Amy Klobuchar Says She Wants to Protect Obamacare—But Has Worked to Undermine It

Klobuchar has sold herself as a pragmatist who will expand healthcare while being “fiscally responsible.” But her record is one of siding with big business.

Branko Marcetic January 15, 2020

Klobuchar's attacks on Medicare for All follow a long record of defending the private healthcare industry. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)

In the ongo­ing intra-Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty debate over the way for­ward on health­care, Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D‑Minn.) has staked out a cen­trist posi­tion, con­form­ing with her fine­ly honed image as a prac­ti­cal prag­ma­tist. Call­ing the Medicare for All bill cham­pi­oned by Sen. Bernie Sanders (I‑Vt.) a bad idea,” Klobuchar has refused to co-spon­sor it, posi­tion­ing her­self as an oppo­nent of sin­gle-pay­er who prefers instead to build on the work of the Afford­able Care Act.”

Klobuchar has repeatedly joined forces with Republicans to repeal key Obamacare taxes specifically instituted to ensure the plan’s ongoing fiscal responsibility.

In the Octo­ber Demo­c­ra­t­ic debate, Klobuchar told Sen. Eliz­a­beth War­ren (D‑Mass.) that we owe it to the Amer­i­can peo­ple to tell them where we’re going to send the invoice,” and urged Democ­rats not to trash Oba­macare.” She repeat­ed that point in Tues­day night’s debate, say­ing that to be prac­ti­cal and pro­gres­sive … you have to show how you’re going to pay for it.” Derid­ing her more pro­gres­sive rivals’ uni­ver­sal­ist poli­cies as things that sound good on a bumper stick­er” and promis­es of a free car,” Klobuchar insists Democ­rats have an oblig­a­tion as a par­ty to be, yes, fis­cal­ly respon­si­ble,” and be hon­est with [vot­ers] about what we can pay for.” Unsur­pris­ing­ly, Klobuchar has been a pro­po­nent of aus­tere pay-as-you-go” bud­get­ing rules since her first Sen­ate run in 2006, con­tin­u­ing to push the idea on the cam­paign trail in 2019.

As she makes this pitch, Klobuchar may well hope vot­ers stay unaware of some of her past votes on Oba­macare. Over the pre­vi­ous decade, Klobuchar has repeat­ed­ly joined forces with Repub­li­cans to repeal key Oba­macare tax­es specif­i­cal­ly insti­tut­ed to ensure the plan’s ongo­ing fis­cal respon­si­bil­i­ty, some­times against the wish­es of for­mer Pres­i­dent Barack Oba­ma. Some of these votes were viewed by both Repub­li­cans and the press as build­ing momen­tum for the dis­man­tling of Oba­macare, typ­i­cal­ly due to pres­sure from busi­ness inter­ests. And in an added irony, it was Sanders who typ­i­cal­ly vot­ed against those same repeals.

Sid­ing with big business 

In 2011, Klobuchar helped lead the effort to suc­cess­ful­ly repeal an aspect of Oba­macare for the very first time, bare­ly a year after the bill was signed into law. Requir­ing busi­ness­es to report on a tax form any time they paid a ven­dor or inde­pen­dent con­trac­tor $600 or more a year, the mea­sure was meant to raise $22 bil­lion over ten years, key to Obama’s promise that health­care reform would be fis­cal­ly respon­si­ble and reduce the deficit. Unfor­tu­nate­ly, it also proved unpop­u­lar with busi­ness owners.

Repeal­ing the mea­sure was an 8‑month-long effort — and Klobuchar led the way. Not only was she one of 12 Democ­rats to co-spon­sor the bill that ulti­mate­ly passed, but she and two oth­er Demo­c­ra­t­ic sen­a­tors — Nebraska’s Ben Nel­son and Washington’s Maria Cantwell — wrote then-Repub­li­can House Speak­er John Boehn­er a let­ter urg­ing him to have the Repub­li­can-con­trolled House repeal the pro­vi­sion so they could do the same in the Senate.

We have heard from small busi­ness men and women in our states who have voiced con­cern that this pro­vi­sion is bur­den­some and unnec­es­sary, and could poten­tial­ly under­mine our nation’s eco­nom­ic recov­ery,” Klobuchar, Nel­son and Cantwell wrote to Boehn­er. They added that the provision’s repeal would be an impor­tant and prac­ti­cal way to improve the Afford­able Care Act.”

