Saturday, March 21, 2015

Obama judicial appointments slow to a crawl

Much of the focus in the Senate right now is justifiably on the GOP majority's slow-walking Loretta Lynch's confirmation vote for attorney general on the Senate floor. 

But what's getting a lot less attention is the predictable lack of traction that President Obama's judicial nominations are getting.

The Senate has not confirmed a single judicial appointment this year in three months of work.

Contrast that with the first three months of 2014, the Democratic majority confirmed three circuit court judges and 16 district court judges.

In the first three months  of 2007, the incoming Democratic majority confirmed two of George Bush's circuit court nominees and 13 district court nominees.

Four rather uncontroversial district court nominations are waiting for a floor vote --three in Texas and one in Utah -- all which easily cleared the Judiciary committee in February. They'll get through the Senate eventually, but somehow I don't think Mitch McConnell has them as a priority.

Just another reminder that elections matter.

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Obama moves a bit more on the environment

The New York Times reports that President Obama has signed an executive order that will seek to have all federal agencies reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 40 percent from their 2008 levels by 2025.

This isn't earth shattering in itself -- the federal government only accounts for 1 percent of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions. But it's not nothing either, as the government is the single largest purchaser of goods and services in the U.S.  It's policies can create markets for goods and service that can percolate through the rest of the economy, and its ability to bind federal contractors can help spread policies to a broader group of businesses.

The order extends a previous order signed in 2009 that required the government to cut emissions by 25 percent by 2020. The Feds are on track to meet it. Good on the administration for following up on earlier success.

Every ton of CO2 we keep out of the atmosphere helps. And this order will keep several million in the ground.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

"Orthogonal to reality"

Jared Bernstein summarizes the 2016 House Republican budget about as pithily as possible.

Here's a look at President Obama's proposal.
The New York Times compares the GOP and Obama budgets. Note that they accept the assumptions implicit in both documents. For how strong those assumptions are, see Bernstein's comments -- the GOP budget is full of magical thinking and assumptions about how their tax cuts will magically transform into lower deficits.

And finally, here's an outline of the Congressional Progressive Caucus' "People's budget", which won't go anywhere because it's not Very Serious or something.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Oregon's new motor-voter law drastically eases registration, but still leaves a few blind spots

Newly minted Oregon Governor Kate Brown kicked her administration off with a bang on March 16, signing a motor-voter bill on steroids into law.

The law is good policy and will remove some considerable hurdles to voting for a large number of people. However, it does leave out potential voters and may not in itself increase voter turnout all that much.

The bill makes voting registration automatic for any eligible potential voter existing in the Oregon State Department of Motor Vehicles database. This feature goes far beyond current federal requirements, which only make it mandatory to allow an eligible resident to register to vote while obtaining a driver's license or conducting business at a state DMV. According to Reuters, the bill could expand registration by 300,000 voters – an increase of about 13.7 percent over the most recent voter roll.  

That’s good news and brings Oregon’s policies much more in line with most other industrialized democracies, which automatically register voters whenever they move. Coincidentally, most of those countries traditionally have had higher turnout than the United States. Better yet is that these policies will automatically keep track of people who tend to move around a lot and who have their registration fall through the cracks, like younger people – particularly students – and working families.

But the law doesn’t cover everyone. People without driver’s licenses (who often will not be in the DMV’s files) likely won’t be automatically registered; and those individuals tend to be disproportionately poor and people of color as we know from the battles over voter ID in numerous states.

Additionally, political science strongly suggests that easing barriers to voter registration doesn’t necessarily increase voter turnout. Candidates and parties still have to give people a reason to vote and activelywork to effectively mobilize and get them to the polls.[5]

So raise two-and-a-half cheers for Oregon making it easier to participate in the democratic process.  Now progressives just have to make it worth the new voters’ time to actually, you know, vote.

Monday, March 16, 2015

How Minnesota barely escaped Wisconsin's fate

On March 15, American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten published an Op-ed in the Huffington Post contrasting the recent economic performance of two very similar upper Midwestern states that have chosen drastically different governments: Minnesota and Wisconsin.

But what we often forget is that Minnesota came perilously close to following Wisconsin to the dark side.

We know the policy story. Wisconsin has been under unified Republican control since the 2010 elections. Governor Scott Walker has spearheaded a hard-right push in state politics: crushing public sector unions, signing “Right-to-Work” legislation that will cripple private sector unions, cutting taxes for the wealthy, stiffing Obamacare's Medicaid expansion, gutting funding for public schools and universities, centralizing power in the governor’s offense, gutting environmental protection, killing useful transportation projects…. Sigh… frankly, to go into detail and finding links is just too depressing. Go read Charlie Pierce so at least you can laugh along with the despair. As Weingarten and others have noted, though, Wisconsin hasn’t performed that well in economic growth or jobs growth.

