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Televising the conference

January 9th, 2010 admin No comments

I happened to catch Eric Boehlert of Media Matters on the “Montel Across America” radio show this morning, and wanted to address something that came up during the discussion interview.

Montel entered into the following exchange after playing clips of then-candidate Obama saying he’d opt for open, transparent and televised negotiations on the health care bill, including the conference committee on the bill:

WILLIAMS: How can you argue this? The President said it over and over and over again: this will be on C-SPAN. Now we get down to the short strokes, and it’s in the closed room.

BOEHLERT: Yeah, you know, I mean, Brian Lamb, the CEO of C-SPAN sent a letter over to the Congressional leaders asking that the reconciliation be televised, and things like that. And, you know, I think that’s an interesting and could be potentially a good idea. I don’t think it’s ever been done. We’ve never seen the reconciliation process between the House and Senate televised. And I guess the only point I’d make about what Obama was saying on the campaign — I don’t think he was talking about the reconciliation process. He was comparing the Clinton in ‘93, when sort of the White House, well, was accused of writing the legislation and leaving Congress out of it. I think, clearly, those comments from Obama on the campaign trail were talking about formulating the legislation. I certainly don’t think he was talking about when, you know, there’s a bill passed by the House and the Senate, they meet to sort of make ends meet — that that would be on C-SPAN. But he certainly opened the door to having a debate about a transparent process.

WILLIAMS: I mean, he opened that door, and you know, Igor Volsky was on a little earlier in the show today, from the Center for American Progress, and he made a good point about the fact that, yeah, you know, it’s good for the process in some ways. All it does though is help hamper the process and slow it down, because most of the politicians use it as a free opportunity to grandstand and politicize the process rather than actually utilize the process for what it was there for, which is to come up with a decent bill. But it does kind of, you know, come back and bite you. You’ve got to look at yourself in the mirror when you say eight times, I’m gonna be transparent, I’m gonna be transparent on health care, on health care, on health care, on health care. When you do it eight times, the public may expect you to follow through with what you said.

BOEHLERT: Yeah, and when you talk about C-SPAN a lot, and when C-SPAN comes up and says, oh by the way, we want to air the reconciliation process — so, yeah, there’s always things you say on the campaign trail which can come back to haunt you. I would argue that this is not as direct as some critics are trying to make it. Again, I don’t think anyone was ever discussing the reconciliation process. And again, I don’t think that has ever been televised in the history of C-SPAN. It certainly wasn’t televised when Republicans were running Congress. And I think there is something to be said for once you do televise it. This reconciliation process, in any bill it’s difficult and complicated. For health care, it’s even more difficult and complicated. And the idea that you’re going to televise it and then make the process somehow any better — there’s an argument to be made that that will just complicate things. Of course, there’s an argument to be made that all transparency is a good thing in government.

OK, I’ve got some issues with this. But because I’ve said a number of times now that when the question deals with Congressional procedure, the answer is almost always “yes and no,” you won’t be surprised to learn that the answer is the same in this case, too.

First of all, the minutia: the conference process is not the same thing as reconciliation. We’ve been over this. Though a conference reconciles competing versions of a bill, “reconciliation” also refers to a specific budgetary procedure that’s also come up a lot in the context of the health insurance reform bill, and it just confuses things needlessly to refer to the conference process as the reconciliation process.

With that out of the way, we could come to the question of whether or not candidate Obama meant to include the conference process in his definition of the “negotiations process.” On the one hand, I hope so, because it’s really not helpful in transparency terms to say that the preliminary stages of the process will be open, but the rewrite will be closed. Conference is often where the rubber meets the road, and to exclude it — without explicitly saying so — from your definition isn’t exactly fair.

On the other hand, I guess I hope that Obama didn’t include the conference process in his working mental definition of the negotiations process, because the President, while naturally a powerful player in the process, really has no business dictating legislative procedure to the Congress. One branch per person, please.

But to me, at least for the moment, that’s kind of a lesser point too. Basically, I’ve come to expect overpromising and blurring the lines on the campaign trail. That’s probably part of why I dislike the primary campaigns so much. It seems a waste of time to me to fight with one another so intensely over the contents of campaign position papers, when I know so much of it is going straight out the window when it gets to Congress, anyway.

That does, however, bring me to the other point, which is the one where I pivot to the “yes and no” answer.

