. Delaying the individual mandate is a nonstarter for the Democratic-led Senate and White House." Sahil Kapur in Talking Points Memo.

Federal watchdog to investigate troubled Md. exchange. "The HHS Office of the Inspector General is launching an investigation into Maryland’s troubled health insurance exchange, the latest target of expanding federal oversight of poorly performing Obamacare exchanges." Brett Norman in Politico.

SARGENT: As GOP certainty about Obamacare’s collapse deepens, uninsured rate falls again. "The most important political and policy news of the day is Gallup’s new finding....To be sure, we still don’t know for certain whether Obamacare is the reason for this....But Gallup has now found this three straight times, which suggests it may not be statistical noise and could be a trend, though caution is still in order....GOP certainty that the law is collapsing — and will deliver Republicans the Senate — deepened earlier this month after the administration announced its latest delay. But today’s Gallup numbers remind us we’re inexorably moving into the realm of the concrete when it comes to the most important Obamacare metric of all — how many people are gaining heath care coverage. As Gallup has noted, if this trend continues, it will increasingly suggest Obamacare may be the reason for it. While the short term politics of the law will continue to be tough going for Dems, a continuation of this trend could begin to scramble the political calculus." Greg Sargent in The Washington Post.

COHN: Gallup findings may be more credible than McKinsey survey. "Gallup's survey is not as reliable as the big government surveys on the uninsured, which won't be available until next year. In addition, the Gallup data for last year, 2013, shows a very strange pattern, with the uninsured rate spiking to 18 percent in the middle of the year for no apparent reason. That makes it hard to be certain exactly what's happening right now....Of course, not everybody reacts to news about the health care law so carefully. Over the last few weeks, Obamacare critics have made a great deal of noise about surveys that put Obamacare in a poor light—including a study from McKinsey showing that only a small portion of people getting insurance through the exchanges lacked coverage before....If anything, the McKinsey survey probably deserves less credence." Jonathan Cohn in The New Republic.

PHILIP KLEIN: Gallup results don’t tell us much about Obamacare. "The story of the Gallup numbers over the past year is just as much a story of the uninsurance rate spiking in the summer/early fall of 2013 as it is a story of it declining at the start of 2014. It's possible that people who were losing insurance as a result of changes in the law last year have been shifting to new plans on the Obamacare exchanges — which would still be consistent with the theory that Obamacare hasn't made major gains among the long-term uninsured. Additionally, taking the longer view, the 15.9 percent rate isn't historically that low." Philip Klein in the Washington Examiner.

McARDLE: Unions suffer for Obamacare. "Clearly, the administration reckons it can weather public rebukes from the unions much better than it can endure the backlash they’d get for helping them. This is potentially an existential threat to the institutions that used to be the backbone of the Democratic Party. Now it's treating them more like the appendix. That tells you something significant about how Obamacare was passed. But it tells you something even more significant about the Democrats and the administration. They’re still willing to deliver symbolic victories such as appointments to the National Labor Relations Board, but as far as policy making goes, private-sector unions are increasingly less relevant. That has huge implications for the future of the Democratic Party, not to mention U.S. economic policy." Megan McArdle in Bloomberg View.

Top opinion

BROOKS: The leaderless doctrine. "For the first time in half a century, a majority of Americans say that the U.S. should be less engaged in world affairs, according to the most recent Pew Research Center survey. For the first time in recorded history, a majority of Americans believe that their country has a declining influence on what’s happening around the globe. A slight majority of Americans now say that their country is doing too much to help solve the world’s problems. At first blush, this looks like isolationism. But if you actually look at the data, you see that this is not the case. America is not turning inward economically....America is not turning inward culturally....Americans are not even turning inward when it comes to activism. What's happening can be more accurately described this way: Americans have lost faith in the high politics of global affairs. They have lost faith in the idea that American political and military institutions can do much to shape the world. American opinion is marked by an amazing sense of limitation — that there are severe restrictions on what political and military efforts can do." David Brooks in The New York Times.

