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Wonkbook: The number of Obamacare enrollments matters less than you think

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Wonkbook’s Number of the Day: 7.1 million and counting. That's the number of people who have signed up (though who have not necessarily paid) for health insurance on Obamacare's exchanges so far.

Wonkbook’s Chart of the Day: This chart breaks down the Senate's unemployment-benefits deal's effects by state.

Wonkbook's Top 5 Stories: (1) What the 7.1 million health care sign-ups mean; (2) essentials on Paul Ryan's budget; (3) Mideast talks on life support; (4) economy springing up from winter; and (5) who else faces lawmakers' wrath besides GM.

1. Top story: How much does the sign-up amount really matter to Obamacare's success? Less than you might think.

More than 7 million have signed up for insurance via the Obamacare exchanges. "President Obama announced Tuesday that 7.1 million Americans have signed up for health plans under the Affordable Care Act, the most ambitious federal effort in nearly half a century to widen access to coverage. The tally, which signified a sharp turnaround from the troubled beginnings of enrollment last fall, was driven upward by a late rush of consumers seeking coverage in the days and hours before the deadline of midnight Monday to select health plans for 2014....The 7.1 million total means that the six-month sign-up period achieved results that congressional budget analysts had first anticipated -- and more recently had thought would be impossible. Two months ago, the analysts downgraded their forecast from 7 million to 6 million, taking into account massive computer trouble with for much of the fall that frustrated many people trying to shop for health plans. The tally is based on the number of people who enrolled for coverage by Monday’s deadline through the new federal insurance marketplace operating in three dozen states. It also includes people who enrolled in 14 state-run marketplaces as of the deadline or, in the case of a few states, by last weekend." Amy Goldstein and Juliet Eilperin in The Washington Post.

Transcript: The president's full remarks. The Wall Street Journal.

Long read: Behind the Obamacare surprise. Edward-Isaac Dovere and Carrie Budoff Brown in Politico.


5 questions about the 7 million enrollees. Christopher Weaver in The Wall Street Journal.

In pushing Obamacare, the White House is focused mostly on these 25 cities. Niraj Chokshi in The Washington Post.

So, 7 million was the White House's goal? Colby Itkowitz in The Washington Post.

One reason why that 7.1 million figure isn't as important as you think. "So, whether that was 5 million or 6 million or 7 million in the first year, that didn’t entirely matter for the law's survival. As Carney says in that press briefing, the future success of the law will depend on the mix of enrollees -- have enough healthy people signed up to help offset the costs of sicker patients? Further, it’s going to depend on the mix of enrollees in each specific state, since there are 51 unique insurance markets (including the District of Columbia) that are now all living under this system. You’re going to see some states that thrive under the ACA and others that will surely struggle, depending on a number of factors, like demographics, political attitudes toward the law and the history of their insurance markets before the law....Other things we don’t know yet: How many of the previously uninsured signed up for private plans or Medicaid? How many people skipped the exchanges and signed up directly with insurers? How well did insurers predict their mix of enrollees in 2014? Will people actually like the coverage they now have? Finding all this out will require some patience." Jason Millman in The Washington Post.

Another reason: Enrolled, but not counted in the exchange total. "Millions of newly insured people are hiding in plain sight. They are the people who have bought new health insurance since the start of this year but have chosen for one reason or another to bypass the state and federal exchanges that opened last year under the Affordable Care Act. While the exact number is unknown, some health care experts estimate that it may be in the millions. Politicians and policy makers have focused on the number of people who signed up through the exchanges -- at nearly seven million and counting a day after the March 31 deadline -- but they have largely overlooked the group that did not use the exchanges, even though it could have a major impact on the program’s financial success in the years ahead. Because insurers place customers in the same risk pool, regardless of how they enrolled, 'these lives count every bit as much as the ones that came in through the exchange,' said Gary Claxton, a vice president and health care expert at the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation" Katie Thomas in The New York Times.

Explainer: Obamacare is more than just insurance exchanges: A look at the law in three charts. Dan Diamond in the Advisory Board Daily Briefing.

A symbolic victory for the White House, and the end of some GOP memes. "It's only a symbolic victory for the White House -- Obamacare's long-term success wasn't contingent on 7 million sign-ups -- but after the troubled rollout that saw the law and the president's approval ratings sink to all-time lows, it's surely one that they'll take. A new analysis also credited the law with covering 9.5 million previously uninsured, a significant decrease in the law's first year. All in all, a good day for a law that hasn't had many. But for Republicans, it signaled the end of some of their favorite Obamacare memes." Dylan Scott in Talking Points Memo.

