Putting the U.S. Constitution up for grabs

In a republic we have rules — laws — framed by a Constitution that sets limits on how far they go, and on who can exercise them, while assuring that we can change them as needed, in an orderly process that protects the rights of all.

Imagine these rules were gone, that they all changed, that a minority could routinely stop the majority from moving forward, that individual liberties could vanish.

Imagine the squabbling members of Congress you see every night on television setting themselves up as modern-day George Washingtons, James Madisons and Ben Franklins, and flipping everything on its head. A bill calling for a U.S. Constitutional Convention — approved last year by the Iowa Senate State Government Committee and moving again this year — could do just that.

The bill, Senate Joint Resolution 8, or SJR8, would put the State of Iowa on record calling for a constitutional convention, which could easily become a free-wheeling assault on our constitution, following whatever process it chooses, with no review by any existing court or legislative body.

While the resolution asserts that such a convention would be limited, the scope of issues is so broad as to effectively erase limitations: “to impose fiscal restraints, and limit the power and jurisdiction of the federal government.” Even then, it is not clear that states have the authority to limit the scope of a convention at all. According to constitutional scholars, the delegates would likely be free to define any limits as broadly as they wish, or to ignore them.

Why now? In some states, such as Iowa, far-right organizations including the Convention of States project and the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) now have enough supporters in key positions to push for such changes even though none of this has been the focus — perhaps not raised at all — in Iowa election campaigns.

Supreme Court Justices ranging from the liberal Earl Warren to the conservative Antonin Scalia have warned against the dangers of opening up the constitution to radical change. If 34 states pass such a resolution, Congress will call a constitutional convention. One group counts 28 states that have already signed on.[1] It is conceivable that the threshold could be reached.

The Constitution contains very little guidance on the procedures for, or scope of, such a convention. The only precedent we have to go on is the constitutional convention of 1787, at which the existing document, the Articles of Confederation, was scrapped and an entirely new constitution, our present one, was created. That convention even changed the rules for ratification.

The delegates to a constitutional convention could set a rule that all decisions would require approval only by a simple majority of the states, with each state given one vote. That would allow the 26 least populous states, which contain less than 18 percent of the U.S. population, to rewrite the constitution.

The Constitution provides no guidance as to whether such a procedure is permissible. And even if Congress were to establish rules for the convention, there is no mechanism to force the convention to follow those rules.

Constitutional scholars say that under a convention now, the entire U.S. Constitution is up for grabs. It could quickly become a contentious and chaotic free-for-all, with moneyed interests free to lobby and purchase support however they chose.

[1] Iowa is shown as already on the approval list because of a resolution passed in 1979, but groups are pushing for a new one for fear that the age of that resolution will disqualify it, and because the wording of the 1979 version is different from the current one.

 

Peter Fisher is research director of the nonpartisan Iowa Policy Project in Iowa City.

 

Congressional tax bills: New loopholes

Needed fixes on the Alternative Minimum Tax would limit the ways the very rich avoid taxes — but the bill in Congress would just eliminate it, at a cost of $696 billion over 10 years.

To most people, tax reform means closing loopholes. To those in Congress pushing an overhaul of federal taxes it apparently means the opposite. The House and Senate tax bills would reopen a number of loopholes used by high-income taxpayers to shelter income from tax, and create a huge new one. Without shame, they are calling this “tax reform.”

First, the new loophole. This one is doubly ingenuous, touted as a “reform” that helps “small business.” It allows individuals who receive income from a business that they own (if that business is not a corporation) to pay no more than the 25 percent individual income tax rate on that income. Here’s the thing: Most truly small businesses are already in that tax bracket, or lower, because they have less than $250,000 in business income; these taxpayers get no benefit from the bill.

So who would benefit? Almost 70 percent of this “pass-through” income goes to the richest 1 percent of taxpayers. They are hedge fund managers and real estate developers who own a non-corporate business, and who now pay tax at one of the top rates for individuals (up to 39.6 percent). This pass-through loophole is no help to small businesses; it is a gift to the rich, and a very costly one indeed: $597 billion over 10 years.

