60 Minutes had an excellent piece last night on a little reported loophole that allows members of Congress to use campaign cash as a personal piggybank. It’s illegal to do under a normal campaign account but leadership PACs are exempt and most members have them these days even if they are not party leaders.
Some of the more egregious examples of abuse: Ron Paul used his leadership PAC to pay six family members over $300,000. Congresswoman Grace Napolitano lent money to her campaign and then charged exorbitant interest. The real kicker: she didn’t even have a credible opponent, winning her race with 65% of the vote.
Watch the full report below:
Posted In: Politics
Things aren’t looking too good for the House GOP. It turns out that shutting down the government is not a popular thing. When you take the position that over 70 percent of Americans do not support, it will generally have a negative effect on your political prospects. That’s the position that Boehner and Co. find themselves in going into 2014′s midterm elections.
As the Washington Post points out, it will take roughly a 7.5% Democratic advantage on the national Congressional ballot next year, due to gerrymandering, in order to win back the House. It may be a point or two less than that, depending on the outcomes in individual districts, but 7.5% will get the job done.
Democrats have a 6% advantage in national generic polls for the House of Representatives — and that was before the shutdown occurred. By taking the position that 70%+ of the country oppose in shutting down the government, Republicans have shot themselves in the foot. They’ve managed to take what was likely a slam-dunk majority in the House and possible one in the Senate (barring major screw-ups like a government shutdown or threatening default) and turned it into a competitive bid for control of the House while making a GOP Senate majority improbable (at best).
The generic ballot is useful to look at national trends but it doesn’t give a glimpse at individual House districts. PPP, which had the best track record of pollsters in 2012, went into the field after the shutdown and found that Democrats led in 17 of the 24 Republican-held districts sampled. As it turns out, 17 is the magic number for Democrats to win a majority.
But that doesn’t tell the whole story. Since several of these districts are in deep red territory, such as Steve King’s Iowa 4, it is quite possible that districts with similar compositions are also competitive but weren’t polled. It’s worth noting that Steve King has a penchant for saying outrageous things — something fellow Tea Party members seem to have in common — comparing DREAM activists to drug mules. The competitive nature of his district may have more to do with his mouth than anything else but it is good news for Democrats nonetheless.
This analysis has a lot of caveats: 1) several of these races sampled were within the margin of error 2) polling a year out is unreliable due to changing circumstances and fading memories 3) a generic candidate always sounds better than a real one. Nonetheless, macro trends matter for fundraising, retaining incumbent candidates and recruiting quality candidates to challenge incumbents or replace retiring members.
Posted In: Election 2014
Representative John Fleming accidentally spoke the truth to the NYT when asked if repealing a device tax could end the government shutdown:
“That could be bad because it could improve a bad bill. And while it’s a terrible tax, removing a tax to make what is really an atrocious bill to the economy slightly better, I’m not sure that’s a good idea.”
Improving the Affordable Care Act was never their plan. Congressional Republicans didn’t work with Democrats in good faith on healthcare reform in 2009 and they’re still not interested in doing it today. People like Senator Donnelly have proposed changes to the law that make sense (such as changing the employer mandate to 40 hours instead of 30 hours of work) but Republicans have instead held over 40 votes for repeal knowing full well that it was going nowhere. The country as a whole would be better off with tweaks to the law but House Republicans don’t care. They’re in government to destroy government.
These tactics to shutdown the people’s government to make a political point are not only childish, they are damaging the country and our fragile economy. Despite only controlling one half of one branch of government, House Republicans seem to think that they are entitled to full repeal. They seem to forget that passing the ACA in the first place required 60 votes in the Senate, a majority in the House and the president’s signature. It’s time for House Republicans to quit playing games and get the federal government back to work by passing a clean continuing resolution to fund the government.
Posted In: Election 2014,Politics
A writer on the Huffington Post named Eli Lehrer made the argument that Obamacare should undergo “vast changes” because it was too good of a deal for people like himself. Lehrer is an upper middle class wage earner with a wife who is on disability and receives Medicare. Lehrer writes that he is likely to see his premiums either remain stable or go down as a result of the law but his benefits to increase.
“I’m a conservative and would have voted against Obamacare if I were a member of Congress. I think that many of its provisions are silly and have criticized some of them rather loudly. That said, I’m likely to count myself among the winners as the revised health care system rolls out in the next few weeks. And my own experience is a good reason why Republicans should be working for vast changes to the system. I don’t deserve the benefits I’ll get,” he writes.
