Archive for July, 2009|Monthly archive page

Now THIS is a Line In The Sand

Wow. For the first time since I’ve been closely following happenings at the national policy level, progressives threw down the gauntlet. I guess they had done so over Iraq in ’07, but it was clear from pretty early on that the votes just weren’t there to end the war in the face of a dangerously intransigent President. But things are different now. Today, House progressives stated in no uncertain terms that they weren’t gonna roll over on health care, not this time. And they have the leverage to back up their stance if they stick together.

Bronwyn and I attended the press conference today along with about 50-75 or so other activists. At this press conference, Progressive Caucus, Black Caucus, Hispanic Caucus and Asian-American Caucus leaders announced that they firmly stand against the Waxman “deal” with Blue Dogs on the Energy & Commerce Committee, and will not vote for any bill without a robust public option. Between them, these caucuses have over 100 members and can easily block a bill assuming Republicans almost unanimously oppose. Furthermore, 57 members signed off a letter to House leadership (Pelosi, Rangel, Waxman and Miller, all of whom are current or former members of the Progressive Caucus) expressing these principles in no uncertain terms. This is EXACTLY what is needed to check the power of the Blue Dogs and remind them that they cannot hold a Democratic agenda hostage. A hearty thank you to all of these strong progressives willing to stand with the American people over the moneyed special interests. Now let’s see them follow through.

Here is the letter in full:

July 30, 2009
The Honorable Nancy Pelosi
The Honorable Henry Waxman
The Honorable Charles Rangel
The Honorable George Miller

Dear Madam Speaker, Chairman Waxman, Chairman Rangel, and Chairman Miller:

We write to voice our opposition to the negotiated health care reform agreement under consideration in the Energy and Commerce Committee.

We regard the agreement reached by Chairman Waxman and several Blue Dog members ofthe Committee as fundamentally unacceptable. This agreement is not a step forward toward a good health care bill, but a large step backwards. Any bill that does not provide, at a minimum, for a public option with reimbursement rates based on Medicare rates -not negotiated rates -is unacceptable. It would ensure higher costs for the public plan, and would do nothing to achieve the goal of”keeping insurance companies honest,” and their rates down.

To offset the increased costs incurred by adopting the provisions advocated by the Blue Dog members ofthe Committee, the agreement would reduce subsidies ~o low-and middle-income families, requiring them to pay a larger portion oftheir income for insurance premiums, and would impose an unfunded mandate on the states to pay for what were to have been Federal costs.

In short, this agreement will result in the public, both as insurance purchasers and as taxpayers, paying ever higher rates to insurance companies.

We simply cannot vote for such a proposal.

Sincerely,

Lynn Woolsey (CA)
Raul Grijalva (AZ)
Carolyn Kilpatrick (MI)
Jerry Nadler (NY)
Phil Hare (IL)
Lucille Roybal-Allard (CA)
Keith Ellison (MN)
Earl Blumenauer (OR)
Mel Watt (NC)
Donna Edwards (MD)
John Olver (MA)
Dennis Kucinich (OH)
Laura Richardson (CA)
Maxine Waters (CA)
John Conyers (MI)
Judy Chu (CA)
Maurice Hinchey (NY)
Hank Johnson (GA)
Diane Watson (CA)
Jackie Speier (CA)
Bill Pascrell (NJ)
Lloyd Doggett (TX)
Marcy Kaptur (OH)
Mazie Hirono (HI)
Bob Filner (CA)
Linda Sanchez (CA)
Marcia Fudge (OH)
Barbara Lee (CA)
Andre Carson (IN)
Sheila Jackson Lee (TX)
Michael Honda (CA)
Jim McDermott (WA)
William Lacy Clay (MO)
Jim McGovern (MA)
Yvette Clarke (NY)
Eric Massa (NY)
Chellie Pingree (ME)
Jesse Jackson, Jr. (IL)
Elijah Cummings (MD)
Bennie Thompson (MS)
Gwen Moore (WI)
Donald Payne (NJ)
Fortney “Pete” Stark (CA)
Ed Towns (NY)
Corrine Brown (FL)
Alcee Hastings (FL)
Nydia Velazquez (NY)
Luis Gutierrez (IL)
Grace Napolitano (CA)
Albio Sires (NJ)
John Tierney (MA)
Mike Capuano (MA)
Chaka Fattah (PA)
Jose Serrano (NY)
Sam Farr (CA)
Bill Delahunt (MA)
Eddie Bernice Johnson (TX)

