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Wonkbook: The GOP’s Obamacare chutzpah

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The classic definition of chutzpah is the child who kills his parents and then asks for leniency because he's an orphan. But in recent weeks, we've begun to see the Washington definition: A party that does everything possible to sabotage a law and then professes fury when the law's launch is rocky.

On Tuesday, Rep. Paul Ryan became the latest Republicans to call for HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius to step down because of the Affordable Care Act's troubled launch. "I do believe people should be held accountable," he said.

Okay then.

How about House Republicans who refused to appropriate the money the Department of Health and Human Services said it needed to properly implement Obamacare?

How about Senate Republicans who tried to intimidate Sebelius out of using existing HHS funds to implement Obamacare? "Would you describe the authority under which you believe you have the ability to conduct such transfers?" Sen. Orrin Hatch demanded at one hearing. It's difficult to imagine the size of the disaster if Sebelius hadn't moved those funds.

How about congressional Republicans who refuse to permit the packages of technical fixes and tweaks that laws of this size routinely require?

How about Republican governors who told the Obama administration they absolutely had to be left to build their own health-care exchanges -- you'll remember that the House Democrats' health-care plan included a single, national exchange -- and then refused to build, leaving the construction of 34 insurance marketplaces up to HHS?

How about the coordinated Republican effort to get the law declared unconstitutional -- an effort that ultimately failed, but that stalled implementation as government and industry waited for the uncertainty to resolve?

How about the dozens of Republican governors who refused to take federal dollars to expand Medicaid, leaving about 5.5 million low-income people who'd be eligible for free, federally-funded government insurance to slip through the cracks?

The GOP's strategy hasn't just tried to win elections and repeal Obamacare. They've actively sought to sabotage the implementation of the law. They intimidated the people who were implementing the law. They made clear that problems would be exploited rather than fixed. A few weeks ago, they literally shut down the government because they refused to pass a funding bill that contiained money for Obamacare.

The Obama administration deserves all the criticism it's getting for the poor start of health law and more. Their job was to implement the law effectively -- even if Republicans were standing in their way. So far, it's clear that they weren't able to smoothly surmount both the complexities of the law and the political roadblocks thrown in their path. Who President Obama will ultimately hold accountable -- if anyone -- for the failed launch is an interesting question.

But the GOP's complaints that their plan to undermine the law worked too well and someone has to pay border on the comic. If Republicans believe Sebelius is truly to blame for the law's poor launch, they should be pinning a medal on her.

Wonkbook's Number of the Day: 834. These are, as Sarah Kliff explains, the "technical, back-end reporting tool" used to communicate the details of insurance signups. And the HealthCare.Gov website is producing ones with inaccurate entries. 

Wonkbook's Graph of the Day: Home sales are shifting towards the high end.

Wonkbook's Top 5 Stories: 1) six more weeks to buy health insurance; 2) everything is horrible, economics edition; 3) Republicans for and against immigration reform; 4) "der Untergang" of the NSA?; and 5) not enough green-energy investment.

1) Top story: Obamacare's latest tweak

Americans will have an extra six weeks to buy health coverage before facing penalty. "The Obama administration said Wednesday night that it will give Americans who buy health insurance through the new online marketplaces an extra six weeks to obtain coverage before they incur a penalty. The announcement means that those who buy coverage through the exchange will have until March 31 to sign up for a plan, according to an official with the Department of Health and Human Services. Administration officials said that the rejiggered deadline is unrelated to the many technical problems that have emerged with the Web site,, in its first three weeks. Instead, they said, it is designed to clear up a timing confusion about the 2010 law, which for the first time requires most Americans to buy health coverage or face a penalty." Sandhya Somashekhar, Amy Goldstein and Juliet Eilperin in The Washington Post.

More on the change: "It's not quite right to describe this as a delay of the individual mandate, or an extension of open enrollment. There will still be a requirement to carry insurance coverage in 2014, and open enrollment still ends on March 31, 2014 -- two facts that are true now and were true yesterday...What the administration is doing today is probably best described as a tweak to the individual mandate: They are allowing anyone who purchases coverage during open enrollment (up through March 31) to not face a tax penalty for those three months they spent uncovered. This is only true for people who buy coverage through the marketplace." Sarah Kliff in The Washington Post.

