After the latest failed attempt to repeal the Affordable Care Act (ACA) in the Senate, Sens. Lindsay Graham (R-SC) and Ron Johnson (R-WI) declared that they would only support a new budget resolution that enabled them to keep trying to force through their own health care bill. The Senate has not had to meet the 60-vote standard to pass ACA repeal because of the budget reconciliation process, which lets the Senate pass legislation with a simple majority vote. This process began with reconciliation instructions included in the fiscal year 2017 budget that Congress passed in January 2017, but those instructions expire on September 30.
While the new FY 2018 budget resolution from the Senate Budget Committee retreats from ACA repeal to some extent—after massive public opposition—it would still enable Congress to revive major elements of ACA repeal using reconciliation. Here are three ways the proposed Senate budget supports ACA repeal.
1. An overly broad reconciliation instruction to the Senate Finance Committee
The Senate Finance Committee has jurisdiction over both tax policy and several federal health care programs, including Medicare and Medicaid. If the Senate wanted to limit the scope of a reconciliation bill to tax policy, the budget resolution could give instructions to the Senate Finance Committee that only cover revenues. Instead, the budget instructs the Finance Committee to produce legislation that increases deficits by up to $1.5 trillion over 10 years.
Since deficit changes can be accomplished via changes to both spending and revenues, the Finance Committee could use this reconciliation instruction to repeal ACA-related taxes as well as much of the spending that helps people purchase health insurance under current law. Politico reports that “95 percent of health care policy” goes through the Senate Finance Committee, according to a Republican Congressional staffer discussing ACA repeal. As a result, the staffer said, “it’s not like we couldn’t slip it in anyway.”
Every dollar the Finance Committee cuts from health care could be used to pay for tax cuts for the rich that would be on top of the $1.5 trillion tax cut financed by deficits. This reconciliation instruction could let Congress pass a huge deficit-financed tax cut for the wealthy and corporations, combined with major elements of ACA repeal, in a single omnibus reconciliation bill. If the Finance Committee’s overall bill does not increase deficits by more than $1.5 trillion over 10 years, the Senate could pass it on a party-line vote under reconciliation.
Aside from the Finance Committee, the only other committee involved in ACA repeal in the Senate is the Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) Committee. The Senate budget resolution does not give a reconciliation instruction to the HELP Committee, which signals a meaningful retreat from full ACA repeal. Nevertheless, the Finance Committee instruction would still enable the Senate to change major parts of the law, which could include nullifying the ACA mandate for individuals to purchase health insurance, repealing the ACA-related taxes that finance the coverage expansion, and making all of the Medicaid cuts in earlier ACA repeal legislation, such as repealing the Medicaid expansion and making further cuts by turning the program into a block grant.
2. A deficit-neutral reserve fund for ACA repeal
The Senate budget resolution further smooths the path for ACA repeal with a deficit-neutral reserve fund for “repealing or replacing” the ACA. This allows Senate Budget Committee Chairman Mike Enzi (R-WY) to adjust the aggregates that are included in the budget resolution, such as overall spending and revenue levels, to accommodate ACA repeal. This reserve fund helps the Senate majority avoid points of order that could otherwise create hurdles for passing a future health care bill. A similar reserve fund was also included in the FY 2017 budget resolution.
Budget resolutions often include many reserve funds that are mostly designed to signal rhetorical support for an issue. Not only does the reserve fund for health legislation smooth the way for ACA repeal, it also shows that supporters of the Senate budget continue to endorse ACA repeal even after the FY 2017 reconciliation instructions expire on September 30.
3. Deficit-financed tax cuts
Even if Congress does not go after the ACA using reconciliation instructions in the FY 2018 budget, the deficits from the tax cuts the Senate budget enables will be used by the ACA’s opponents to attack the law in the future. Whipping up hysteria about budget deficits is a common tactic to advocate cuts to programs such as Medicare and Medicaid, and it is already being used to justify ACA repeal. When asked a question on CNN from a person who had recovered from substance abuse addiction and who worried about loss of Medicaid coverage for treatment for others suffering from addiction, Sen. Graham responded, “Let’s talk about $20 trillion of debt.”
If lawmakers increase the debt with the very tax cuts that Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin says will be “done by the end of the year,” it will add further fuel to their drive to slash programs for low- and middle-income Americans using reconciliation instructions in their next budget resolution for FY 2019. This will not be a long delay—the FY 2019 budget would be passed by April 15, 2018, if Congress follows the schedule for the regular budget process.
Lawmakers can cut taxes, increase deficits, and use those higher deficits to justify a renewed push to repeal the ACA, all before the 2018 midterm elections.
The window is closing for Congress to pass ACA repeal using the FY 2017 reconciliation instructions, but the Senate Budget Committee is reopening it with the FY 2018 budget. The quest to repeal the ACA—thereby cutting taxes for the wealthy, taking health insurance from tens of millions of Americans, eliminating protections for preexisting conditions, and driving up out-of-pocket costs—will continue if Congress passes the Senate budget resolution.
Harry Stein is the director of fiscal policy at the Center for American Progress.