Friday, May 30, 2014

Grassroots push leads to negotiated minimum wage hike in Michigan

The dust has cleared on a brouhaha surrounding a proposed minimum wage hike in Michigan.

The good guys (mostly) won – thanks to grassroots organizing, massive public pressure and some skilled negotiating behind closed doors. It was an incomplete victory, but it was a victory all the same – most low-wage workers in Michigan are getting a 25 percent pay increase over the next four years to $9.25.

The story starts at Raise Michigan, a grassroots organization that put together a petition drive in February to put a proposal before the legislature to amend the minimum wage to raise the wage. If the legislature didn’t pass it, it would go before voters in November.  It’s a similar gambit that anti-choice organizations used to circumvent Gov. Rick Snyder’s veto of legislation that excluded abortion coverage from Michigan’s health insurance exchange last summer.

The idea was to raise the wage for most workers from $7.40 to $10.10 an hour over three years from, 2015 to 2017, and then index future increases to inflation. As importantly, the petition would also raise the minimum of tipped workers from the current unconscionable $2.65 an hour by 85 cents a year until it reached parity with the rest of the work force. 

Of course, the usual suspects in business and the restaurant industry cried bloody murder about how giving low wage workers a raise to non-poverty income levels would wreck the economy.  But the legislature’s Republican majority was in a pickle – if they defeated the measure in the ledge, then it would go on the ballot – where minimum wage increases tend to fare quite well.
In response, Senate majority leader Randy Richardville (the dude who drove me to blog in the first place) reasoned that if the minimum wage law was repealed, then technically an initiative amending the law would be out of order.
Follow me below the fold for how that particular evil gambit actually turned into a productive set of negotiations and a legislative victory.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Boggs hearings represent mere hiccup -- Obama judge picks continue confirmation surge

There’s been a lot of frustration among Progressives over Republican senators continuing to block Obama judicial picks in committee thanks to the blue slip method.  The latest manifestation of the frustration comes with the nomination of Michael Boggs, a Republican-backed candidate nominated as part of a deal to fill several slots on federal bench in Georgia (In return for nominating Boggs and two other district appointments, Georgia’s Republican Senators agreed to allow the nomination of Jill Pryor to move forward for the 11th Circuit Court seat and Leigh Martin May for a district judge seat.)

Progressives' frustration is understandable – as a state judge and legislator Boggs has defended voter identification laws, displaying the Confederate flag and opposed gay rights. However, Democrats should also keep their eyes on the forest through the trees: with the elimination of the filibuster for most executive nominations last November, judicial confirmations have drastically increased.
How much?  In 2014, the Senate has confirmed 40 judges thus far – 33 in the district courts and seven in the appellate courts. During the first five years of Obama’s presidency, the previous high number of judges confirmed through the end of May was 24 (in 2011 and 2012).  That translates into an increase of 67 percent in the number of judicial confirmations. Oh – and we’ve still got another week of Senate business to go in May. 

In addition, the vacancy rate is also starting to decline noticeably on the federal bench.  At the beginning of December, just after the Senate eliminated the filibuster, there were 86 vacancies on the district and circuit courts. That number increased on February 1 to 96 openings – likely because GOP obstruction forced Obama to resubmit every nomination, forcing a fresh round of committee hearings. However, by the beginning of March, the number of vacancies was beginning to fall and has continued to decline ever since. By May 20, the number of vacancies had declined to 67, a decrease of 30 percent from its February high (See figure).

Again, this happening doesn’t mean that everything is rosy.  In some states dominated by conservatives, the process is slow (like in Georgia) or seems entirely hopeless, like in Texas (though the Fifth Circuit court will pick up Texan Greg Costa today).  

And would some one give Jennifer Prescod May-Parker of North Carolina a commission already?

