Press Briefing by Press Secretary Jay Carney, 10/31/2013
James S. Brady Press Briefing Room
12:45 P.M. EDT
MR. CARNEY: Take my picture. (Wearing Red Sox hat.) What a great night! And I was up late with my son. Congratulations to the Boston Red Sox, World Champions. And even if you’re not a Red Sox fan, you have to say it’s a wonderful thing for the city of Boston and the fans there after everything they’ve been through. What a great team. What a great win. What a lot of fun. What an amazing baseball player David Ortiz is.
With that -- (laughter) -- I have a couple of announcements. I almost wore a beard but -- (laughter) -- but I was talked out of it by --
Q For Halloween? It is Halloween.
MR. CARNEY: It is Halloween -- I thought about it. I've got the orange tie, which I borrowed from my colleague, Dan Pfeiffer. But I thought the beard was a little much.
Q Me, too. (Laughter.)
MR. CARNEY: The problem, Mark, is it kind of looked like yours and I thought --
Q Oooh --
MR. CARNEY: No, it was very distinguished, but not really Red Soxy. (Laughter.)
Q No, too late. (Laughter.)
Q Stop while you're behind.
Q That will be on FOX tonight. (Laughter.) Another attack on reporters. (Laughter.)
MR. CARNEY: That's awesome.
A couple of things I'd like to bring up, in addition to the fact that the Red Sox have now won three World Series in 10 years -- first, President Obama will host President Juan Manuel Santos of Colombia at the White House on Tuesday, December 3rd. The visit will highlight our longstanding partnership with Colombia and our continuing support for the Santos administration’s efforts to achieve peace and to build a more democratic society.
The President looks forward to discussing cooperation on promoting citizen security, respect for human rights, and economic prosperity for all Colombians. The President also looks forward to discussing the expansion of our economic ties, anchored by the growing trade relationship we share through the U.S.-Colombian Trade Promotion agreement.
Separately, as you know, the President is delivering remarks at the SelectUSA Investment Summit in about an hour. Today he is announcing the first-ever comprehensive, all-hands-on-deck effort, led by the federal government, to bring jobs and investment from around the world to the U.S. through an aggressive expansion and enhancement of SelectUSA.
The Commerce and State Departments will make recruiting job-creating investments one of their core priorities. We will coordinate global teams led by ambassadors to actively work to bring jobs to the U.S. There will be a single point of contact for investors. We will also coordinate support for states and localities to attract investment. And there will be a coordinated advocacy process to include the senior-most administration officials, including all the way up to the President, to help recruit businesses to bring jobs to the United States.
This announcement takes major strides forward, using existing resources, but the President will also continue to call on Congress to provide the necessary resources required to build the full suite of capabilities required to realize our shared ambition for SelectUSA.
Also worth noting, CEA and the Department of Commerce together issued a report on foreign direct investment in the United States this morning, and I encourage you to take a look at that.
It’s rather remarkable that the U.S., the leading economy in the world, lags far behind our competitors when it comes to this kind of coordinated, national effort to attract foreign direct investment here to the United States, job-creating investment here in the United States. And this is something that the President believes is a key part of his effort to bring more high-paying, quality jobs here to the United States to help our economy grow and put people to work and make our middle class more secure.
With that, I go to Julie Pace of the Associated Press.
Q Thanks, Jay. AP obtained a memo yesterday showing that four days before healthcare.gov went live, administration officials had concerns about a potentially high security risk on the site due to incomplete testing, and they recommended that there be a six-month mitigation program including additional testing in order to ensure that there were no security risks. Yesterday on the Hill, Secretary Sebelius said that there weren't security risks. And I'm wondering how that’s possible, given that four days before the site went live, administration officials said that they couldn’t guarantee that that was the case, that there were potentially high security risks.
MR. CARNEY: Well, as you said, Secretary Sebelius made clear yesterday that when consumers fill out their online marketplace applications, they can trust that the information they're providing is protected by stringent security standards and that the technology underlying the application process has been tested and is secure.
Security testing happens on an ongoing basis using industry best practices. So this is a constant process. As any website of this complexity and size would do, there will be ongoing security tests administered to ensure that the standards are being met. And that’s what Secretary Sebelius testified to yesterday.
Q But I don’t understand how four days before the site went live you would have people in the administration saying that there are potentially high security risks and recommending that there be a six-month mitigation program in order to ensure that those risks have been taken care of. I don’t understand how you would have that memo come out and then, today, a month later, say that there are no risks.
MR. CARNEY: Again, what I would say is that in any website like this you have to constantly monitor and mitigate potential security risks. That’s what will happen and is happening at healthcare.gov. The fact of the matter is, CMS leadership granted authority to begin operations on September 27th, and this memo gave temporary authority to operate for six months and listed a number of strategies, as you said, to mitigate risks, including regular testing.
So authority was granted; a process was put in place, as you would expect with a website like this, to ensure that security standards are met. And as Secretary Sebelius said, consumers can trust that their information is protected by stringent security standards.
Q Was the President made aware of this memo and these concerns four days before the rollout?
MR. CARNEY: The President, as you know, was regularly briefed on the implementation process and all the things that were happening in the run-up to and since the launch of healthcare.gov. I don’t have a specific meeting or memo to read out to you, but what I can tell you is that this is a memo that identified the fact that for a website like this, we need to be constantly vigilant in making sure that security risks are mitigated to ensure that standards are met and individuals’, consumers' information is protected.
Q And just one other topic. The Iraqi Prime Minister is in Washington; he meets with the President tomorrow. He's planning to ask for more U.S. weapons and manpower to help fight the violence in Iraq, which is really spiraling out of control. Does the President feel like the U.S. has any obligation to assist the Iraqis in combatting the violence at this point?
