ANALYSIS: Amidst federal budget blues, can the sun come out tomorrow? Talking with Tom about the Spending Process

OKLAHOMA CITY – Anticipating the balance of 2015 in the nation’s capital, and the spending fights likely to mark the next five months, Tom Cole says there are three “triggering events” to anticipate.

In a recent interview with CapitolBeatOK, the Moore Republican explained, “ The first is the transportation bill. The Senate sent us a bill but it’s not going to pass in the House.

“It projects six years worth of spending, but only lays out three years of funding authority.”

Cole insists the House version of a spending plan, sponsored by U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Illinois , would do a better job bringing fiscal discipline to the unwieldy federal budget process, building on momentum established earlier this year.

Second, he said, will be “ the debt ceiling vote and debate, which is likely to come to a head in December.

“Third, immediately after that, the possible Sequester that includes some $40 billion in new military cuts.

“The process we have now is a chaotic way to lead a horse to water. We’ve already had military force cuts, in terms of manpower, from 590,000 troops down what could be 450,000 troops.”

Cole believes, “ It’s hard to know what the shape of a deal would or could be. In the case of the ‘ D oc fix,’ we gained a measure of entitlement reform with some cost savings. …

“That projection actually comes from the Medicare authorities. Something like the Doc fix could get us there. It’s going to be a marathon negotiation. If we have to go to the Continuing 

Resolution again, that means there will be a Sequester, and I think that’s bad.”

For all the gloomy-seeming steps that must be taken in these next five months , Cole remains hopeful a better budget process can yet emerge, and perhaps is already emerging .

His hopes center around a notable Medicare policy reform that passed last spring with bipartisan support, and was signed into law by President Obama.

“ I believe progress will be made because this is the most conservative Republican caucus in modern history. I caution about optimism, because we still have to have enough Democratic votes to get there.”

The Democratic minority in Congress, key members of President Barack Obama’s party, edged along a path unexpected, showing they could in some instances work with Republicans to forge spending discipline.

Ever the skeptic and admittedly not focused on all the details, this reporter asked if that was merely temporary progress, or actually sustainable.

Cole reflected, “ I’m not sure. [Sen.] Chuck Schumer [D-New York] is a very liberal guy, but I don’t underestimate him.

“What I’m driving home is that we had more action taken in the Senate in the first two months of this session than in the two years before under [former Majority Leader] Harry Reid. The Senate is hesitating, but we have all 12 Appropriations [bills] out of the House.

“The problem with always taking the process to a Continuing Resolution and out of committee process is that it disenfranchises committee members.”

Bottom line, the change resulting from Republican control of the Senate, which began after 2014 election, has been significant, and perhaps dramatic .

And, perhaps some of us have not given sufficient credit for that change.
Rep. Cole believes:

“The biggest single difference right now is that the Senate is actually functioning. The other side’s position, however, is that there will be no appropriations bills unless you guys [Republicans] raise domestic spending.”

Cole repeatedly pointed to the Medicare “Doc Fix” which passed this year. Online research found his projection of hope plausible.

Sketching the details:

The office of the Actuary at the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) projected positive short-range and long-range financial effects from House Resolution 2, the House Republican measure that was revised and tinkered with for months, eventually gaining Democratic support.

According to the GOP interpretation, CMS says the new provisions will “strengthen Medicare for seniors” and “fix the Medicare payment formula for doctors.”

The office of U.S. Speaker of the House John Boehner , R-Ohio, in an April press release, said the Actuary’s memo “confirms what the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) and other experts, such as the American Action Forum’s Douglas Holtz-Eakin, have stated – the House bill will save taxpayers money and put the Medicare program on a more sustainable path.

“As we have noted previously, CBO [Congressional Budget Office] has confirmed that while there is an upfront cost the bill will result in a net deficit reduction by the end of the second decade, and that savings from the structural Medicare reforms ‘would increase rapidly in the second decade’ (though CMS notes it would cost less in the near-term 10-year window than CBO’s estimate).

“Moreover, Douglas Holtz-Eakin estimated that the two Medicare reforms in the bill would save $230 billion in the second decade alone.”

The U.S. House Energy & Commerce Committee found these key “takeaways” from the CMS Actuary’s memo about the “Doc Fix” 

Extends the Solvency of the Medicare Program. “Under the provisions of H.R. 2, the fund would be depleted one year later, in 2031.”

Reduces Medicare’s Actuarial Deficit. “Over the 75-year period, the actuarial deficit would be reduced from the current-law estimate of 0.87 percent of taxable payroll to 0.78 percent under H.R. 2.”

Boehners office, in that spring 2015 press release, conceded, “Some critics of the bill have latched onto the Actuary’s conclusion that more than three decades into the future, in 2048, payments to physicians would begin to decline.

“But it begs the question: Why worry about payment levels in 2048 when the Medicare program itself will be insolvent by 2031? That’s like complaining about the drink prices in the bar on the Titanic – after it sank.”

Affording plausibility to the comparatively hopeful interpretations from Boehner and Cole, and from some Democrats, the U.S. House majority media staff’s na rrative continued:

“[T]he Actuary’s report notes that Medicare’s Hospital Insurance trust fund is scheduled to go bankrupt in 2031. Long before 2048, and one hopes long before 2031, both parties will need to work to preserve, strengthen, and ultimately solve Medicare’s financial problems to ensure the program is there for generations of seniors to come.

“And, of course, any such reform would necessarily take into account physician payments to preserve access and quality for beneficiaries. 

The good news is that Republicans have proposed these types of common-sense Medicare reforms for years, including in this year’s House-passed budget.

“This reform bill, however, is just the beginning of our efforts. It represents the first real entitlement reform in decades , and experts have confirmed that it will save taxpayer dollars over the long term.”

Not ignoring critical nuances, Oklahoma’s fourth congressional district representative supports Speaker Boehner’s contention, that the “Doc Fix” in its House version is “a big win for the American people .”
A release from a U.S. House panel says the accord will “put an end to the nearly two decades of ‘fixing’ the broken Sustainable Growth Rate (SGR). 

Bipartisan leaders [in the House] introduced … legislation to fix the Medicare payment formula for doctors, protect seniors access to their Medicare physicians, strengthen the program over the longer term , and extend the Children’s Health Insurance program.” 

National Review Online’s Quin Hilyer, at least as dubious as this writer about the D.C. budget process, wrote that the measure was a notable step toward a kind of fiscal conservatism, in a bipartisan framework.

As the deal edged toward completion, Hilyer wrote:

“The bill … would implement a number of Medicare reforms of the sort conservatives have long championed. Some of those reforms bring market forces into play. Others tighten eligibility rules to achieve savings, and others are likely to catch and block some attempts at Medicare fraud. … A host of conservatives, eminently trusted on economics/budgetary issues, recognize that this bill represents real (even if only incremental) long-term reform of just the right sort. … 
This set of Medicare reforms is good medicine.”
Nonetheless, President Obama said he was “proud to sign” the measure.
Yes, that is the same bill Cole believes is the primary basis for his hopes that federal budget reforms are achievable in the near-term.

Maybe the sun will come out tomorrow – or some time in 2017.