Speaking of which: "Unskewed Polls" founder says the enrollments are skewed. Dylan Scott in Talking Points Memo.

Obamacare's exchange sign-up total will keep growing and growing. "For Obamacare enrollment, it’s not over even when it’s over. With special enrollment, extra special enrollment, slightly extended state enrollment and very extended state enrollment, the sign-up tally will keep climbing beyond the 7.1 million people President Barack Obama announced Tuesday. That number doesn’t account for Medicaid, which has no set application period or accompanying deadlines. And a few recalcitrant states may yet take up the Obamacare Medicaid expansion. New Hampshire decided to do so just last week; Michigan’s expansion officially began Tuesday....The ranks of incompletes make for a long list. Nobody knows how many people will actually follow up and finish enrolling." Joanne Kenen in Politico.


Missed the health-care deadline? It's not too late. Connie Cass in the Associated Press.

Web site woes frustrate last-day health insurance shoppers. NPR.

Large employers are seeing costs from the health care law. "Large companies, including Fortune 500 firms, expect to face costs between $4,800 and $5,900 per worker over the next decade from provisions in President Barack Obama’s signature health care law, according to a new think tank that represents those corporations. The survey aims to provide a glimpse into what costs the large employers expect if they don’t react to the Affordable Care Act. But the landscape of employer-sponsored insurance had been changing to reduce costs even before Obamacare, though the law has helped accelerate that shift." Jason Millman in The Washington Post.

Is public opinion of Obamacare actually improving? "Democrats are also excited about an ABC News/Washington Post poll released Monday that showed a dramatic turnaround in public opinion of the Affordable Care Act. With 49 percent in favor of the law and 48 percent opposed, the poll found public support for the law at its highest level ever, a staggering rebound from the 40 percent in favor and 57 opposed that the same pollster found at the height of the rollout debacle last November. If subsequent polls bear out this result, it would indeed be a stunning turn of events, a sign that voters were changing their minds about healthcare reform in a way that could upend the conventional wisdom about the upcoming midterm elections. But as the Republican pollster Logan Dobson pointed out on Twitter, at the moment, the ABC poll looks like a major outlier." Molly Ball in The Atlantic.

Poll: Party identification biggest predictor of views on Obamacare. Gallup.

Explainer: Obamacare met its goal, but Democrats should still be worried. Chris Cillizza in The Washington Post.

Obama allies already plotting how to make health law enrollment better for 2015. "Today's a pretty good day for Obamacare advocates after the news that 7 million people signed up for exchange coverage by yesterday's deadline. But they’re already thinking about how to improve open enrollment for 2015 health plans, which is scheduled to start Nov. 15....The health-care advocacy group Families USA, a strong White House ally, this afternoon issued 10 recommendations for boosting enrollment next year. The recommendations touch on things like affordability of coverage, increasing enrollment resources and just making the sign-up process simpler. All of these recommendations, the group says, can be done without legislation." Jason Millman in The Washington Post.

For faulty state exchanges, big decisions loom about health care law. "Although the Obama administration appears to have surpassed its goal of enrolling more than 7 million people in the new healthcare program this year, some of the states that have struggled with technology problems are headed into an intensive new phase of fixes as they try to shepherd final enrollees through the process....The technical difficulties in five of the 14 states that created their own exchanges will be discussed on Capitol Hill on Thursday at a joint subcommittee meeting of the House Oversight & Government Reform Committee. Witnesses will include the current and interim heads of the exchanges in Hawaii, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota and Oregon." Maeve Reston in the Los Angeles Times.

Other health care reads:

Obama signs temporary Medicare 'doc fix' extension bill. The Associated Press.

Obamacare cuts Kentucky's uninsured rate by 40 percent. Sahil Kapur in Talking Points Memo.

Senate may include bipartisan Obamacare tweak in jobless-benefits bill. Pete Kasperowicz in The Hill.

CHAIT: The Obamacare train did not wreck. "One immediate conclusion is that the Republican war to strangle Obamacare in the crib has come to pieces. The plan assumed, correctly, that the new law would be most vulnerable in its nascent stage. Republicans hoped that a combination of legislative attacks, on-the-ground activism, and coordinated messaging could deprive the new insurance exchanges of the customers they needed to form a critical mass, either as a political constituency or as an actuarially stable mix of customers. They failed. Obamacare’s non-trainwreck also reveals something broader and deeper about American politics. The Obamacare wars pit two opposing camps who not only have different ideas about the role of government, but different kinds of ideas about the role of government." Jonathan Chait in New York Magazine.

