They’re back. Grab your wallets and hide your possessions. Congress is ready to kick off the 2014 session. Democrats are desperately trying to change the subject from Obamacare by pandering with issues such as the minimum wage and unemployment benefits. Unfortunately, Republicans are already showing signs of caving on the failed policy of extending unemployment benefits, so long as the cost is offset. House Republicans will take up legislation dealing with Obamacare’s implementation, but will they keep the proper focus on the issue? This week will start off slowly but in the coming weeks there will be some major showdowns, which as always, will require vigilance from the conservative movement.
[sharequote align="center"]Grab your wallets and hide your possessions. Congress is ready to kick off the 2014 session.[/sharequote]
When the House reconvenes this week, Republicans plan to bring two Obamacare-related bills to the floor. In an effort to force the hands of administration officials who are being cagey about the status of enrollment on the Obamacare website, H.R. 3362 would require weekly reporting on website progress. These reports would include weekly updates on the number of unique visitors to the websites, accounts opened, and people enrolled in health care plans – all of which would be broken down on a state-by-state basis. The bill would also require regular updates on progress to fix the website.
The other bill, the Health Exchange Security and Transparency Act, would require the HHS to notify anyone whose personal information was compromised while using the Healthcare.gov website. Both bills will receive floor votes on Friday.
On the one hand, it is welcome news that Republicans will open the year with its first focus directed towards the failures of Obamacare. However, Republicans need to be careful not to focus too much on the website while ignoring the broad systemic problems of government-run health care, along with the higher costs and job losses associated with the onerous mandates. They must also make sure that these stand-alone votes, which will never become law, are not used as straw men to replace the only real means of fighting Obamacare – attaching riders to must-pass legislation, such as the upcoming debt ceiling increase.
This photo of part of the HealthCare.gov website is photographed in Washington, in this Nov. 29, 2013 file photo. (AP Photo/Jon Elswick, File)
Undoubtedly, the website will be fixed in the coming months and millions of people will begin to register for health plans. This will not represent success. Quite the contrary, millions of people who will lose their health insurance will have no choice but to apply for these sub-par and expensive taxpayer-subsidized plans. Hence, if we focus exclusively on the website and the lackluster enrollment numbers, we will distract attention from the real problems and play into the hands of Democrats.
This week’s legislative assault on Obamacare will be nothing more than a vacuous gesture unless Republicans begin beating the drum against raising the debt ceiling until Democrats agree not to fund one more penny of Obamacare with new debt.
For the first time since 2008, Congress adjourned in December without extending unemployment benefits for the long-term unemployed. Typically, the Unemployment Insurance program lasts for 26 weeks of unemployment with an additional 13 weeks during recessions. Since 2008, however, Congress has funded Unemployment Insurance benefits for up to 99 weeks of unemployment. As part of the fiscal cliff deal, they extended benefits for up to 73 weeks. In total, extended unemployment benefits have been renewed 11 times since 2008.
Job seekers line up to enter a career fair in Los Angeles. Photo Credit: AP
In an effort to distract from the job losses due to Obamacare, Senate Democrats plan to vote on a bill to retroactively extend the unpaid-for 73 weeks of Unemployment Insurance benefits until March 31. The Senate will vote for cloture on S. 1845, which is sponsored by Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.), late Monday evening. As is often the case with the current membership of the Senate, every Democrat is likely to stick with their leadership on this vote. There is already one Republican co-sponsor of the bill, Sen. Dean Heller (R-Nev.). Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) is also likely to support the measure.
If GOP leadership blithely watches Democrats pick off members of their conference, Harry Reid will easily win 60 votes for cloture. Instead, they should aggressively counterpunch by whipping against cloture unless Democrats agree to add some form of Obamacare repeal to the bill. Especially after Democrats abolished the filibuster on judicial nominees last year, no Republican should be eager to surrender the filibuster on legislative matters.
Moreover, it’s time for Republicans to finally stand strong on an issue and put an end to the political game of long-term unemployment benefits. We all know that March 31 will not be the end to the Unemployment Insurance subterfuge. Despite the improving economy, Democrats will continue to use the unemployed as a political football every few months leading up to the midterm elections. Moreover, if we fail to shut off the extra Unemployment Insurance payments now, it will soon morph into a permanent entitlement. Since 2008, the federal government has collected roughly $240 billion in federal unemployment payroll taxes, while paying out about $600 billion in benefits. The three-month extension will add another $6.4 billion to the tab.
With unemployment ticking down, yet a near-record number of individuals locked out of the labor force, now is the worst time to offer preserve incentives to join the labor market. People who gave up looking for a job will certainly never be incentivized to re-enter the job market if they have a steady flow of taxpayer benefits coming to them every week.
Janet Yellen Confirmation
On Monday evening the Senate will vote on final passage to confirm Janet Yellen as the next Chair of the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve Bank. This is a holdover from last session. The last Senate vote of 2013 was on the cloture motion for this nomination. It passed 59-34. Every Democrat will vote for final passage and many Republicans will join them. This is very unfortunate, as Yellen has expressed irascible opposition to any auditing of the Fed’s $4 trillion balance sheet and is an even bigger proponent of monetary stimulus than Ben Bernanke. Expect for the powers of the Fed to continue its inexorable growth under Yellen’s helm.
Issues on Deck
Fiscal Year 2014 Omnibus
Although Congress already voted on the “Ryan-Murray” budget agreement for the remainder of the fiscal year, that bill only set the top-line spending figures. Congress still needs to pass an actual budget before the Jan. 16 deadline when the current Continuing Resolutions expires. Instead of working on each of the 12 appropriation bills one-at-a-time, they plan to pass a massive omnibus bill, making it impossible to scrutinize every aspect of the budget in proper order. This will likely be the major issue next week.
Pursuant to the agreement that ended the government shutdown in October, the debt ceiling law will go into effect again on Feb. 7. It is unclear when the Treasury will exhaust its ability to circumvent the debt ceiling with “extraordinary measures.” Treasury Secretary Jack Lew is suggesting the deadline will be some time in early March, while the Congressional Budget Office believes we might have a few more months. Conservatives must begin working on party leadership to utilize our last leverage point before the midterm elections to fight Obamacare.
The Farm Bill conference committee has worked out the framework for a final five-year bill behind closed doors. The bill will lock in the Obama-era level of food stamp spending, without offering any substantial structural reforms to the program. It will also expand government subsidies for crop insurance and price supports and make a number of these programs, including the sugar subsidies, permanent law. The bill may be brought to the floor of either the House or Senate as early as next week or any time this month.
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