Thursday, April 28, 2016

GOP's near-total blockade on Obama's appointments continues -- but you can help a bit

While we were all focused on the primary elections on Tuesday, something interesting happened on the Senate floor when Democrats made a conscious, polite and ultimately futile effort to get a few judges confirmed.

Hawaii Senator Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii) asked for unanimous consent to vote on Obama's eleven district court nominees that have been approved by the Senate Judiciary Committee -- without objection -- and have been awaiting the action of the full Senate (see the full Senate Calendar here).

Sen. Majority leader Mitch McConnell (R-Kentucky)  objected to the request.

Then Chuck Schumer (D- New York) asked for unanimous consent to vote on the seven that have been approved by Judiciary -- again without opposition -- and have been waiting on the floor since November 5. 

McConnell again objected.

Then Ben Cardin (D - Maryland) said, OK, could we vote on the four that have been  waiting on the floor since  October 29 -- six months ago. Those are

Paula Xinis, District of Maryland,
Brian R. Martinotti, District of New Jersey, 
Robert F. Rossiter, Jr., District of Nebraska,
Edward L. Stanton III, Western District of Tennessee

John Cornyn (R-Texas) objected.

Finally,  Cardin said, could we maybe just vote on the Xinis nomination, since she was approved by Judiciary in September, no one has raised any opposition to her and she has been awaiting floor action for seven months?

Cornyn objected again.

We all know about the near complete refusal of Senate Republicans to even meet with, let alone hold hearings for, vote on or even, gasp, approve President Obama's Supreme Court nominee Merrick Garland. 

But we can't forget about the rest of these nominations either that are facing nearly a complete blockade by Republicans. In addition to the eleven awaiting floor action, 41 nominees are awaiting action in the Judiciary Committee.

In the 2015-2016 Congress to this point, the GOP-controlled Senate has only confirmed two circuit court appointments and fifteen district court judges.

For comparison, in the 2007-2008 Congress through April 30, the Democratic-controlled Senate had confirmed seven of George W. Bush's circuit court nominees and 38 of his district court nominees.

And in 2013-2014, by April 30, the Democratic controlled Senate had confirmed fifteen nominations to the circuit courts and 54 to the district courts.

It's reasonable that the GOP wants to scrutinize Obama's appointments a bit more (and even reject a few),  but these 11 judges have had been scrutinized. They've been waiting for confirmation between seven and 14 months.  They have all cleared a GOP-controlled Judiciary committee by voice vote. There is no opposition -- reasonable or otherwise -- to giving them their commissions. This is only about delay.

These are judges that are uncontroversial and needed to help the government perform their basic functions. Unlike Garland, they don't represent huge ideological stakes in themselves, so a bit of pressure might get the Republicans to let a few go.

Consider calling your state's Senators, especially if they are Republicans -- and especially if you're from Texas and have Cornyn as your Senator. (Don't e-mail, that's useless). Here's a list of numbers for their Washington offices. State your name, and give  a brief, polite (don't be a jerk) message asking them to hold a vote on the 11 district court nominees that await floor action.

The 11, including their numbers on the executive calendar are:

#307 Paula Xinis, District of Maryland,
#357 Brian R. Martinotti, District of New Jersey, 
#358 Robert F. Rossiter, Jr., District of Nebraska,
#359 Edward L. Stanton III, Western District of Tennessee
#362 Julien Xavier Neals, District of New Jersey
#363 Gary Richard Brown, Eastern District of New York
#364 Mark A. Young, Central District of California
#459 Marilyn Jean Horan, Western District of Pennsylvania,
#460 Susan Paradise Baxter, Western District of Pennsylvania,
#461 Mary S. McElroy, District of Rhode Island
#508 Clare E. Connors, District of Hawaii

Friday, April 22, 2016

Boring Bureaucrats help save the world: energy edition

When it comes to stopping global climate change, you probably don't think much about vending machines. Fortunately for all us, a lot of non-descript civil servants do.

Don't worry, the government is on it. (Really.)
Nor have you probably ever heard of the Department of Energy's Appliance and Equipment Standards Program (AESP). I'm sure it's staffed by lovely, if slightly nerdy khaki-wearing personnel.

But it's one of the Obama administrations most effective secret weapons in the fight against global warming.