PONNURU: Obamacare's naysayers should concede defeat. "Hitting that goal was important as a political matter, and as a sign -- but not a guarantee -- that the exchanges would be actuarially stable. We don't know yet how many of them will be: We'd need to know the mix of healthy and sick enrollees in each state to make that judgment. We also don't know for sure how many of the enrollees were previously uninsured. And we want to know how well the law has done in achieving its larger goal of increasing coverage, not just of making itself sustainable. But it's clear now that one scenario with a lot of purchase among conservative opponents of Obamacare -- that the law would "implode," "collapse" or "unravel" -- is highly unlikely." Ramesh Ponnuru in Bloomberg View.

PHILIP KLEIN: 7 million figure presents challenge for Republicans. "When Obama made his now-infamous promise that if people liked their health care plans they could keep them, he did so because he understood that any significant changes to the health care system would cause disruptions, so he needed to reassure Americans that their plans wouldn’t be affected by what he was proposing. It was a clear lie, but one that was rooted in an understanding of political realities. If Republicans had taken over the White House last year and pursued the repeal of Obamacare, they could have done so at a time when the law’s beneficiaries were mostly theoretical. Now, however, Republicans will be facing the same problem Obama did. Only more so, because they've invested so much in the idea that nobody can lose coverage as a result of health care legislative changes. Even if the law remains broadly unpopular, Republicans will have have to deal with the fact that millions of Americans would have their coverage disrupted by repeal. And everybody knows how well it worked out for Obama when, at the height of last fall’s backlash against plan cancellations, he tried to downplay the millions of people being affected as only a small percentage of the population." Philip Klein in the Washington Examiner.

McARDLE: Want Obamacare answers? Wait in line. "Almost everything you read in the next few weeks about the characteristics of the insurance pool is likely to be wrong. This puts pundits in a tough spot -- what the heck are we supposed to fill our column inches with? But the folks in the toughest spot are the insurers. Depending on the state, they may have to file their preliminary 2015 premium information as early as May -- when they won’t even know how many of their new customers are actually paying. And if they don’t know, the rest of us certainly don’t. So beware any pronouncements on what exchange enrollment looks like. Other than the raw number of people who selected plans, we just don’t have any idea." Megan McArdle in Bloomberg View.

GOTTLIEB: Obamacare's exchanges didn't close Monday. "The original law allowed people who face certain narrowly defined hardships to qualify for 'Special Enrollment Periods' (SEPs) that let them sign up at any point during the year, even if the enrollment season had ended. These included circumstances such as a job loss (and with it, loss of employer sponsored health insurance) or losing coverage because of a divorce or death of a spouse. Like a lot of other aspects of Obamacare, the White House has contorted these rules to meet its political goals, at the expense of the law’s operation. It has sharply expanded the number of people eligible to sign up outside of the open enrollment period. For Obamacare’s target customers, enrollment season never closes." Scott Gottlieb in Forbes.

Top opinion

WEISSMANN: Ryan's budget: A new year, a new accounting gimmick. "As usual, it’s largely an orgy of cuts to safety net programs like Medicaid and food stamps. It would also dismantle the Affordable Care Act, because of course. And it would supposedly eliminate the deficit in about 10 years. So what makes this conservative fantasy budget different from all other conservative fantasy budgets? A new accounting gimmick -- this time in the form of miraculous economic growth....Nobody really has the predictive powers to foresee all those moving variables 10 years out. So when Ryan says that dramatically cutting the budget will spur X amount of growth, to some degree he's just picking a number out of a hat, while conveniently ignoring the possibility that slashing the welfare state might have some negative macroeconomic affects of their own. People need money to spend on food, after all." Jordan Weissmann in Slate.

BLOOMBERG VIEW: Be selfish. Fight climate change. "Countries should tackle climate change out of self-interest. They need to reduce emissions and adapt to changes already under way in order to protect their own citizens and their own economies. Reducing emissions also brings immediate public health benefits, such as better air quality. And that creates economic benefits, because clean air helps draw workers and businesses. China’s efforts to reduce pollution may reflect more a desire to attract talent and investment than to improve public health, but the two are related, and the end result is the same." The Editors.