Has there ever been a Congressional conference committee televised on C-SPAN? Yes there has. As a matter of fact, C-SPAN televised the February 2009 conference committee meeting on the stimulus bill, and you can watch it on the C-SPAN web site. And if you do, you’ll hear Harry Reid say that there hasn’t been an open conference like that for 15 years.

So, “yes and no.” Yes, there have been televised conferences before. And no, it doesn’t happen very often and never happened when Republicans were in charge, as Boehlert points out.

But there’s more. Go ahead and watch the whole conference, but you’ll never see any of the negotiations. Why not? Because they weren’t conducted in that room. They were conducted elsewhere, and then the conferees came into a nice conference room with a big, broad table and some TV cameras in it, and proceeded to read speeches to each other — Democrats praising the bill and the process, and Republicans condemning it.

What was in it? Oh, you heard a little about that. How did it get in there? Not so much about that.

So again, “yes and no.” Yes, you can put a conference committee on C-SPAN. But no, you can’t make them actually do their deals in front of the camera. And so you get the “steak sauce” answer: You asked for an open and transparent conference. We just showed you everything covered by the definition of “conference” on C-SPAN.

But you didn’t learn anything.

And that’s part of the value of learning about the process — and the gap between what the rules say and how things are actually done. Ask for a televised conference and you may very well get it. But you won’t necessarily get what you were after, and you’ll instead spend your time arguing with one another over something more akin to what the meaning of “is” is.


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Midday Open Thread

January 9th, 2010 admin No comments
  • Portugal, which, by the way, is 84% Catholic, becomes the sixth European country to legalize same-sex marriage. As Joe Sudbay at Americablog points out, it’s refreshing to see a government that isn’t run by the Conference of Catholic Bishops.
  • President Obama will:

    … unveil a $2.3 billion tax credit on Friday to promote clean energy technology and boost job creation in the hard-hit manufacturing sector, the White House said.

    It said in a statement the credit, from funds earmarked under an emergency $787 billion stimulus package Obama signed in February 2009, would create 17,000 new U.S. jobs and would be matched by an additional $5 billion in private capital.

  • Fire up the tea kettles:

    In a National Journal survey of 109 Republican “party leaders, political professionals and pundits”, not a single one deemed Sarah Palin to be the most likely Republican nominee.

  • Tom Cole (R-OK), the only Native American in the House, calls RNC Chairman Michael Steele’s use of the phrase, “honest injun,” unacceptable and offensive. And maybe when Steele’s book tour is over, he’ll apologize.
  • Who knew? Bob Bennett (R-UT) just isn’t conservative enough:

    “Bob Bennett is out of touch with the times and with his state, and Utah Republicans have better choices for their candidate in November,” Club President Christ Chocola said.

    “Our extensive research into the race suggests Utah Republicans already understand this, as they have begun rallying around several viable and superior candidates,” he continued. “The Club for Growth PAC is committed to seeing one of them defeat Bennett either at the nominating convention in May or in a primary election in June.”

  • Read greendem’s diary and learn how dangerous it can be for a cartoonist in a teabagging world.
  • Can someone please light a fire under Martha Coakley?

    According to PPP’s Tom Jensen, Democratic candidate Martha Coakley’s sleepy campaign–which is increasingly starting to irritate party strategists who trusted her to lock the race down early–has resulted in an electorate that’s more Republican than usual and more anti-health care reform than the state as a whole. Brown, one of the few Republicans of stature in the state, has a 60 percent favorable rating–a result of his own ads and of being basically ignored by Coakley.

  • From the you-can’t-make-this-shit-up files:

    Fed up with the mainstream media filter, Rep. Sue Myrick (R-NC) is taking her quest to inform Americans about the threat of jihad to the Internet — namely, YouTube — in a new weekly terror news video series that will be featured on her congressional Web site.

    Who is paying for Myrick’s little one-woman jihad?

  • A former GOP chairman says that a gubernatorial bid by Norm Coleman is a “bad idea both for Coleman and for Minnesota.”
  • Will anyone listen?

    Mountaintop coal mining — in which Appalachian peaks are blasted off and stream valleys buried under tons of rubble — is so destructive that the government should stop giving out new permits to do it, a group of scientists said in a paper released Thursday.

  • Geraldo Rivera flip-flops on racial profiling.
  • Elvis Presley would have been 75 years old today.