Lehrer cherrypicks a few problems with the law while largely ignoring its benefits and presenting an example that has some pretty unique circumstances (Obamacare was not written to address existing disability benefits but to lower costs and largely reduce the number of uninsured). The fact that he admits even upper middle class households will benefit is telling.
He argues that community ratings — that is, limiting price variation for premiums — will hurt lower income households. In his own words: “As small group plans like mine move towards modified community rating (everyone pays pretty much the same price), I suspect that we may actually see a small reduction in our costs. Even if average premiums soar, we’re the people who will benefit from this happening.”
The problem with this argument is threefold: households making up to 133% of the poverty line are covered under the Medicaid expansion as long as their state opts in, a result of the Supreme Court’s poorly decided ruling that the federal government cannot compel states to participate in the expansion or lose all Medicaid funding. However, the expansion is 100% funded by the federal government for the first few years, then 90% after that. States refusing to participate are simply playing politics.
Second, individuals and households not covered through Medicaid will be eligible for a large subsidy to buy insurance. The subsidy covers individuals and households up to 400% of the poverty line — $45,960 for a single person or $94,200 for a family of four. Third, households with adult children up to 26 years of age can remain on their parents’ plan under Obamacare, a considerable savings for millions of college students across this country. All of these are extremely significant points.
Lehrer is at least partially correct, even if he neglects to adequately mention the benefits of the law: existing plans through employers may experience increases for young and healthy individuals. In other words, people like myself are probably going to get hit with higher premiums since factors such as age will have less effect on premiums, but as we get older, our premiums relative to our healthcare expenses will go down. It’s a trade-off that many people are probably not happy to make. These are the types of things that should be worked out through Congress rather than scrapping the entire law.
However, this is a problem of the employer-based system rather than the healthcare exchanges that Obamacare created for uninsured and self-employed Americans. Maryland is just one of the states where health insurance prices for the exchanges are expected to be much lower than anticipated. A 21 year old non-smoker will be able to purchase insurance for as low as $93 a month, not including any subsidies that they may receive. That’s cheaper than auto insurance for most people! California and New York have released similarly low rates for their healthcare exchanges.
Lehrer goes on to predict that “even if Medcaid expansion swamps emergency rooms the affluent suburb I live in will probably have few new Medicaid beneficiaries.”
This is not going to happen for one simple reason: people that are uninsured are ALREADY swamping emergency rooms. The Medicaid expansion is only going to alleviate ER congestion by allowing for better, cheaper preventative care.
The president built the law around the existing, inefficient for-profit system. Obamacare reigns in the excesses of insurance giants but they’re still free to make a hefty profit, as are giant healthcare systems. Some of the highest paid government workers are not in Congress, the White House or sitting on a federal bench. They’re presidents of public medical schools.
The best way to cut costs and thus lower premiums across the board is to remove the profit motive from insurance. Medicaid and Medicare are efficiently run programs that get better results than private insurance. The next logical step after ensuring that everyone is covered is to transition to a not-for-profit system, either as part of an expanded Medicaid/Medicare program or requiring that all private insurance companies must be non-profits.
It’s important to note that the function of insurance is to provide security. Health insurance is simply a method of ensuring payment for the end product, the healthcare itself. For-profit insurers are middlemen taking a cut of the pie for their shareholders. The government or a non-profit could do it without needing to squeeze extra bucks for shareholders — all the while keeping our hospitals and doctors in private hands. The government also has leveraging power to lower costs that private insurers do not.
Congress has a lot of work to still do. Aside from addressing what is likely to be a disparity in Medicaid coverage based on whether a person lives in a blue or red state, Congress must also deal with the fact that we still have built-in inefficiencies in the healthcare system: employer-based coverage, for-profit insurers, or potentially higher premiums for younger and healthier citizens. Obamacare was not meant to be the end of the road for health care reform but a starting point.
Posted In: Election 2014,Election 2016,General,Politics
Weeks after staving off a rules change in the Senate that would have eliminated the use of filibusters to obstruct executive branch nominees in the Senate, Republicans have turned their obstruction to the judicial branch. As TPM reports:
Senate Republicans are standing firm by their threat to block every one of President Obama’s nominees to the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals, insisting on eliminating all three vacant seats on the country’s second most powerful court…
The first of Obama’s three picks, Patricia Millett, was narrowly approved Thursday by the Judiciary Committee on a party line vote of 10-8. Every Republican voted against her, although they didn’t criticize her or take issue with her qualifications. They merely argued that the court is under-worked and that nobody ought to fill those seats.
