By Rich Lowry
Henry Waxman is peeved. He expects corporate America to swallow health-care reform without a peep of protest -- and, apparently, without revealing new costs to shareholders or the Securities and Exchange Commission.
Last week, AT&T announced it will take an immediate $1 billion write-down thanks to a new tax in the health bill that will cause Caterpillar ($100 million) and Deere & Co. ($150 million), among other large employers, to do the same. The benefits consultancy Towers Watson estimates that the change may reduce corporate profits by as much as $14 billion over time.
That's real money. For comparison: It's enough to bribe Sen. Ben Nelson of the Cornhusker Kickback 140 times over; it's three times the amount Democrats poured into a (failing) weatherization program that once was a highlight of the stimulus bill; it represents 10 percent of the supposed deficit reduction of health-care reform over 10 years.
It may be that the health bill's most immediate, high-profile effect is the destruction of shareholder wealth.
Not to fear. Waxman, the liberal lion who chairs the House Energy and Commerce Committee, is on the case. No, he doesn't want to change the tax provision -- he wants to browbeat the affected corporations. He has called the CEOs of AT&T, Caterpillar and Deere to testify before his committee, accompanying his summons with a far-reaching document request lest the corporations miss the point: This is naked political harassment.
Citing the Congressional Budget Office, Waxman says his concern is that the write-downs appear "to conflict with independent analyses." If he's genuinely surprised at the real world departing from CBO projections, he should brace himself for more shocks. Is he going to demand that OMB Director Peter Orszag testify when the projected deficit reduction doesn't materialize?
Waxman maintains his interest is ensuring the bill "does not have unintended consequences." Because an immensely complex bill of more than 2,000 pages would never have any of those, right?
But Waxman's vendetta and the offending write-downs are hardly unintended or unforeseen.
Democrats clearly plan to blame the private sector for all the downsides of their health plan. In a private lobbying session, President Obama told liberal lawmakers that the bill is only "a beginning." Any increase in costs and premiums -- both of which are inevitable -- will be attributed to corporate malfeasance requiring yet more government intervention.
Democrats can't say they weren't warned about the coming write-downs. Companies began to receive a tax-free, deductible subsidy in 2003 to continue prescription-drug coverage for their retirees, a ploy to keep the firms from dumping retirees into the new government prescription-drug program. Outside experts and big employers counseled against ending the deductibility, pointing out that it would adversely affect the companies' financial statements immediately. (Account- ing rules require corporations to note the long-term effect of the new liability right away.)
These warnings got shelved under a category ensuring their brusque dismissal: Information Inconvenient to the Passage of Health-Care Reform. Now that the prediction has come to pass, it's all AT&T's fault.
The companies will reconsider providing prescription-drug coverage for their retirees at all. The Employee Benefit Research Institute calculates that companies could now save $1,000 per beneficiary by handing them off to the government. As many as 2 million more retirees could end up on the government program, according to James Klein of the American Benefits Council. These retirees might wonder about the truthfulness of Obama's constant promise that everyone can keep his current insurance.
The CBO estimated that the new treatment of the subsidy would generate roughly $5 billion in revenue. If companies stop taking the subsidy, that revenue disappears -- while the costs of the drug program increase.
A Towers Watson study stipulates that "employer plans generally provide much better protection than the standard Medicare benefit." And subsidizing those employer plans is cheaper to the government than providing the coverage itself.
In short, a lose-lose-lose proposition -- no doubt, the first of many. Henry Waxman will be a busy man.
Rich Lowry is the editor of National Review.