John Hickenlooper Receives Call From President Obama

January 9th, 2010 admin No comments

DENVER – Mayor John Hickenlooper, who spent most of the day Friday in private meetings and phone conversations, is hoping to take a few more days before deciding whether or not to run for governor this fall.

But top Democrats are being anything but subtle in exerting a little friendly pressure on Hickenlooper to throw his hat in the race. Thursday’s public endorsement from Interior Secretary Ken Salazar “surprised” the mayor, according Charlie Brown, one of four city council members who met with him later in the day.

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Chris Weigant: Friday Talking Points [106] — Election Season Begins

January 9th, 2010 admin No comments

Before we begin our weekly talking points, we must sadly offer our condolences to Vice President Joe Biden, whose mother just passed away. No matter what side of the political divide you come from, or what you think of our Vice President, losing your mother is something everyone can sympathize with, so we offer our thoughts to the Biden family in this sad time for them.

Of course, in Washington, the craziness goes on as usual, forcing us once again to pay attention to various bits of lunacy. Topping the list of lunatics this week was a man arrested for jogging naked near the White House. Now, I’ve got to admit, although “streaking” is a fad we all wish would make a comeback, you’ve got to hand it to this guy for pulling such a stunt in January in Washington, rather than waiting until at least the cherry blossoms had peeked out. Jogging around The Ellipse naked in January? Brrr!

The media continues its ongoing lunacy, this week hitting their well-used chorus of: “everything is bad news for Democrats, all the time.” But we’ll get to that a bit later, in the actual talking points.

The final bit of lunacy is the breathlessness which awaits the decision of when to hold the State Of The Union speech, which was earlier rumored to possibly pre-empt the season-opening episode of Lost. This will likely go down in history as the first time the biggest speech the president makes each year had to worry about enraging fans of a television show. This is mostly due to the fact that previous presidents didn’t have to worry about such lunacy, and the fact that television used to actually have “seasons,” and the “season” started in the fall and went through uninterrupted to spring, after which time re-runs would air until the “season” started again. Nowadays, television has mini-seasons which start and end for no particular reason, at random times during the year, resulting in fewer actual new episodes for viewers. Don’t even get me started on that particular lunacy, please.

But we can all breathe a sigh of relief, as the White House is now reassuring everyone that Obama will not pre-empt Lost, but will instead pre-empt the last ten minutes of the Super Bowl.

Heh. Just kidding. Because that really would get some folks annoyed at the president. Hoo boy.

 

Most Impressive Democrat of the Week

The Most Impressive Democrat Of The Week this week was an easy choice. Senator Chris Dodd made an impressive announcement this week, that he would not be seeking re-election this year.

This is good news, because Dodd’s chances of winning weren’t good, and instead this virtually guarantees Democrats will hold this seat. Dodd, quite plainly, put his party’s interests ahead of his own self-interest. And that is a rare thing indeed in politics, even when you are faced with poll numbers which say you’re going to lose.

Senator Byron Dorgan decided to step down as well, but Democrats don’t have as good a chance in North Dakota of holding on to his seat. Dorgan was faced with the same bad polling news as Dodd, and decided one more run wasn’t worth it. To be fair, we’ll give him a Most Impressive Democrat Of The Week as well.

Because politicians who step down early from a losing race at least give some up-and-comer a shot at winning back the seat. The alternative is to run a campaign everyone knows you are going to lose, and by doing so, give the other party an easy pickup. At least this way, even if Democrats lose, they’ll at least have a better shot at winning than if Dorgan had tried to run again. The betting is that Republicans will pick up North Dakota anyway, I have to admit.

But for putting party ahead of ego, we congratulate Senators Byron Dorgan and Chris Dodd for winning Most Impressive Democrat Of The Week. The award is Dodd’s ninth, putting him in third place on the all-time rankings, and Dorgan’s third, putting him in a nine-way tie for eighth place.

[Congratulate Senator Chris Dodd on his Senate contact page and Senator Byron Dorgan on his Senate contact page, to let them know you appreciate their efforts.]

 

Most Disappointing Democrat of the Week

I almost couldn’t think of a Democrat who disappointed me, which is remarkable since we’re really covering a three-week period this week (due to ourselves being pre-empted by our own annual McLaughlin Awards columns, of course).