Let's start with the two million beverage vending machines in the United States. Rules issued by AESP in 2015, will lead to machines coming online in 2019 required to be 16 percent more energy efficient in 2019 than today's. Over 30 years, it will save 7 million metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions, an average 233,000 tons a year. That's the equivalent of  shutting down Ohio's First Energy's Lakeshore Power Plant, which is a medium-sized coal plant in Ohio.

It will also save businesses at least $210 million in electrical bills over the same time.

Big deal, you say. The US emitted 6.8 billion tons of CO2 equivalent in 2014,  cutting 233,000 tons a year is a nice gesture, but hardly serious climate reduction.

We're just getting started. Read on to see efficiency standards really start to add up.

Sunday, April 17, 2016

If Dems get a chance to confirm Garland in the lame duck session, they should take it

Merrick Garland
At last Thursday's Democratic debate, moderators asked Democratic presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders a question from NY Daily News reader Hannah Green regarding Obama's nomination of Merrick Garland to the Supreme Court vacancy left by the death of Antonin Scalia.
Hannah Green (ph) wants to know your position, Secretary Clinton, regarding President Obama's nomination of Merrick Gaarland to the Supreme m Court. President Obama said earlier this week that he would not withdraw the nomination, even after the presidential election. If elected, would you ask the president to withdraw the nomination?
Both Clinton and Sanders said that the currently support the nomination and strongly denounced Sen. Republicans for obstructing Garland's appointment. But they differed on whether they would ask Obama to withdraw the nomination if they were elected president: 

Clinton indicated acceptance of Obama's pick:
I am not going to contradict the president's strategy on this. And I'm not going to engage in hypotheticals. I fully support the president.
Sanders said he would ask Obama to withdraw the nomination:
...obviously I will strongly support that nomination as a member of the Senate. But, if elected president, I would ask the president to withdraw that nomination because.... I think that we need a Supreme Court justice who will make it crystal clear, and this nominee has not yet done that, crystal clear that he or she will vote to overturn Citizens United and make sure that American democracy is not undermined.  
(Debate transcript from CNN.)
I want to be careful about extrapolating inaccurate meanings from their words, but it seems that Clinton is indicating that she'd be open to having Garland confirmed to the court in a lame duck session if Democrats retain the presidency and retake the Senate. Sanders, on the other hand, would want to wait to get a better judge (meaning younger, more liberal and perhaps non-white or female.)

I agree with Clinton.  I think the costs of passing up a chance to get Garland on the bench are greater than the gains of holding out for some one potentially better (in the admittedly extremely low chance that Garland ever actually gets a vote).  Hit the jump for my reasoning.

Wednesday, April 6, 2016

Cost sharing blocks access to health care

The notion that health cost containment requires people to put “skin in the game” has a long pedigree. Requiring people to pay something through premiums or co-pays for health care, the theory goes makes them more discerning consumers about health services and eliminates unnecessary health care.
The problem is that they also stop  seeking care for things that require medical attention.

Thursday, March 17, 2016

Don't forget about Obama's other stalled federal court nominees

Much of the coverage of the federal courts over the last several weeks has rightly focused President Obama's nomination of D.C. Circuit Judge Merrick Garland to fill the Supreme Court vacancy, and the complete refusal of Republican Senators to even pretend to consider him.

But we can't forget about the other court vacancies that exist. As of last month, there are 62 district court vacancies and nine vacancies on the Courts of Appeals.
Sen. Majority leader Mitch McConnell speaks about 
President Obama's nomination of Merrick Garland 
to the Supreme Court.

Obama currently has nominees waiting for 34 of those district court slots and seven of the Circuit Courts.

But Sen. Majority leader and Mitch McConnell and his fellow Republicans will likely drag those nominees out.  In 2015, the Senate confirmed one circuit judge and 10 district court judges. 

In 2007, under an incoming Democratic Senate, George W. Bush was able to get six circuit court justices and 34 district judges appointed.

And during 2014 the Democratic-controlled Senate confirmed 12 circuit court judges and 76 district nominees.

(Gee, holding the Senate in the 2014 elections would have been nice, wouldn't it?)

So far this year they have managed to confirm one circuit judge and four district judges -- all of whom were ready for votes last November.

Now with the Garland nomination taking up a lot of bandwidth, it's possible the McConnell and Judiciary Chuck Grassley can use it to claim that they don't have time to process any lower-level judges.

Progressive activists can't let that happen. We should highlight the near total blockade ongoing in the Senate of Obama judicial appointees alongside our demands for Garland.

