EDITORIAL: Spending down under sequester; ACA site is a mess

Maybe you missed this good news, amidst all that shutdown, debt ceiling and continuing resolution talk.

According to the Congressional Budget Office, the Budget Control Act — commonly known, and roundly disparaged, as “the sequester” — has quietly accomplished what many would have considered impossible. For the first 11 months of fiscal 2013, federal spending is down $127 billion.

This likely means that when the final numbers are in for the full 12 months, overall spending will have fallen for two years in a row, a feat which has not been accomplished since the end of the Korean War.

Furthermore, the Congressional Research Service reports that the automatic sequester caps are getting better results than any effort to curb spending since 1980.

Particularly gratifying is the fact that, when compared with other successful efforts to balance spending with revenues — the 1990 pact between President George H.W. Bush and Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell, and the Bill Clinton effort in 1993 — the sequester has accomplished this entirely through spending cuts, with no tax increases.

So, even as we kick the continuing resolution can and the debt ceiling can down the road to January and February, the sequester caps remain on the job, promising eight more years of comparative spending restraint, if only the politicians can keep their hands off them.

Two things, however, lend a note of cynicism to this good news.

The first: Congress and the president blundered into this achievement. As you recall, the Budget Control Act was conceived as a prospect so horrible, with its automatic spending cuts, that the politicians would recognize the threat, sit down together and write a budget with which both parties and the president could agree. When they couldn’t agree late last year, the sequester kicked in, the president predicted all kinds of horrible consequences, and he even canceled tours of the White House. (The White House Easter Egg Roll, thought to be in jeopardy, was saved at the last minute.)

Despite the dire predictions, however, a United Technologies-National Journal poll showed that 74 percent of Americans polled said they had seen “no impact” from the sequester cuts. Some catastrophe.

The other thing to remember is that politicians from both parties would like nothing better than to do away with the sequester all together, and get back to the good old days of profligate spending. The Democrats want their social programs, and the Republicans want their defense spending.

So, it looks like the spending restraint we’re suddenly seeing in Washington is despite the best efforts of our politicians, not because of any new-found desire to live on a budget and cut spending.

We’ll take progress any way we can get it, though, and will say our prayers every night for a long, healthy future for the Budget Control Act. May the sequester live on.

ACA marketplaces are a mess

Lincoln (Neb.) Journal-Star

On Oct. 1, the Obama administration was to throw back the curtains to reveal the sunlit uplands of a wonderful new world of medical insurance options under the Affordable Care Act.

Instead, consumers found a wasteland of frustration. The administration’s new online insurance marketplace was next to nonfunctional.

The Journal Star editorial board was willing to give the administration some time to work out the glitches in the $400 million system. But after more than two weeks, it’s clear the exchanges have serious problems that are going to take a long time to resolve.

In Nebraska, only about 50 people have managed to sign up for policies, and some of those were able to complete the process only by bypassing the federal exchange and going directly to an insurance company website.

If the administration ever expects to overcome the negative impression Americans have of the Affordable Care Act according to poll results, it needs to redouble its efforts to fix the problems.

And that might take a while. USA Today this week quoted experts who said the site needed a total overhaul. Technology experts told the newspaper the exchange was built using 10-year-old technology.

“Recent changes have made the exchanges easier to use, but they still require clearing the computer’s cache several times, stopping a pop-up blocker, talking to people via Web chat who suggest waiting until the server is not busy, opening links in new windows and clicking on every available possibility on a page in the hopes of not receiving an error message,” the newspaper reported.

The New York Times reported that one of the reasons the site was “thwarting the efforts of millions to simply log in” is because the Obama administration delayed major rules until after the November election to avoid giving critics political ammunition.

That didn’t give the firm that wrote the software much time to start writing code. Another pivotal decision that seems unwise in retrospect gave Medicare and Medicaid the responsibility of integrating each separately designed database into a system, the Times reported. The agency lacked the staff and expertise.

Adding to the problems were decisions by more than 30 states to let the federal government run their exchanges, which gave the administration a much bigger project than it anticipated.

In contrast with the federal exchange, state-operated exchanges were operating more successfully, with California leading the way. Officials estimated 50,000 Californians had completed applications by mid-October.

In the early days of the federal exchange, the administration tried to spin the overload as evidence of consumer demand.

And the administration is still predicting 7 million people will sign up through the exchanges. A high enrollment is essential for coverage to remain affordable under the new law.

But after the first few weeks of trying to use the new federal exchanges, many consumers might be wondering whether the glowing vision of health care improvements described by ACA adherents was just a mirage, always shimmering out of reach.

10/24/2013 - 7:12am