Why postponing the mandate wouldn't be an easy fix for Obamacare. "That's where you start to run into big issues with the insurance companies that are offering these products in the exchanges. They set their premiums based on the rules as they're written — that healthy young people would be strongly encouraged to sign up by the prospect of a penalty, and that they would be encouraged to sign up within this six-month window. As one insurance industry representative said today, "If you change the rules, insurers are going to want to change their premiums" to reflect the possibility that fewer healthier people may sign up. The other big problem is timing. Stretching out open enrollment past that March 31 deadline starts to bump up against planning for 2015. Insurance companies have to start submitting premiums for that next year starting in April, insurance officials say, so they really need to know who's signed up for the current year by the end of March." Julie Rovner in NPR.

Obamacare’s most important number: 834. "Every evening, just about 6 p.m. or so, the federal health-care marketplace sends insurance companies a very important set of data files. This is an "834 EDI transmission." Insurers sometimes call it, more simply, "an 834." It is a technical, back-end reporting tool that consumers never see. It is meant to be read by computers, not human beings. It's the form that tells the insurer's system who you are and what you need...Insurers report that, in some cases, 834s are coming in wrong. That's a much more serious problem than the online traffic bottlenecks that have dominated coverage of the health-care law's rollout." Sarah Kliff in The Washington Post.

New research: Topher Spiro and Jonathan Gruber find savings from lower-than-anticipated premiums will total $190 billionCenter for American Progress.

Is Obamacare’s ‘tech surge’ real? "[T]he White House has been extraordinarily secretive about who, exactly, is involved in this surge...Sebelius also announced that the surge would include "a handful of Presidential Innovation Fellows," along with "additional experts and specialists drawn from within government, our contractors, and industry, including veterans of top Silicon Valley companies," and "additional staff and commitments from our contractors, including CGI, the lead firm responsible for the federally facilitated marketplace technology."...The White House has refused requests to name the outsiders they've brought in, to name the companies that are involved and to explain how the surge is being organized. It's thus impossible to say what the surge actually is or how it's working." Ezra Klein in The Washington Post.

@ezraklein: If you're focused on the traffic problems in Obamacare you're feeling better right now. If you're focused on the data problems, you're not.

Obamacare website programmers complained about unrealistic deadlines. "Crammed into conference rooms with pizza for dinner, some programmers building the Obama administration's showcase health insurance website were growing increasingly stressed. Some worked past 10 p.m., energy drinks in hand. Others rewrote computer code over and over to meet what they considered last-minute requests for changes from the government or other contractors." Jack Gillum and Julie Pace in The Associated Press.

Contractors blame but don't admit fault. "Cheryl R. Campbell, a senior vice president of CGI Federal, a unit of the CGI Group, the main contractor, said all of its work had been done “under the direction and supervision” of the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, which she said was responsible for the performance of the federal exchange...Andrew M. Slavitt, the UnitedHealth executive responsible for Quality Software Services, said its identity verification tool was just one part of “the federal marketplace’s registration and access management system, which involves multiple vendors and pieces of technology.”" Robert Pear in The New York Times.

@ChadPergram: #Obamacare hearing witness Cheryl Campbell of CGI Federal to tell Cong panel “no amount of testing” could have readied website to go live

Health law fails to keep prices low in rural areas. "[R]ural areas and small towns have far fewer carriers offering plans in the law’s online exchanges. Those places, many of them poor, are being asked to choose from some of the highest-priced plans in the 34 states where the federal government is running the health insurance marketplaces, a review by The New York Times has found. Of the roughly 2,500 counties served by the federal exchanges, more than half, or 58 percent, have plans offered by just one or two insurance carriers, according to an analysis by The Times of county-level data provided by the Department of Health and Human Services. In about 530 counties, only a single insurer is participating." Reed Abelson, Katie Thomas, and Jo Craven McGinty in The New York Times.