THE NEW YORK TIMES: Republicans need to help fix state exchanges, not harass them. "There is no doubt that the exchanges run by Oregon, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota and Hawaii have gotten off to troubled starts — much like the federal exchanges created to serve residents in states that refused to set up their own. The problems are similar at both levels — unreliable software and the failure to heed early warnings that the systems weren’t ready....Republican leaders, meanwhile, are doing little to solve the difficulties and are instead threatening to recover money not yet spent on enrolling people, and harassing state officials with requests for information about the salaries and vacation time of directors of the state exchanges. The start-up problems will be surmounted in due course. Republican gloating over the problems does not help the uninsured get the coverage they need." Editorial Board.

SOLTAS: On slackers and quitters in today's economy. "How much slack is left in the U.S. economy? How much of our resources are sitting around, factories idled and workers unemployed, almost five years after the recession? The answer is surprisingly unclear — but it couldn’t matter more....The debate matters because estimates of the U.S. economy’s potential matter to economic policy — and, if the guesses are off the mark, could hurt the actual economy." Evan Soltas in Bloomberg View.

THIESSEN: Obama has plenty of options on Ukraine — if he would just return from vacation. "The president’s defenders say he has limited options to counter Russian aggression. Please. The United States is still a superpower — and there is plenty Obama can do to raise the pressure on Putin short of sending in the Marines....But Putin is calculating he won’t do any of it — that he will look for a way out, just like he did in Syria. Obama needs to show Putin he is wrong. He can’t do it from Key Largo." Marc Thiessen in The Washington Post.

MAYER: We need more tests, not fewer. "The SAT isn’t perfect. Like any test, it can be misused, can misevaluate a person, and may reflect unequal educational opportunities. But what interview or grading process is free from such concerns?...We cannot afford to ignore tests because they fall short of perfection or make us uncomfortable....What if, in addition to the SAT, students were offered new tests that measured more diverse abilities?...We can’t expect these tests to predict first-year college G.P.A. as well as the SAT does. But they may predict other outcomes of importance, and help colleges to recognize the diversity of abilities in future students." John D. Mayer in The New York Times.

Animals interlude: Cat circus!

2. Snowden brings NSA debate back into the spotlight

Snowden to tech leaders at SXSW: 'We need you to help us fix this.' "Against a backdrop of the Constitution, Edward Snowden appeared through video on an American Civil Liberties Union panel at the South by Southwest Interactive Festival in Austin. And the former National Security Agency contractor had a message for the tech leaders watching: 'We need you to help us fix this.' In the hour-long appearance, Snowden, ACLU technologist Christopher Soghoian, and moderator Ben Wizner, the ACLU's speech, privacy and technology project director, spent much of their time on ways the technology community could counteract digital bulk surveillance programs revealed by Snowden's leaking of NSA files to the media." Andrea Peterson in The Washington Post.

Videos:

What's Edward Snowden thinking? The Washington Post.

Edward Snowden speaks at SXSW. Aaron Blake in The Washington Post.

Snowden calls for better public oversight. "'They’re setting fire to the future of the Internet,' Snowden said of the National Security Agency. 'We need public advocates. We need public oversight. Some way [to have] trusted figures, sort of civil rights champions to advocate for us, to protect the structure. How do we fix our oversight? How do we structure an oversight model that works? The key factor is accountability.'...Snowden was greeted by applause when his face appeared on the massive screens, and he received a standing ovation from most of those gathered as the talk ended." Matt McFarland in The Washington Post.

Surveillance also hurting U.S. counterterrorism efforts, Snowden says. "America’s spy agencies are so focused on 'mass surveillance' that they have missed clues about terrorist incidents, such as last year’s Boston Marathon bombing and an attempted attack on a jetliner on Christmas in 2009, former intelligence contractor Edward Snowden said Monday....The intelligence failures Snowden alleged are not clear-cut. The Christmas 2009 bomb attempt involved a failure to connect and understand the information agencies possessed. In the Boston case, the FBI followed up on a tip from Russian authorities about a suspect but found insufficient grounds to open a criminal investigation." Ellen Nakashima in The Washington Post.

The Snowden talk faced resistance from a Republican lawmaker. "Rep. Mike Pompeo doesn’t want Edward Snowden on the schedule at South by Southwest, and he’s taking the event’s planners to task for inviting him in the first place. In a letter from Pompeo’s office, he requested the NSA leaker’s invitation to speak via telecast at the annual Texas event be withdrawn, lest it encourage 'lawless behavior' among attendees." Andrea Drusch in Politico.