Klobuchar first vot­ed for a repeal bill that would have plugged the result­ing fis­cal hole with unused fed­er­al funds. But the ver­sion that ulti­mate­ly passed, with the votes of Klobuchar and 86 oth­er sen­a­tors, dealt with this fund­ing gap instead by shift­ing the onus from busi­ness own­ers to ordi­nary tax­pay­ers. As a result, low-and mid­dle-income Amer­i­cans who unex­pect­ed­ly earned over a cer­tain income thresh­old were forced to pay back more of the law’s health insur­ance sub­si­dies than they had to pre­vi­ous­ly. Sanders, mean­while, vot­ed against both bills.

Despite sign­ing the bill into law in April 2011, the Oba­ma White House was far from thrilled with this cost off­set, declar­ing it had seri­ous con­cerns” about it, and charg­ing in a March State­ment of Admin­is­tra­tion Pol­i­cy that it would result in tax increas­es on cer­tain mid­dle-class fam­i­lies that incur unex­pect­ed tax lia­bil­i­ties.” In both the Sen­ate and the House, where 112 of 188 Democ­rats vot­ed against the mea­sure, many Democ­rats — includ­ing even more con­ser­v­a­tive mem­bers like Minor­i­ty Whip Ste­ny Hoy­er and Joe Crow­ley, who would be oust­ed from his seat by Alexan­dria Oca­sio-Cortez sev­en years lat­er — com­plained the mea­sure con­sti­tut­ed a tax increase on low­er- and mid­dle-income families.

The Con­sumers Union did the same, express­ing fear that this pro­pos­al would have a chill­ing effect on many fam­i­lies’ will­ing­ness to use the tax cred­its to pur­chase insur­ance,” and urg­ing the Sen­ate to find a bet­ter way of pay­ing for this change to the law with­out penal­iz­ing those fam­i­lies who can least afford it.” To soft­en the blow, Sen. Robert Menen­dez (D‑NJ) put for­ward an amend­ment that would have put a brake on pay­ing back the sub­si­dies if they were found to increase insur­ance pre­mi­ums or the num­ber of unin­sured indi­vid­u­als, which was defeat­ed by the votes of Klobuchar and 57 oth­er sen­a­tors. (Sanders vot­ed for it).

These law­mak­ers con­cerns’ were borne out in the years to come. Whether due to the government’s own account­ing errors, or tax­pay­ers who had relied on the sub­si­dies sud­den­ly receiv­ing a bonus, raise, or mov­ing from job­less­ness to employ­ment, these health­care cus­tomers now had to scram­ble and even dip into their sav­ings to pay back unex­pect­ed­ly hefty tax bills that could cost thou­sands of dol­lars, after hav­ing pre­vi­ous­ly drawn on gov­ern­ment subsidies.

Oh my good­ness, this is just not right,” one Sacra­men­to res­i­dent told Kaiser Health News in 2015 after being put through this ordeal. This is sup­posed to be a safe­ty net health­care and I am get­ting burned left and right by hav­ing used it.”

The result of Klobuchar’s vote was clear. The 1099 repeal she cham­pi­oned pulled the rug out from low- and mid­dle-income Amer­i­cans who were capri­cious­ly forced to pay unex­pect­ed­ly high tax bills, while also dent­ing the pop­u­lar­i­ty of Oba­macare among the vot­ing pub­lic, mak­ing it more vul­ner­a­ble to Repub­li­can attacks.

Pro­tect­ing the med­ical device industry

In 2012, Klobuchar took aim at the 2.3% med­ical device excise tax, anoth­er rev­enue-rais­ing mea­sure includ­ed in the Afford­able Care Act to ensure its fis­cal respon­si­bil­i­ty. Her efforts were again dri­ven by busi­ness inter­ests, in this case, those of the med­ical device indus­try, which has a sig­nif­i­cant pres­ence in Klobuchar’s home state of Min­neso­ta where it employs around 30,000 peo­ple and is one of her pri­ma­ry cam­paign contributors.

Chief among them is the world’s largest med­ical device com­pa­ny, Medtron­ic, which enjoys a notably close rela­tion­ship with Klobuchar. The com­pa­ny was Klobuchar’s third-largest con­trib­u­tor between 2011 and 2016, and in 2013, its direc­tor of cor­po­rate devel­op­ment told atten­dees at a med­ical device indus­try con­fer­ence that the com­pa­ny was work­ing close­ly with Sen­a­tor Klobuchar” on efforts to repeal the tax. In 2011, Klobuchar invit­ed the company’s chair­man and CEO, William Hawkins, to that year’s State of the Union address, a fact she tout­ed on her offi­cial Sen­ate web­site, where she stressed: it is impor­tant that Wash­ing­ton hear from busi­ness lead­ers like Bill.”

