Former Sen. Tom Daschle (D-South Dakota) praised and defended the Affordable Care Act at the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey School on Friday and threw out a few ideas for getting past the gridlock in Washington.
Daschle was interviewed by Vin Weber, with whom he served in the U.S. House in the early 1980s. The hottest news of the Affordable Care Act that day was that the U.S. Supreme Court would take a case that could blow another hole in the law’s fabric. Many of those who buy health insurance through the exchanges set up by the Obamacare law qualify for subsidies.
Because of some ambiguous language in the statute, opponents of the law are arguing that the subsidies should be available only in the 16 states (like Minnesota) that set up their own exchanges. The majority of states declined to do that. Qualifying residents of those 36 states can participate in federally run exchanges. In the new case (King v. Burwell), the Supreme Court will consider whether the subsidies for which many Americans who purchase health insurance through the “exchanges” qualify should be denied to those in states that do not operate their own exchanges. If the Supreme Court agrees with the plaintiffs and limits the subsidies to the minority of states that operate their own exchanges, it will be a huge blow to the overall fabric and reach of the ACA.
Weber asked Daschle whether he believed the language in question was intended by the authors of the ACA to treat state-run exchanges differently for this purpose. Daschle said no, it was unimaginable that such a difference was intended. The ambiguity was created by a drafting error. He said that in normal times, after a major complex law passes, Congress follows up with what is called a “technical corrections” bill to clean up just these kinds of accidental ambiguities. But because of the extraordinary partisan warfare over the ACA, it wasn’t possible to do a technical corrections bill.
Daschle, whose Senate career included service as majority leader, was an early and strong supporter of President Obama’s 2008 campaign and was Obama’s first choice to be secretary of Health and Human Services. If he had been confirmed, he would have been on the front lines of the implementation of the ACA, but his nomination was derailed by disclosure of his failure to adequately report and pay taxes on some benefits he received during his post-Senate career as a lobbyist. (Daschle still works as a lobbyist.)
In his remarks Friday, Daschle was very hard on the oft-repeated nostrum that the U.S. health care system was the best in the world before Obamacare, noting several colossal indicators to the contrary. The United States, he said, did not rank in the top 10 in the world in any of the major indices of health, and ranked, for example, 51st from the top in infant mortality.
On the climate in Washington, Daschle expressed no great confidence that a new era of compromise and functionality was about to break out, but he did have a few suggestions. One was that the Senate meet more. The demands of perpetual campaigning have created a new normal in which senators “leave [Washington] on Thursday, come back on Tuesday, and try to govern on Wednesday.” He suggested that instead, the Senate commit to five-day work weeks in Washington and, if they have to spend that much time back home, take a week off from Senate sessions every month. (He also said that senators in the last two years of their terms generally spend 60-70 percent of their time fundraising for their campaigns.)