Congresswoman Diane Black, Chair of the House Budget Committee joined me today:
HH: The American Health Care Act proceeds next to the House Budget Committee, which is chaired by Representative Diane Black. She joins me now. Chairman Black, welcome, it’s great to have you on the program this morning.
DB: Thank you, Hugh, it’s great to be with you.
HH: The American Health Care Act comes to you next. Do you have the votes to pass the bill as it currently exists?
DB: That bill will come out of our committee and go to the Rules Committee on Thursday.
HH: Do you expect any amendments to pass?
DB: Well, we cannot amend the bill in our committee. By rule, we are not able to amend it. I do expect that there will be some, what we call motions that will be instructions or I guess instructions are the best word, to ask the Rules Committee to look at some concerns that come from our committee and our members.
HH: Now Chairman Black, I have had so many conversations with representatives and sentors, including Tom Cotton yesterday, Speaker Ryan, Leader McCarthy, Whip Scalise comes on. I have talked to Walden. I have talked to Kevin Brady. I’ve talked to everyone in the Senate. So I have a list of what people object to. And I want to ask you what you think about it. On the right, people object that the leadership bill isn’t aggressive enough in trying to make changes through reconciliation. I reread the Reid Rule last night, so I want to suggest a few things and get your recommendations and reaction to it.
HH: If you impose a tax in an amendment, that qualifies for the reconciliation process. So why not, for example, put a tax or a surcharge on all health care policies in states without limits on medical malpractice damages? That would, in effect, incentivize those states to put a cap on medical malpractice damages.
DB: Well, one of the things that we have to be careful about, and in the House, we don’t have a lot of control over that, is that this bill will go through the reconciliation process where there will be a parliamentarian who makes a decision about what makes it in the bill and what does not. If we have pieces that do not make it in the bill, then we potentially will not be able to use our 60 votes, or our privilege, which would be the 60 vote majority. And so we can pass this by reconciliation if we stay within all of the Byrd rules. And I know that’s a very wonky thing, and it is hard for folks to understand, but these are very specific rules that we must pass the muster. And so the bill that we’re playing over to the Senate is as much as we believe that we can get into it. There may be some additional things that they can put in the Senate. If the parliamentarian over there won’t rule on what we put in, they will only rule on what goes in by the senators.
HH: But what I hear the senators saying, Madame Chair, is that the, you folks have narrowly interpreted the parliamentarian’s writ, and why not throw a bunch of things at them that he’ll be forced, or she’ll be forced to rule on, or we can always unseat them under the Reid Rule and the Senate president, Mike Pence, can take the seat and make the ruling.
DB: That is correct.
HH: But the way I read the Reid Rule, if it’s got a tax in it, so that it does not add to the deficit, it gets the 51 vote margin. You said 60, but you meant 51. So all you have to do is impose penalties on disfavored behavior, and those become 51 vote-eligible measures. So you just have to tax the stuff you don’t like. For example, if you tax all policies which are not offered in, say, five or more states, you will promote policies that are offered across interstate lines. Has that, has anyone been that creative within the caucus?
DB: We have talked about these kinds of things, and we’re going to throw it over to the Senate. They know what they can get in, and we’re going to allow them to be able to put those things in.
HH: But I heard Ted Cruz and Tom Cotton and others say no, we want the House to send us some ideas so that we can build on them. For example, another one, tax policies that issue from companies that don’t offer at least one policy with a limited number of essential benefits. The essential benefits rule is the cost driver here, right? That’s what drives up so many costs of policies. Well, if you tax policies that include more than your minimum dictates policies, you will in effect incentivize people to get rid of the essential benefits. You will get rid of the essential benefits.
DB: These are all very good idea, and I’m just going to say to my colleagues there in the Senate, we have worked very hard on our bill, and we would like to see something from them, and these are ideas that they can put into the bill when we pass it over to them.
HH: But they keep saying why doesn’t the House go further, farther, bigger? What’s your answer to that?
DB: Well, I keep saying to them is we want to see what they have as well. And this is a long way from done. We anticipate there are going to be changes that will occur, and they’re going to have the opportunity to put some of their ideas into this bill as well. We have done a yeoman’s job on getting it this far, and we will see what they have as far as their ideas. They’re going to have that chance.
HH: But there are a lot of, okay, on the House side, if you look at Jim Jordan and the Freedom Caucus and some members of the Republican Study Group, they are primarily concerned that you are not being aggressive enough. So you might not have the votes in your own caucus. You can’t lose this vote. It’s got to get over to the Senate, right?
DB: Absolutely. It must.