“I have nothing against her but we should not be adding to that bench,” Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-UT), a senior Republican on the committee, told TPM on Thursday afternoon.
Senate Republicans blocked nominations to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and the National Labor Relations Board simply because they did not agree with the missions of those agencies. A leaderless CFPB and NLRB meant that those entities lacked the authority to move forward on policy initiatives. Similarly, refusing to vote on any nominees for the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals guarantees that Republican appointees on the bench will constitute a majority — a majority that is threatened by the three vacancies.
“Filibuster” was never uttered at Independence Hall in 1787.
The Constitution requires the president to nominate judges and the Senate to offer its “advise and consent”. That means debating and voting on nominations. Confirmation requires only a majority threshold, something that the filibuster expressly denies. The Constitution does not grant the power to block lawfully nominated judges for seats on the federal bench with a minority of votes. Republicans in the Senate have re-interpreted the Constitution to suit their political desires.
I’m not much interested in the political aspects of this issue. The filibuster hurts the majority party, which is currently the Democrats, but the majority changes over time. Ending the filibuster will hurt Senate Democrats in the future when Republicans take control of the body. There is no doubt about that.
The country was founded on the principle of majority rule. Indeed, the Vice President’s sole role other than acting as a replacement to the president in the case of death, resignation or removal, is to cast a tie-breaking vote in an evenly divided Senate. The Founders expected the Senate to be a majority body and nothing else except in the specific circumstances as outlined in the Constitution (i.e. ratifying Treaties and Constitutional amendments, as well as impeachment).
The second point is that the filibuster has a false reputation for guarding against bad legislation. In recent years, the filibuster did nothing to guard against acts and laws viewed as anathema to Democrats. The Iraq War, Patriot Act and Wall Street bailouts were all passed with a greater than 60 vote threshold. Filibusters also did not stop the Bush tax cuts, which were passed through a majority vote parliamentary gimmick known as reconciliation. Meanwhile, the filibuster effectively killed legislation to combat climate change, pass the DREAM Act, create a public option in the Affordable Care Act, and require background checks for all gun purchases, just to name a few.
From a policy perspective, the filibuster is absolutely noxious. It’s nearly impossible these days to get a 60 vote consensus on basic governance, let alone major issues. The minority party can use this power, which is not found in the constitution, to stifle any semblance of progress. Indeed, they can grind all governance to a complete halt. This is not the way to govern a country. The filibuster must die.
Posted In: Politics
Politico published a piece a few weeks asking the question “what if Hillary doesn’t run?” Like most Politico stories, it doesn’t really make any news and is heavy on gossip with unnamed Democrats (most likely already aligned with the Clinton camp) crying that the party would be doomed without her. Here are just a couple examples:
“We would be at sea in a lifeboat with no food, no water, and no land in sight.” -anonymous
“There’s Hillary, and then there’s, like, Plan K. There is no B or C or G or whatever.” -anonymous
If you thought that you heard similar musings in 2008, well, you did. Hillary was the inevitable nominee of the mainstream media and party officials. She was the only candidate that could beat a Republican. Neither were true then and it’s still not today.
There is no question that while she is not the inevitable Democratic nominee (that’s why we have elections), she is the prohibitive front-runner. Likewise, in a general election against a Republican, she would also be the odds on favorite. Hillary’s current polling numbers put her comfortably ahead, by ten points or more, against her most likely (and credible) Republican opponents with the exception of Chris Christie, who is keeping her within the margin of error.
Even accepting the knowledge that anything can happen in politics, and that her numbers are likely to return to Earth after staying largely out of politics for the past five years, she still has the clearest path to the White House. In fact, any White House aspirant would be envious of the position that she is in.
The better question is: why wouldn’t she run?
There are only a few good reasons why someone, particularly with Hillary’s ambition, would pass on the world’s most powerful position. She clearly would love to see a female president in her lifetime. It seems like an obvious choice but there are a few possible reasons why she would opt out.
The first and most obvious one is health. Hillary will be sixty-nine by the time that Election Day and a possible Inauguration roll around in 2016/17. She would not only be the first female president but the second oldest president as well. Republicans all too eager to use her age against her should be reminded that would make her younger than Reagan, who was only a few days away from 70. Biden would also be older than Hillary should he choose to run.
