After 2 worthless votes, what next for Zinke?

By David Crisp
The Billings Outpost
Jan. 22, 2015

During his run for Montana’s U.S. House seat, Ryan Zinke often seemed uncertain about exactly what positions he held. That’s a bad trait in a candidate but not necessarily in a congressman. Issues before Congress can be complicated, and remaining open to evidence is more helpful than going to Washington with a closed mind.

So it was reasonable to hope that now-Rep. Zinke would prove a more flexible and pragmatic House member than his predecessor. But early returns are not encouraging.

Rep. Zinke issued two news releases last week touting votes on Obamacare. One was a feel-good vote that meant nothing. The other was cynical and potentially harmful.

Rep. Zinke’s first vote would prevent volunteer firefighters from being required to have insurance under Obamacare. Because the Internal Revenue Service counts volunteers as employees for some purposes, there were concerns that departments with 50 or more volunteers might be required to provide insurance.

Rep. Zinke’s vote, he said in a news release, would roll back “potentially life-threatening ObamaCare regulations.” Who could oppose such a sensible proposal? Literally, no one. The House voted 401-0 for the bill, just as it did on a similar bill last year. The only reason last year’s bill didn’t become law was because of congressional incompetence.

After the House unanimously passed the bill, Senate Democrats amended it to include extension of unemployment benefits. House members hate unemployment benefits nearly as much as they hate Obamacare, so the bill never became law.

But the Affordable Care Act never intended to require insurance for volunteers, and the Department of the Treasury has said it did not interpret the law that way. Chances that you will be struck by lightning as you read this column are greater than the chance that Obamacare ever would have required a single fire department to buy insurance for volunteers.

So when Rep. Zinke says he is “rolling back dangerous regulations in ObamaCare that could cause rural Montana fire departments to close down,” he is just blowing smoke. Stand down, firefighters. It’s not a real fire.

Rep. Zinke’s second vote may do real harm. The Save American Workers Act would change the employer mandate in Obamacare to apply only to employees who work at least 40 hours a week, not the 30 hours now required.

“Montana’s hard-working families cannot afford the part-time economy that ObamaCare is causing,” Rep. Zinke said in a statement. “Parents should not be forced to take a second job because the federal government cut their hours and wages, yet that is exactly what is happening.”

Actually, that isn’t happening, at least not in any significant way. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the number of Americans working part-time for economic reasons has dropped dramatically since the passage of Obamacare. Total part-time hours have remained flat. If full-time hours do fall when the employer mandate kicks in, it is far more likely to happen because of Rep. Zinke’s vote than because of Obama’s bill.

Why? Because very few employees actually work a 30-hour work, but tons work 40-hour weeks. As one House member put it, changing the mandate would allow employers to avoid the mandate by cutting each employee’s hours by just 12 minutes a day. Employees would lose one hour a week of work, and 100 percent of their health insurance.

Republicans realize this. Their goal is not to save American workers. It is to make the mandate meaningless.

Well, so what? Rep. Zinke never would have survived the Republican primary, and possibly not the general election, if he had supported Obamacare. He’s just doing now what he promised he would do if elected.

Here’s why it matters: Someday soon, the Supreme Court will consider whether federal subsidies for health insurance under Obamacare apply only in states that created their own insurance exchanges. If the court strikes down subsidies in states, such as Montana, that refused to set up exchanges, then millions of people will see their insurance premiums skyrocket.

Many would lose insurance altogether. Some would go without healthcare or be forced into bankruptcy when they can’t pay for the care they need.

Congress could solve the problem in about five minutes by passing a bill clarifying that subsidies apply to all exchanges, not just those set up by states. But that would require making a decision based on facts, not just on ideology.

And the facts, by and large, favor Obamacare. Up to 12 million people now have health insurance who didn’t before. Medical costs are rising at the lowest rates in years. Jobs are being created at the fastest rate since the Clinton administration.

Moreover, many horror stories about Obamacare have not materialized. There are no death panels. Government has not taken over healthcare. In fact, more people have broader free-market insurance choices than ever. Three times as many Americans signed up under Obamacare by Dec. 15, 2014, than in a comparable period the year before.

A new survey from the Commonwealth Fund found that for the first time since the survey began in 2001, the number of Americans who said they had trouble paying their medical bills declined in 2014. About 10 million fewer Americans said they had trouble paying medical bills than said so just two years ago, at the beginning of Obamacare.

Rep. Zinke and his colleagues have a chance to make a real difference, not just sign off on meaningless and misleadingly named legislation. Let’s hope he is up to the task.