How Courtney's little-noted bill became historic
On Jan. 24, 2019, U.S. Rep. Joe Courtney announced that he had introduced H.R. 748, a bill to repeal the so-called “Cadillac Tax,” part of the Affordable Care Act that had proved unpopular with Republicans and Democrats. The 40% excise tax targeted high-end, employer-sponsored health insurance plans, its revenues intended to offset the costs of Obamacare.
Congress had repeatedly voted to delay its implementation, but Courtney, a Democrat who has represented eastern Connecticut’s 2nd District since 2007, had long campaigned to permanently kill it. H.R. 748 was the vehicle, but the announcement got little attention. The Day did not report on it.
Instead, the region and the country were preoccupied with a Washington-manufactured crisis, one that seems particularly ridiculous given the genuine crisis we all now face. On Jan. 24, 2019, the nation was in the 33rd day of a 35-day partial government shutdown. President Donald Trump had wanted $5.7 billion for his southern border wall. When the Democrats would not vote for it, Trump refused to approve a spending bill. In New London, a food kitchen had been set up to feed Coast Guard personnel who were still required to work, but unpaid.
By July 2019, the silly shutdown was a distant memory when the House called up H.R. 748, “The Middle Class Health Benefits Tax Repeal Act,” under suspension of House rules, a procedure providing for 40 minutes of debate and a quick vote. It passed 419-6. And it again got little attention.
H.R. 748 then headed for the Senate where, like so much legislation coming from the Democratic-controlled House, it sat, ignored, in the inbox of Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky.
No one could know then that H.R. 748 was waiting to be transformed into something truly historic.
Article 1, Section 7 of the U.S. Constitution states, “All Bills for raising Revenue shall originate in the House of Representatives.”
By tradition this has been taken to mean that all “money bills,” involving revenues or appropriations, must originate in the House.
But in March 2020 the nation was facing a calamity unlike any in its history. To slow the spread of a new and sometimes deadly coronavirus, COVID-19, from which no one had immunity and for which there was no vaccine, governors across the country had ordered the closing of all but essential businesses and activities. The same thing was happening globally.
The oil that greases the national economic engine had suddenly been removed and the economy ground to a near halt, with millions abruptly unemployed, stock markets tanking and businesses facing insolvency. Washington lawmakers knew they had to act fast on a massive bailout, the largest in U.S. history.
The Senate, with 100 members, controlled by Republicans, the same party as President Trump, was seen as more likely to reach quick consensus than the Democrat-controlled, 435-member House. But there was that little problem of Article 1, Section 7.
McConnell, a wily veteran of congressional gamesmanship, knew if he could find the right House bill, he could replace the entire text to meet the constitutional requirement of origination in the House. He reached into his inbox and grabbed H.R. 748.
H.R. 748 returns
On March 27 the House met to act on H.R. 748, which had left as Courtney’s 16-page Cadillac Tax-relief bill but had returned as the 800-plus page Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, allocating $2.2 trillion to try to rescue the U.S. economy from a complete collapse.
The measure was approved on a voice vote, Courtney in support.
“The CARES Act will put critical resources where they’re needed most right now,” Courtney said in a press release issued by his office.
The office made no mention of the strange, circuitous route his original legislation had taken to morph into the CARES Act.
“We thought about it, but it didn’t seem appropriate in the context of what the country was confronting,” he told me.
Ironically, in the press release, Courtney’s office transposed the bill’s numbers, referring to it as “H.R. 784.”
Courtney said he had learned only a few days earlier that McConnell had used his bill as the vessel for the emergency relief package.
“I guess I will be part of a piece of historical trivia,” said the congressman.
But what of the Cadillac Tax? Its repeal ended up being incorporated into the Fiscal Year 2020 federal budget, signed by the president in December 2019. That had made Courtney’s original bill, H.R. 748, moot and so an attractive vehicle for the emergency Senate legislation.
“Repeal of the Cadillac Tax is a huge win for the middle-class families who were facing a misguided tax on their hard-won health benefits,” said Courtney nine days before Christmas, after Trump signed the massive federal budget, including the repeal.
Courtney’s comments didn’t get much attention.
Paul Choiniere is the editorial page editor.
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