UPDATE: We have attracted a troll in the comments, and we are not alone. Right wing smears through blog comments, astroturf sites and chain e-mails are spreading like wildfire and will continue to do so until health care reform is enacted into law. The Campaign for America’s Future has been collecting a list of all of these distort and distract entities, and you can find that list at www.ourfuture.org/healthreformfactcheck.

Nate Silver Skewers the Baucus Health Plan

I’m generally not one to write posts based on another blogger’s work, but I feel this analysis on FiveThirtyEight is too good to let slide without a mention here.

So there’s not a public option in the Finance Committee’s bill — which should come as no great surprise to anyone who’s been following this debate. Instead, there’s Kent Conrad’s plan for regional, non-profit cooperatives. The real fight over the public option will take place when the HELP Committee’s bill, which does include a public option, is reconciled with the Finance Committee’s version, and/or when the Senate’s version is ultimately reconciled with the House version.

The bigger news, rather, is that Baucus’s bill will not contain an employer mandate — a requirement that employers provide health insurance to their employees — even though it does contain an individual mandate.

Does this look familiar to anyone?

— No employer mandate
— No public option
— But yes, an individual mandate
It should — because this particular permutation on health care reform looks an awful lot like the incomplete draft of the HELP Committee’s bill that the CBO scored last month, which also lacked an employer mandate and a public option but contained an individual mandate. That bill, the CBO estimated, would cost about $1.0 trillion — but would only cover a net of about 16 million people. In contrast, the revised version of the HELP Committee’s bill, which did include both a public option and an employer mandate, would cost about the same amount but cover a net of 37 million people.

D’oh!

Baucus’s bill makes a different trade-off. In order to placate business interests on the employer mandate, and what are frankly ideological interests on the public option, it sacrifices coverage. If I’m reading this right, in fact, 16 million might be on the high end in terms of the net gain in coverage. That’s because whereas the HELP Committee’s unfinished draft subsidized insurance at up to 500 percent of the poverty line (meaning $54,150 for an individual or $110,250 for a family of four), the assistance in Baucus’s draft would end for people making more than 300 percent of poverty ($32,490 for an individual or $66,150 for a four-person family).

The AP may be right that Baucus’s bill will cost less than $1 trillion, but it accomplishes that by shifting the burden to middle-income families, some of whom have poor balance sheets and will face a really tough choice between paying for health insurance they can’t quite afford and facing some kind of penalty. Odds are that many of them will take the penalty, which is why coverage probably won’t expand very much. Or, the enforcement mechanisms could be more stringent, in which case they’ll have to buy health care, at the cost of reducing their spending in other areas — and in probably being very teed off at the Democrats who passed the bill**.

So you see a similar effect to what happened when Blue Dogs and industry interests got their hands on the Waxman-Markey climate bill. The burden of the policy change is shifted almost entirely from large corporations and the rich to middle-class Americans and small businesses. See how that dovetails with Bronwyn’s post earlier this morning? Here’s Nate’s conclusion:

** Just to underscore this point: when it scored a similar bill, the CBO estimated that 15 million people would lose their employer-provided coverage. Most of these people are likely to be lower-to-middle income persons with somewhat tenuous employment situations, a group that tends classically to be swing voters.

Now, how are those 15 million people going to feel about health care reform when they find out that:

a) Although the bill was supposed to guarantee access to health insurance, they’ve in fact lost theirs;
b) They’re required to buy an expensive, private plan on their own, or to pay a fine;
c) They’re probably not getting any government assistance;
d) They certainly don’t have any Medicare-like alternative to fall back upon;
e) All of this cost the country about $1 trillion dollars.

You think those 15 million people are going to vote for the Democrats again, like, ever?

Time for the Blue Dogs, and all Democrats for that matter, to put up or shut up. Do they stand with everyday Americans or just the well-connected? If they choose the latter, it may turn out to be death knell for their own political careers as their economically disadvantaged constituents wise up to their true inclinations.

