For senior citizens -- and then for Democrats -- it could be the nastiest "October surprise" ever.
Obamacare guts the popular Medicare Advantage program. Democrats didn't want those enrolled in it to find out until the election was safely past, so they postponed until 2013 implementation of this provision.
But when the 2,700-page bill was thrown together, there were oversights. Under federal "open enrollment" guidelines, seniors must pick their Medicare coverage program for next year before the end of this year. Open enrollment will begin Oct. 15, so seniors will learn what's in store for them three weeks before the election.
That could mean the 12 million seniors enrolled in Medicare Advantage will be angry with Democrats when they enter the voting booth. Since most of them live in swing states, this could have unpleasant consequences for President Barack Obama's re-election prospects. So he plans to spend $8 billion of our money to keep most from finding out until after the election.
A divided Congress won't approve spending that $8 billion, so the president plans to take the money from funds set aside for "demonstration projects" for which specific congressional approval is not required.
The $8 billion is more than what the Department of Health and Human Services has spent on all previous Medicare demonstration projects combined, and would serve no scientific purpose, said the Government Accountability Office in a scathing report.
This abuse of the law may be undone by the Republican response to another of Mr. Obama's efforts to buy votes with our dollars.
Speaking at the University of North Carolina lastmonth, the president called upon Congress to keep the interest rate on student loans at 3.4 percent. The rate on Stafford loans -- which account for about 35 percent of federally subsidized student loans -- is slated to go to 6.8 percent July 1.
The rate hike bomb was put into law by the Democratic Congress in 2007 and included in the president's budget for this year. It would apply only to those who enter college after July 1, and it would add only about $1,000 over the lifetime of the loan. Mr. Obama didn't mention this to the UNC students.
"The president sought to portray himself as in touch with the struggles of millions of Americans who are starting out and provided a sharp contrast to the background of his presumed opponent in November, former Massachusetts governor and wealthy businessman Mitt Romney," said Corbett Daly of CBS News. "Mr. Obama also sought to paint a sharp contrast to congressional Republicans, who have largely been silent on the issue."
Mr. Romney dashed plans to use this as a wedge issue when he said he'd support the subsidy if its $6 billion cost were offset elsewhere. On Friday), House Republicans passed a bill to take the money from the HHS "demonstration project" slush fund. There is justice in that, because the HHS slush fund was created in the first place when the Democratic Congress in 2010 diverted $9 billion in student loan funding to it.
This puts Senate Democrats on the spot. They want to defer the loan rate hike, but they have as great an interest as does Mr. Obama in concealing the truth about Medicare Advantage. They could pass the student loan subsidy without an offset, but that would cast another spotlight on their fiscal irresponsibility. So they propose to pay for it by raising taxes on small businesses.
Republicans won't support this, so Congress may pass nothing before the July 1 deadline. Democrats have more to lose from a standoff.
• Most Americans hate Obamacare. They'd rather have an offset come out of its hide than at the expense of small business.
• The purpose of the gimmick is to conceal from seniors what's going to happen to Medicare Advantage. Debate will let lots of them in on the Democrats' secret.
• Senate Republicans can block a small business tax hike with a filibuster. So the end result is likely to be that the Republican House will prevent the student loan rate hike, but the Democrat Senate will not. Democrats will have a hard time using that to motivate the kids to vote in November. And they will have given small business owners another reason to vote Republican.
"What a tangled web we weave, when first we practice to deceive," said Sir Walter Scott. Democrats are entangled in a web of their own weaving.jackkelly
This column originally appeared in The Pittsburgh Press. To subscribe: http://press.post-gazette.com/ Jack Kelly is a columnist for The Press and The Blade of Toledo, Ohio. firstname.lastname@example.org, 412 263-1476. First Published May 4, 2012 3:45 PM