MR. CARNEY: Well, let me say, broadly, that the President looks forward to the meeting and that we remain engaged with senior Iraqi leaders on security issues, and support issues to resolve differences through direct dialogue and the political process. The two leaders will have the opportunity to discuss the strategic framework agreement and coordination on a range of regional priorities.
There is no question that there has been an increase in violence, and the United States condemns in the strongest possible terms the recent terrorist attacks across Iraq. We are deeply concerned about the nature of these attacks, and the increased levels of violence in Iraq in recent months. These attacks are disturbing and are a constant reminder of the formidable challenges Iraq continues to face on the security front.
However, it is important to focus on where this violence is coming from. It’s coming from al Qaeda and its affiliates. They are trying to provoke cycles of sectarian reprisals, but we are confident that they will not succeed. We’ve seen them try this repeatedly in Iraq, and for a period there they succeeded, but we believe they will not succeed in this new effort. The vast majority of the Iraqi people continue to reject this violence and call for political dialogue to resolve tensions.
So going to the assistance question, targeted foreign assistance to Iraq remains an essential piece of our engagement and it helps cement the United States’ enduring partnership with Iraq during this important period of transition. U.S. security assistance and foreign military sales are key tools for building and shaping Iraq’s defense capabilities and integrating Iraqi security forces into the region, anchored by U.S. materiel and training.
Suggestions that we deny security assistance would only serve to undermine our relations with Iraq, decrease our influence and impede progress toward our long-term efforts in the region.
Q So the Prime Minister wants accelerated military assistance, including Apache helicopters. There’s some resistance on the Hill. Will the President try to overcome that resistance to get the aid to him?
MR. CARNEY: Well, what I can tell you is that we believe that continued assistance is necessary and that denying that assistance would be contrary to our interests. I don’t have a specific response to specific requests. I’m sure that the President and Prime Minister will discuss these issues in their meeting, and I’m sure that these issues will be discussed in other meetings that the Iraqi delegation has.
Q And there are concerns that the Prime Minister has failed to govern inclusively in Iraq and that’s one reason why there’s so much violence. Will the President raise this with the Prime Minister?
MR. CARNEY: I think there’s no question that the President will raise his concerns about the violence and the need to take steps, peaceful steps to reduce that violence. And inclusive democratic governance is a key piece of the picture there, and always has been.
As you know, when I used to work for the Vice President, we spent a fair amount of time in Iraq, and the importance of that dialogue between the different parties and the different political factions cannot be overstated when it comes to resolving these issues peacefully as opposed to through violence. What’s important to remember, though, is that the violence we’re talking about, the attacks were talking about, are not coming from within the political system; they’re coming from al Qaeda and its affiliates.
Q And separately, the Vice President told a TV interviewer that the President had tried to log on to healthcare.gov. Do you know of what happened there? Was he able to? Was he successful?
MR. CARNEY: Look, as I’ve said many times, the President is conversant with technology and is fully computer-capable, and he’s also, of course, been briefed periodically on the website, both in the run-up to and in the aftermath of the launch date. I don’t have a specific occasion to describe to you, but I certainly don’t doubt what the Vice President said. I’m sure that the President has had demonstrated to him the site and the processes around logging in and the like, both prior to and in the aftermath. I’m saying that as a general matter; I’m not recounting an instance.
So the President is focused on -- and I think this is important -- healthcare.gov is a means to an end, and it is one of several means to an end, and what the President is focused on is the end and the end is providing affordable health insurance coverage to millions of Americans who have not had it ever, in many cases, or have not had it for a long time. And he’s focused on an end that includes improving benefits for everyone, including the 80 percent of us who have insurance through employer-based plans or through Medicare or Medicaid or the VA. There are many benefits that accrue to that 80 percent of the population that come as a result of the Affordable Care Act.
So when it comes to healthcare.gov, he is, as he’s made clear both publicly and privately, frustrated by the problematic rollout and the functionality of the site, and that is why he has insisted that so much attention be paid 24/7 on fixing the problems -- isolating them and fixing them so that the consumer experience improves. And we’re engaged in a process, as we’ve discussed frequently of late, to ensure that that experience improves so that the focus here can be returned to what the benefits are of the Affordable Care Act, the purpose of the Affordable Care Act, which is to make sure that the American people have health insurance security, health care security that they have not had in the past.
Q A couple of questions, one on Benghazi. Senator Graham wants Congress to be able to talk to people who were there on the night of the attack independent of the administration. That’s something that he clarified this morning. You’ve talked in the past about various government employees being made available to testify -- I think the other day -- before the House Oversight Committee. Is the administration keeping these other witnesses from appearing before Congress, people who were there and witnessed the attack, independent of the administration?
MR. CARNEY: I think we’ve discussed this frequently, and the fact is we have been enormously cooperative and gone to extraordinary efforts to work with seven different congressional committees investigating what happened before, during and after the Benghazi attacks, including testimony at 13 different congressional hearings and participation in 40 staff briefings, and the provision of over 25,000 pages of documents.
Just the other day, the last time I was asked this, in response to Senator Graham’s comments -- just the other day, on that day, there were news accounts that the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee had collected hours of testimony from State Department employees who were in Libya on the evening of the attack.
Q So administration officials. What about the other witnesses I guess is the question.
MR. CARNEY: You mean Libyan witnesses?
Q People who were there I believe that the FBI had access to? Senator Graham wants to meet with those people.
MR. CARNEY: I would refer you to the FBI for what is an ongoing investigation and an ongoing effort to bring to justice those responsible for the deaths of four Americans. That's the President’s focus.
There are two focus points that the President has on this -- bringing to justice those responsible for the deaths of four Americans, and making sure that we take the steps necessary to improve the security at vulnerable facilities so that our men and women serving overseas in diplomatic positions, as well, obviously, as in military and other positions, are protected to the best of our capacity.