HH: So why not use, again, tax policy qualifies for reconciliation. If you tax something, why not do it in the House to satisfy the Freedom Caucus? And I just want a bill. This is a once in a lifetime opportunity to reshape a major entitlement program so that it actually works and doesn’t trap people in poverty. We can’t blow this, right, Madame Chair?
DB: No, you are absolutely right, and that’s why we’re working very hard to make sure that we can get as much in there from our side as we possibly can, and pass it over to the Senate. And then the Senate can add additional pieces that they believe that will pass both the parliamentarian’s muster, and also to make this bill better.
HH: But I guess I’m trying to communicate I think you can do a lot more than you’ve done. And so I’m a conservative supporter of Obamacare repeal and replace, but I think you guys are being too conservative. You’re not swinging for the fences. For example, on tax credits, this is something we can talk about, I like the idea of tax credits, but I think they ought to definitely be reshifted to favor poor Americans and older Americans. If you have a four square box, poor and not poor on one side, young and not young on the other, you want most of your tax credit relief to go the poor and the not young, don’t you?
DB: That is a discussion that we continue to have, and we’re going to be having some of that tomorrow in our Budget Committee during the time where people can offer motions. But look, there are just, there are differences of opinion about how those tax credits should be done. But I want to remind people that these tax credits are for a very small group of people. These are tax credits for people that either are unable to qualify for the Medicaid piece, or do not have employer insurance. And so it’s a very small group. And there is the thought by the crafters of at least this far into the bill was that if we have a tax credit, it should not be done necessarily on income, but it should be done more on age. So if you’re a younger age, you need less tax credit. As you get older, obviously, more tax credits.
HH: Well, I’ve talked to the Speaker about that. I understand that. And I brought up to him Avik Roy’s critique. I think Avik has won the argument. And here’s the key question. Is the House willing to understand when they’ve lost the argument with the Republican Party? Because the House gets tunnel vision sometimes, and they shut down. They don’t take incoming from people like me and senators, and commentators, and they begin to just drive forward and get stubborn and dug in. And I look to chairmen like you to say whoa, we’ve lost this argument. People don’t like our tax credit. We have to reshape it to send the credits towards the poorer people. Are you folks listening? Or are you dug in?
DB: Oh, no, no. We’re listening. We’re definitely listening. And I will tell you tune in to our Budget Committee tomorrow, and you will hear these conversations. You may hear some actions that are taken about sending a message on to the Rules Committee.
HH: What about the argument you’re going too fast, and that therefore, you’re missing the opportunity to be creative? It was opened up on Monday last. They’ve had ten days of conversations. It’s going to be at the Rules Committee before you know it. And you’re just going too fast. Slow down and make sure that you’ve got the best ideas from the best and the brightest in the land?
DB: Hugh, this has been out since last summer, our idea, our draft of our plan. And people across our conference have had an opportunity for months and months and months. As a matter of fact, the process that we used was you didn’t have to be in the committee of jurisdiction for any of these policies in order to be able to come and give your thoughts. So we had a lot of meetings where it really was the conference that created that blueprint that was not the leadership. It was the conference with all the ideas. And really, our draft comes from that blueprint, which has been out there, again, for the American people.
HH: Well, if I can push back a little bit, Chairwoman, I read the Better Way. I gave lots of time on the radio to everyone in favor of it, Dr. Price, Speaker Ryan, and it was a bunch of principles and concepts. But the actual bill language, the actual structure of the tax credits, the lack of taxing authority to dis-incentivize things like MedMal high limits, none of that was in there. But I expected to have an opportunity to influence policy. But I think, and we’ve got a minute left. I want to leave it to you. I think maybe the House has gone into bunker mode.
DB: Well, I’m going to disagree with you a little bit on that one. You have markups that are 24 hours, when you’ve had the plan out on the internet for the American people to read, when we have been listening to our conference, and we’re going to continue to listen our conference, and we’re going to continue to listen. This is not the end of the process. It’s the beginning. And there are three phases to this, as you know. It’s this first step, and then there is what Secretary Price can do as well as what we can do in regular order.
HH: Yeah, but Senator Cotton said yesterday there is no third step, because you haven’t got 60 votes. I mean, he just blanketly rejected the third step. Was he wrong?
DB: I’m going to disagree with him that there are things that we are able to do when we sweeten the pot with the Democrats on other issues and you put them together. It’s done all the time here on the Hill. We will have opportunities for the third part of the process as well.
HH: Chairman Black, thank you for joining me. Follow her on Twitter, @RepDianeBlack. Stay tuned, America.
End of interview.