But then Tim Geithner’s scandal sprang to mind.

Now, Geithner hasn’t been actually convicted of anything, but what leaked out this week was pretty damaging. Geithner, at the New York Federal Reserve, apparently was in the center of some hanky-panky involving AIG and the whole financial collapse last year (before Geithner was named Secretary of the Treasury). Geithner may have told AIG executives to keep quiet about some payments made (after AIG got billions of taxpayer bailout money), so the Securities and Exchange Commission wouldn’t find out about them.

This could be a big enough scandal to force Geithner to resign, although for now it seems he (and the White House) is hunkering down and hoping it will blow over.

Whatever comes of it, though, for telling a bailed-out company to essentially lie to a government regulatory agency, Geithner has more than earned Most Disappointing Democrat Of The Week.

[Secretary Timothy Geithner has no contact info on the Treasury Department webpage, but you can always let the White House know what you think of his actions.]

 

Friday Talking Points

Volume 106 (1/8/10)

The usual talking point from the media, no matter the subject or circumstance, is how bad things are for Democrats, as I mentioned previously. This week, it reached a crescendo of fantastical proportions, as news headline after news headline screamed: “Democrats retiring — midterms will be Republican blowout!”

Democrats, as usual, appear befuddled by the whole thing. Democrats need to wake up, and start sounding a little more confident about their chances in the upcoming election. Not to the extent of appearing Pollyannaish, but still, they need to realize that doom-and-gloom can quickly become a self-fulfilling prophecy in the political world.

Democrats face the same conundrum that faces teenage boys everywhere — girls aren’t interested in guys who exude self-doubt, they are drawn instead to those who appear self-confident. The electorate, in this twisted metaphor, are the teenage girls (which actually isn’t that bad a comparison, considering the fickle nature of both).

So instead of individual talking points this week, I offer up instead one big talking point — how to talk about the upcoming elections, and Democrats’ prospects. This may be seen by some as sheer laziness on my part, which is probably a fair criticism, but in my defense, I am in the process of preparing to upgrade my ChrisWeigant.com website this weekend, and have been swamped with lots of details on this front. Next week, I promise, we’ll get back to a regular format here.

So, for Democrats everywhere, especially those about to be interviewed, let’s have a little rah-rah go-team talk for a change, because the Republican spin is solidifying in the media’s myopic eye, and will soon set as hard as concrete. Democrats need to counter this — soon — with some of their own spin. To wit:

 

“I see the media is obsessed over two Democratic senators announcing their retirement. But what goes completely unmentioned in these stories is the fact that six Republican senators have also announced they’re not running.

“Let’s do a little math, shall we? Two Democrats out of 58 is a little over three percent. Six Republicans out of forty is fifteen percent. So, the media’s focus on three percent of Democrats retiring, while completely ignoring the fifteen percent of Republicans retiring strikes me as a little one-sided in its reporting.

“Over in the House, much has been made over Democratic retirements as well, while ignoring the fact that more Republicans are retiring from House seats than Democrats. This is not exactly ‘fair and balanced’ reporting, guys.

“In actual fact, the two retirement announcements by Byron Dorgan and Chris Dodd were actually good news for Democrats. Before the retirement announcement, people were betting that both of them would lose their seats to Republicans. Net loss to Democrats, two seats, in other words. After the announcement, the smart money is that Democrats will hold onto the Connecticut seat. Net Democratic loss, one seat. By these announcements, Democrats’ chances in the Senate actually improved — but I must have missed all those news stories which examined this fact.

“History shows that a new president’s party will lose some seats in Congress in the midterm elections. But we Democrats do not see this as any sort of ‘landslide’ election, because we fully expect to start 2011 with a majority in both the House and Senate. We simply do not think that it is in the cards for Republicans to take control of either house of Congress this year.

“We’ve got some mighty good candidates running in some very competitive races, and if we ran the table, we even have an outside chance of picking up a few seats in the Senate. We do face some tough races to hold onto a few of our seats, it is true, but we also have some opportunities in other states of picking up a few seats as well. So I wouldn’t be writing the obituary of Democratic control of Congress quite yet, if I were you.

“Democrats have shown in the past year that we are willing to tackle the enormous challenges our country faces at the moment, and offer solid solutions for how to improve America in the future. Republicans have shown that they know how to say the word ‘no.’ Over and over and over again. It seems to be their entire party platform — stand in the way of progress, and obstruct everything rational adults know needs doing.