CASSIDY: Ryan budget shows GOP stuck with head in rah-rah land. "Here’s all you need to know about the G.O.P.’s effort to face reality, moderate its policies, and present a more coherent policy platform to voters in 2016. David Camp, the Michigan Republican who chairs the powerful House Ways and Means Committee, and who in February introduced a sweeping tax-reform plan that, at least, recognized the basic laws of arithmetic, is leaving Congress. Paul Ryan, the conservative Moses of Capitol Hill, is sticking around. On Wednesday, he unveiled the latest of his right-wing manifestos, thinly disguised as a serious budget, proposing to repeal Obamacare, privatize Medicare, and slash spending on Medicaid and food stamps. No, it wasn’t an April Fool’s joke. The Republican Party’s reform effort, which was heralded by a March, 2013, internal report that said that the G.O.P. was trapped in 'an ideological cul de sac,' is over almost before it had begun. On issue after issue (gun control, immigration, gay marriage, Obamacare, climate change, unemployment benefits, the minimum wage), suggestions that the Party might revise its extreme positions have been stomped on. The ultras have won out. And nowhere is this more true than in the biggest policy area of all: taxes and spending." John Cassidy in The New Yorker.

EDSALL: Is the American middle class losing out to China and India? "President Obama may be right: free trade is a winning strategy that will lower consumer costs and expand employment in exporting industries. 'When 98 percent of our exporters are small businesses, new trade partnerships with Europe and the Asia-Pacific will help them create even more jobs,' the president declared in this year’s State of the Union address. In the short run, however, trade imposes heavy costs on American workers in both the manufacturing and service sectors, particularly on those least equipped by training and education to adapt." Thomas B. Edsall in The New York Times.

GOLDWEIN: A guide to Congress' gimmicks. "Last night, the Senate passed legislation sent over from the House to avoid a deep cut to physician payments through a 12-month 'Doc Fix.' Later this week they will likely pass a bill restoring and extending emergency unemployment benefits. These proposals have two things in common. First, they both would cost money and add to the deficit. And second, their proponents claim they would not add to the deficit, and they use data from the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office to support this claim. How do you spend more without adding to the deficit on paper? Budget gimmicks, that's how." Marc Goldwein in The Atlantic.

THE WASHINGTON POST: GM’s delayed recalls should drive further reform of the auto industry. "Wondering why General Motors went bankrupt and needed a taxpayer bailout? Just consider the Chevrolet Cobalt. Introduced in 2004 as the vehicle that would finally make GM’s small cars competitive with those from Japan, the Cobalt’s mediocre performance translated into, at best, so-so sales. Beneath its shiny surface, the product was even worse than the motoring public realized. For all the money and public-relations puffery GM poured into the Cobalt’s launch, the company apparently couldn’t be bothered with such details as a properly working ignition switch. For GM, still struggling to shake off the “Government Motors” stigma, the fiasco is a reminder that, despite much progress, its renaissance is incomplete." Editorial Board.

GALSTON: Soaring profits but too few jobs. "Facts often speak for themselves, but sometimes they scream out at us. That is what the employment market is doing....We should be having a robust national discussion about these trends, which polls say are of intense concern to the American people. Instead, Republicans are banging away at the Affordable Care Act while Democrats are busy scheduling votes on a grab bag of subjects designed to boost turnout from the party's base in the fall elections. The economic problems we face are getting lost in the partisan din. We need new policies -- not just monetary, but fiscal, tax and labor-market policies as well -- that focus relentlessly on aligning growth with job creation and compensation with productivity. The alternative is more of the same for average American households." William Galston in The Wall Street Journal.

ALTMAN: Why upping the minimum wage requires immigration reform. "In markets where undocumented workers were prominent, a higher minimum wage might actually leave some of the people it was intended to help out of work -- though not for the traditional reasons. But the solution would be simple: Get the undocumented workers into the formal labor force. But the solution would be simple: Get the undocumented workers into the formal labor force. Doing this would give the minimum wage the effects it was supposed to have. But it's worth asking whether, by greatly expanding the formal labor force, the combination of a higher minimum wage and immigration reform would also increase the rolls of the unemployed. Fortunately, that seems unlikely....Immigration reform would be a boon to the United States for many reasons, but it has never had sufficient urgency to overcome the inertia of timid and bigoted politicians. Raising the minimum wage might finally give it the push it needs." Daniel Altman in Foreign Policy.