Now for the loopholes re-opened. If you are an ordinary, hard-working middle income taxpayer you probably have never had to worry about something called the Alternative Minimum Tax (AMT). That’s because you didn’t have income from incentive stock options, you didn’t take an oil depletion allowance, you didn’t claim net operating losses. In short, you didn’t have the kinds of income that escape taxation. You had mostly wages and salaries, which are fully taxed.

The AMT originated in the late 1960s and was supposed to ensure that those with preferentially treated income or large deductions paid at least some minimum amount of income tax. Donald Trump, for example, was required to pay an additional $31 million in 2005 because of the AMT. (We know this because of the partial tax return for that year that was made public.) Without the AMT, tens of millions of his income would have escaped taxation.

The AMT does need fixing; it does not succeed in taxing all kinds of preferential income, and many of the very rich still find ways to avoid tax. But instead of fixing it or replacing it with something better, this bill would just eliminate it permanently, at a cost of $696 billion over 10 years, a big chunk of the total cost of the bill.

In the name of tax reform, congressional Republicans are opening the loophole floodgates for high-income taxpayers; these two measures will cost $1.3 trillion. That means another $1.3 trillion in federal deficits, or in cuts to programs like Medicare and food assistance, to keep wealthy donors happy.

Peter Fisher, research director of the Iowa Policy Project

pfisher@iowapolicyproject.org

About those 10 reasons, Senator …

At stake is health care access for millions, including people with pre-existing conditions. Surely these would be at the top of any list of concerns about Cassidy-Graham.

Senator Chuck Grassley of Iowa has made the point himself: The Cassidy-Graham bill to repeal the Affordable Care Act (ACA) has many deficiencies.

“I could maybe give you 10 reasons why this bill should not be considered,” he told Iowa reporters.

So, let’s look at some of the reasons, on the merits, why people might have concerns about Cassidy-Graham.

  1. People with pre-existing conditions would lose access to health care. Protection of these people assured now under the ACA would be left to state decisions, with states already cash-strapped.
  2. Many who became eligible for coverage through the Medicaid expansion of the ACA would lose it. In Iowa, about 150,000 people gained coverage by this expansion.
  3. It would change Medicaid expansion to a block-grant program that provides states no flexibility to deal with recessions or prescription drug price increases.
  4. Medicaid for seniors, people with disabilities, and families with children would be capped on a per-person basis. Anything higher would be left to the states to provide. There is neither any assurance states would want to do that, or even be financially able to do so.
  5. Iowa would be marched to a $1.8 billion cliff in 2027 under this bill, with federal support dropping sharply. For context, that is the equivalent of about one-fourth of the current state budget.
  6. Millions would lose insurance coverage. While we’re still waiting for the estimate from the Congressional Budget Office, past repeal proposals show this. And, since this bill offers nothing beyond 2027 for the Medicaid expansion, via block grant or otherwise, the prospect of 32 million people losing coverage (as demonstrated in estimates in previous ACA repeal legislation) is very real.

In Iowa? The graph below shows how Iowa’s uninsured population has dropped with the advent of the ACA, or Obamacare. Census data show uninsurance in Iowa dropped by nearly half in just three years, by about 116,000 — from 8.1 percent uninsured in 2013 to 4.3 percent in 2016.

So, this is a good start on why Iowans might be concerned about Cassidy-Graham — a last-ditch effort to rush into law radical changes in the way millions nationally and over 100,000 in Iowa gained access to health care in just three years.

We invite Senator Grassley to add to the list and get us to the full 10 reasons he suggested that might cause concerns about this bill.

Or better yet, maybe together in a deliberative process that involves everyone, we can come up with a list of 10 things that any health care policy should address.

