THE MORNING PLUM:
The GOP campaign for a health-care overhaul, which faces a critical moment this week, has been absolutely saturated from top to bottom with bad faith and scandalously brazen abuses of our governing norms for months. We’ve seen endless lies about the Affordable Care Act and the possible GOP replacement; an unprecedentedly secretive and rushed process in the GOP-led Congress; attacks on the legitimacy of nonpartisan budget scorekeepers; and the apparent use of taxpayer funds to promote the Republican replacement and undermine the ACA.
But it turns out that we just might see a little accountability soon enough. No, really.
Here’s how: The Government Accountability Office, the leading auditor of the federal government, has formally agreed to a request by Democrats for an examination of whether the Trump administration has been violating the law by using government resources to promote the Republican replacement plan, I’ve learned.
If the GAO concludes that the administration’s conduct is violating the law, that could put increased pressure on it to refrain from these tactics, or on congressional Republicans to exercise their own oversight of them. Given that the repeal push could drag on for weeks or months longer, this could matter.
The GAO has sent a letter to Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) announcing its formal intention to examine the conduct of the Department of Health and Human Services for possible lawbreaking. Murray and three other Democrats recently sent their own letter to the GAO and the U.S. inspector general requesting an examination of whether HHS is engaging in a “pattern” of “using federal resources to advance partisan legislation.” The Democrats’ letter cited the use of HHS’s official Twitter accounts to attack the ACA and promote the GOP replacement. It also raised questions as to whether HHS is using taxpayer funds to produce video testimonials of people criticizing the ACA, which would violate the prohibition on an agency “engaging in covert propaganda,” the Democrats’ letter says.
The GAO will now examine this conduct. “GAO accepts your request as work that is within the scope of its authority,” the GAO’s letter says, adding that the work of providing a “legal opinion” on HHS’s conduct will begin “shortly.”
The Daily Beast recently reported in a detailed exposé that under HHS Secretary Tom Price, the agency has spent taxpayer money originally earmarked for encouraging ACA enrollment on a public relations campaign that uses many of those tactics to undermine the law and promote the GOP replacement for it. Among these tactics are heavy investments in producing anti-ACA social media content, including videos shot at HHS’s internal studio that featured ordinary Americans flown in to criticize the law. The Daily Beast story noted that this broad campaign is “far more robust and sustained than has been publicly revealed,” leading Democrats to question whether HHS is “abdicating its responsibilities to administer the law” while sabotaging it in an effort to facilitate its undoing.
The letter from Democrats — which is also signed by Sen. Ron Wyden (Ore.) and Reps. Richard Neal (Mass.) and Frank Pallone (N.J.) — asked the GAO to look at whether such tactics violate federal laws that prohibit the use of taxpayer money to “influence” Congress or “ban certain electronic communications, covert propaganda, and grass roots lobbying.” Now the GAO has agreed to do so.
The larger story here is that even in moments of unified control of the White House and Congress, the minority has some limited tactics at its disposal. The GAO’s reports are public, and its findings about presidencies in both parties can make news, such as when the GAO found that the Environmental Protection Agency under Barack Obama violated the law with a social media push for a water rule.
“GAO is an extraordinarily valuable tool for provoking oversight — it gives the minority a key tool,” Sarah Binder, a congressional expert at George Washington University, told me today. “If taxpayer dollars are being used to sabotage the law, that’s a constitutional problem.”
“GAO is an arm of Congress, but it’s fiercely independent and filled with impressive expertise,” congressional scholar Norm Ornstein added. “If GAO finds malfeasance by HHS, it is a big deal — impossible for Paul Ryan and Republicans to ignore.”
Given the enormous range of norm-shredding we’ve seen under Trump and this Congress, this might seem like a small matter. But, should the GAO agree with Democrats, it won’t be a small thing. It will shine additional light on one of the leading tactics employed by the Trump administration, as part of a broader health-overhaul campaign that has been marked by abuses of our democratic and governing processes on multiple levels for months. And every little effort at accountability matters.