These Americans serve us and deserve the resources necessary and the measures that are being taken in order to enhance the security -- because, as we’ve talked about many times, the attacks in Benghazi resulted in the deaths of four Americans, including our Ambassador, and that's unacceptable. And clearly security was insufficient. So that’s what the Accountability Review Board looked at. That's why then-Secretary Clinton and her successor, Secretary Kerry, have been implementing all of the suggestions by the Review Board. And that's the focus of the President, that and bringing to justice those responsible.
Q So you’re not standing in the way of any witnesses that could appear before Congress?
MR. CARNEY: No. And I think that it is regrettable, as it has been persistently, that this has become a political issue when, in fact, it is a matter of bringing to justice those who killed four Americans and taking the steps necessary to ensure that we have adequate security at our facilities and four our diplomats.
Q One more on the health care law. When it comes to the rollout of the healthcare.gov website, is there -- I know you're focused on fixing it and not Monday-morning quarterbacking, but is there anything the President or the administration would do differently when it comes to the rollout of the website or the overall sales pitch for Obamacare?
MR. CARNEY: Well, I think I joked with Christi Parsons the other day that we're -- there’s no question that we did not anticipate the scale of the problems that we’ve seen with the website, and I think we would definitely have preferred a more functioning website. I mean that's kind of the chicken and the egg in some of the arguments that you’ve seen and especially when there are attempts to politicize it, about what our goal was here. Obviously our goal was to have this work up to standards from day one.
And the fact that it hasn’t is something that the President is very frustrated by, as is Secretary Sebelius and Marilyn Tavenner, and they and their teams are working overtime to ensure that the problems are fixed. Because this isn't about designing the best possible website and it's not about technical problems. In the end, it's about making sure that Americans have an easy time getting access to these benefits that they haven't had before.
Q And on the sales pitch? I mean, what about the confusion about people losing their policies? Is there anything that would be --
MR. CARNEY: I think the President addressed this head on yesterday, if you heard him in Boston, and talked very clearly about the fact that the 5 percent of the population we're talking about -- and I think it's very important -- some of you have spoken with me about this in coverage -- when you're talking about this issue, it is very important to remember and to remind and inform viewers and readers that the universe of people we're talking about is the universe who currently participate in the worst section of the insurance market in our country today, the individual insurance market, and that is 5 percent of the population.
It's not the 80 percent who get insurance through their employers, or through Medicare or Medicaid or VA benefits. It's not the uninsured entirely. It's that 5 percent who participate in that market and who have been subject to the whims of insurance companies for years, whose policies have been dropped; whose policies have been changed so that there are exclusions when it comes to coverage for treatment for conditions that they might have chronically, preexisting conditions; whose premiums get doubled suddenly without -- and these individuals, these Americans have often been left without any other options but to say, okay, I'll take this substandard, inadequate coverage because I don’t have an option.
Well, now they have options and now they have minimum benefits. And this has been part of our discussion, too. In the end, we absolutely agree with the charge that there has to be a minimum level of benefits provided by insurance plans in this country, because every American deserves access to affordable health insurance and that health insurance ought to be real. It can't be flimsy. It can't be -- you can't have -- what security is provided by a policy that doesn’t provide hospitalization benefits, or many of the other minimum benefits that are a focus of and a core piece of the Affordable Care Act?
So that’s an important discussion to have. But I think it's important to know that there is a fraction of a fraction, a small fraction of the population, that is being told, because their insurance company changed their plans in the last several years and they had no other choice but to re-up, that they now have new opportunities available to them to purchase insurance that meets minimum standards and for which they may be qualified to receive tax subsidies and tax credits as part of the Affordable Care Act.
That's the full story. And it's an important story, because it's a fundamental piece of what the Affordable Care Act is all about.
You know what, I'm going to go up and back. Cheryl.
Q I know Josh addressed this a little bit yesterday, but budget conferees met yesterday. I'm wondering if you have a better sense today of how big a budget agreement that you might be able to get before December 13th.
MR. CARNEY: No better sense than Josh had yesterday. The President obviously has a budget on the table that he submitted that includes a very detailed and specific way to achieve savings beyond the sequester -- in other words, eliminates the sequester and reduces the deficit even further while ensuring that we have necessary investments so that our economy can grow and then we can create jobs. I mean, everything that we do here, if at all possible, needs to be focused on that core demand of the American people that they want the economy to grow faster; they want more and better jobs created.
We have been recovering from the worst recession since the Great Depression. And we have, as a country, created millions of private sector jobs since the recession was at its worst. But we have a lot of work to do and we ought to be focused on that work. And it is important to take note today when we had UI claims that, as we saw last week, we have an inflated number for UI claims directly caused by the shutdown, and you have Standard & Poor's issuing a report saying that the economy lost $24 billion because of the shutdown. Well, that ought to be applied to the bills of congressmen who decided that shutdown was a good idea.
What do they tell the American people? Why did they cost the economy $24 billion? Why did they jack up unemployment? What was the virtue of that, all over initially a fight about whether or not Americans ought to be guaranteed access to minimum levels of health insurance? It's a shame. The focus ought to be on jobs and the economy every day on Capitol Hill, around town. And that includes obviously here.
Margaret. Then, Jim.
Q The Senate has blocked a vote on Mel Watt. Is it the White House's intention to push for another vote again in the next couple of weeks? Alternately, recess appointment is an option for you, or are you, at this point, prepared to move on with somebody new?
MR. CARNEY: Well, I believe Senator Reid, the Majority Leader, has taken a step to allow for another vote. And we absolutely believe that Mel Watt is enormously qualified, with 20 years on the House Financial Services and Judiciary Committees, and a proven track record of fighting to rein in deceptive mortgage lenders, protect consumers from abusive financial practices and expand affordable housing.