Animals interlude: Cats react to viral videos.

2. What you need to know about Paul Ryan's budget

Ryan’s last budget proposal seeks to slash $5 trillion over next decade. "The 99-page plan is Ryan’s last manifesto on government austerity as head of the Budget Committee. He has emerged as the GOP’s leading light on fiscal policy in recent years, but he is term-limited as head of the budget panel and vying to become chairman of the tax-writing Ways and Means Committee next year while considering a 2016 presidential bid. Congress approved a bipartisan two-year budget agreement late last year, but Ryan said he drafted a separate proposal because the current plan 'is nowhere near what we need' to cut spending. 'I believe we need to be an alternative party,' Ryan said. 'I believe we need to be a proposition party, not just an opposition party.' The budget plan reaffirms the conservative goal of creating a top individual tax rate of 25 percent and consolidating the seven individual income-tax brackets into two. But it makes little mention of an ambitious tax overhaul advocated by the outgoing Ways and Means chairman, Rep. Dave Camp (R-Mich.), who on Monday announced that he will retire at the end of this term." Ed O'Keefe in The Washington Post.

Primary source: House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan's FY 2015 budget blueprint. The Washington Post.

Chart: The math behind the budget. Kristina Peterson and Damian Paletta in The Wall Street Journal.

The non-binding measure might not hit its goal, but its main purpose is as electoral ammunition. "The austere Republican budget proposal from Rep. Paul D. Ryan would slash federal spending to pre-Eisenhower levels, but the 'turbo cuts' on every aspect of government -- except the military -- are still not enough to reach his promise of balancing in a decade. Ryan, the House Budget Committee chairman, relies on a combination of previously approved Obamacare savings and tax hikes, along with a new way of measuring economic growth, to reach the 10-year goal of ridding the budget of red ink. That approach does not sit well with hard-line budget hawks, and could make Ryan's job even more difficult as the House prepares to vote on the budget next week....The vote is essentially nonbinding, because the budget document is merely a statement of principles and does not carry the force of law. President Obama's own budget for fiscal 2015, released earlier this year, similarly comes with no strings attached. But the blueprints serve as defining documents before the midterm election, and Democrats all but thanked Ryan for reviving his signature ideas for changing Medicare, cutting spending and reducing taxes for the wealthy." Lisa Mascaro in the Los Angeles Times.

Explainer: 5 takeaways from Paul Ryan's budget. Damian Paletta in The Wall Street Journal.

Social safety-net programs: Big cuts and changes. "The plan assumes that lawmakers will repeal the 2010 health-care law, Obama’s signature legislative initiative, while making substantial changes to U.S. safety net programs for the elderly and the poor. Ryan’s proposal would revamp nutrition aid to the poor by converting food stamps in five years from a mandatory program that spends under a formula into block grants that would give states greater control over the money. The plan would end a program that links heating aid to additional food stamp spending. Those on minimal welfare assistance would no longer be categorically eligible for food stamps. The food stamp changes, which would set additional work or job-training requirements, would cut spending by $125 billion over 10 years." Derek Wallbank in Bloomberg.

Education: Pell grants would be frozen. "The maximum Pell Grant would be frozen at its current level for 10 years and would be financed with discretionary dollars only, rather than the current combination of mandatory and discretionary money. That change could make the program more vulnerable to future cuts, its advocates fear. The plan would also roll back recent expansions of the program, eliminate eligibility for less-than-half-time students, and end administrative payments to participating colleges. It suggests adding a maximum-income cap for students to receive a Pell Grant, though it doesn’t propose a particular level." Kelly Field in The Chronicle of Higher Education.

Health care: Budget plan would repeal Obamacare, transform Medicaid. "In all, Mr. Ryan said, spending would be cut by $5.1 trillion over the next decade. More than $2 trillion of that would come from repealing Mr. Obama’s health care initiative, the Affordable Care Act, a political move that has become much more difficult with the closing of the first enrollment period. More than 10 million Americans have gotten health insurance through the law, either through private policies purchased on insurance exchanges, through expanded Medicaid or private policies purchased through brokers but subsidized by the law. As with past budget proposals, Mr. Ryan seeks to eliminate the Affordable Care Act’s Medicaid expansion, a $792 billion retrenchment, then turn the health care program for the poor into block grants to the states -- saving an additional $732 billion over the decade." Jonathan Weisman in The New York Times.