Minnesota, on the other hand as Weingarten argues, elected Democrat (technically Democrat-Farmer-Labor) Mark Dayton to the Governor’s chair in 2010. Dayton raised taxes on the wealthy, invested in public schools, worked with organized labor and aggressively implemented the Affordable Care Act. The state has performed much better on the economic front than Wisconsin, and indeed the U.S. at large.

But that critical 2010 election actually looked pretty similar in the two states.  In an electoral disaster, Democrats lost majorities in both houses of the Minnesota State Legislature, turning an 87-47 majority in the House into a 72-62 minority. A 46-21 Senate supermajority became a 37-30 minority. In Wisconsin narrow Democratic majorities became a medium-sized 19-14 Republican majority in the Senate and a 58-41 majority in the Assembly.

The Minnesota legislature was interested in many of the same things that Walker wanted – after a budget standoff with Dayton in 2011, they tried to push a “Right-to-Work” law through in a constitutional referendum in 2012, though it failed to make the ballot.

The difference was in the Governor’s Race. Walker beatDemocrat Tom Barrett in a clear though reasonably close election by 120,000 votes out of about 2.2 million cast (52.3 percent to 46.5 percent). Dayton, in contrast, barely squeaked by conservative Republican Tom Emmer by an 8,730 vote plurality out of 2.1 million cast (43.6 percent to 43.2 percent).

Maybe it was Dayton’s higher name-recognition as a former Senator; maybe it was the fact that the incumbent in Minnesota was a Republican and not a Democrat.  But whatever the reason, those 8,730 votes put Minnesota progressives in position to block the attacks on labor and public services that took place in Wisconsin. And they left them in position to push a progressive agenda when Democrats managed to take back both chambers of the state legislature in 2012.  

Let that be a bit more motivation to knock on one more door, make one more phone call and give $10 more in the next state election.

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Medicaid Expansion Keeps Stumbling Forward -- and Proves Surprisingly Resilient

With the results of the 2014 elections, the pace of Medicaid expansion has become frustratingly slow for progressives.  However, the overall picture has two very important positive points for those seeking to provide universal health care in this country. First, despite meeting several setbacks and roadblocks recently, the expansion continues to grind ahead –excruciatingly slowly, but ahead all the same -- to new states. Second, recent developments in Arizona and Arkansas suggest that a state’s expansion may be durable even in states that get taken over by hard-right governments.

On the first point, Indiana joined the parade of Conservative states expanding Medicaid under a waiver in January. Pennsylvania, under its new Democratic Governor Tom Wolfe, has thrown out the complicated waiver plan submitted by outgoing governor Tom Corbett and is replacing it with a traditional expansion more congenial to beneficiaries (elections matter). Frustrating setbacks have happened in Tennessee and Wyoming, when legislative committees defeated plans negotiated by their governors to expand Medicaid, at the behest of an Americans for Prosperity pressure campaign. However, Utah and Montana are still considering their own plans – and Kansas(!) of all places looks like it may join soon too. Vox, as usual, has the snappy summary.

The second point is more interesting and, for now, just as encouraging. In 2013, Arkansas had negotiated an expansion with waivers under Democratic Governor Mike Beebe to mollify the Republican-controlled legislature. However, it looked like the plan might not survive new Republican Governor Asa Hutchinson and a much larger and more conservative Republican majority elected in 2014. But Hutchinson got behind the program with a few tweaks and convinced the legislature to approve it for another two years while forming a committee to seek a new waiver in 2017.   

In Arizona, the situation appears more ambivalent. Outgoing Republican governor Jan Brewer choose to expand Medicaid in 2012 over howls of protest from conservatives in her legislature. Incoming Governor Doug Ducey has suggested he’s against the expansion, while conservatives made gains in the Arizona statehouse in 2014. Medicaid expansion looked doomed.

But an in-depth examination of legislation Ducey just signed trying to curtail the expansion is instructive. The legislation consists of two Republican pet rocks: attaching work requirements to Medicaid recipients, and limiting beneficiaries to five years total of receiving Medicaid before throwing them off the program. It’s an ugly bill. But notice that the law doesn’t eliminate the expansion, it only attempts to modify it with issues a GOP legislator could plausibly defend as “common-sense reforms.”More importantly, any of these changes would have to be negotiated with the Federal Department of Health and Human Services.