* EVEN ‘SKINNY REPEAL’ WOULD LEAVE MILLIONS UNINSURED: The Congressional Budget Office has weighed in on the “skinny” bill that Senate Republicans may vote on today, which would repeal only the mandates and the medical device tax:
Democrats on Wednesday night released a Congressional Budget Office analysis of the effects of repealing several provisions that could be part of a “skinny” repeal measure. The analysis found that the number of uninsured people would increase by 15 million next year compared with current law, and Democrats said they were told that premiums would be roughly 20 percent higher.
Of course, Republicans say they want this bill only so that they can get to conference negotiations with the House. But if so, they’d then negotiate on a bill that would leave many more people without coverage.
* HOW REPUBLICANS HOPE TO SALVAGE REPEAL: The Post reports that Sen. John Thune of (R-S.D.) candidly explained what will happen if “skinny repeal” passes this way:
Thune said … leaders were betting that some Republicans who defected on votes this week would feel more pressure to support any bill that emerged from negotiations with the House to face a final vote in the Senate. “Voting on something at the end of the process when it’s the only train leaving the station … I think that’s a different vote for a lot of people,” he said.
Game plan: Use “skinny repeal” to get to conference to make it harder for GOP moderates to oppose whatever awful product emerges at the end, when the pressure for passage will be really intense.
* KEY GOP SENATORS UNDECIDED ON ‘SKINNY REPEAL’: Politico reports that moderates such as Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.) and Rob Portman (Ohio) remain undecided on the skinny bill. Meanwhile, conservatives such as Rand Paul (Ky.) and David Perdue (Ga.) are wary, because you never know what could emerge from conference.
At the same time, Roll Call reports that Sen. Jerry Moran (Kan.) worries about going to conference without a broader proposal agreed upon among GOP senators. If only three Republicans defect, even skinny repeal dies.
* GOP GOVERNORS BLAST ‘SKINNY REPEAL’: Ten governors, including Republicans Brian Sandoval of Nevada and John Kasich of Ohio, have released a letter blasting “skinny repeal” as a threat to their states. The letter says it would “accelerate health plans leaving the individual market, increase premiums, and result in fewer Americans having access to coverage.”
In other words: It would cause the death spirals and rising premiums that Republicans have exaggeratedly ascribed to the ACA. One question is whether Sandoval’s criticism weighs on Sen. Dean Heller (R-Nev.).
* TOP TRUMP ADVISERS CONDEMN ATTACKS ON SESSIONS: With Trump’s assaults on Attorney General Jeff Sessions continuing, the New York Times reports that top White House advisers are now leaking like sieves:
Among those urging Mr. Trump to spare Mr. Sessions have been Reince Priebus, the White House chief of staff; Stephen K. Bannon, the president’s chief strategist; and Donald F. McGahn II, the White House counsel, according to officials who asked not to be named describing internal deliberations.
Well, at least there is some level of lawlessness on Trump’s part that these good people don’t want to be associated with.
* SHREDDING OF OUR NORMS IS UNFOLDING ON MULTIPLE FRONTS: E.J. Dionne Jr. has a great column linking two separate storylines — Trump’s ongoing norm-shredding assault on Sessions and the GOP’s ongoing norm-shredding health-care repeal push:
Our country is now as close to crossing the line from democracy to autocracy as it has been in our lifetimes … But where are the leaders of the Republican Party in the face of the dangers Trump poses? They’re trying to sneak through a health-care bill by violating every reasonable standard citizens should impose on public servants dealing with legislation that affects more than one-sixth of our economy.
Who cares about our democracy when there’s a safety net to shred and taxes on the rich to cut?
* AND DID THE TRUMP ADMINISTRATION THREATEN MURKOWSKI? The Alaska Dispatch News reports that Trump’s rage at Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) for opposing the health-care bill may have resulted this week in a none-too-subtle administration threat:
By that afternoon, each of Alaska’s two Republican senators had received a phone call from Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke letting them know the vote had put Alaska’s future with the administration in jeopardy …. Alaska Sen. Dan Sullivan said the call from Zinke heralded a “troubling message … I fear that the strong economic growth, pro-energy, pro-mining, pro-jobs and personnel from Alaska who are part of those policies are going to stop.”
Remember, this is because Trump, who doesn’t care in the least about the specifics of the bill he signs, wants the pleasure of wiping his feet on something with Barack Obama’s name on it.