Earth to Blue Dogs: Time to Stand Up and Be Counted

Health care reform is presently being obstructed in the House and Senate by a coalition of conservative Democrats that call themselves “Blue Dogs.”  If we don’t get real health care reform this year, it will be because of them.  Therefore, I thought this was a good time to examine what it means to be a “conservative Democrat.”

In 2005, the bipartisan Pew Center did a study called “Beyond Red Vs. Blue,” about the American political spectrum.  After polling people who self-identified as “conservative Democrats,” Pew found that they defined themselves somewhat differently from the traditional libertarian notion of a small-government conservative.  According to Pew, conservative Dems have old-fashioned liberal views on economic issues, but views farther to the right on religious and social matters.  They are essentially populists, and, in a previous Pew study, were described as the surviving New Dealers.

If this is true, it makes sense to expect a “conservative” Democrat not to support gun control, gay marriage, or the kinds of abortion policies I think are fair.  But on the issue of health care, they should be stable and dependable. Health care is a populist, kitchen-table issue that affects everyone in this society from the poorest of immigrants to people with a good deal of disposable income.  Why?  Because health care is really freakin’ expensive and because it’s extraordinarily hard to get good coverage from insurance companies.  Because a handful of people are making a ton of money at the expense of most Americans’ health.  That’s why, in a recent study, 76% of Americans supported health care reform with a public option.  They don’t trust the health insurance companies any more than they trust bankers.

The bottom line is:  health care reform is a mainstream issue. It is a populist issue where a conservative Democrat should not be siding with the Republicans.  The only way conservative Dems can get away with siding against health care reform is by helping the Republicans drag out the old argument about how government spending is bad.  But has the private sector done any better?  They’ve had it all their own way for years in the area of health care, and they have created a bureaucracy that Stalin might have envied, out-of-control costs, and limitless human suffering:  an inefficient, expensive, out-of-control system that takes away people’s right to make their own health care choices.  They have done everything that Blue Dogs and their Republican counterparts claim that a government-run program will do.  And these are the people in whose hands the Blue Dogs want to leave the country’s health.

It might not be sensible for me to expect John Tanner or Kent Conrad to support a handgun ban.  It might not be reasonable for me to expect them to consider gay marriage a civil right.  But it damn sure is sensible for me to expect them to address the suffering of such a wide swath of Americans.  As the inheritors of FDR’s “New Deal,” one might even think the Blue Dogs should be leading the charge, not helping the Republicans stop the show.  Alert to Blue Dogs:  it’s time to decide who you really are:  heartland populists or servants of various corporate boards. You can no longer be both.

-Bronwyn

American Health Care: Where Even the Insured Are Uninsured

In all the fuss about budget impacts and expanding coverage in the health care debate a lot of important stuff is left out of the conversation. Here’s a issue I hope is reformed in sooner rather then later from this week’s This American Life:

The story describes a couple of particularly egregious cases, such as a woman who was denied breast cancer surgery because she had been treated for acne in the past, and a person whose policy was rescinded because his insurance agent had incorrectly entered his weight on the application form.

The legal basis for rescission is that when you sign an insurance application, you are warranting that the information on the application is true; if it turns out not to be true, the insurer can get out of your insurance contract. It’s particularly nasty in practice because the insurer does not immediately investigate your application to determine if it is accurate before selling you the policy (that would be impractically expensive); instead, the insurer waits – years, in many cases – until you actually need expensive health care, and then does the investigation, which at that point is worth it because of the payments the insurer could potentially avoid. Also, you can lose your coverage for innocent mistakes, which are easy to make since the application form asks you if you have ever seen a doctor for any one of a long list of medical conditions that you are certain not to recognize or understand.

I’ve read a lot of bloggers link to this article and make critical of comments of this practice. Rightly so, but the critical issue is that looping people out of insurance simply shouldn’t be a legal practice.

Many insurance horror stories involve denying treatment either before or after the fact. Denying some types of treatment is a necessary evil. You just can’t pay for highly expensive and experimental treatments and still function. Insurance companies abuse this system claiming all manner of legitimate treatment ineligible, but no system could function without drawing a line somewhere in terms of what they’ll cover.