At least for the next two years, those negotiations are going to go like this:

ARIZONA: “We want you to give us a waiver to create work requirements for beneficiaries and throw them out of Medicaid after five years” (hands over proposal).

HHS SECRETARY BURWELL: “Would it annoy you if I did this?” (Folds proposal into paper airplane and tosses it back at Arizona’s forehead)

The bill binds Arizona state officials to go back to the Feds every year and beg for the waiver.  Those conversations are going to go like this:

ARIZONA: “We want you to give us a Medicaid waiver to…”
BURWELL: (Takes proposal. Blows nose on proposal. Crumples it up and hands it back)

What we have here is Politics 101: it allows Arizona Republicans to both whine loudly about how horrible the federal government is, while looking like they are doing something to fight the dastardly Obamacare Medicaid expansion by writing sternly worded letters. They also get to quietly take advantage of all its benefits (including federal funding) that will remain at least as long as a Democrat controls the White House.

So at first glance, at least, the Medicaid expansion is looking surprisingly resilient, even in its infancy. Despite the poor results of the 2014 elections, the expansion continues to meander forward in several states. And every state that takes the expansion may have quite a hard time getting rid of it. This stickiness is good news for justice and for hundreds of thousands of people who get access to health care.

Sunday, March 8, 2015

Obamacare is about People, not States

On January 30, Ezra Klein posted an insightful Vox piece about one of the great ironies of the Affordable Care Act.  After a lot of thought of my own, however, I don’t think it’s much of an irony at all. 

Klein’s analysis noted that the original ACA – supported heavily by Democrats – featured a massive redistribution of wealth from Blue States to Red States.  The people helped by Obamacare’s Medicaid expansion and exchange subsidies were disproportionately concentrated in the states of the ex-Confederacy that had low-wage economies with skimpy existing Medicaid programs. (An old joke in Mississippi claims that you have to be legally dead to qualify).

The irony that Klein points out has been that Republicans are fighting tooth and nail to turn the ACA into a program that drains money from Red states and transfers it to Blue States. When the Supreme Court held that the Medicaid Expansion had to be optional for states, many states dominated by Republicans declined the expansion while Blue States snapped it up, shifting the benefits flow from Red States to Blue States If the Supremes decide the case of King vs. Burwell in favor of the forces of darkness, it will declare subsidies on exchange marketplaces illegal – but only in the states on the federal exchange, which of course are disproportionately Red States. As a result, higher earners in Texas will be sending their increased Medicare taxes to poor and working-class people in states like New York and California while their own states lose out.

It’s an interesting puzzle, but I think it can be explained quite easily – at least on the liberal side of the equation – by changing our unit of analysis. Klein looks at states, but I think it makes more sense to look at people to explain this paradox. On some issues, perhaps it makes sense to look at issues as state vs. state.  If a major manufacturer decides to leave one state and move to a second, for example then pretty clearly the second state is better off relative to the first. Politicians will act accordingly and line up state against state.  

But the motivating purpose behind the Affordable Care Act wasn’t about New York vs. Texas, it was about 48 million people in the United States who didn’t have health insurance. Ohio Senator Sherrod Brown didn’t refuse to take federal health insurance because Florida got more Medicaid dollars than Ohio, but rather in solidarity with millions of Floridians and Ohioans who didn’t have access to health care at all. If Mississippi took $14.5 billion in federal money over the next decade to expand Medicaid, I wouldn’t be mad that that money wasn’t going to Pennsylvania, my latest state of residence; I’d be celebrating because 169,000 of my fellow citizens got access to health care.

On the flip side, the logic is perhaps more difficult to explain for a Red State GOP governor like Rick Perry or Mississippi’s Phil Bryant. There’s the potential that they just don’t understand it. Perry recently suggested that millions of Texans liked not having insurance, which may represent a weak dodge or actual ignorance of reality. But there’s also the possibility it’s about people for them too – specifically “those people” who are poor and likely have a darker hue of skin and are viewed as undeserving of federal benefits. Politicians used to be able to wrangle earmarks and pork for their state , which reduces the role of ideology, but ideological sorting and polarization has been getting stronger over the last 40 years. As a result, politicians who rely on bringing home federal dollars to get votes find themselves facing tough primaries – like the one Thad Cochran barely survived in Mississippi in 2014.

We can solve Klein’s puzzle then by re-imagining the pieces. It’ not about cash flows to states, it’s about people – and whether a state official’s ideological blinkers permit those without access to health care to be seen as human beings deserving of compassion or dignity.