Defense spending would get ramped up. "House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan laid out a budget vision Tuesday that goes beyond President Obama's request by ramping up defense spending beyond the caps in 2016 and restoring them by 2017. Ryan does this by taking from the nondefense side of the ledger and still reducing overall federal spending beyond what is contemplated under the total sequester caps. 'This budget rejects the president's cuts to national security.…It also keeps faith with the veterans who have served and protected the nation,' declares the Ryan budget, which increases defense spending above what President Obama has called for by $273 billion over the 10-year budget window....Unsurprisingly, the Wisconsin Republican's budget, like Obama's, sticks to the defense spending caps agreed to under last year's Bipartisan Budget Act of $521 billion for discretionary spending for fiscal 2015." Stacy Kaper in National Journal.

Ryan plan again seeks higher retirement contributions by federal workers. "The House budget plan released Tuesday repeats a proposal to increase the amount that federal employees must pay toward their retirement benefits, with the government’s share being reduced proportionately. The plan from Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) does not specify how large the increase would be, but a committee spokesman said the intent, as in past plans from the panel, would be to make the two shares equal. In that case, the employee share in most cases would increase by nearly 6 percent of salary." Eric Yoder in The Washington Post.

And Ryan's budget punts on tax reform (again). "Not only does it fail to enhance chances for a tax code rewrite, it almost certainly sets the effort back. This budget isn’t so much an actual fiscal plan (the framework for the 2015 budget was worked out by Congress months ago) as a campaign manifesto. And as such, it hits the standard GOP themes: Repeal 'Obamacare,' spend more money on national defense, turn Medicaid into a block grant to states, and the like. And reform the tax code. But the budget explicitly avoids proposing any plan." Howard Gleckman in Forbes.

Echoes of 2012 campaign? "Ryan could have used his budget to signal, even tentatively, an interest in Camp’s ideas -- or of a similarly reality-grounded approach to making the budget dollars add up. Instead, he did what Republicans have done over and over again in recent years: He promised fealty to principles that, whatever their individual merits, cannot exist in a fiscally responsible budget plan. In so doing, he’s making the same mistake that his old running mate, Mitt Romney, did in the presidential campaign -- making it impossible to build support for a real tax reform proposal that, inevitably, would fall way short of those goals." Danny Vinik in The New Republic.

The wonky but important battle over 'tax extenders' kicks off. "The annual battle in the U.S. Congress over renewing scores of temporary tax breaks, including the corporate research tax credit and individual deductions for teachers' supplies and college tuition costs, got under way on Tuesday. In the Senate, the new chairman of the tax-writing Finance Committee unveiled legislation that would modestly trim the list of about 55 laws known as the 'tax extenders' because they expire every year or two and need to be regularly extended. Oregon Democratic Senator Ron Wyden, who recently took over the committee, scheduled a review-and-amendment session for Thursday on the bipartisan bill that he is offering along with Utah's Orrin Hatch, the committee's top Republican member....Analysts expect no conclusive action on tax extenders until after the November mid-term congressional elections, with the likelihood of comprehensive tax reform even more remote. Most of the tax extenders technically expired at the end of 2013, leaving companies that depend on them in limbo. But this happens regularly and the provisions are routinely approved on a retroactive basis, a situation Wyden wants to end." Kevin Drawbaugh in Reuters.

Other government finance reads:

Tax lobby looks to defeat overhaul it once cheered. Eric Lipton and Jonathan Weisman in The New York Times.

U.S. public pension gap widened to nearly $1 trillion in fiscal 2012. Robin Respaut in Reuters.

What's the difference between tax evasion and tax avoidance? Ask Caterpillar. Danielle Douglas in The Washington Post.

April Fool's Day interlude: The best April Fool's pranks of 2014.

3. Why the Mideast peace talks are now on life support

Palestinian bid for stronger U.N. ties throws peace talks into confusion. "Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas defied American diplomats Tuesday by unilaterally signing more than a dozen United Nations treaties, endangering the U.S.-brokered peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians. With the stroke of a pen, a pall of confusion descended as diplomats could not answer basic questions about how and when the negotiations will continue. Efforts to forge a final and lasting peace between Israel and the Palestinians is a centerpiece of the Obama administration’s foreign policy." William Booth and Anne Gearan in The Washington Post.