Surely the list would include insuring more people, assuring more with practical access to health care when they need it, improving public health and reducing costs. We invite Senator Grassley to that discussion.

Mike Owen, Executive Director of the  Iowa Policy Project
mikeowen@iowapolicyproject.org

Focus on fixing insurance exchange

The problems with the insurance exchange in Iowa are fixable — and not a good excuse to fund tax cuts to the wealthy by forcing tens of thousands of Iowans off health insurance.

It’s time for Iowa’s congressmen and senators to start working on immediate measures to strengthen the health care system, and specifically the health insurance exchange, or marketplace. The obsession of some with bills to repeal and replace Obamacare has been a distraction from that task.

In recent days, bipartisan groups have sprung up in both the House and the Senate to begin developing legislation to stabilize the insurance market. These groups recognize the immediate need for measures to ensure that federal payments continue for cost-sharing reductions (CSRs) that help low-income people afford their copays and deductibles. Without the assurance that these payments will continue, premiums will rise sharply.

The president has threatened to continue his efforts to sabotage the Affordable Care Act (ACA) by ordering an end to CSRs. This threat has already prompted Medica, the only Iowa health insurance company still offering plans on the exchange, to plan for another premium increase.

The bipartisan efforts to shore up the insurance exchanges could include another important measure: a reinsurance program that would reduce the risk that a small number of high-cost customers will cause insurance company losses. The “million-dollar customer” has been cited as a factor contributing to the decisions of Wellmark and Aetna to exit the Iowa exchange. Reinsurance would establish a national pool to cover high-risk cases; this would allow companies to remain in the exchanges without drastic premium increases on everyone to pay for those few cases.

The Senate’s attempts to repeal and replace failed because they were wildly unpopular. These measures would have resulted in over 200,000 Iowans losing health insurance; would have effectively ended the expansion of Medicaid that covers thousands of low-wage workers; would have reduced Medicaid benefits for thousands of seniors, children, and people with disabilities; would have raised premiums and deductibles; would have gutted protections for persons with pre-existing conditions; and would have provided billions in tax cuts to wealthy individuals and corporations.

Another attack on coverage: Graham-Cassidy

Pragmatic efforts to stabilize the health insurance market stand in stark contrast to a last-ditch attempt to repeal and replace Obamacare that surfaced this week: the Graham-Cassidy plan. Like the previous failed bills, this plan would end the Medicaid expansion that now covers 150,000 Iowans.

Unlike previous repeal and replace bills, the Graham-Cassidy plan would also end the premium assistance that makes health insurance affordable to tens of thousands of low and moderate income Iowa families. While it replaces ACA funding of premium assistance and Medicaid expansion with a block grant, it provides no guarantee that the states will use that block grant to make health insurance affordable to those who need help the most. And the bill would further destabilize the insurance market by ending the mandate to purchase insurance, while making it more expensive, leaving insurance companies with the sickest and costliest customers.

The problems with the insurance exchange in Iowa are fixable. Let’s see if our Senators and Representatives actually try to fix those problems instead of using them as an excuse to fund tax cuts to the wealthy by forcing tens of thousands of Iowans off their health insurance.

Peter Fisher is research director of the Iowa Policy Project.

pfisher@iowapolicyproject.org

Health exchanges: Why not fix?

Iowa’s insurance exchange has only one insurance company offering policies. But instead of fixing that, our representatives are using it as an excuse to repeal Obamacare, including the Medicaid expansion.

What would be your response if someone said to you: “The transmission in my car needs an overhaul. This just proves vehicular transportation doesn’t work, so I am going to get rid of my car and my pickup, even though the truck is still running fine.” You would probably think they were crazy. Why not just fix the car’s transmission?

Yet this is the logic being put forward by Senator Grassley and many others as they seek to repeal Obamacare. Yes, we have a problem with the insurance exchange in Iowa, where we now have just one insurance company offering policies. But instead of pursuing solutions to that problem, our representatives are using it as an excuse to repeal Obamacare, including the Medicaid expansion, which has nothing at all to do with the insurance exchange and in fact is still in good running order.