@davidfrum: The talk of website glitches obscures the important fact that the real action in Obamacare is a gigantic expansion of Medicaid

‘No, you cannot do that’: Trying to buy Obamacare over the phone. "With the Web site still experiencing problems, the White House has begun directing shoppers for insurance under the new health-care law to use a call center instead of HealthCare.Gov. Health and Human Services put out this graphic today, highlighting the different ways to "enroll" in coverage. That works fine -- unless you're interested in purchasing a health insurance policy. In conversations this afternoon with the call center, I was repeatedly told that I could not enroll in coverage over the phone." Sarah Kliff in The Washington Post.

Interview: Bob Laszewski on why ‘ is in de facto shutdown.’ Ezra Klein in The Washington Post.

Here’s what happened at the White House meeting with health insurers. "[W]e are collaborating closely with the insurers to address problems we have witnessed in what are called “834” forms and in direct enrollment. To that end, we have worked with the insurers and the “alpha teams” we jointly established made up of insurers’ technology experts and CMS technology experts, to iron out kinks in the both the 834 forms and in direct enrollment." Sarah Kliff in The Washington Post.

...And even House Republicans will get their own Obamacare briefing. "Obama administration officials will brief House Republicans on the problems facing the ObamaCare online enrollment system, a spokesman for Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) said Wednesday." Jonathan Easley in The Hill.

This is a real blog post from Rep. Darrell Issa: 8 Cats Who Called 1-800-ObamaCare but Still Couldn’t Get HealthcareHouse.Gov.

Sebelius to CNN: health-care law phone centers have logged more than a million calls. "The call centers now handling many individuals' enrollment applications under the Affordable Care Act have received more than a million calls, Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius told CNN Tuesday night." Juliet Eilperin in The Washington Post.

Would have worked if the Obama campaign had been in charge? "Agility isn't a hallmark of government. There are requirements and regulations to follow when it comes to procurement, oversight and other pesky matters of state. And perhaps that's partly why the idea of OFA building the Obamacare site is so seductive. If only Washington operated more like a startup — if only it could move faster and break things — we might have a better insurance portal." Brian Fung in The Washington Post.

White House plans Obamacare PR blitz. "Looking to combat headlines dominated by the technical problems plaguing the ObamaCare website, top Obama administration officials will fan out across the country to sell the American public on signing up for insurance under the law...Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius will participate in the blitz, with two stops in Texas and another in Phoenix later this week. Other administration officials will hold events in Dallas; Houston; Miami; Atlanta; North Jersey; Tampa, Fla.; Orlando, Fla.; and Detroit." Justin Sink in The Hill.

Republicans tack in fight against Obamacare. "Republicans in Congress are refocusing their efforts from denying funds for the health care law to investigating it...Beginning Thursday, the House will hold the first of a series of hearings across multiple committees to examine the problems with the troubled Web site, as well as the law’s exemption and waiver components, and the problems that some consumers are having accessing their doctors through the program." Jennifer Steinhauer and Robert Pear in The New York Times. 

Democrat unease over health law rises. "Some Democrats say the flawed rollout of the law could mean bigger changes are needed. Sen. Mark Begich (D., Alaska), who is up for re-election in 2014, said Wednesday that individuals shouldn't be penalized if technical issues with the website aren't resolved...Two Democrats who long have opposed the penalty called Wednesday for it to be delayed. In doing so, Sen. Joe Manchin (D., W.Va.) and Rep. John Barrow (D., Ga.) joined a longtime supporter of the law, Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D., N.H.), who on Tuesday had urged the White House to consider extending enrollment deadlines and waiving the tax penalty for consumers who don't sign up for insurance." Siobhan Hughes and Colleen McCain Nelson in The Wall Street Journal.

@kdrum: "Anger" over Obamacare rollout getting so theatrical I'm almost nostalgic for the days of the shutdown.

Nancy Pelosi: ‘I don’t support’ extension of Obamacare open enrollment. "Pelosi said she didn’t hear any members suggest that in a meeting today between the Democratic caucus and top CMS officials. “I think we should be able to go forward,” she said. “There are glitches, but there are solutions as well.”" Paige Winfield Cunningham in Politico.