In 2012, Klobuchar sent a let­ter along with her then-Sen­ate coun­ter­part Al Franken and 16 oth­er Democ­rats urg­ing then-Sen­ate Major­i­ty Leader Har­ry Reid (D‑Nev.) to delay imple­men­ta­tion of the tax as part of that year’s fis­cal cliff nego­ti­a­tions — in a fis­cal­ly respon­si­ble man­ner,” of course. The fol­low­ing year, she and the Min­neso­ta House del­e­ga­tion backed repeal­ing the tax out­right, and vot­ed for a sym­bol­ic bud­get amend­ment call­ing for an end to the tax. Only 20 sen­a­tors vot­ed against the amend­ment put for­ward by the vir­u­lent­ly anti-Oba­macare Repub­li­can Orrin Hatch, all of them Democ­rats, except for Sanders.

Today’s action shows there is strong bipar­ti­san sup­port for repeal­ing the med­ical device tax, with Democ­rats and Repub­li­cans unit­ing behind our effort,” Klobuchar said. I will con­tin­ue to work to get rid of this harm­ful tax so Minnesota’s med­ical device busi­ness­es can con­tin­ue to cre­ate good jobs in our state and improve patients’ lives.” Her words were echoed by then-Sen­ate Minor­i­ty Leader Mitch McConnell, who called the vote an impor­tant step in the right direc­tion” and labeled Oba­macare a job-killer” that slows the economy.”

Klobuchar wasn’t alone. Sev­er­al Democ­rats who took a shot at the 2020 Demo­c­ra­t­ic nom­i­na­tion vot­ed the same way, includ­ing Kirsten Gilli­brand (D‑NY), who dropped out in August 2019, and Eliz­a­beth War­ren, cur­rent­ly a fron­trun­ner. Yet even the Wash­ing­ton Post edi­to­r­i­al board — which closed out 2019 by extolling Klobuchar’s cen­trist, bipar­ti­san vision and charg­ing that Sanders and Warren’s pro­gres­sive pro­grams would fail at the polls” and car­ry extreme risks” if imple­ment­ed—called it a short­sight­ed vote” at the time.

Under­min­ing uni­ver­sal healthcare

Though in the debate over health­care, Klobuchar has tried to por­tray her­self as the hard-nosed, fis­cal­ly respon­si­ble prag­ma­tist try­ing to pro­tect Obama’s lega­cy and look­ing out for the Amer­i­can mid­dle class, her record tells a dif­fer­ent sto­ry. Rather, Klobuchar has repeat­ed­ly gone to bat for busi­ness inter­ests when it comes to Oba­macare, in the process effec­tive­ly rais­ing tax­es on work­ing Amer­i­cans, under­min­ing the pub­lic stand­ing of Oba­macare and vio­lat­ing her own demands of fis­cal responsibility.

Health­care is per­haps the major issue of the Demo­c­ra­t­ic pri­ma­ry. It has been cit­ed by the largest share of Amer­i­cans as the biggest issue fac­ing the Unit­ed States through­out 2019. A Novem­ber Kaiser Fam­i­ly Foun­da­tion poll found 24% of Democ­rats and Demo­c­ra­t­ic-lean­ing inde­pen­dents want to hear the can­di­dates dis­cuss the issue more than any oth­er — twice that of the envi­ron­ment, the next top issue. And though it has weath­ered fierce attacks from busi­ness-friend­ly can­di­dates like Klobuchar, Medicare for All has con­tin­ued to gar­ner major­i­ty sup­port in pub­lic opin­ion polling.

Much of the main­stream media have already fall­en for Klobuchar, who has received plau­dits for debate per­for­mances, and is already being talked up as a poten­tial hit with ear­ly state vot­ers at this 11th hour. But the pub­lic should look past the brand­ing and glow­ing press to her record, and decide if they tru­ly like what they see.

Branko Marcetic is a staff writer at Jacobin mag­a­zine and a 2019 – 2020 Leonard C. Good­man Insti­tute for Inves­tiga­tive Report­ing fel­low. He is work­ing on a forth­com­ing book about Joe Biden.
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