The lack of insurers in the Iowa exchange is largely a self-inflicted problem. Insurers have left the market in part because the state of Iowa did so little to encourage people to sign up, and to provide assistance in navigating the exchanges. Iowa was also extremely generous in allowing people to continue with existing poor-quality insurance.

The problem was worsened by President Trump’s efforts to sabotage the exchanges during the final weeks of the annual sign-up in January by banning all advertising and encouraging people to think Obamacare was going to end. As a result, the number enrolling in the exchanges, which had been on a pace to exceed that of the previous year, ending up falling short.[1] Too few younger and healthier people enrolled, leaving the insurance companies with older and sicker people.

There are solutions to this problem. Both the Iowa Insurance Commissioner and Iowa Democrats have proposed measures to solve the exchange problem at the state level. But the House and the Senate bills repealing and replacing Obamacare, instead of shoring up the exchanges, repeal the individual mandate. Analyses of their replacement provisions predict that they would worsen the problem instead of solving it, leaving the exchanges with even fewer healthy individuals.[2]

Now about the pickup truck. The Senate’s Better Care Reconciliation Act (BCRA) would likely result in 232,000 Iowans losing health insurance coverage over the next five years.[3] Three-fourths of them would become uninsured because of the loss of Medicaid, the rest because of cuts in premium assistance for policies purchased on the exchange.

Iowa expanded Medicaid eligibility (with 90 percent federal funding under Obamacare) to include low-income non-elderly adults, most of whom are working in low-wage jobs with little or nothing in benefits. The BCRA would effectively end the Medicaid expansion for about 177,000 Iowans.[4] This will hit rural Iowa the hardest, and it will undermine the finances of rural hospitals.

The Medicaid expansion has nothing to do with the health insurance exchanges. Our representatives should stop using a fixable problem with the exchanges as an excuse for passing a broad bill that ends health insurance for tens of thousands of Iowans.

[1] Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, Sabotage Watch: Tracking Efforts to Undermine the ACA. http://www.cbpp.org/sabotage-watch-tracking-efforts-to-undermine-the-aca

[2] Jacob Leibenluft and Aviva Aron-Dine. Senate Health Bill Can’t Be Fixed; Reported Changes Would Not Affect Bill’s Core Features. Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, July 10, 2017. http://www.cbpp.org/research/health/senate-health-bill-cant-be-fixed

[3] Linda Blumberg et al. State-by-State Coverage and Government Spending Implications of the Better Care Reconciliation Act. http://www.rwjf.org/content/dam/farm/reports/issue_briefs/2017/rwjf438332

[4] Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Urban Institute. The Impact of Per Capita Caps on Federal and State Medicaid Spending. March 2017.

Peter Fisher, Research Director, Iowa Policy Project & Iowa Fiscal Partnership

pfisher@iowapolicyproject.org

A look at future health care in Senate plan

Under the Senate health proposal, uninsurance in Iowa would be more than double what it would be under the current Affordable Care Act.

What Iowans need to know about coverage and costs

Health care policy is a complex issue. There’s no getting around that. But one way to consider the options vs. what we have is to look at basic, reliable estimates of the real-life impacts of the policy choices. How many Iowans would have insurance, and how many would not?

The Urban Institute has state-by-state estimates of these impacts. By 2022 — five years from now — under the Senate’s proposed Better Care Reconciliation Act, uninsurance in Iowa would more than double. Across the board of various population groups, significantly more Iowans (including children) would be uninsured than under the current Affordable Care Act, (ACA, or ObamaCare).

According to the Urban Institute:

• 148,000 non-elderly adults would be uninsured, or 8 percent, under the ACA, compared with 351,000 under BCRA, or 19 percent. This is an increase of 137 percent.