Throughout his career in public service, Mr. Watt has worked tirelessly to expand economic opportunity for the middle class and for those striving to get into the middle class. And he has a history of bringing together consumer advocates and industry leaders to enact common-sense reforms in this space to promote economic growth. And it is enormously disappointing that Republicans would filibuster this nomination of a highly qualified nominee. And we hope that those senators will reconsider that vote and that Mr. Watt will be confirmed in the future.
Q Jay, can I follow on that?
MR. CARNEY: Yes, April.
Q Thank you.
MR. CARNEY: Well, I mean, there was a little -- Margaret sort of nodded. You guys work it out.
Q So it sounds like what you're saying is you're not -- well, I don't want to cut her out --
Q Well, go ahead. No.
Q So you're not giving up on him? You do want to --
MR. CARNEY: Absolutely not. And I think that obviously the Senate Majority Leader is the place to look for how we move forward or he wants to move forward with nominations. And I believe -- obviously this happened right before I came out, but I believe the opportunity to reconsider this nomination has been retained.
Q Jay, without using talking points, just let's get to the -- I mean, could we just get to the real reason --
MR. CARNEY: Talking points have been given a bad name, April.
Q Whatever. (Laughter.) But without using talking points --
MR. CARNEY: Well, I promise not to. But what I was recounting is Mel Watt's resume and why he is qualified for the job to which the President nominated him for.
Q That's where I'm going.
MR. CARNEY: Something like that. Yes.
Q The issue is the fact that he's being held up. Why? Why are they saying he is not qualified when the resume, his pedigree shows that he is as qualified as anyone for that position? Why not?
MR. CARNEY: I think that you need to ask those senators who made this choice why and examine their reasoning. We're just disappointed by it, because we know he is qualified and we know that he would do a good job. And there's a heck of a lot of important work that needs to be done in that agency. And Mel Watt needs to be in that job so that that work can move forward.
Q Does this White House agree with civil rights leaders who have cited prior examples to include this President that many people thought was not qualified for this position? He had the pedigree like anyone else except his race. Then you had Susan Rice -- that she was held up, she was qualified. Many thought that she was qualified for Secretary of State. That didn't go through. Do you think this is another issue along those same lines where race is a factor?
MR. CARNEY: April, I think that this is about politics, and the situation that you described in the aftermath of Benghazi was most definitely about politics. And that's a shame because in these cases we’re talking about the necessity for any President to be able to appoint those individuals who are qualified, that he believes will best fulfill the responsibilities of any given post.
And we look forward to working with the Senate to move forward on these important nominations, and for there to be less of this kind of knee-jerk obstruction of a nomination process that should be allowed to move forward for the sake of the country, so that agencies like the one that Mel Watt needs to be running as soon as possible have their top post filled.
And the harm done here is to the American people. The harm done is to the functioning of agencies that are important to our economy. And we hope that there’s an opportunity for senators to reconsider and to move forward on this nomination.
Q So am I correct in saying that the White House is saying to these civil rights leaders, look, it's about politics, it's not necessarily the race?
MR. CARNEY: April, I think it is about politics, and I think we've seen this kind of obstruction far too often. For individual motivations, you need to ask the individuals. But this is an enormously qualified candidate, and we certainly are disappointed by today's vote.
Q If I could turn to food stamps. Tomorrow, one in seven Americans will start receiving $36 less a month. This bonus they've been getting, the $37 a month, was because of the stimulus package because of the poor economy. Does the White House believe the economy has improved enough that people can now do with $36 less a month?
MR. CARNEY: Well, we believe that these cuts come at a time when many hardworking American families are still struggling to make ends meet in the wake of the worst recession in decades. And last year, the additional resources provided by the SNAP program lifted 7 million people out of poverty. And that is why the President acknowledged this need when he proposed an extension of the Recovery Act adjustment through 2014 -- or until March 2014 -- in this 2014 budget request, and why the strategy currently underway in the House to reduce SNAP by removing millions of low-income families from the program does not make sense. And we've made clear our view on that effort.
Now, we're committed to helping reduce the number of Americans who need SNAP the right way -- by arming recipients with the skills they need to enter the workforce, earn the income they need to support a family and ultimately come off the program. And that’s our focus -- job training, job skills, and, generally, growing the economy and focusing on creation of middle-class jobs. But in the meantime, there is a need out there for the kind of assistance that just last year lifted 7 million people out of poverty.
Q And as you know and as you referred to, it could get worse for those people as Congress debates, now, the farm bill. What is the bottom line or red line for the President now on how much he believes a reduction is -- how much of a reduction is fair and is livable for the working poor?
MR. CARNEY: Well, I don’t have a specific negotiating stance to provide to you. We are concerned about this, and SNAP is the most effective way to combat hunger and food insecurity, particularly as food banks are telling us that they are already struggling to meet the needs in their communities.
So this goes to the broader effort to pass a comprehensive farm bill -- the food, farm and jobs bill. The Senate has done it. The House, in the aforementioned action, broke years and years of precedent and separated out elements of the farm bill that had always been bound together, and essentially did so in order to punish millions of Americans who depend on this assistance. And that’s absolutely the wrong approach to a problem that you identified.
Q Does the President believe that -- what does the President believe about the requirement in the House bill for people on SNAP to work 20 hours a week before they get any assistance?
MR. CARNEY: I think we've issued this -- the farm bill that they passed in the House, we issued a statement of administration policy on it, I think with some detail attached to it. It’s been a while since that passed so I'd refer you to that statement of administration policy. We took a pretty strong stand against it.
Q Following on Julie’s question originally about the security of the website, I'm just trying to figure out the judgment that was made in reading that memo, because some might read it and say the site is not secure, it’s not going to be secure for six months and we ought to wait. Was the judgment that the site was secure enough and that it could be --
MR. CARNEY: I can point you, Major, to Secretary Sebelius’s prolonged testimony yesterday in front of the House committee in which the issue was addressed and this memo was discussed. And I can tell you what I told you about it. For more details on these kinds of things that involve CMS and HHS and the process -- that's why we set up regular briefings with CMS and I'm sure they have more detail for you on it, on the memo.