Old age does not necessarily guarantee bad health. There are plenty of members of Congress in their late 60s, 70s and even 80s. The average age of members of the House in 2011 was 57. The Senate was slightly older at 62. Recently deceased Senator Frank Lautenberg passed away at the age of 89. By all accounts, he was healthy and boisterous throughout his Senate career.
The good news is that there are currently no accounts of health problems for the former Secretary of State — and let’s hope that that continues — but it is not uncommon for presidents to conceal these facts. FDR’s polio was hidden from the public; JFK had back problems despite his young age; and it’s been speculated that Reagan suffered from the onset of Alzheimer’s in his later years in the White House.
Still, even if she gets a clean bill of health from her doctors, what else might motivate her to pass? Her husband, the former president, has had serious health problems including a quadruple coronary artery bypass surgery in 2004. There’s no indication that he has had any problems since, but at age 66, things can happen. It’s doubtful that Hillary would undertake a run if her husband has serious health complications between now and the early stages of 2016.
There are a host of other reasons not to run, all of them varying in degrees of seriousness. Her daughter Chelsea was recently married and will possibly have a child in the next few years. Chelsea was the target of some horrendous attacks by right-wing critics in the 1990s, namely from the reliably slimy Rush Limbaugh. Shielding her grandchild from the vile nature of politics is a consideration but still unlikely to stop a run without some other mitigating factors.
Which leads to another reason: politics is blood sport. Running for president is a grueling multi-year process that requires huge sums of special interest dollars to be raised (to the tune of $1 billion these days), non-stop traveling and pandering to increasingly partisan party bases. It’s really no wonder why politics attracts some of the sleaziest dirt bags around: any person in their right mind would want to avoid this kind of insane process like the plague.
However, we could endlessly speculate “what if” scenarios but in the end of the day, 2016 is three years away and news outlets are already treating it as if it is next year. The bottom line: Hillary will make her decision when she’s ready to commit. In the meantime, let’s actually get something done with our current elected government. I know, tough chance with this do-nothing Congress.
Posted In: Election 2014,Election 2016
Tonight’s news that the jury in Florida found George Zimmerman “not guilty” on all counts was a bitter disappointment for many. No matter which way you cut it, Trayvon Martin is dead and George Zimmerman was the man to pull the trigger. The fact that an unarmed teenager was gunned down in his neighborhood, carrying nothing but some iced tea and Skittles, is proof that racial profiling and false assumptions can have deadly consequences.
Since I wasn’t on the jury and did not watch the full trial, I’ll leave the commentary at that. However, there is one observation that I can’t help but noticing: every night teenagers are gunned down in the streets of America. Sometimes multiple teens are killed in one city. Over 72 people were shot in Chicago over the 4th of July weekend. And so far 2013 has been significantly better than 2012 for murder in the Windy City.
Squarely to blame is gang violence that is fueled by a “war on drugs” that puts innocent civilians in the crossfire. This failed “war” has forced a deadly underground drug trade for mostly harmless substances like marijuana. Also to blame are gun laws that permit extremely powerful weapons to be readily purchased without any meaningful regulation. Changes to these laws would not have saved Trayvon Martin but they certainly would save thousands of lives each year. The current Congress, in its utter ineptitude and callous pandering to the gun lobby, has not passed a simple background check law!
So while many will post about Trayvon Martin alone, tonight my thoughts are with *all* families who are victims of gun violence. There will be no media coverage for the 30,000+ people who die each year in the United States at the barrel of a gun. These senseless, completely preventable deaths must end in our society — and people of good will must speak up to make it possible.
Posted In: General
Dear Republican Politicians,
Obamacare is not going anywhere. This issue was settled last November when President Obama defeated your nominee, Mitt Romney, by four percentage points — a nominee whose Massachusetts healthcare law was, by the way, the blueprint for Obamacare.
The latest calls for repeal center around a move by the administration to delay the so-called employer mandate (which is worth pointing out was another Republican idea championed by Richard Nixon and Mitt Romney, whose Massachusetts plan requires employers to provide coverage if they have only 10 employees or more). Under Obamacare, employers with fifty or more employees would have to provide health insurance for full-time workers under the law. The delay allows employers to come into compliance by January 2015.