CGI Federal landed the contract. Here’s how it fights for the ones it loses. "For CGI, the business of handling the low-income housing program started back in 1999, when the Department of Housing and Urban Development -- under pressure to downsize its in-house operations -- started outsourcing the job to public housing authorities around the country. The housing authorities would subcontract with IT providers like CGI Federal, which mopped up more than 25 percent of the $200-300 million or so in fees that came from HUD every year...In private enterprise, of course, a losing bidder usually just figures they've lost, and moves on. In federal contracting, with enough lawyers, it's possible to improve your chances of getting that business back." Lydia DePillis in The Washington Post.

KONCZAL: What kind of problem is the Obamacare rollout for liberalism? "Conservatives in particular think this website has broad implications for liberalism as a philosophical and political project. I think it does, but for the exact opposite reasons: it highlights the problems inherent in the move to a neoliberal form of governance and social insurance, while demonstrating the superiorities in the older, New Deal form of liberalism. This point is floating out there, and it turns out to be a major problem for conservatives as well, so let's make it clear and explicit here." Mike Konczal for the Roosevelt Institute.

@asymmetricinfo: I'm surprised by how many folks think that the natural result of Obamacare's failure would be doing something more liberal.

KLEIN: Obama's presidency depends on 'just a website.' "If technical difficulties continue beyond that and rising prices create broad anger in year two, then not only will the federal exchanges be in trouble, but it’s also much less likely that Republican governors will agree to expand Medicaid anytime soon. That’s why isn’t just a website. It’s essential to Obamacare’s success." Ezra Klein in Bloomberg.

BEUTLER: The amazing politics of failure. "[The law's divergent outcomes] put legions of Republicans in the same position Ellmers found herself in on Tuesday — forced to confront the reality that the law only isn’t working for people whose states begged off the project, or undermined it intentionally. Many people living in those states will know that things would be better if only their elected leaders would just make their peace with Obamacare and make their own constituents’ lives better by implementing it." Brian Beutler in Salon.

DIONNE: Don't give up on the uninsured. "Obamacare is working. True, that sentence comes with a large asterisk. It is working in states that have followed the essential design of the Affordable Care Act, particularly in Kentucky, Connecticut, Washington and California...[T]ere can be no denying the system failure that is a profound embarrassment to the Obama administration and threatens to undermine all the good the law could do, since its enemies will use any excuse to discredit it." E.J. Dionne in The Washington Post.

Music recommendations interlude: Beck, "Modern Guilt," 2009.

Top opinion

BECKER AND LAZEAR: How the debt ceiling leads to more debt. "The recent wrangling in Washington over the debt ceiling, with both sides promising to return to battle early next year, never got around to considering this proposition: Maybe debt ceilings are a bad idea, because they may lead to increased spending...[F]ocus [on debt] draws attention from the underlying problem: too much spending. Debt ceilings also provide a false sense of security. Borrowing will never get too far out of hand, the thinking goes, because the ceiling will cap it." Gary S. Becker and Edward P. Lazear in The Wall Street Journal.

RICHTER: New clean air laws will do little. "These rules would apply to new power plants only. But few new coal-fired power plants or units have been built in recent years because of the low price of natural gas, and few are planned over the next five years, according to the federal Energy Information Agency. Most modern gas-fired electric plants meet the standard the president is proposing, so the rules are irrelevant for them...There is no excuse for the continued use of coal to generate electricity that costs too much and is a health hazard to everyone who lives anywhere near a coal-fired power plant. About 137,000 people worked in the coal industry last year — from miners to executives, according to the Labor Department. You could pension them all off with $50,000 per year tax-free, at a cost of about $6.8 billion per year, save the country a large amount of money, protect our people from much damage to their health and reduce the greenhouse gas emissions that are warming our planet." Burton Richter in The New York Times.

COHN: Why liberalism has advanced. "Liberals are in this position for a whole bunch of reasons. One of them is an organization that, on Thursday, will celebrate its tenth anniversary. I’m talking about the Center for American Progress, and its affiliated political arm, the Center for American Progress Action Fund...The contours of Obamacare, the plans for Iraqi withdrawal, green jobs in the Recovery Act—CAP had a hand in developing all of these ideas. In so doing, it frequently borrowed heavily and adapted the work of others, including other liberal think tanks in Washington. But precisely because CAP was pulling together the politics and policy, it was in a position to promote those plans with officials and lawmakers" Jonathan Cohn in The New Republic.