But why should we let insurance companies void contracts with paying customers? For one thing they’re not going to refund the customer’s previous payments. The worst aspect of this practice is most customers weren’t trying to defraud the insurance companies, but rather just made a mistake filling out a form that was designed to confuse people. But even if they were knowingly providing the insurance company false information what good does it do society to let them be denied coverage?

These patients are sick, either they pay, society pays, or they suffer. The vast majority of the time society is made worse by rescission, it simply shouldn’t be legal under any circumstances. If people buy insurance, they should have insurance.

Private insurance companies are committed neither to the wellness of their customers or even providing their customers with insurance on even a nominal level. It amazes me politicians of any political party will proudly discuss their cooperation with insurance companies which routinely victimize their constituents.

(Hat Tip to Baseline Scenario)
-Chris

The Downside of Social Responsibility

(Note from Jeremy: the author of this post, Julian Friedland, is a friend of mine and a Business Ethics professor at Eastern Connecticut State University. He writes at the blog Business Ethics Memo, and I will be reposting his commentary here from time to time.)

Cross-posted here.

The NYT just ran an interesting report on an interview with Jeffrey M. Peek, CFO of CIT, a bank on the brink of bankruptcy in part because it acted more responsibly during the mortgage bubble:

Perhaps Mr. Peek’s real failing was that he didn’t take enough foolish risks. Although Mr. Peek was a former top Merrill Lynch executive, he didn’t lead CIT into bundling mortgages into toxic derivatives, he didn’t get into credit-default swaps, he didn’t create a trading desk that swung for the fences and he didn’t build a company that was so big that it posed systemic risk. In other words, he acted a little too responsibly. So when CIT’s moment of crisis arrived, the F.D.I.C. looked it over and decided it wasn’t too big to fail. To Mr. Peek’s surprise, it turned out to be too small to save.

That is deeply ironic. And explains much on the roots of the economic crisis. Banks it would seem–that are still standing–gambled shrewdly that even under a collapse, they would remain (if not become) too big too fail. It’s not clear that even with this attitude CIT would have become too big to fail, but this is a sobering reminder of how smaller and more responsible companies get left out of the bailouts. The Fed should step in at times like this.

Metro Funding in the Transportation/HUD Approps Bill

I write today bearing good news for residents of the nation’s capital metro region. The Transportation/HUD appropriations bill (H.R. 3288) was on the floor of the full House today, and it was passed a few hours ago. The final vote ended up at 256-168; 16 R’s voted for it and 10 D’s voted against.

For those who ride the DC Metro system, there is a nice $150 million nugget of emergency maintenance funding for the system in this bill. From the Daily Whip Line summary (via Congress Matters):

Capital and Preventive Maintenance Grants for WMATA: $150 million in new funding for grants to the Washington Metropolitan Area Transportation Authority to address safety deficiencies and to maintain the nation’s subway system.

It is of course badly needed, and somewhat fortuitous that if a horrific Metro accident had to happen, it did so a couple weeks before consideration of the annual transportation appropriations process. This means we may see some more construction delays and single-tracking in the near future, but hopefully it will constitute a crucial step in modernizing Metro infrastructure and helping avoid unsafe conditions.

On behalf of Carrots & Sticks members and DC-area residents in general, I would like to thank local representatives and other leaders for ensuring inclusion of this funding. From what I gather, Steny Hoyer in particular deserves ample credit in fighting for emergency Metro funding.

However, it is unfortunate that such a stark circumstance had to be present for Metro to receive this money. $150 million is a mere drop in the bucket when measured against the system’s full needs to adequately meet its ridership demand in a safe and effective manner. Furthermore, DC’s transit infrastructure is far from unique in its sorry state of disrepair. The continual structural deficit of this and all other light rail systems in the United States requires a sustained, substantial and recurring remedy. The federal government is the only entity capable of providing such stabilizing funding, and has a responsibility to do so.

If we are serious about changing our transportation priorities in America, operations assistance for metropolitan transit agencies must be included as part of a solution.

-Jeremy

UPDATE:

For more background on transit cuts, Ben Adler of the Nation has a very informative piece running down some of the latest developments in the states and in DC.