Privacy group wins halt on NSA destruction of phone records. "The National Security Agency was blocked by a judge from carrying out plans [Tuesday] to begin destroying phone records collected for surveillance after a privacy group argued they are relevant to lawsuits claiming the practice is unconstitutional. U.S. District Judge Jeffrey White in San Francisco ordered the agency [Monday] to retain the records and scheduled a hearing for March 19 on whether they can be destroyed. The NSA had planned to dispose of the records following a March 7 ruling by the U.S. Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court in Washington." Karen Gullo in Bloomberg.

Ahead of nomination hearing Obama's NSA pick relays concerns about outside transfer of phone data. "The Navy admiral nominated to be the next head of the troubled National Security Agency is expressing concerns about the U.S. government turning over the bulk collection of telephone data to an independent third party, saying it could result in higher costs and delays identifying potential threats. Vice Adm. Mike Rogers, who also has been nominated to take over U.S. Cyber Command, provided the first glimpse into his views of the nation's troubled surveillance programs in answers to a questionnaire submitted to the Senate Armed Services Committee. The document was obtained by The Associated Press. The panel will conduct a hearing on his Cyber Command nomination Tuesday, giving lawmakers' their first and most crucial opportunity to judge the man who would oversee reforms to NSA's sweeping data collection programs." Lolita C. Baldor in the Associated Press.

Despite feeling heat over NSA scandal, Obama has bright spot on handling of Ukraine. "Slightly more Americans approve than disapprove of President Obama's handling of the crisis in Ukraine, according to a new poll. The CNN/Opinion Research poll shows 48 percent approve of Obama when it comes to Ukraine, while 43 percent disapprove." Aaron Blake in The Washington Post.

Senators near deal on Ukraine aid, Russia sanctions bill. "Top senators are crafting a package that includes both direct aid to Ukraine and targeted sanctions in an effort to rapidly provide assistance to the new, pro-Western government in Kiev....Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) said Monday of a final agreement that 'we’re very close.'" Seung Min Kim in Politico.

Another new science show interlude: Craig Ferguson to produce "I F---ing Love Science," inspired by eponymous Facebook group.

3. White House sees stronger economy ahead

Obama advisers say U.S. economy poised for gains 2014-2015. "President Barack Obama’s advisers said the U.S. economy is on track to strengthen and add more jobs in the next two years because many of the impediments to faster growth have subsided. The unemployment rate has dropped to the lowest levels in more than five years, deficits have been cut by more than half, housing is on the rebound, manufacturers are adding jobs for the first time since the 1990s and exports are accelerating, Obama said in an annual economic report to Congress....Obama’s economic advisers drew on economic data that they said shows the gross domestic product expanding by 3.1 percent this year and 3.4 percent in 2015, which would be the best performance since 2005. The economy grew 1.9 percent last year. The jobless rate will average 6.9 percent this year, declining to an average of 6.4 percent in 2015, the White House economic team said." Roger Runningen in Bloomberg.

Read: The 2014 Economic Report of the President.

Explainers:

The top White House economist’s favorite graph might restore your faith in the future. Zachary Goldfarb in The Washington Post.

A single paragraph that explains why unemployment is still so high. Zachary Goldfarb in The Washington Post.

Democrats seek repeat of 2006 win on state minimum wages. "Republicans should be careful what they wish for when it comes to raising the minimum wage. Party members who voted for the last U.S. wage increase in 2007 including Representative Greg Walden, who is overseeing Republican House races this year, oppose a similar plan now. They say state initiatives to raise hourly pay have taken pressure off Congress to act. Still, in the 2006 election such state measures helped Democrats win the majority in both chambers of Congress. This year, minimum wage increases are being readied for the November ballot in at least seven states, including Arkansas, which has a competitive U.S. Senate race." Michael C. Bender in Bloomberg.