“We don’t think voters are ready to go back to the way Republicans ran things when they were in charge. We don’t think voters trust Republicans to be fiscally responsible, because when they were in power they refused to even pretend to pay for anything. Democrats have taken the lead in what is called ‘pay as you go’ legislation — making sure that things are paid for, and not just heaping on more spending.

“The voters are understandably annoyed over all the bailout money which President Bush had to ask Congress for, after the economy collapsed on his watch due to deregulation. But that money is starting to be paid back, and the taxpayers may even eventually turn a profit on the money, as the economy enters full recovery.

“Democrats are proud to run on our record, and will be making this case to voters everywhere this election season. And we are fairly confident that the voters are going to take a good hard look at both parties, and they’re going to see Democrats as the party that gets things done, and Republicans as the party of ‘no.’

“If the voters can even figure out who is a Republican and who is not, that is. It seems there is a gigantic intra-party struggle between Republicans and the insurgent Tea Party folks. The Republican Party is moving to a very radical, hard-right fringe position, and we don’t see that as a recipe for success in getting elected.

“Americans want to see their government work. Most of them aren’t interested in destroying government for some ideologically narrow viewpoint. But that, it seems, is what the Republican Party is offering them this year.

“Which is why I’m actually feeling pretty good about Democrats’ chances in the upcoming election. We think we can energize our base, and convince swing voters that we are the ones offering good ideas for moving the country forward. And, with Republicans offering nothing more than a vision of moving this country backwards, we think our chances are actually pretty good this year — especially since it looks like Republicans will be defending more open seats than Democrats.”

 

Chris Weigant blogs at: ChrisWeigant.com

Follow Chris on Twitter: @ChrisWeigant

Full archives of FTP columns: FridayTalkingPoints.com

All-time award winners leaderboard, by rank

 

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Kevin Drum: Obama Needs To Be Willing To Earn The Hate Of Bankers (VIDEO)

January 9th, 2010 admin No comments

Barack Obama needs to be wiliing to earn the hate of some bankers in order to pass financial reform. That was the sentiment of Mother Jones journalist Kevin Drum during an appearnce with fellow Mother Jones reporter David Corn on Bill Moyers Journal. Both were there to discuss Wall Street’s stranglehold on politics.

According to Corn, the push for reform is “not a fair fight.” It pits average, middle-class Americans against a well-funded and influential financial services industry that brought the nation’s economy to its knees.

Drum believes that Obama should listen to financial adviser Paul Volcker and former Fed chief Alan Greenspan and move to break up banks that are too big to fail. Both Drum and Corn believe the grassroots network that brought Obama to power could be effectively mobilized to fight for financial reform. But first, Obama has to commit to a new legislative agenda.

WATCH:

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Gina Glantz: Congress: Take the "Hanging Out" Challenge

January 9th, 2010 admin No comments

Driving across the country the last three weeks meant rarely hearing punditry. On occasion I scanned the New York Times and Washington Post on line. Small town papers became my news staple. Conversations along the way opened doors into lives outside the Beltway. Home now, I discover that pundit focus, beyond terrorism, is on how many Congressional seats the Democrats will lose. Clearly that also consumes Members of Congress.

Party changing and retirements signal re-election nervousness and job dissatisfaction. Not surprising since Congress seems to be all about who is doing what to whom in Washington and little about what is really happening back home.

It is time for Members to put aside pouring over poll results and resist town hall meetings that attract the most enraged constituents. It is time they sat down and read small town or city neighborhood papers and visit — unannounced – locally owned diners and the like. Members need to see first hand that decisions made in Washington are played out daily in difficult decisions made around kitchen tables. They need to be reminded that national statistics distort and what we all think about, we don’t necessarily know about.

Over the last three weeks, at locally owned establishments, we dined with a giant stuffed moose and a taxidermied buffalo that had appeared in “Dancing with Wolves.” (Sadly, we arrived at four diners with CLOSED signs in towns with as many closed stores as open ones.) We asked folks how they felt about health care reform. Almost everyone had a story to tell about someone they knew not having health care or about being so lucky that they had health care. Almost everyone said they couldn’t figure out what was going on but felt “something had to be done but Washington will probably get it wrong.”