Handpicked by Wonkblog interlude: This is an amazing traffic light.

2) Everything is horrible, economics edition

Most Americans accumulating debt faster than they’re saving for retirement. "A majority of Americans with 401(k)-type savings accounts are accumulating debt faster than they are setting aside money for retirement, further undermining the nation’s troubled system for old-age saving, a new report has found. Three in five workers with defined contribution accounts are “debt savers,” according to the report released Thursday, meaning their increasing mortgages, credit card balances and installment loans are outpacing the amount of money they are able to save for retirement." Michael A. Fletcher in The Washington Post.

Shutdown held up visas for agricultural workers. "The government shutdown froze visa processing for thousands of temporary agriculture workers, raising concerns about a labor shortage just as the harvest kicks off for the multibillion-dollar citrus and vegetable industries. Growers worry that without enough pickers, produce could be left rotting in the fields. Groups representing growers in Florida, California and Arizona are working furiously with members of Congress to urge the government to expedite processing for H-2A seasonal agriculture visas." Miriam Jordan in The Wall Street Journal.

Home builders are targeting the high end. "The new-home market has split into the haves and have-nots since the recession, and some economists predict it may favor more-affluent buyers for at least another year, if not longer. That has builders that typically cater to entry-level buyers now skewing their offerings toward the more active market: move-up buyers shopping for homes at roughly $300,000 or more...That disparity in income recovery is among the factors ratcheting up new-home prices. In this year's second quarter, sales of new homes priced from $300,000 to $400,000 increased to 21% of all sales from 13% in 2009, Census data show. In the same span, sales of new homes priced from $150,000 to $200,000 declined to 19% from 25%." Kris Hudson in The Wall Street Journal.

When the taperers have lost Richard Fisher, they've lost the Fed. "Several officials on the rate-setting Federal Open Market Committee – including those who are keen to reduce asset purchases from $85bn-a-month – have declared that there is no case for moving without evidence on the effects of the shutdown.“My personal opinion is that it’s not in play,” Dallas Fed president Richard Fisher – a noted hawk who has long been keen to reduce asset purchases – told Reuters in a recent interview. “This is just too tender a moment.” Charles Evans, the dovish Chicago Fed president, said on Monday on CNBC that it was “probably going to take a few months” to get enough evidence to support a slowing of asset purchases." Robin Harding in The Financial Times.

Can Obama get his trade deals done? "Republicans see little evidence that Obama is prepared to commit the political capital to win approval of trade promotion authority, legislation many believe is critical to the negotiation of trade deals. The biggest battle Obama could face there is with fellow Democrats because of their close ties to union groups who see trade deals as vehicles for companies to ship jobs overseas...While Obama mentioned TPA in a speech in August and in remarks to his Export Council in September, Republicans say he hasn’t really used his bully pulpit to push for the bill or worked behind the scenes to bolster Democratic support." Doug Palmer in Politico.

Another billionaire is predicting doom. Ignore him. "A lot of this sentiment seems to be rooted more in a psychological stance rather than any clear-headed analysis of the proper valuation of these different markets. Part of it is that we have all been scarred by the last two mega-bubbles, and thus are prone to see new ones wherever we look. Part of it is just that calling bubbles comes at no real cost if you're wrong, and can allow a person to project a certain world-weary cynicism. And part of it is that we have seen some serious inflation in what counts as a bubble." Neil Irwin in The Washington Post.

Wonkbook's favorite Halloween costume interlude: This LED stick figure.

3) Do Republicans want immigration reform, or not?

Darrell Issa to introduce immigration bill. "Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) is planning to release legislation next week that would provide legal status for six years to undocumented immigrants in the United States, he said in an interview Wednesday. Issa, an influential Republican who leads the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, described the legislation as a “come-from-the-shadows” effort that would allow the government to do a full accounting of those who are in the U.S. illegally. Immigrants in this new status would be able to travel to their native country while on this temporary visa, he said." Seung Min Kim in Politico.

