Both Houses of Congress are scheduled to start their Memorial Day recess on Friday May 26th, with the Senate coming back on Tuesday May 30th and the House not returning until June 5th. That’s the schedule, but the debt ceiling deadline may throw a wrench into both schedules. Congress must raise the debt ceiling for the country to continue to pay its bills and the estimate for the money to run out if the debt ceiling is not raised is June 1st. This means that both Houses could be staying longer in Washington or returning earlier than originally scheduled as this legislation is debated and voted on. In the recent past, when neither party has a majority in both Houses of Congress or the Presidency, it has become a time for both parties to try to use this bill to pass other policies that can be attached to this “must pass” bill. This year has been even more “entertaining” given the slim majorities in both the House and the Senate. Here’s where we stand right now.
The House, much to everyone’s surprise, passed a debt ceiling bill – the 2023 Limit, Save and Grow Act – that included long term debt reduction language and a reduction in funding for many civilian agencies. House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) said his party’s plan would “prune” the “bloated, overgrown bureaucracy.” The Senate, where the Democrats hold a slim majority, said the bill was dead on arrival and the President said he would veto it if it passed both Houses. What the Housed-passed bill did do was bring the leaders of the House and the Senate into a meeting with the President to see if they could come to a compromise, since no one in Washington wants to bear the responsibility of our country defaulting on its debts. Defaulting would cause an economic implosion that would reverberate in all the world’s financial markets and would have a huge negative economic impact on our fragile economy as we try to tame inflation. While there have been signs that a compromise might be in the works, there have been pauses and posturing that prove a default is not out of the question. It seems unfathomable to me that our elected officials would allow our country to default but politics and the deep divisions in Washington and our country often cloud the vision of those who lead us and leads to illogical actions. I hope that reason prevails.
As our lawmakers try to find a way to avoid defaulting while also lowering our debt, I feel the need to get on my soap box about two things that this bill has reminded me concerning problems I’ve seen in the past. First, one of the sticking points in the negotiations is Republicans pressing for government aid recipients to be seeking work or working or participating in educational training of some kind, so-called “work requirements.” This has long been a much-debated policy, one that I have watched and even participated in. While it seems logical that if a person receives government aid but is able to work then they should work. Work requirements for Medicaid beneficiaries is one of the places where these requirements have proven to be a sticking point. When someone is receiving state supplied Medicaid benefits, where the Federal government supplies the bulk of the funding, then Washington can impose these type of eligibility requirements. It boils down to making sure the aid is given only to those who really need it. Regulating who should be required to work without withholding aid to those who really need it, is a hard and costly proposition but one that I feel should be pursued. Ronald Reagan once said, “I believe the best social program is a job.” It is simple in concept but difficult to implement. I think there must be a compromise that encourages people to use the aid they receive as a steppingstone to a job that frees them from requiring aid.
The other point I want to make is how proposed legislation is financed. As our country has dealt with our huge debt or big healthcare legislation, we have passed bills that often were paid for by changes in Medicare and/or reductions in drug prices. The Affordable Care Act did it and the recent Inflation Reduction Act also used healthcare savings as a way to pay for other programs. My position has always been, if you do things that eliminate waste and abuse or increase the efficiency of our government healthcare programs then the money saved should be used to improve healthcare programs such as lowering the out-of-pocket costs for the program beneficiaries or lowering our nation’s debt. It shouldn’t be used to pay for other programs.
Ok, I’ll climb down from my soap box and talk about a piece of legislation that really has a chance of coming up for a vote once the debt crisis is passed. This legislation deals with Pharmacy Benefit Managers (PBMs). These PBMs are third-party administrators who negotiate with drug manufacturers on behalf of health plans. Over the years they’ve gone from contractors that processed claims to powerful entities in the prescription drug supply chain. Some have said that the rebates negotiated by PBMs are not benefiting the ultimate beneficiaries. There have been multiple hearings and there is bi-partisan support to make the dealings of the PBMs more transparent. While this all sounds great, we must be careful that we don’t throw the baby out with the bath water and overlook the benefits that having these PBMs have provided. As always, the devil is in the details, but this legislation that deals with PBMs seems like it has the most chance of moving forward.
The other workings in Washington that I’ll be watching is the implementation of the Inflation Reduction Act. This will continue to be an area of focus that I’ll continue to watch. In the meantime, I hope you have some fun things planned for summer.