In response, Kerry cancels his return trip to the region. "Mr. Abbas’s actions, which appeared to catch American and Israeli officials by surprise, prompted Secretary of State John Kerry to cancel a planned return to the region on Wednesday, in which he had expected to complete an agreement extending negotiations through 2015. In that emerging deal, the United States would release an American convicted of spying for Israel more than 25 years ago, while Israel would free hundreds of Palestinian prisoners and slow down construction of Jewish settlements in the West Bank. Mr. Abbas, who had vowed not to seek membership in international bodies until the April 29 expiration of the talks that Mr. Kerry started last summer, said he was taking this course because Israel had failed to release a fourth batch of long-serving Palestinian prisoners by the end of March, as promised." Jodi Rudoren, Michael R. Gordon and Mark Landler in The New York Times.

Could the U.S. release convicted Israeli spy Jonathan Pollard? "White House spokesman Jay Carney said Tuesday that while no decision has been made, 'there are obviously a lot of things happening in that arena.'" The Associated Press.

Lawmakers oppose Pollard's release. "The leaders of the House and Senate Intelligence Committees joined other lawmakers Tuesday in slamming the notion that the United States should release Jonathan Pollard, an American convicted of spying for Israel who has been imprisoned for decades. Several senators in both parties said Pollard should not be part of the Middle East peace talks between the Israelis and the Palestinians." Jeremy Herb in The Hill.

What you need to know about Pollard. "Pollard is an American citizen who has been serving a life sentence since 1987, convicted of spying on behalf of Israel while he was an intelligence analyst. Israel, which granted him citizenship in 1996, has been trying to secure his release for years. During U.S.-brokered peace talks in 1998 with Palestinians at the Wye Plantation in Maryland, Netanyahu requested clemency for Pollard. Then-President Bill Clinton said he would review the matter, but ultimately decided not to release Pollard, saying the objections of U.S. intelligence officials were too strong. CIA Director George Tenet reportedly threatened to resign if Pollard was freed, reflecting the animosity in the U.S. intelligence community towards a man who, while he leaked state secrets to an allied nation, is still considered one of the most damaging spies in postwar U.S. history. Pollard’s cause is popular in Israel, and dear to many Israeli politicians. But the plan to release him now, in exchange for Palestinians, has angered some members of the Knesset (Israel’s parliament), even those in Netanyahu’s Likud party." David Kashi in International Business Times.

Other foreign policy reads:

NSA searched Americans’ communications without warrant, intelligence chief acknowledges. Ellen Nakashima in The Washington Post.

Congress sends Ukraine package to Obama. Seung Min Kim in Politico.

Another April Fool's Day interlude: More pranks.

4. March winter brings April showers bring economic flowers

Solid job growth expected in March as winter fades. "U.S. job growth likely accelerated in March as the winter's gloom started to lift, providing the strongest signal yet that economic growth was shifting into higher gear. Nonfarm payrolls probably increased by 200,000, the largest gain in four months, according to a Reuters poll of economists. Hiring advanced by 175,000 jobs in February. The unemployment rate is expected to have dropped one-tenth of a percentage point to 6.6 percent. The anticipated gain in employment would take job growth back near the 204,000 monthly average that prevailed through the first 11 months of 2013." Lucia Mutikani in Reuters.

Rising manufacturing orders signal future growth. "The U.S. manufacturing expansion accelerated in March, driven by gains in production and orders, in the latest sign that the economy is shaking off its winter doldrums and building momentum into the second quarter. The Institute for Supply Management’s index increased to 53.7 from 53.2 a month earlier, the Tempe, Arizona-based group said today. Readings above 50 indicate expansion. The median forecast in a Bloomberg survey of economists was 54....Production picked up last month as the mercury rose and suppliers had greater success making deliveries of parts and materials to factories. A measure of output rebounded by 7.7 points, the biggest gain since June 2009, when the last recession ended." Michelle Jamrisko in Bloomberg.

Other economic/financial data:

U.S. construction spending barely up as homebuilding tumbles. Reuters.

Auto sales jumped in March. Rebecca R. Ruiz in The New York Times.

Other economic policy reads:

Explainer: Everything you need to know about the Senate unemployment insurance deal -- and why it might never become law. Ed O'Keefe in The Washington Post.

Minimum-wage compromise emerging in Senate? Alexander Bolton in The Hill.

This interlude may make you hungry: The evolution of pizza.

