A few days ago, I wrote that the CBO screwed up Ron Wyden's amendment by failing to fully score it, after telling Wyden that they had. As a result, Max Baucus wouldn't let it come up for a vote on the Senate Finance Committee. Wyden is now threatening to vote against the entire bill, which could keep the Senate Finance Committee from reporting one.
So what actually happened?
FDL has obtained the two CBO letters that were sent to Wyden, one on September 22 (PDF) and another on September 29 (PDF), which indicate that Baucus was not correct when he told Wyden that the amendment had not been scored. It had. There was a "proposal variant," as the CBO calls it in the September 29 letter, that they indicated they could not score. But that wasn't the amendment Wyden submitted, which was supposed to be voted on that night.
Here's what happened:
Sept 16: Baucus introduces his America's Health Future Act. Wyden submits his “free choice” amendment shortly thereafter, something he had be working on for several months.
Sept 22: The CBO sends Wyden an email, saying they have fully scored amendment. As had been previously reported, they score the amendment as saving $1 billion:
From [deleted] cbo.gov]
Sent: Tuesday, September 22, 2009 9:03 AM
To: [deleted] (Wyden)
Cc: Sandy Davis
Subject: free choice amendment
Below is our analysis of amendment #C1. As I mentioned, we modeled this as giving all employers access to the exchange starting in 2015 The savings were a little smaller than Ihad anticipated but it is still a net saver.
Wyden # C1
- Relative to the Chairman’s mark, the amendment as modeled would reduce the net impact on federal deficits by about $1 billion over 10 years. There would not be substantial effects on the total number of people with insurance coverage or the sources of that coverage, relative to the Chairman’s mark.
According to sources familiar with the exchanges between Wyden and Baucus, an attempt was then made to create a modified compromise version of the amendment which could have a better chance of passing the committee, and it was submitted to the CBO.
September 29: The CBO sent a another letter to Wyden. They indicated they were unable to fully analyze this new modified version of the amendment, which they called the "free -choice proposal variant":
Sent: Tuesday, September 29, 2009 4:22 AM
Subject: Wyden free choice proposal variant
Unfortunately we will not be able to estimate the impact of the full-blown version of this proposal -- involving vouchers -- in the near term. The complexities of working out how the voucher amounts would be determined, who would keep the savings, the tax treatment of those savings, the potential for favorable or adverse selection -- and how individuals and firms would resopnd to the resulting incentives -- would take some time to work out.
As we indicated to Senator Wyden's staff, amendment # C as drafted -- which involved setting up combined reinsurance pools for employer plans and exchange plans -- seemed most similar to us to allowing firms to purchase coverage through the exchange; that is, to let all of their workers choose among the exchange plans. Thus, we modeled the effect as allowing all firms to do so starting in 2015 (which is sooner than under the mark). We assumed that there would be resulting reductions in tax-preferred health care spending that would be translated into taxable wages as a result of market forces -- without involving specific provisions for vouchers -- and that effect was factored into the $1 billion reduction in net federal costs that CBO and JCT estimated for the amendment.
So Wyden never introduced the "variant."
October 2: Shortly after midnight, Wyden introduces his original, fully scored version of the amendment -- not the modified version which the CBO had not analyzed. Baucus let Wyden bring it up as the last amendment on the last day of mark up. Debate started at approx. 1:00 am. Roughly half an hour into it, Baucus surprised Wyden by declaring that he would rule it out of order (there would not be a vote on the amendment):
BAUCUS: Now, the fact is CBO has not scored this amendment. CBO has not analyzed this amendment. I justs checked a few minutes ago with CBO.
A late night text message sent to Kent Conrad by someone at the CBO supposedly backed up Baucus's claim.
According to sources familiar with what transpired, the CBO never withdrew its score for the Wyden amendment before Wyden introduced it. They confirmed this to Wyden the next day.
The big issue is that Baucus blindsided Sen. Wyden at 1:45 in the morning on the very last day of mark up. For reasons of protocol and simple good manners, Chairman Baucus had the duty to inform Wyden that he would be ruling his amendment out of order before doing it publicly at 1:45 am. Given the proper warning, Wyden would have had the chance to confirm with CBO director Elmendorf that his amendment was fully scored and should not be ruled out of order. Wyden did try to argue that he was indeed correct, but to no avail (I guess late night text messages sent to Conrad trumps logic). There was no one from CBO present at the hearing to settle the matter.
You can watch the whole debate unfold at the C-Span Video Library, it starts at the 76:30 mark in the video. Baucus's blindsiding of Wyden beings roughly 30 minutes into the debate and is captured below:
Since it was to be the last amendment on last day of mark up, Wyden was left with no recourse, and was forced, unfairly, to withdraw his amendment. He was denied a vote on the amendment some policy writers considered the single most important possible change to health care reform.
Jane Hamsher reports that Wyden was asked to not criticize Baucus's terrible bill in exchange for getting a vote on his prized amendment. To promise Wyden a vote, only to declare the amendment out of order (when it should not have been) is a powerful slight to Wyden. If there was indeed such a deal, it makes the Baucus blindsiding a serious violation of trust.
This is the quintessential ending to Baucus's handling of the health care reform bill. It was defined by extreme secrecy, zero transparency, endless delays, back room sweetheart deals to industry, and a complete disdain towards other Democratic senators on the committee. It is the perfectly undignified end to a shameful committee process.Why is all this imporant? Well, Wyden's amendment would have provided everyone with the ability choose their own plan on the new exchange -- and that means a public option, if one is available. Which is why, even though it was supported by policy wonks, it was opposed by the Chamber of Commerce.