However, even in some conservative states there has been progress.  Four nominees from Florida have cleared committee and await final confirmation after months of obstruction from Senator Marco Rubio. More importantly, Arizona has a functioning district court for the first time in several years as six  nominees received confirmation last week – including Rosemary Marquez, who was first nominated in 2011 and blocked by Arizona's senatorial delegation, and Diane Humetewa, the first Native American woman to become a federal judge.

The point is that progressives are right to be frustrated by continuing blocking of some nominations,  however, we should keep it in the back of our minds that nominations are flowing much more quickly now than they were a year ago.

Sunday, May 4, 2014

Senior (judge) moments slow progressive turnover in U.S. Courts

With the filibuster dead for most executive appointments, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has stepped on the gas for judicial appointments this spring.  As of May 2, the body had confirmed four circuit court judges and 24 district court judges in 2014 – a veritable consentapalooza.

But for all the progress on nominations, the character of the federal bench is changing more slowly than it appears on the surface. Many judges who retire from their court don’t fully step down. Rather, when they take senior status, they still hear some cases. 

How big of a stamp can these semi-retired judges make? Sometimes a profound one, depending how the draw affects the composition of a three-judge panel at the circuit court level -- one step below the Supreme Court.

Take for example the recent infamous case Hobby Lobby vs. Sebelius currently before the Supreme Court – in which a corporation claims to have religious rights to evade the contraception mandate in the Affordable Care Act. The opinion at DC Circuit was authored bynoted fire-breathing conservative circuit justice Janice Rodgers Brown. However, the other judge that joined the opinion was A. Raymond Randolph – a George H.W. Bush appointee who took senior status in 2008. (For that matter, the dissenting justice was Harry Edwards, a Carter appointee who took senior status in 2005)
Semi-active senior judges also boast impressive numbers.

With the confirmations of Michelle Friedland and Nancy Moritz (Moritz is up on Monday) , Democratic appointees will hold 80 judgeships on the circuit courts and GOP appointees hold 74, with 14 vacancies.  

However, there are 91 active judges with senior status – 55 appointed by Republican presidents and 36 by Democrats. Throwing them into the mix leaves us with 129 Republican appointees and 116 appointed by Democrats – quite a shift.

This comparison is a bit misleading – most of those senior judges don’t hear as many cases so the GOP advantage is overstated considerably. (Senior judges hear about 15 percent of all cases across the court system.) Nor do senior-status judges sit on en-banc cases at the appellate level in which the entire court hears a case and often overturns the decision of a smaller three-judge panel.
However, the presence of senior judges is currently working to slow the pace of progressive judicial decisions, which is all the more reason to keep aggressively confirming judges.

Monday, April 28, 2014

Senate confirmation update -- Obama getting more appointments through

Later today, the Senate is going to vote to confirm Michelle T. Friedland to be a judge on the Ninth Circuit Court. You can read up on her here – she’s pretty darn impressive in both competence and politics. 

Oh, and by the way, the Senate will also appoint David Weill as the administrator of the Wages and Hours Division for the Department of Labor, you know, the people who stop low-wage workers from getting ripped off by their employers.

You probably haven’t read much of anything about either nomination. These appointments seem entirely unremarkable and ordinary. Frankly, they should be, it’s a routine part of making government function. And in the post-filibuster world, routine nominations, judicial and otherwise actually seem to be proceeding fairly smoothly for the first time in five years.

During the first four months of 2014, the Senate has confirmed 20 judicial nominations – the most of any of the first four months of any calendar year of the Obama administration. On average, Majority Leader Harry Reid seems to be confirming either one appeal court nominee or four district judges per week the Senate has been in session this year.

