Battle over CBO ObamaCare report rages

Democrats and Republicans on the Senate Budget Committee slugged it out Tuesday over the meaning of a Congressional Budget Office (CBO) report that found ObamaCare will cost the nation the equivalent of 2.5 million full-time workers in the next decade.

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Last week's CBO report initially resulted in loaded shorthand from lawmakers, confused reporting, furious fact checks and analyses, and attempts by both parties to spin the findings to their benefit.

But a week later, the murky nature of the economic impact beyond the CBO analysis still has Republicans and Democrats scrambling to seize the high ground on a talking point that figures to play a primary role in an election year.

At Tuesday’s hearing with CBO Director Doug Elmendorf, Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) acknowledged Republicans and Democrats were “speaking two languages” in the matter.

“People watching this today will be scratching their heads because you can look at this from so many different ways,” she said.

The nonpartisan CBO found that, under ObamaCare, the equivalent of 2.3 million workers would be lost by 2021, compared to its previous estimate of 800,000, and that 2.5 million workers would be lost by 2024.

Republicans pounced, claiming the report was evidence of their long-standing claim that the Affordable Care Act would “kill” jobs and was an entitlement program with disincentives to work.

Democrats argued the reduction in worker hours was almost entirely because of workers choosing to work less, meaning Americans wouldn’t be locked into jobs they were unhappy with because of limited healthcare options, or could retire early because of subsidies they received through ObamaCare.

The arguments were more nuanced at Tuesday’s hearing, but the chasm between the two sides remained.

Stabenow and Chairwoman Patty Murray (D-Wash.) pushed Elmendorf to clarify that the CBO did not say employers would fire millions of workers because of the law. The senators also sought to personalize the merits of the Democratic position surrounding the report.

Stabenow told stories about two family members — one who was able to stay home with a newborn instead of working, and another that was able to retire early — and lauded “the freedom involved in people being able to make choices” and the “tremendous value” inherent in parents being able to spend more time with their children.

Murray added that the healthcare law made it possible for people “to be innovative without being locked into a job.”

But the top two Republicans on the committee, Sens. Jeff Sessions (Ala.) and Chuck Grassley (Iowa), went directly at Elmendorf over what work disincentives would mean for the gross domestic product and other economic indicators.

“The fact is, it’s a disincentive for some people to work, resulting in a decrease in labor supply,” Grassley said. “To grow the economy, we need more workers and ought to encourage people to work.”

The Iowa Republican challenged Elmendorf about the economic impact, and was able to get the director to say the disincentives would cut into the labor supply, hurt the economy, lower tax collection and cause higher deficits.

“It’s harmful to economic growth,” Elmendorf said in one exchange.

The CBO director spent most of the hearing trying to avoid seeming as if he agreed with either side’s take on the report. Elmendorf repeatedly stipulated that it was not his agency’s responsibility to deduct meaning from its findings.

In a lengthy blog posted on the CBO website on Monday, Elmendorf sought to tamp down some of the political charge surrounding the report.

“The wording that people use to describe those differing circumstances [in the report] reflects the different reactions of the people involved,” he wrote.