Politics

House Republicans Propose Deal on Congressional Ads

Franking rule change would let lawmakers link to HealthCare.gov

After complaints from Democrats, Franking Commission Chairman Rodney Davis, shown here in 2014, has floated a rule change that would allow lawmakers to link to HealthCare.gov in taxpayer-funded ads. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

House Republicans are working to resolve a dispute over rules that Democrats say are stopping them from promoting the health insurance exchanges.

Currently, lawmakers are prohibited from linking to any website other than their own in taxpayer-funded advertisements. Rep. Rodney Davis is proposing to allow them to link to other federal government websites, including HealthCare.gov.

The Illinois Republican is chairman of the Franking Commission, which handles lawmaker requests to use taxpayer funds for communications such as ads and mailings.

Democrats have sought to promote open enrollment more heavily than in years past. Pointing to the shortened six-week sign-up period and the Trump administration’s decision to slash funding by 90 percent, they are trying to fill the gap with ads of their own.

Watch: Seven Years of Republican Efforts to Repeal and Replace Obamacare

The Department of Health and Human Services also instituted a 41 percent cut in grants to navigator groups that assist consumers with enrollment. Such reductions, coupled with attempts by President Donald Trump and Congress to repeal the 2010 health care law, have left consumers confused about the status of the exchanges.

Potential enrollees are particularly unsure whether they can still receive premium tax credits, following news of Trump’s decision to end funding for another subsidy to help with low-income consumers’ out-of-pocket costs. Also in question is the status of the individual mandate, which Republicans are targeting yet again in a bill to overhaul the federal tax code.

The House Administration Committee will consider Davis’ proposal to amend the member handbook at a markup Wednesday, just two days before the Dec. 15 deadline for consumers to enroll through HealthCare.gov.

Davis and Republican staffers told ranking member Susan A. Davis of California that the commission would “expedite review” of the remaining franking requests following the rule change, saying they agree with Democrats’ concerns.

“As such, the Democrat Franking Commission Members are encouraged to inform their Members to submit their advertisements in advance of the markup,” the Republicans wrote.

A number of Democratic offices, citing delays and inconsistencies, previously reported problems getting HealthCare.gov ads approved by Davis and his staff. A spokeswoman for GOP members said the Franking Commission sometimes approves exceptions to the rules, but always informs the member that the approval does not set a precedent for future decisions.

The chairman also noted that Democrats had submitted only around 30 franking requests for HealthCare.gov, and fewer than 10 of those are still pending.

But a spokesman for the Democratic staff called for more clarity on the proposal, since it seems to exclude state-run exchanges like Covered California, which has a much later open enrollment deadline of Jan. 31. Ranking member Davis was on the House floor when the committee received the proposal from the Republicans late Thursday.

“We’ll see,” the spokesman said. “That’s where we’re at.”

Sign-ups on HealthCare.gov are lagging behind the pace needed to maintain enrollment numbers from last year. While many existing consumers will be automatically enrolled if they don’t actively select a plan, the numbers so far indicate a drop-off in sign-ups. Approximately 9.2 million people signed up or had been automatically enrolled again through the federal platform by the end of 2017 open enrollment. Just 3.6 million had signed up as of Dec. 2, though it’s unclear how many people will be automatically enrolled.

Traffic typically spikes in the final days before the deadline, and Democrats will likely seek to ramp up outreach to capitalize on the last-minute rush. While the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services and HHS are still sending out email reminders, CMS Administrator Seema Verma and Acting HHS Secretary Eric Hargan have done little but publicly trash the health care law.

Trump and Republicans’ aversion to the law have prompted accusations from Democrats of willful sabotage, and the dispute with the Franking Commission only reinforced that notion for some members.

“It’s good the Franking Commission finally appears to have come to its senses, but it’s too little, too late,” Democratic Rep. Jim Cooper of Tennessee said in a statement Friday. “Enrollment ends in seven days. The damage is done.”

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