The reality is that Obamacare is a patchwork: it keeps mostly intact the existing system with a number of key improvements. It cuts in half the number of projected uninsured from nearly 60 million to less than 30 million. Much of this is through a Medicaid expansion contingent on states’ participation but also through the health insurance exchanges and subsidies that the government will provide for people to purchase private insurance (the Kaiser Foundation has a handy tool that can calculate out-of-pocket premium expenses). For most people, they won’t even notice a change except for a slower growth in healthcare costs. Obamacare has already been credited with helping to reduce medical costs for the first time since 1975.
Congressman Louis Gohmert (R-TX) speaks to Tea Party supporters
And in reality small businesses, which are already exempt from the employer mandate, are likely to benefit, not be hurt from the healthcare law. “Small businesses that have fewer than 10 employees, average wages beneath $25,000, and that provide insurance for their workers will get a 50 percent tax credit on their contribution. The tax credit reaches up to small businesses with up to 50 employees and average wages of $50,000, though it gets smaller as the business get bigger and richer. The credit lasts for two years, though many think Congress will be pressured to extend it, which would raise the long-term cost of the legislation,” the Washington Post reports.
If you want to improve the law, rather than gut it, work with the president and Democrats to change it. Senator Joe Donnelly of Indiana has already proposed changes to the law to make it more amiable for businesses. Work with him and other Democrats. Your incessant whining and repeated votes for full repeal in the House are an unproductive waste of time, money and effort. And despite your crying wolf on behalf of insurance giants, much of the law is good for average voters.
The bottom line is that we expect you to do your job. In case you need reminded what that means: Congress passes “laws”. Bills that only make it out of the House and have no chance of ever passing the Senate or receiving the president’s signature don’t count. It’s politic theater — especially when you have 37 encores of the same performance. Obstruction and complaining like a four year old is not a governing strategy, it’s a political one. Get on board and help to improve the system rather than have a singular mission of going nowhere and doing nothing.
Kyle W. Bell
Posted In: Election 2014,General,Politics
Most of the climate change deniers that I encounter are Christian. Not all but most. Many of them are devout followers. Yet when I bring up the environmental toll that humanity is taking on the planet — at the detriment to not just natural ecosystems but our species as well — they seem to let it roll off their back, taking no ownership of the issue.
What sort of cognitive dissonance must one undergo in order to believe that A) God created the Earth; B) humanity is responsible as a steward of the planet; and C) it is okay to ignore the severe environmental impacts that man has wrought through the exploitation of fossil foils? It’s hard to understand.
Canadian tar sands
Even more difficult to comprehend is the lack of logic that they exhibit. Let me get this straight: I should accept as literal truth several thousand year old text translated from multiple languages, heavily redacted by a patriarchal Church obsessed with maintaining its hierarchical political structure, re-translated by a church founded for the sole purpose that its king could divorce and re-marry five times (you know, “traditional marriage”), contains multiple inconsistencies and illogical assertions, yet I should not accept peer-reviewed climate science supported by 97% of experts in the field?
This is not an attack on Christianity but on blind followers who ignore science. Surely if Jesus were around he would be just as troubled by the overwhelming body of evidence presented but he would undoubtedly be more concerned with the human impact. Doing nothing — or making matters worse by going down a path of self-destruction with plans such as tar sands extraction — will result in countless deaths over time. It’s already estimated that 150,000 deaths occur each year as a result of climate change, a statistic that is likely to get much worse as severe weather events multiply throughout the century.
If we accept the science as true, do we not have a moral obligation to do something? Or is our denial just a convenient way to wipe our hands clean of what has the potential to be the largest man-made disaster in our history?
Posted In: General
The Supreme Court is expected to rule tomorrow on the constitutionality of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) and Proposition 8. The rulings are expected at 10 a.m. Eastern Time.
I’m nervous. A conservative majority is definitely not the ideal court to rule on this issue. While Justice Kennedy has a good track record on gay rights (one of his few redeeming qualities in a tenure otherwise marred by decisions such as Citizens United) but his conservative leanings give me pause. Kennedy himself seemed sympathetic during arguments but will he pull the trigger?
My prediction: DOMA will be struck down and Prop 8 will be dismissed on a technicality of standing. The justices will leave unaddressed the issue of marriage as a constitutional right. Hopefully I’m wrong. It’s time that we have full equality under the law.
Posted In: Politics