Republican high-rollers want immigration reform now. "Some donors say they are withholding political contributions from members of Congress who don't support action on immigration, and many are calling top House leaders. Their hope is that the party can gain ground with Hispanic voters, make needed changes in immigration policy and offset some of the damage that polls show it is taking for the shutdown...Many donors said they have taken their concerns directly to House Speaker John Boehner and Majority Leader Eric Cantor. That includes Mr. Zeidman and Carlos Gutierrez, who served in George W. Bush's cabinet and is now heading the group Republicans for Immigration Reform, as well as lobbyist Charlie Black and GOP fundraiser Fred Malek." Laura Meckler in The Wall Street Journal.

House Dems press GOP for immigration vote this year. "Democratic leaders on Wednesday renewed their push for a House vote this year on comprehensive immigration reform, while Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) offered no more than a tepid commitment to the issue...House Republicans have yet to bring any immigration bill up for a vote, although committees have passed five individual bills...[I]t is unclear if House leaders will bring any bills to the floor during the limited legislative window between now and the end of the year. The House is scheduled to meet for only five more weeks in 2013." Russell Berman in The Hill.

Oh my god this is so great, but so incredibly dangerous interlude: Someone built their own submarine from a kayak.

4) 'Der Untergang' of the NSA? 

Merkel calls Obama about alleged U.S. monitoring of her phone. "Furious German officials said Wednesday that U.S. intelligence agencies may have been monitoring German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s cellphone, and the German leader spoke to President Obama on Wednesday about the issue, according to her spokesman...Obama on Wednesday assured Merkel, an angry ally since the extent of the American surveillance program was disclosed several months ago, that the United States is not eavesdropping on her telephone calls after reports in Germany raised fears that such spying was taking place, the White House said Wednesday." Scott Wilson and Michael Birnbaum in The Washington Post.

NSA surveillance creeps onto tech’s lobbying agenda. "Apple, Google, Facebook, Microsoft and other tech powerhouses have mounted a quiet new lobbying push around government surveillance laws as they seek to influence potential congressional reforms to controversial National Security Agency programs...The companies’ aim with the new D.C. effort isn’t entirely clear. Silicon Valley to date hasn’t pushed to restrict the NSA’s ability to reach into the Internet’s backbone for foreign suspects’ communications. Instead, the tech companies mostly have made the case for more transparency — the need for better numbers and clearer documents that show how often the government seeks data from them and when." Tony Romm in Politico.

Feynman interlude: Thinking like a Martian.

5) The green-investment shortfall

Report: Investments in fight against global climate change fall short. "The report, released Tuesday by the Climate Policy Initiative, says that financing flows have hit a peak at $359 billion per year, which falls significantly short of the most conservative estimated needs for investing in climate policies. In order to stabilize greenhouse gas emissions, the report says, roughly $490 billion per year to $910 billion per year should be spent on investments in curbing climate change between 2010 and 2050." Laura Barron-Lopez in The Hill.

The shale energy boom blossoms. "[A] new drilling productivity report by the U.S. Energy Information Administration seems sure to annoy shale boom deniers. Not only is overall oil and gas production growing at breakneck speed, according to the report, it is being driven by “increases in drilling efficiency and new well productivity, rather than an increase in the number of active rigs.”" Brian Bremner in Bloomberg Businessweek.

Reading material interlude: The best sentences Wonkblog read today.

Wonkblog Roundup

Coach 22: Can a handbag be ‘luxury’ if everybody owns oneLydia DePillis.

Here’s what it would take for self-driving cars to catch onBrad Plumer.

‘No, you cannot do that’: Trying to buy Obamacare over the phoneSarah Kliff.

Here’s how the White House just tweaked ObamacareSarah Kliff.

Here’s what happened at today’s White House meeting with health insurersSarah Kliff. is in de facto shutdown.’ Ezra Klein.

Is Obamacare’s ‘tech surge’ realEzra Klein.

Another billionaire is predicting doom. Ignore himNeil Irwin.

Obamacare’s most important number: 834Sarah Kliff.

CGI Federal landed the contract. Here’s how it fights for the ones it losesLydia DePillis.

Et Cetera

Secret memos reveal explicit nature of U.S., Pakistan agreement on dronesGreg Miller and Bob Woodward in The Washington Post.

Inspector general hits IRS with two new reports. Josh Hicks in The Washington Post.

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

Wonkbook is produced with help from Michelle Williams.