Eleven district court nominees have cleared the judiciary committee and await action on the Senate floor. None of them are controversial and all sailed out of committee by voice vote. Waverly Crenshaw of Tennessee's nomination has been waiting on the Senate floor since last July. McConnell could have a vote on him and the other 10 all during the next Senate session and every one of them could be on the job next week, actually, you know, providing justice.

Most of the other district (and likely most of the Circuit judges) are completely uncontroversial as well and would sail through, but Grassley is slow walking them.

I'm not suggesting that we should sacrifice a Supreme Court nominee for district or even circuit judges. However, loudly and continuously reminding the GOP that we haven't forgotten about Obama's other judicial nominees alongside our complaints about the disgraceful treatment of Garland is useful. It might even provide enough political fiber to persuade McConnell to release some district judges and perhaps a few circuit court judges to appease the vulnerable members of his caucus and provide a fig-leaf to rebut charges of total obstruction.

It's small ball, but every Obama appointee that goes through eases delays of justice, makes government work more effectively and likely will help protect Obama's legacy well into the future.

Tuesday, March 1, 2016

There's not going to be a contested convention

So I'm watching MSNBC and Rachel Maddow is discussing potential permutations of a contested Republican convention in which Trump doesn't win a majority of the delegates.

The one problem that I see with all this talk is that Trump appears to be easily on track to get a majority of delegates, unless things change drastically in the next two weeks, which they haven't in the last two months.

The "establishment" darling Marco Rubio seems to failing to hold up his end of the bargain by continuing to lose. In fact, he's failing to clear 20 percent thresholds necessary to gain delegates in major primaries and as a result is bleeding even more delegates Trump and Ted Cruz in places like Texas.

What/where/who is this GOP "establishment" of which everyone speaks?

Saturday, February 27, 2016

Beating swords into plowshares: If you could cut the Pentagon's budget, what would you spend it on?

So with the usual amount of depressing news circulating through, I set myself a happier task, which nicely dovetails with this piece by Daily Kos' Meteor Blades on military spending:

How much could I cut the U.S defense budget and what would I spend the proceeds on?

The rules were designed to make this somewhat realistic. I'm not trying to eliminate the Pentagon's budget entirely, unilaterally disarm, or make the Air Force hold a bake sale to buy necessary equipment. The idea here is simply to identify some reasonable spending limits for the American military machine (kind of like the discussions we have for regulatory agencies, health care funding research and infrastructure spending), and then think about what sorts of programs (or tax cuts, or deficit reduction) we could implement with the savings.

Figure 1 shows U.S. military spending as a percentage of national GDP between 1962 and 2015, based on GDP figures from the Bureau of Economic Advisors and spending figures from the White House's Office for Management and Budget. This number represents military expenditures, but doesn't represent veteran services or health care (i.e. funding for activities under the Department for Veterans' Affairs.) Notice how the figure generally steadily declines, though it does ramp up during the Vietnam War, the 1980s Reagan build-up and the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. The 1990s peace dividend is clearly visible as well, reflecting the end of the Cold War.

In 2015, according to GDP figures, from military spending represented about 3.16 percent of GDP. In a world in which we made decisions that maintained a reasonable military investment, what might defense spending look like? I came up with plausible three candidates.

Scenario 1: We reduce military spending to the lowest level of spending (Fiscal Year 1999) in which we spent about 2.7 percent of GDP on military spending.  This scenario would give us roughly $82 billion (all peace dividends will be rounded down) in funding to allocate elsewhere.

Scenario 2:  We reduce military spending to levels of the Republic of Korea (South Korea), which is about 2.6 percent of GDP, according to the Stockholm Institute for Peace Research in 2014. I thought this seemed reasonable, since the ROK is an advanced industrialized democracy, participates at a reasonably high level in international operations and faces a clear and presents military danger from North Korea, both of which necessitate large investments in the armed forces. Cutting to this level leaves us with a annual peace dividend of about $101 billion.

Scenario 3: We could really give into the hippies and spend only the percentage of our GDP that an average country spends on the military: 2.3 percent of GDP.  This would leave us with a cool $155 billion to spend.

Note that all three of these scenarios would leave use spending at least double any other country in the world in absolute amounts of defense spending.

Head below the fold to see what I came up with to spend my peace dividend under each scenario. Some funding proposals are fairly detailed, but most (e.g. the preschool and parental leave are rough back-of-the-envelope calculations at best) Let me know in the comments what you would do with your surplus.