But what is true is that on September 27th, CMS leadership granted authority to begin operations. And what was also in place was a process by which security standards were reviewed and measures taken to ensure that those standards --
Q And that issue essentially was a verification internally that it was secure enough? That's what it means?
MR. CARNEY: You can say that and maybe that's so, but I refer you to CMS for the people who made the decision and authored the memo.
Q Okay. I want to follow up on Steve’s question about Iraq. The way that the statement that you read sounds is that the U.S. government is confident that the Iraqis can defeat the security violence, much of it driven by al Qaeda and its affiliates. And it sounds as if you were saying that in a context of existing support and therefore nothing additional is required to meet this challenge. Is that a fair interpretation?
MR. CARNEY: What I think I said is that I'm not going to adjudicate those decisions and any requests that the Prime Minister might have from here. What I wanted to convey, and I want to convey, is that we have a very firmly held belief that the foreign military sales program is one of our largest, and is an important symbol of the long-term security partnership between the United States and Iraq, envisioned by both countries. And we're committed to delivering on foreign military sales equipment that is currently under contract as quickly as possible as part of our effort to address the ongoing terrorist threat.
We have interests at stake here. We consider the government of Iraq an essential partner in the fight against a common enemy, al Qaeda in Iraq, which now calls itself the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant. Iraqi security forces are confronting an increasingly large, sophisticated and well-armed ISIL network, which is able to mount coordinated and complex attacks.
So we have an important partnership. We believe strongly that one element of that partnership is the provision of foreign military assistance and that we ought to continue that assistance and ensure that we’re providing it in a way that assists the government of Iraq in this fight against a common enemy.
Q As you remember, as many of us who covered the 2008 campaign do, the President set for himself a rhetorical standard of leadership, often telling voters that, I’m going to tell you what you need to hear, not what you want to hear. For those in the individual insurance market, did the President tell them all that they needed to hear, or principally what they wanted to hear?
MR. CARNEY: Major, what I can tell you is that the President addressed this head on yesterday. And as I talked about yesterday and in previous days, the Affordable Care Act mandates that those --
Q Because they heard something that they think represented a promise, and they feel whether -- and they may work through the process as you’ve laid out and find out that their insurance is better, but at least initially, they feel -- and this is represented a lot of different places, not just anecdotally -- they feel that they were if not lied to, misled, or that a standard that the President set wasn’t met.
MR. CARNEY: Again, I can point you to what I’ve said before and more importantly what the President said yesterday. And the fact of the matter is if you had insurance on the individual market prior to the passage of the Affordable Care Act and you have that plan today, you can keep it. You're grandfathered in forever, no matter how crummy the plan is. But if your insurer threw you off that plan last year and then offered you something else that was worse, and you took it because you had no other alternative, that plan doesn't get to meet the minimum standards level that are set by the ACA, by the Affordable Care Act, and nor should it.
It is absolutely our view that there ought to be minimum benefit standards. And I think that the question here is, is to look a little more deeply at what is happening when these individuals, Americans across the country who represent a faction of the 5 percent of the population who might be affected here, what their opportunities are, what they're being told. They're not being told, you don't have insurance anymore. The very insurer that provides them their likely substandard plan is saying, we have new options available to you, and by the way, you may qualify for tax credits, and by the way, these benefits are superior to the ones you enjoyed in the past. And that's the complete picture.
Now, understandably, depending on how this information reaches individuals, it can be disconcerting. Health care is an enormously personal thing. And I think it’s incumbent on all of us, and we take responsibility for making sure that we get the information that these Americans need out to them as effectively as possible, and I ask everyone here to do the same -- which means not airing stories that leave out the fact that this is about 5 percent -- so when a network, for example, airs a story about an individual and suggests that what’s happened to her might happen to anyone in the country, when you know that’s not the case -- because you’re creating fear and alarm that only makes it harder for these people who are making very personal decisions about their health care.
So the fundamental fact here is -- and I think we saw it in the hearing yesterday, and it was troubling but clarifying -- Secretary Sebelius went up there and she answered questions and she took responsibility. And on the other side, you saw a lot of theatrics and politics and the very same thing that people are furious about. We get that House Republicans, and the American people understand House Republicans don’t want the Affordable Care Act to be implemented. So concern about the functionality of the website is merited; we have concern about it. But it shouldn’t be faux concern, as if they really want it to work so that the Affordable Care Act works effectively and delivers the benefits the Affordable Care Act promises. Because they’re on the record saying they don’t want that.
And they ought to, when they express concern about those in the individual market who are finding out now what their new options are and may have concern until they get the full picture about what those new options are and find out that they’re going to get better insurance and affordable insurance -- if they have a complaint about the minimum standards, they ought to then explain which benefit they want to remove.
What do they want to tell those recipients? No hospitalization? No -- let’s go back to where insurance companies could throw you off whenever they want, maybe slap an annual limit on you, or a lifetime limit? Exclude you if you have a preexisting condition? Charge you double if you’re a woman? That’s the world prior to the Affordable Care Act that they want to return to, because there has been no alternative offer.
So I think that every time we see this kind of political attack, again, on the Affordable Care Act, the kind that we’ve seen for years, we ought to also ask, okay, what’s your alternative for those Americans who have been subject to the winds and vagaries of the individual market for years, who pay for substandard coverage, who find out that they can’t get their hospital stays paid for, or that there’s carve-out in the small print that means the very condition from which they suffer is not covered? That’s crummy. That’s part of what we need to fix.
So we’re not going to shy away from that; that’s absolutely the point.