Things aren’t perfect.  In some cases Republicans are still blocking qualified nominees in committee through the blue slip system– like North Carolina’s Jennifer Prescod May-Parker. In other cases, Republicans aren’t providing any input on nominees at all – like in Texas while the state’s federal bench languishes, as Houston's ever-handy Charles Kuffner has pointed out. And in some cases, they are driving a hard line – insisting on having Obama nominate a large number of their nominees in exchange for seating a few of his, like in the Northern District of Georgia -- a deal that has irked the state's civil rights community. 
Even the Friedland nomination should have been voted on before the Senate left town for the Easter recess on April 10, but Republicans insisted upon using their allotted 15 hours of debate to slow down the nomination (though none of them actually planned to debate).
However, overall the nominees are both flowing in a more orderly manner through the confirmation process.  There are currently 50 judicial nominations awaiting action in the Senate (eight appeals and 42 district). Thirty-one of those have moved through the judiciary committee and are awaiting final confirmation.

Among those 31 include several  nominees from Arizona and South Carolina, who had been languishing for months in committee.

Once those are confirmed (hopefully by August) that will leave Obama with 50 appellate appointments and 214 district appointments – roughly on track to match George W. Bush’s total number of appointments.

Overall then, move to end the filibuster for most executive appointments seems to have been a good one.

Sunday, April 27, 2014

Medicaid Expansion -- an Historical Perspective

Since the Supreme Court made the Affordable Care Act’s Medicaid Expansion optional, many state legislatures and governors; well at least many of them dominated by Republicans, have loudly declaimed that they will not accept the expansion.

Proponents of the expansion – meaning those of us who understand public policy and/or have a soul – have been bitterly disappointed in the states which are preventing millions of people from getting access to health insurance.

But let’s have a bit of historical perspective here.  The original Medicaid was a voluntary program as well and it took a bit of time for the states to get their act together. When federal matching funds became available in January of 1966, a grand total of six states had programs set up, as this Kaiser Foundation brief shows (see page 6). By the end of the year, 26 states had signed up.

Coincidentally, when New Hampshire expands its Medicaid program in July, 26 states will have signed up for the expansion (plus DC).

For the original program, 37 states had jumped on board by the end of 1967, 41 by the end of 1968 and 48 by Jan. 1 1970. (Alaska joined in 1972 and Arizona finally dragged itself into the program in 1982)

The point is that we tend to forget that it took more than a decade for all states to get into the Medicaid program. The beauty (sarcasm alert) of American federalism is that instead of merely having to get things enacted through an inefficient national legislature and executive, we often have to get them enacted through 50 inefficient regional legislatures and executives as well. Give it some time – often  states will see what’s working in other states and try to pick up on programs (or free money) that work. The Children's Health Insurance Program is another example -- it took three years for all 50 states to get on board after the federal government created the program in 1998. 

This analysis doesn’t necessarily mean that the ACA’s Medicaid expansion will be picked up as quickly – political parties weren’t as polarized in the late 1960s as they are today, which means that opposition to the latest expansion may be more entrenched, even when the results are crystal clear.  And in any case, delays to extending the program will result in thousands of unnecessary deaths.
However, we shouldn't despair -- Medicaid wasn't built in a day; so there's no reason to expect the expansion to become universal in a year either. The important thing is to keep grinding forward and organizing to gain political power to make states do the right thing for their residents. 

Thursday, April 10, 2014

New Hampshire joins the Medicaid Party

It's been lost over the general noise of the debate surrounding the recent close of the enrollment period for the health exchanges, but on March 27, New Hampshire became the 26th state to accept the Medicaid expansion.

New Hampshire --split between a Democratic governor and lower house on one hand, and a GOP-controlled upper house on the other -- negotiated an interesting path to expansion, as
Most importantly over the short term, 50,000 people are going to get access to health insurance -- and by extension, health care -- that they didn't have before.  After all, that's the point of the Affordable Care Act, right?

It's also a milestone of sorts now that more that half of the states are in the expanded Medicaid program. Of the 26, five are under split control (New York, Nevada, New Hampshire, Arkansas and Iowa) and four are under complete GOP control (Michigan, Ohio, North Dakota and Arizona). The Medicaid expansion isn't just a program for dirty hippies and effete coastal elites any more.

The current state of play in the states regarding Medicaid expansion can be found at the ever-useful Kaiser Foundation.