• 25,000 children would be uninsured, or 3.2 percent, under the ACA, compared with 54,000 under BCRA, or 6.9 percent. This is an increase of 117 percent.

• 115,000 non-elderly, non-Hispanic white Iowans would be uninsured under the ACA, or 5.4 percent, compared with 306,000 under BCRA, or 14.3 percent. This is an increase of 167 percent.

• 38,000 non-elderly Hispanic Iowans would be uninsured under the ACA, or 16.6 percent, compared with 53,000 under BCRA, or 23 percent. This is an increase of almost 39 percent.

For more about the impacts of the Senate proposal, see this Iowa Fiscal Partnership backgrounder by Peter Fisher of the Iowa Policy Project.

KanOwaSin: Low-road neighbors, together?

Think carefully about snake-oil pitches to follow the lead of Kansas and Wisconsin, putting Iowa on a fast track to the bottom.

Here we sit in Iowa, nestled between two political petri dishes where experiments have gone wrong, and wondering if our elected leaders may let the mad scientists loose on us as well.

Some politicians would like to turn Iowa into another Kansas, another Wisconsin, where tax-cut zealotry already has driven down economic opportunity.

Welcome to KanOwaSin. In the anti-tax ideologues’ world, we’d all look the same. Why not ​share a name?


​Before someone squeezes another drop of anti-tax, anti-worker snake oil on us, let’s get out the microscope.Our friends in Wisconsin tell us: Don’t become Wisconsin. Our friends in Kansas tell us: Don’t become Kansas — and Kansans already are turning off the low road.A couple of researchers in Oklahoma are telling us: Listen to those folks. From the abstract of their working report:

“The recent fiscal austerity experiments undertaken in the states of Kansas and Wisconsin have generated considerable policy interest. … The overall conclusion from the paper is that the fiscal experiments did not spur growth, and if anything, harmed state economic performance.”

 

Their findings are among the latest exposing the folly of tax-cut magic, particularly with regard to Kansas, which IPP’s Peter Fisher has highlighted in his GradingStates.org analysis that ferrets out the faulty notions in ideological and politically oriented policies that tear down our public services and economic opportunity.

Iowa has long been ripe for tax reform, due to a long list of exemptions, credits and special-interest carve-outs in the income tax, sales tax and property tax. These stand in the way of having sufficient resources for our schools, public safety and environmental protection.

Each new break is used to sell Iowans on the idea that we can attract families and businesses by cutting  — something we’ve tried for years without success, as Iowa’s tortoise-like population growth has lagged the nation.

On balance, this arrangement favors the wealthy over the poor. The bottom 80 percent pay about 10 percent of their income in state and local taxes that are governed by state law. The top 1 percent pay only about 6 percent. Almost every tax proposal in the last two decades has compounded the inequities.

For the coming 2018 legislative session, and for the election campaigns later that year, we are being promised a focus on income tax. Keep in mind, anything that flattens the income tax — the only tax we have that expects a greater share of income from the rich than the poor — steepens the overall inequity of our regressive system.

Thus, as always, the devil is in the details of the notion of “reform.” If “reform” in 2017 and beyond means more breaks for the wealthy, and inadequate revenue for traditional, clearly recognized public responsibilities such as education and public health and safety, then it is not worthy of the name.

So, when you hear about the very real failures of the Kansas and Wisconsin experiments, stop and think about what you see on your own streets, and your own schools. Think about the snake oil pitches to follow their lead, and whether you want Iowa on a fast track to the bottom.

That is the promise of Kansas and Wisconsin for Iowa.

Or, if you prefer, KanOwaSin.

—-

Dan S. Rickman and Hongbo Wang, Oklahoma State University, “Tales of Two U.S. States: Regional Fiscal Austerity and Economic Performance.” March 19, 2017. https://mpra.ub.uni-muenchen.de/79615/1/MPRA_paper_79615.pdf
Posted by Mike Owen, Executive Director of the Iowa Policy Project
mikeowen@iowapolicyproject.org