We met a young family that had moved to a small town in fear that a potential economic collapse would happen in big cities first. They searched for a small town where there was good hunting, good schools and good neighbors. The father, a pig farmer, and his wife, a doctor, investigated Illinois but rejected it because “it has the highest rate of malpractice suits and therefore the highest malpractice insurance costs.” After four months in their new home, they decided to take their oldest out of public school because “No Child Left Behind really means every child left behind.” Hearing we were from San Francisco, the farmer said that we were probably ideological opposites. It didn’t matter because, in fact, his family concerns matched mine of years ago except I felt guilty about moving my oldest child out of public school while the farmer felt frustrated and vindicated in his view of government-run anything. If his two year old hadn’t gotten antsy, our engaging, civil conversation could have gone on and on.

Conversations become good anecdotes. The mainstream media often pick up on local stories as anecdotes. Reading about events where they happen transcends anecdotes. A county report indicated that town-by-town unemployment ranged from 9% to 25%. So much for national down ticks. A ninth grade class was featured because it collected 13,000 pencils to be sent to students in Appalachia. When was the last time a bi-partisan group in Congress thought about children in America without pencils? I learned about the Bennett Freeze, which fortunately the Obama administration reversed. Nevertheless, only 3% of Native Americans affected by the Bennett Freeze have electricity. When was the last time a bi-partisan group in Congress became enraged over Americans without electricity?

Over 30 years ago I was a District Administrator for a congressman who came home every weekend and went door to door. I am sure there are still Members of Congress who do some version of that. I suspect there are a lot more who don’t. Today, polls and demonstrations seem to drive Members’ impressions and that does a disservice to those they serve because the result is policy driven by partisanship not people.

I am not suggesting legislation by anecdote, though I prefer it to what we have now — legislation by angry mob and high profile lobbyists. I am suggesting “hanging out”, without fanfare, with constituents where they spend their time. And to do it right means to go without a trailing media. And why not have a district office staffer assigned to “hanging out” every week and reporting back to the Member. Maybe if Members shared stories, they would discover that a conservative family in Kentucky has the same desires and values as a liberal family in NY.

President Obama gets it. He obviously can’t “hang out” so from the start of his Presidency he insisted on reading ten letters a day from around the country. Maybe the White House should create a job for someone who travels around the country without fanfare and has conversations like I did. Someone who reports back to the 7:30 morning meeting to remind those in the middle of chaos that what they decide connects palpably to ordinary Americans. Such a job should be time limited because hanging out in the White House or in the halls of Congress for too long makes one beholden to the institution rather than to the people.

Who knows, maybe “hanging out” would result in civil conversations and legislative deliberations about people’s lives rather than all-consuming ideological screeching.


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Obama Pushes Excise Tax, House Dems Fight It

January 8th, 2010 admin No comments

President Obama remains steadfastly committed to forcing the Senate’s Chevy tax on health plans over the House’s millionaire’s surtax.

WASHINGTON — President Obama told House Democratic leaders at a meeting on Wednesday that they should include a tax on high-priced insurance policies favored by the Senate in the final version of far-reaching health care legislation, aides said.

The White House has long expressed a preference for the excise tax on high-cost plans, which health economists say could be an important tool in controlling long-term health care spending for the government and for individuals and families….

Senate Democrats are generally believed to have greater leverage in the negotiations to reconcile the two bills because they cannot afford to lose a single vote and some centrists have warned that they would turn against the bill depending on how it changes.

The Senate approved its bill on a party-line vote, 60 to 39, on Dec. 24.

But the House does not have much wiggle room either. It approved its bill on Nov. 7 by a vote of 220 to 215, with just one Republican joining 219 Democrats in favor. That means Ms. Pelosi could spare just two votes without jeopardizing the bill’s chances.

This is undoubtedly not a smart tax in terms of politics.

Rep. Joe Courtney (D-Conn.) notes that Obama pledged not to raise taxes on anyone earning under $250,000 and that he attacked Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) on the campaign trail in 2008 over his plan to do away with the tax-free treatment of employer-provided benefits. Pro-Republican groups are already turning the tables by running ads accusing Democrats of wanting to tax benefits.

“It’s a plan that has great political risk for the Democrats,” Courtney said.

And it’s so unpopular in the House that Courtney has the signatures of 190 Dems who oppose it.