Long read: With clock ticking on mortgage relief, homeowners wonder what’s ahead. "Five years after the federal government bailed out more than 1 million struggling homeowners, many who got the relief may end up losing their homes after all. Already, nearly 30 percent of those who qualified for relief have defaulted again. And roughly 800,000 borrowers who remain enrolled in the government’s flagship program will see their mortgage interest rates gradually rise starting this year — eventually increasing payments by more than $1,000 a month in some cases, according to a recent federal analysis. As the higher payments kick in, regulators and consumer advocates fear that homeowners won’t be able to stay current on their mortgages, placing an unwelcome strain on the housing market and potentially on economic growth." Dina ElBoghdady in The Washington Post.

Official: Fed may need to taper bond purchases faster. "The Federal Reserve may have to accelerate the pace of tapering to take into account the economic pickup currently ongoing in the U.S. and the improving forecast for the near future, Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia President Charles Plosser said." Gabriele Parussini and William Horobin in The Wall Street Journal.

Singing performance interlude: 7-year-old girl’s “Gloomy Sunday” rendition wows judges.

4. Democrats pull all-night 'talkathon' on Senate floor for climate change

But to what end? No bill in mind, top Democrat says. "Tonight's program 'isn’t about a particular bill,' said Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), who also helped organize the talkathon. 'This is about trying to raise the profile and being to gain some momentum on this issue. Then I think we’re in a position to ask corporate America and other groups and organizations to get more engaged and open the kind of space it will take to pass a bill. But the first thing we have to show is that we’re engaged ourselves.' As for whether Senate Democrats would ever actually do something about climate change — instead of just talking about it — there currently is no piece of legislation expected to come up for debate soon on the Senate floor. Whitehouse said Monday that Democrats and their environmental allies hope to aggressively campaign on the issue this year and use the next two years trying to pass legislation — or at least put potential GOP presidential candidates on the record." Ed O'Keefe in The Washington Post.

What the Senate’s all-nighter was really about. "Adopting a strategy used in the past year to great effect by Republican senators — Ted Cruz, anyone?...But, there is another more political reason for the decision by Senate Democrats to devote their time to the issue right now. And that issue is campaign cash. Environmental groups spent about $20 million on ads and other activities to help Democrats in 2012 and gave about $742,000 directly to candidates during the cycle, according to the Center for Responsive Politics....Then there's the billionaire businessman Thomas Steyer. He's quickly emerged as a new and much-needed source of campaign money for Democrats eager to find ways to match the rise of conservative donors who are using new super PACs to spend millions of dollars attacking congressional Democrats on the airwaves." Ed O'Keefe in The Washington Post.

@WhiteHouse: RT if you agree: For the sake of our kids & the future of our planet, it's time to #ActOnClimate change. #Up4Climate pic.twitter.com/wCJHkCMtXV

Vulnerable Democrats missing from the all-nighter. "According to a list of participating senators provided by Democrats, the most politically vulnerable among them will not speak: Mark Begich of Alaska, Kay Hagan of North Carolina, Mary L. Landrieu of Louisiana, Mark Pryor of Arkansas and John Walsh of Montana. Interviews with several moderate Democrats on Monday suggested they were not invited to contribute to the event, while GOP campaigns hit Senate Democrats generally for staging such a stand on the floor." Meredith Shiner in Roll Call.

It's not a filibuster—there's no legislation to be filibustered. "Like Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) on taxes in 2010 and Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) on Obamacare in 2013, the Democrats' upcoming talk-a-thon on climate change is precisely not a filibuster. The Senate would not be conducting business overnight, so they're simply availing of unused time to make their voices heard." Sahil Kapur in Talking Points Memo.

Kerry tells diplomats afar to press case for climate change. "Ahead of a round of low-level climate treaty talks that kicked off [Monday] in Bonn, Germany, Secretary of State John Kerry sent a fresh signal that he plans to keep global warming at the top of the State Department’s agenda. The signal came in the form of Kerry’s first policy guidance message to all of his far-flung diplomats." Andrew C. Revkin in The New York Times.

Read: The guidance message. Andrew C. Revkin in The New York Times.