5. GM's not the only one facing scrutiny. So are regulators.

Facing congressional scrutiny, GM hires 9/11 payout lawyer. "As families of crash victims lined the back of the House hearing room, displaying photos of their lost loved ones, Mary T. Barra, the General Motors chief executive, told lawmakers that the company was considering paying damages to victims of accidents in the millions of cars recalled for defective ignition switches. To help decide, General Motors hired Kenneth Feinberg, a celebrated lawyer who handled payouts in the Sept. 11, 2001, victims fund and the Gulf of Mexico oil spill, she told a House committee investigating the company’s failure to fix a faulty part that it knew about for more than a decade. It was the first time G.M. had acknowledged that it may pay damages in accident cases that occurred before the company filed for bankruptcy in 2009, even though -- to the increasing outrage of victims’ families -- the company is legally protected by agreements made in bankruptcy court." Bill Vlasic and Matthew L. Wald in The New York Times.

But will GM create a payment system resembling those past ones? "Members praised the hiring of Feinberg, who has previously administered compensation funds for the victims of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, the BP oil spill and the Boston Marathon bombings. But Barra stopped short of promising to create a similar compensation fund, a step Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) and others have called for. She said the company would meet with Feinberg for the first time on Friday and would make a decision in 30 to 60 days." Kevin Robillard in Politico.

Auto-safety agency NHTSA also takes some heat from lawmakers for why it didn't act sooner. "The panel also heard from David Friedman, the acting head of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, which also failed for years to recognize the problem. Friedman pointed the finger at GM for not providing regulators with timely information that could have led federal regulators to order a recall....But lawmakers were also interested in NHTSA’s failures, demanding to know why the agency did not take action to determine why air bags in the Cobalt failed to deploy in a series of accidents -- and to demand that GM remedy the problem. Friedman defended the agency, saying it had compared the Cobalt’s track record with other vehicles and found no consistent trend....Moreover, NHTSA investigators looking into specific crashes were not convinced that the air bags failed to deploy because of a faulty ignition switch." Michael A. Fletcher and Steven Mufson in The Washington Post.

Timeline: A history of GM's ignition-switch defect. Tanya Basu in NPR.

Lawmakers revive efforts on auto-safety regulations. "Lawmakers are reviving efforts to strengthen the powers and resources of the nation's auto-safety regulators as they dig more deeply into why General Motors Co. waited almost a decade to recall vehicles with an ignition-switch defect. Such an effort failed almost four years ago during the last auto-safety crisis, involving unintended acceleration in Toyota Motor Co. vehicles, but is gaining new life in light of failures by GM and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to act more aggressively amid indications of the problem with the Chevrolet Cobalt and other small models. Democrats, in particular, are making clear that they believe a 2000 law that was supposed to catch defects earlier didn't go far enough, and some have already proposed legislation to increase reporting requirements on the auto makers and raise penalties for noncompliance." Siobhan Hughes in The Wall Street Journal.


3 things Barra didn't say in her prepared testimony. Kyle Stock in Bloomberg Businessweek.

What you need to know about the recalls. Lauren Pollock in The Wall Street Journal.

Key questions and answers about the GM recall controversy. Gail Sullivan in The Washington Post.

Live blog: Highlights from House hearing on GM vehicle defects. The New York Times.

Musical performance interlude: "Lion King" cast sings "Circle of Life" on plane.

Wonkblog roundup

Here’s why it doesn’t matter that 7M signed up for Obamacare. Jason Millman.

Large employers see costs from Obamacare. Jason Millman.

Why the poor need better access to cars. Emily Badger.

What’s the difference between tax evasion and tax avoidance? Ask Caterpillar. Danielle Douglas.

Interactive map: the oldest and youngest Congressional delegations. Christopher Ingraham.

Obamacare allies are already plotting how to make 2015 enrollment better. Jason Millman.

The data are in: life under Putin is a continuous downward spiral into despair. Christopher Ingraham.

Why DC’s bikeshare is flourishing while New York’s is financially struggling. Emily Badger.

Cars are just so 2004. Get with the times. Max Ehrenfreund.

Yes, Congress is getting older -- but so are the rest of us. Christopher Ingraham.

Et Cetera

Can the government save $234M on printing by switching fonts? Maybe not. David A. Fahrenthold in The Washington Post.

SEC chair discusses probes into high-speed trading. Sarah N. Lynch and Karen Freifeld in Reuters.

Miss. passes Ariz.-style religious freedom bill. Reid Wilson in The Washington Post.

Supreme Court could limit bank-fraud law. Lawrence Hurley in Reuters.

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

Wonkbook is produced with help from Michelle Williams.



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