Courtney actually collected the signatures against the excise tax back in September and October, but he said that in the only caucus of House Democrats before Christmas, the majority of comments from members objected to the tax. He said that the Senate is “leaning hard for their position,” and they have some support from the White House. But judging from Nancy Pelosi’s recent comments, “this is where there’s the most resistance to the Senate plan because she knows this is where the caucus is.”

Courtney believes that the feeling has intensified among House Democrats because of input from constituents at town hall meetings and polling, both public and private. He cited several public polls showing 2-1 opposition to the excise tax, and said that members have conducted their own polling showing the tax to be “politically toxic.” He added that “on policy and political grounds, the House approach is right approach.”

The millionaires’ surtax, supplemented by the Medicare tax on individuals earning more than $200,000 a year from the Senate bill, is much fairer, better politics, and doesn’t have the potential policy problems that the excise tax could bring.


Richard (RJ) Eskow: Weird Science: Why Politicians and Pundits Cling to the "Cadillac Tax" Idea

January 8th, 2010 admin No comments

The theory behind the “Cadillac tax” on health plans is little more than wishful thinking based on dubious research. Advocates believe that forcing employers to cut benefits will lead to cheaper, better care. That’s like preventing rain by outlawing umbrellas. Yet the President has reversed his campaign opposition to the tax and now supports it. John Kerry, who I respect, is defending it too.(1) Why?

They’re poorly served by their advisors, and by pundits who cling to the idea in the face of new evidence. Although the Washington Post got it right, too many analysts and journalists are beholden to ideas that Art Levine rightly dubbed “voodoo economics for the punditocracy.”

Why do President Obama and his advisors keep touting the tax? And why do journalists like David Leonhardt of the New York Times keep asserting that “health economists” think it’s a good idea? Uwe Reinhardt – the most respected health economist in the country – said the idea that “with high cost-sharing, patients will do the only legitimate . . . cost-benefit calculus … surely is nonsense.”

The best-known advocate for the tax is MIT economist Jonathan Gruber, who was hyping it as recently as a week ago, without mentioning new and contradictory data.

The Post described Gruber in 2007 as “possibly the party’s most influential health-care expert and a voice of realism in its internal debates.” How can a “voice of realism” claim that this is “a tax that’s not a tax,” one that affects “generous” plans? That statement was published only nineteen days after a paper in the influential journal Health Affairs (summarized here) disproved it. Using actual benefits data, the authors showed the tax would not target “generous” plans. Instead it would unfairly affect plans whose enrollees were older, worked in the wrong industry, or lived in an area where treatment costs are high. A leading actuary came to a similar conclusion.

Gruber also claimed that the money employers save (by slashing benefits to avoid the tax) would be returned to workers as wages or other compensation. But two leading health benefits firms (2) had already published surveys in which the vast majority of employers polled insisted they would do no such thing.

These are intelligent, ethical, dedicated people. So what’s going on? I suspect the problem is an inability to reject an attractive idea, even when confronted with contradictory facts. There is a simple truth in the world of ideas: Theories can be beautiful. Reality can be ugly.

This “beautiful” idea was born in research. The RAND Corporation published the results of its long-term Health Insurance Experiment (HIE) in the 1980s. Researchers claimed that forcing people to pay more for their medical treatment leads to reduced use of medical services, which saved money without making anyone sicker.

The HIE suggested that people who had to pay more for their care avoided treatments their doctors considered medically necessary about as much as those considered unnecessary. Yet, surprisingly, it concluded that they were no less healthy. The HIE became the theoretical foundation for 25 years of benefits-cutting, providing moral cover for a generation of analysts as they shifted medical costs back to patients. (I was one of them.) Now it underlies the thinking behind the “Cadillac tax.”

Here’s Problem #1: The HIE’s been challenged by a number of economists. As University of Minnesota economics professor John Nyman told me, “I don’t believe you can have a reduction of 25% in hospital admissions and not have it show up in any health measures.” While we don’t have space here to tackle the debate, it’s fair to say that the study’s conclusions are controversial at best. Gruber, a RAND defender, described the study as the “gold standard.” Others disagree.

Problem #2: Even if you accept RAND’s findings, you have to believe they still apply after widespread changes in society, the economy, and employer/employee relations. And then you have to believe Gruber’s assertion, based on long-term wage and benefit trends, that employers will give most of that money back to workers as compensation.