Also, Transportation for America has a great map that outlines all the operating cuts made recently by local transit agencies around the country:

Lobby Day Recap – Friday July 17th

This past Friday, we executed a joint transportation/climate visit to Congress, and it was one of our most active lobbying days to date. The transportation team had three scheduled meetings and two impromptu ones, and Chris gathered an array of Virginia climate activists to meet staffers for Senators Webb and Warner. I will summarize our experiences with our first transportation action, and leave a discussion the state of play with climate organizing to Chris.

As a reminder, our general goal at this point is to get some fundamental reforms in surface transportation policy in place this year. As I’ve mentioned before, the Senate has different priorities. We are working with the House to strengthen their position and attempt to get a bill done this year or, at minimum, work some key reforms into an extension of the current Policy to Nowhere. The Administration, to their credit, has included some good initial measures as part of their extension proposal, including badly needed data collection and establishment of their livable communities initiative.

The Friday meetings were intended more to get a sense of the lay of the land more than anything else. And that we certainly did. Simply put, the situation is a mess. There’s a good old fashioned standoff between the House and Senate, and neither side seems ready to budge just yet. A key x-factor is the House leadership, which seems wary of enacting another highly visible tax increase on top of all the other major legislation moving this year.

On the House side, the transportation staffer for Rep. Capuano (Boston) seemed pretty much broken from years of getting rolled over by the Senate and the Bush Admin, and was all but resigned to the fact that the Senate would get their way in full. Capuano is in favor of reform, but doesn’t want to get in the middle of a turf battle between the Speaker and the Chair.

The story was mostly the same with our local Congresswoman Donna Edwards, although her always-friendly Legislative Director seemed surprised she hadn’t signed on to two keys bills on our radar screen and couldn’t give me a reason why she shouldn’t, so hopefully she will do so now. We appreciate Donna’s leadership on this issue and consistent support of a sustainable transportation agenda for the metro D.C. area, and will be sure to thank her on this page when her name does indeed appear on the Complete Streets and National Transportation Objectives bills.

We also paid an impromptu visit to our other nearby MD reps Van Hollen and Hoyer, and were able to get some valuable info from both offices. Both of these guys are important, Van Hollen being a prominent voice on Ways & Means and Hoyer of course being the House Majority Leader. Van Hollen’s staffer who handles transportation finance issues happened to be right in the front office and talked to us for a few minutes. She said her boss was in support of reform but couldn’t take a formal stance on anything because of his leadership position. She did offer us some friendly strategic advice, most notably on revenue raisers. Her suggestion for us was to develop a set of transportation pay-fors with a few different options to choose from, and shop them around aggressively. The development of a concrete proposal in the House would substantially strengthen their bargaining position. I will be focusing more on that moving forward.

In Hoyer’s office we were able to catch up with a friend of mine, who referred us on to the fellow who handles our issues for the Majority Leader’s office. We will be reaching out to him shortly.

Finally, we met with Senate Commerce Committee staff. After some back and forth, I got their point person John Drake to give us a straight answer, and he told us that they weren’t even trying to move the key transportation objectives bill they had written this year. The intent is as a benchmark for 18 months from now when the reauthorization moves forward. Not a good sign.

Looking ahead, we plan to land a few more meetings before the month is out, and hope to develop a package of revenue proposals that we can aggressively shop as Congress struggles with the financing question. If they can settle on a concrete way to pay for additional surface transportation needs and keep the Highway Trust Fund solvent, a sweeping reauthorization will be much more likely to advance this year.

For more information on the Carrots and Sticks transportation agenda, please visit our new overview page.

-Jeremy

A classic from the youTubes

I was just reading something about our awesome new Senator Franken and his strong support for Net Neutrality. In fact, he just asked Sonia Sotomayor about the issue as one of his top concerns. Of course, any talk of net neutrality immediately brings to mind the notorious “Series of Tubes” rant by Ted Stevens. Now if he had had his way and companies could limit the bandwidth of things they don’t like, we would never again be able to experience wonderful mashup videos like this one:

And another:

We now return you to our regularly scheduled rabble-rousing.

-Jeremy