Q Jay, on the 5 percent question, forbes.com has a story today claiming that when you go back to the Federal Register in June of 2010, after the bill became law, the administration itself predicted disruption not just in the individual market that you’re referring to, but in employer-based health care as well. And they quote this document that says the “mid-range estimate is that 66 percent of small-employer plans and 45 percent of large-employer plans could relinquish their grandfather status by the end of 2013,” meaning that people could have disruptions in that market as well. So my question is --
MR. CARNEY: In other words, their policies would be canceled.
Q Yes. So my question is --
MR. CARNEY: Not because of the Affordable Care Act, but as they were annually and as they have been annually in the most volatile, under-regulated aspect of the insurance market -- correct.
Q So could there also be disruptions in -- you have sort of walled that off and suggested just a moment ago that this is just affecting 5 percent. Whether it’s the Affordable Care Act to blame or the insurance industry to blame, is it possible that we could be seeing at the end of this year, early 2014, big disruptions in employer-based health care as well?
MR. CARNEY: Well, I think what we can do is look at the facts that we have available to us. Fact one: Costs have been going up dramatically in health care for decades, and that has put enormous pressure on American businesses, and that’s what brought about a situation where costs for individuals on employer plans were going up and a lot of businesses, especially small businesses, were eliminating health coverage for their employees. And these are problems that the Affordable Care Act was designed to address. And one of the problems that the Affordable Care Act was designed to address was the explosive growth in health care costs.
Well, now let’s look at what’s happened since the passage of the Affordable Care Act. Over the past few years, economy-wide health spending has grown at an historically low rate since the passage of the law. So predictions that once the President signed that thing -- by Republicans -- that health care costs would explode I think it’s safe to say have proven untrue, or at least thus far. So instead of that rate going up more steeply, it’s actually going up at the slowest pace in half a century.
And when you’re a business -- every individual business obviously makes choices, and they make choices about the health care coverage they provide based on a lot of factors, including historic factors. But if you’re a business that was looking at your health care costs bottom line five years ago and you were projecting out what those costs would be five years from then, based on what you knew about the growth in health care costs, your costs and expenses would be a lot higher five years later than they have turned out to be because of the slowing rate of costs -- in the growth of health care costs.
So personal health care spending is growing at the slowest rate in 50 years. So on the specific issue, I think you can look at a Keiser Family Foundation report that they released showing that the growth in health care premiums for employer-based coverage has slowed significantly under the Affordable Care Act. And the growth rate in 2013 is less than one-third of the increases we saw a decade ago.
So, problem solved? No. Problem significantly improved? Yes. And I think that, again, this flies in the face of the predictions made by opponents of the Affordable Care Act when it was being debated in Congress.
Q Well, because of that, are you saying you're confident that employer-based health care will not have major disruptions because those costs are coming down? Are you saying you're confident?
MR. CARNEY: Well again, look, every individual company that offers employer-based coverage makes decisions about its cost on its own and taking into account a variety of issues. But the growth in health care costs isn't one of them if you're comparing it to what was expected, because we have the slowest rate of growth that we've seen in half a century.
I think it's important to note -- I was, until I came here, in the private sector for my entire life, and over the course of 21 years in the private sector I saw in my employer-based coverage -- and it was, by comparison, pretty good coverage -- I saw my costs go up every year. I saw my benefits limited every year. And that was a dynamic that was happening around the country. And then, many companies, obviously, especially smaller ones, were getting rid of insurance.
So instead, you have a situation now under the Affordable Care Act where already small businesses have been getting benefits that create incentives for them to provide insurance, whereas they may not have had it before. So it's an important question, but I think we have to look at the data that inform the answer.
Q Two other quick questions. One, after the shutdown, there were a series of poll numbers suggesting everybody in Washington took a hit, but Republicans took a bigger hit after the shutdown. I think we can all agree. An NBC-Wall Street Journal poll that came out last night suggested the President took a hit; the health care thing has been the dominant issue over the last week or so. And on the health care question, 6 percent saying it's working well, 38 percent saying we need minor modifications, 28 percent saying major overhaul, 9 percent they are more confident about this now after what they've seen, 40 percent saying they're less confident. My question being, does that suggest the President has taken a hit on his credibility in that poll?
MR. CARNEY: I would say that -- as we predicted when asked that question in the run-up to and during the shutdown that Republicans decided to impose on the country -- that everybody gets hurt when there's dysfunction in Washington. When you just want to talk about politics and poll ratings, everybody gets hurt because Americans abhor this kind of dysfunction.
And I think it’s accurate to say that the dynamic has proven worse for Republicans because I think it became so starkly clear by the actions they took that they were responsible for what happened. But everybody gets hurt. And when you have a situation when unemployment insurance claims spike because of the shutdown, you bet, people get even more angry at Washington and the dysfunction here -- which is why everybody here needs to be focused on them, and not the same old political battles, and not on re-litigating the minimum benefits provided by the Affordable Care Act. We had that debate.
Q But what are people to take from that --
MR. CARNEY: Well, first of all, look, there are a bunch of polls, and the fact is most of them have showed steady support for the Affordable Care Act. Some of them have demonstrated an increase in support. What I can tell you is that as long as this is viewed by Americans looking at Washington as the same old ideological battle, the same old lines are going to be drawn. But come January 1st and thereafter, when real people around the country, regardless of their politics, are getting better services and better benefits and more security, this is going to be a different story. And the attempt to politicize this again and again and again to the point of shutting down the government over it is going to seem like a bad approach.
Q Very short, last one -- NSA. As the Edward Snowden leaks have continued and he’s appeared to have done more damage to the U.S. government, as you do your early assessments, does the administration believe that he acted alone in these leaks? Or is it possible there was a foreign government, some foreign entity trying to do damage to the U.S. government? Because the leaks -- it’s not just been a couple. It’s continued and continued.
