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Another Hidden ACA Attack in Congress

This blog post originally appeared in The Hill.

After a decade of fruitlessly besieging the city of Troy, the Greeks seemed to sail away for home, leaving behind a gift. “What lovely sculpture,” exclaimed the Trojans. “The Greeks may return, but for now, they have obviously stepped aside from battle. Just look at this beautiful wooden horse!” Troy soon learned to its sorrow that Greek warriors were hiding in the belly of the beast. The gift acclaimed as a sign of peace turned out to be a vehicle for waging further war.

Some are now repeating the Trojans’ ancient mistake, characterizing the new Senate budget bill and related tax legislation as signs that the Republicans have temporarily stopped their fight against the Affordable Care Act (ACA) and Medicaid. But hidden in the budget bill’s underbelly are carefully crafted measures that lay the groundwork for another, purely partisan assault on Americans’ health insurance.

Today, the Senate Budget Committee is debating a budget bill. If adopted, it would define the ground rules for later Senate legislation that gets special, expedited treatment. Unlike normal bills, which nowadays require 60 senators from both parties to come together and find common ground, this special budget legislation, termed “reconciliation,” could pass with the support of 51 senators from a single party.

The proposed budget bill would let the Senate Finance Committee use reconciliation to increase the deficit by $1.5 trillion over 10 years. Since the Finance Committee has jurisdiction over tax law, many describe this a $1.5 trillion tax cut. But that committee also has control over Medicaid, Medicare and financial assistance that helps people buy private insurance. With backing from just 51 senators, a reconciliation bill could pass even larger or longer-lasting tax cuts for the wealthy, financed by taking health insurance away from hard-working families.

This is a feature, not a bug, and not an oversight. The budget bill explicitly gives the Budget Committee’s Republican chairman unilateral power to graft onto the tax reconciliation bill any proposals “relating to repealing or replacing the … Affordable Care Act.”

If the Trojan Horse had a warning label on its flank saying “Greeks may be hidden inside,” Troy might not have been fooled. Alas, the warning labels buried in the budget bill’s fine print could easily escape the attention of many who have been fighting for months to protect Americans’ health care.

Over the summer, bipartisan Senate majorities rejected proposed ACA “repeal and replace” legislation that would have cut taxes, primarily for the wealthy and large corporations, by slightly less than $1 trillion, funding those cuts by taking away health insurance from tens of millions of Americans. This grotesque and massive transfer of wealth, from low-income and middle-class families to the most affluent people in our country, could be repeated on an even grander scale if the current budget bill passes and soon leads to tax reconciliation legislation.

Under such legislation, the pressure for Congress to play Robin Hood-in-reverse would be intense. If Congress only cuts rich people’s taxes, budget rules would end those tax cuts after 10 years. But if lawmakers treat health coverage for low-wage, working Americans as a piggy bank they can raid for extra money, Congress could reduce the tax bill’s gargantuan deficit explosion enough to give millionaires and billionaires new tax breaks that continue indefinitely

For years, the richest people in America have been accumulating a growing share of the country’s wealth. Economic growth that past generations would have shared between owners and workers has increasingly gone entirely to people at the very top. By itself, a huge tax cut for the wealthy would be bad enough, massively increasing the deficit and putting publically financed programs in jeopardy. But pumping up tax breaks for the top 1 percent by taking health insurance away from low-income and middle-class Americans would be a moral obscenity. To describe it is to condemn it.

In Virgil’s telling of the ancient tale, soothsayers’ warnings about “Greeks bearing gifts” went unheard. Today, mystical vision isn’t required to see the dangers hidden inside the Republicans’ budget bill.

The vigilant, engaged citizenry that already beat back multiple assaults on millions of people’s health insurance still stands ready for battle. When they understand what may be proposed, the American people should have no difficulty defeating a partisan attempt to take billions of dollars from health care for hard-working Americans to finance massive new tax breaks for the very richest among us.