Even though surveys say they won’t …

So let’s review this fragile latticework of assumptions: First, that the RAND study is sound. Second, that the tax will only target ‘generous’ plans, despite a very thorough study disproving that. Third, that employers will give much of this money back to workers, although they say they won’t.

On that thin reed of assumptions the White House, many Senators, some economists, and the tax’s editorial supporters (Leonhardt, Ezra Klein, etc.) are prepared to support a policy that by 2016 will reduce coverage for one American in five with employer insurance. That’s more than eleven million people – and the figure would rise sharply each year.

What went wrong? I can’t know for sure, but here’s a thought: Experts can have an “aha” moment, a flash of insight, even when the pattern they perceive isn’t really there. They can build models and theories – even reputations – around that pattern. When evidence proves the pattern is false, they literally can’t see it.

Fortunately, it’s not too late. We can see it. There’s still time for the President, Senator Kerry, and other leaders to change course. Prof. Gruber and other tax advocates can still review these new findings. They and their advisors can discard an attractive but disproved theory and do the right thing for the American people.

_________________________

(1) Although it was gratifying that Sen. Kerry acknowledged that the tax’s thresholds are too low.
(2)Towers Perrin Employer Survey, “Health Care Reform 2009: Leading Employers Weigh In,” (pdf), September 17, 2009; Mercer, “Majority of Employers Would Reduce Health Benefits to Avoid Proposed Excise Tax,” December 3, 2009

Richard Eskow is currently working with the Campaign for America’s Future to stop the health excise tax. He blogs at:

No Middle Class Health Tax
A Night Light
The Sentinel Effect: Healthcare Blog

Website: Eskow and Associates

More on Barack Obama


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Buck stops with me on terror, says Bam as he announces new tougher security controls

January 8th, 2010 admin No comments

President Barack Obama suggested Thursday he would not fire anyone for the attempted Christmas airline attack, saying it appears the security lapses that led to the near-disaster were not the fault of a single individual or institution.

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Pelosi Pushing Against Excise Tax, Obama Commits to Affordability

January 7th, 2010 admin No comments

While Obama and Dem Congressional leaders might have agreed to “a fast-track alternative” on the non-conference conference, there are still critical issues to be worked out, and Pelosi doesn’t appear ready to roll over for the White House or Senate on a key issue.

[A]ides say she’s particularly steamed that the White House wants her to largely adopt the Senate bill in its entirety. And she’s particularly unhappy that the White House has thrown its weight behind the Senate bill’s chief funding mechanism: an excise tax on so-called “Cadillac” insurance policies, which she and many in her caucus have long believed violates President Obama’s pledge not to raise taxes on the middle class. According to one aide, that–not the public option–was likely the reason she ribbed Obama at her press conference yesterday, quipping, “there were a number of things he was for on the campaign trail.”

The House proposes paying for its bill by imposing a surtax on high-income Americans. And though there’s been speculation for months that the final reform package will include a combination of both sources of revenue, Pelosi, who’s already had to accept the demise of the public option, wants the excise tax gone.

Those “high-income” Americans that would be subject to the surtax are actually millionaires–couples making more than $1 million, a much, much fairer solution than the Chevy excise tax. Given everything progressives have had to swallow in this process, a fairer tax structure is little to ask for the price of their votes. Bloomberg reports that one option being considered for compromise is revisions to the Senate’s “0.9 percent Medicare tax on individuals earning more than $200,000 a year in salary and on joint filers who make more than $250,000.”

Another top priority for the House is affordability. From that same Bloomberg article:

Providing subsidies for low-income people to buy insurance will be “a critical part of this discussion” with the Senate, Van Hollen said. The House version “is much more generous” for people who earn more than the poverty level and don’t qualify for Medicaid, he said.

The Senate version would provide $426 billion for such subsidies while the House would offer $602 billion. “Since we are asking people to share in the responsibility for purchasing health care for the first time, we need to make sure that it’s affordable,” Van Hollen said.

HuffPo reports that “Obama agreed at Tuesday evening’s meeting to help strengthen affordability measures beyond what’s in the Senate bill.” That’s good news for the millions of Americans who should not be forced into buying insurance they can’t afford.

Of course, the excise tax and affordability issues come back to the same basic principle that all Democrats should be able to agree upon: “reform” on the backs of an already stretched thin middle class is no reform at all.


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