MR. CARNEY: That is a question that I couldn’t answer. That's obviously something under investigation. And what I can tell you is the unauthorized release of this kind of information causes harm to U.S. national security interests and it’s a serious matter. And that's why there is an indictment that has been brought against Mr. Snowden. And that's why he ought to return to the United States and enjoy all the rights that defendants receive in this country, and face trial and answer for and explain what he did against the indictment against him.
Q Thanks, Jay. National Parks Service has a press release out about the 150th anniversary of the Gettysburg Address being held next month in Gettysburg, and they said that the President will not attend. Why not?
MR. CARNEY: I have not had that scheduling meeting, Dave, I confess. I think that is an enormously significant event in our history, and I think Americans will take the appropriate time to consider it, consider the speech that was delivered there. But beyond that, I don’t have any updates on the President's schedule.
Q Wouldn't it be a natural fit for the President to go?
MR. CARNEY: I would simply say that I have no updates on the President's schedule. And I think all Americans will share and marvel in the remembrance of that important date in our history and in the marvel that is that address.
Q You talked about the Mel Watt failure vote in the Senate. There were two Republican -- Republicans blocked two Obama nominees today, and Democrats are talking about the so-called nuclear option to put them through. And I wonder whether the White House would support that approach.
MR. CARNEY: Well, at this point, we would simply like to see our nominees confirmed -- our highly qualified nominees confirmed. And in terms of Senate procedures, we'll defer to Senator Reid.
But this is, as we've talked about -- are we talking about Patricia Millett, extremely extraordinarily qualified nominee for this court? The arguments about caseloads are just astoundingly hypocritical. The same senators who voted to fill those seats when the caseload was half what it is today now argue that those seats don’t need to be filled.
Q So why not say, go nuclear, get them confirmed no matter what?
MR. CARNEY: Well, again, in terms of procedure, we'll -- (laughter) -- you want me to just --
Q Just take a position one way or the other. I don’t care which position it is.
MR. CARNEY: What I'll tell you now is that we really hope that there's an opportunity for these nominees to move forward. And we'll work with the Senate and, most especially, the Senate leader on that and we will have, obviously, discussions with him about how to move forward.
Q An NBC-Wall Street Journal poll, the President's approval rating at 42 percent -- a low for him. But really, the polls show that the public has indicted all of Washington across the board. You're approaching a year-end of the first year of your second term for the President. How do you turn this around? How does he turn this around?
MR. CARNEY: Turn around the findings of one poll?
Q No, not turn around the findings of one poll, turning around America's disillusionment with Washington.
MR. CARNEY: By doing what's he's doing every day, including by giving a speech today not about political battles here that turn Americans off, understandably, but about the absolute need for all of us to come together, Democrats and Republicans, to focus on an effort to attract foreign direct investment in the United States that creates jobs and helps the economy grow. That’s how he's going to address it, and that’s how he's going to -- that’s what he wakes up every morning thinking about.
The safety and security of the American people and the absolute necessity and imperative of helping our economy grow and creating secure middle-class jobs -- those are his priorities. And when it comes to making sure that the Affordable Care Act is implemented properly, obviously he's going to pay a lot of attention to that, and it's very important.
But the focus is always on, principally, the need to grow this economy. I mean, think about the experience that he has had as President. He came in during the most catastrophic economic and financial crisis that any of us had seen in our lifetimes, and he, working with Congress, had to make a lot of weighty decisions about how to get out of that mess and how to move this economy forward. And it has been the central focus of his administration ever since, because that work is not done.
And the goal wasn't simply to return to the status quo ante. The goal was to create a foundation economically that ensured that we would not have that kind of collapse in the future. And that's why Wall Street reform was so important. But it was to create a foundation that ensured that we were investing in the areas of the economy that would allow for steady, robust economic growth and job creation. Because that's the bottom line; that's what matters most to the American people and it's what matters most to my boss.
Q Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius testified that the administration would not have reliable enrollment information until the middle of next month, which is why it will be provided then. I guess I'm trying to reconcile how there will be reliable information at the middle of next month, when, in fact, the website won't be finished until the end of next month, which is to say --
MR. CARNEY: Well, that again is shorthand, so I hope you don't use it in your thing, because it misrepresents what we said. The website has been functional. It's just been poorly functional. People have submitted applications.
Q -- viable information.
MR. CARNEY: Well, the reliability issue has to do with inputs coming from all different directions, including the federal marketplaces, but also states; also, applications and enrollments done by phone and by mail, as well as through in-person enrollment in these centers across the country.
So I think if you look at the middle of November as a time when you would release information that couldn't be finalized before the last day of October, based on the kind of data that's released for similar kinds of programs, that's pretty standard practice. So you take it all in, you collate it -- if you're asking me will enrollment be low, the answer is yes, because that was always going to be the case.
Q And we know the experience just in Massachusetts.
MR. CARNEY: So I think it will be better than 123 -- that was what Massachusetts saw in its first month.
Q Finally, very quickly, why should the U.S. hold off -- there's been some lawmakers, Republican lawmakers, specifically, who have said they received pressure from the administration on this -- why should the U.S. hold off new sanctions regarding Iran's nuclear program?
MR. CARNEY: That's a great question. And what I can tell you is that we have been working hand-in-hand with Congress on this important effort of bringing unprecedented sanctions and diplomatic pressure against Iran. And it is because of that that we are where we are, where we have at least the potential for a diplomatic step forward when it comes to our shared policy objective, which is to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon. And that effort is underway.
And nobody is suggesting an open-ended delay for new sanctions, because there may come a point, as a part of this process, where additional sanctions are necessary and helpful. Because, again, we're where we are not because of a sudden change of heart in Tehran; we are where we are because the sanctions regime that this President has aggressively pursued and around which he has united much of the world has been working. And so the regime that exists and the diplomatic pressure that exists are fundamental to the progress we've made, or to the opportunity we have.