Keystone XL opponents are flattering Kerry in hopes of getting pipeline rejected. "Environmentalists are praising Secretary of State John Kerry in hopes of burying, figuratively speaking, the Keystone XL pipeline....The accolades are piling up just as Kerry, who was known as a leader in the fight against climate change when he was a senator, takes a more direct role in Keystone’s review. The activists want their flattery to get them somewhere: a recommendation from Kerry that Obama scuttle the proposed project." Jim Snyder in Bloomberg.

But the oil and gas boom may overshadow climate politicking, endangering Democrats' Senate hopes. "Left-leaning activists hoping to turn this year's mid-term elections into a referendum on climate policy, fracking and the Keystone XL pipeline are likely to be disappointed come November, analysts warn. They might find that the country's oil and gas boom not only upends debate — it could flip the Senate into Republican hands." Greg Harman in the Daily Climate.

Breakfast interlude: Quick breakfast hacks.

5. Senate approves McCaskill military sexual assault bill after emotional debate

Senate easily passes McCaskill’s military sexual assault bill. "A bipartisan plan to overhaul the way sexual-assault cases are handled in the military was easily approved by the Senate Monday evening.The measure written by Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) was approved 97 to 0 -- a rare unanimous vote....Monday's vote capped months of emotional debate led by McCaskill and Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), whose proposal to strip military commanders of any say in whether accusations of rape and assault should be prosecuted, was narrowly defeated last week....Although [McCaskill's bill] passed easily in the Senate, the proposal's fate remains unclear in the House." Ed O'Keefe in The Washington Post.

McCaskill's bill is meatier than advertised. "Sen. Claire McCaskill’s bill to overhaul — yes, overhaul — the way sexual-assault cases are handled in the military has routinely been described as more modest, conservative, watered-down and incremental than her Senate colleague Kirsten Gillibrand’s measure. The legislation pushed by Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), which would have taken the prosecution of sex crimes in the military out of the chain of command and put it in the hands of military prosecutors, was narrowly defeated Friday....Under Gillibrand’s bill, if a prosecutor doesn’t want to take the case to trial, that’s the end of it, whereas under McCaskill’s, if the prosecutor wants to take the case and the commander does not, it’s automatically referred to the civilian secretary of that branch of the service for review. In cases where neither the prosecutor nor the commander wants to bring the case, it’s also referred to the secretary. McCaskill points out that the military sexual-assault cases in the news would not have been brought if Gillibrand’s bill were law." Melinda Henneberger in The Washington Post.

Judge weighs new evidence in Army sex assault case. "A military judge said Monday that there's evidence that a high-ranking lawyer at the Pentagon improperly influenced the case against an Army general charged with sexual assault, but he didn't immediately decide whether to drop the charges. The latest twist in the case comes at a time when the Pentagon and Congress are grappling with the problem of sexual assaults within the military ranks." Associated Press.

Inspirational interlude: A day in the life of a quadriplegic surfer.

Wonkblog roundup

Corporate America has given up hope of tax reform. Lori Montgomery.

Here’s one way to rally support for oil and coal exports: Tax them. Steven Mufson.

The top White House economist’s favorite graph might restore your faith in the future. Zachary Goldfarb.

Get ready to hear more about the individual mandate again. Jason Millman.

New research shows air pollution might make you bad at your job. Christopher Ingraham.

Five takeaways from Gallup’s poll on the uninsured. Jason Millman.

Taxpayers lost $105 million on pennies and nickels last year. Christopher Ingraham.

A single paragraph that explains why unemployment is still so high. Zachary Goldfarb.

Et Cetera

Farm bill reflects shifting American menu and a senator’s persistent tilling. Jennifer Steinhauer in The New York Times.

Congress to investigate GM recall. Jeff Bennett and Joseph B. White in The Wall Street Journal.

Coal to the rescue, but maybe not next winter. Matthew L. Wald in The New York Times.

Look who supports same-sex marriage now. Nora Caplan-Bricker in The New Republic.

After Fukushima, utilities prepare for worst. Matthew L. Wald in The New York Times.

NASA wants to look for signs of life on Europa — but you can’t get there for $15 million. Joel Achenbach in The Washington Post.

Colorado has mild first month for pot taxes, but don't count them out yet. Niraj Choksi in The Washington Post.

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

Wonkbook is produced with help from Michelle Williams.

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