But the window here, as we've long said, is not open indefinitely. And we are looking to see if we can make progress, we in the P5-plus-1. We want to make sure that we give those negotiations the best chance to make real progress, because, as we've long said, the best way to ensure that Iran does not acquire a nuclear weapon is through a negotiated, verifiable agreement with Iran in which it forsakes that and in a way that we can verify.
So we ought to let that potential be explored, and that's what we're doing now. But we will always work with and consult with Congress moving forward. They've been enormously helpful as a partner in the actions that we've taken thus far.
I want to give a couple more people -- Reed, and then I'll decide after Reed if I've got it in me for another one. (Laughter.) Depends on what you ask.
Q Well, last week the President gave a speech about immigration and said everyone needs to, including him, needs to work hard to advance his goal on comprehensive immigration reform. Can you tell us what he has done since that speech in the last week to --
MR. CARNEY: We are in constant conversation with members and staff on the Hill about how to move this forward. I think that you heard him speak about this recently and about the importance of it. It is important for a variety of reasons for the country, not least, and maybe foremost, because of the economic benefits of comprehensive immigration reform, the boost to economic growth that we would see and the boost to competitiveness that we would see. And this is one of the arguments that lawmakers of both parties can use in explaining why they will cast a vote, or should cast a vote for comprehensive immigration reform.
So I think -- goes to a conversation I was having the other day -- if the follow-up is, when is the next time he is going to sit in a room with the Speaker of the House to work this out, I think all of you are far more sophisticated observers of the scene here than that. You know that this is something that House Republicans need to work out. I think Republican leaders understand it is in the interests of the party; they understand that it is in the interests of the country and the economy. Business leaders, law enforcement leaders, faith leaders are telling them so. And they control the keys to the car in that House right now of Congress, and they need to decide how they move forward and what legislation they can move forward. And we’re going to work as best we can to move this process forward.
But the President believes there is an opportunity here to get this done this year. Let’s show the American people that we can come together in a bipartisan way, the way the Senate already has, to do something right for the economy, right for the middle class, right for our businesses. It’s a huge opportunity to address the very issues that Peter and others were talking about that you find in polling data about just the enormous frustration the American people feel over the dysfunction here. So the opportunity is there to seize. Let’s do it together.
Q Does sort of the troubles with the health care rollout have much impact on your ability to communicate with House Republicans on immigration or other issues?
MR. CARNEY: No.
Q Jay, the President, when he appears at fundraisers, has often talked about his hope to see Nancy Pelosi become Speaker again, the Democrats take back the House.
MR. CARNEY: It’s a shocking position to hold.
Q Although independent analysts suggest it would be tough for Democrats to do that in 2014, can you describe the factors here at the end of the year that the President is looking to that make him hopeful or optimistic that Democrats could succeed?
MR. CARNEY: I would just point you to what he said. I’m not -- I’m out of the political analysis business.
Q I think Denis McDonough and Marilyn Tavenner and maybe some others were on the Hill today, or are on the Hill today, talking to Senate Democrats. I’m wondering what the message is they are specifically -- it’s just more reassurances? And if they will meet with the other caucuses and conferences.
MR. CARNEY: Well, it’s a great question. I think this is part of our constant communication with the Hill over the implementation of the Affordable Care Act, the obvious problems that we’ve seen with the website and all the other issues that are associated with delivering these important benefits to the American people.
I think it’s a great question because it reminds me of the fact that a senior official from Health and Human Services who, at the request of both parties in both houses, made himself available for briefings on implementation, discovered when he showed up for the House Republican briefing that fewer than 20 lawmakers appeared -- which makes you wonder what their interest is here. Do they want to know the substance of the issue, or do they want to do what most of them did yesterday in that hearing, which is turn it into yet another political food fight, which does the American people no good and doesn’t help them get the quality, affordable health insurance that they want?
So we’re going to keep providing information. We’re going to keep -- I think the chairman of one committee today is demanding subpoenas, when the two most senior people involved in this effort testified in front of the House yesterday and the day before. So we’re there. We’re providing information. We’re working every day around the clock to improve the website and improve the provision of benefits and services to the American people -- because that’s what they want. They want us to get stuff done.
Thank you all very much. And Red Sox --
Q Is there a briefing tomorrow?
MR. CARNEY: I haven’t decided yet. We’ll let you know.
Q Jay, weren’t you a Nationals fan last time?
MR. CARNEY: No, I was born and raised in Washington, but there wasn’t a --
Q Oooh --
MR. CARNEY: Okay, let’s go. Let’s go. (Laughter.) This is the -- I tweeted about this. So I was raised around here without a baseball team, never -- I have great respect and admiration for the Orioles, but didn’t go -- didn’t work for me. Significant members of my family -- my mother, brother and sister moved to Boston, and in the mid-‘80s, I became very interested in baseball, fell for the Red Sox right as they were breaking everybody’s heart in Boston, in 1986 -- watched that fateful game with my step-father -- and was hooked by the pathos of the whole thing.
And so it’s been a great decade. Great decade. I’m going to show my son the 30-for-30, the ESPN -- are there any Red Sox fans here -- the 30-for-30, Four Days in October, 2004. It still makes your heart race. It’s fantastic.
And I love the Nats. So here’s the -- that’s the beauty, you can keep it and get -- so the Nats come, and I have kids, and we go to the games, and it’s wonderful. So I’ve got a National League team and an American League team. But if I have to choose between the Red Sox and the Nats, I’ll have to make that decision later and it would probably depend on what my kids say. But I’ve been a Red Sox fan longer.
Q Jay, do you know why Pete Souza was there last night?
MR. CARNEY: Because he’s a Red Sox fan. He’s a Red Sox fan. Have you ever talked to him?
Q How did he get there, though?
MR. CARNEY: I don't know. Ask him.
1:46 P.M. EDT
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