As featured on p. 218 of "Bloggers on the Bus," under the name "a MyDD blogger."

Saturday, September 12, 2009

A Defense Of American Jobs

I remember when I was told on a daily basis that the President's greatest responsibility was to protect the American people. Well, this President just did that. He protected their jobs.

In a break with the trade policies of his predecessor, President Obama announced on Friday night that he would impose a 35 percent tariff on automobile and light-truck tires imported from China [...]

The decision signals the first time that the United States has invoked a special safeguard provision that was part of its agreement to support China’s entry into the World Trade Organization in 2001.

Under that safeguard provision, American companies or workers harmed by imports from China can ask the government for protection simply by demonstrating that American producers have suffered a “market disruption” or a “surge” in imports from China.

Unlike more traditional anti-dumping cases, the government does not need to determine that a country is competing unfairly or selling its products at less than their true cost.

The International Trade Commission had already determined that Chinese tire imports were disrupting the $1.7 billion market and recommended that the president impose the new tariffs. Members of the commission, an independent government agency, voted 4-2 on June 29 to recommend that President Obama impose tariffs on Chinese tires for three years. Mr. Obama had until this coming Thursday to make a decision.

China undercuts the global market through manipulating their currency and treating their workers like slaves. America can stand by and do nothing as jobs fly away and the manufacturing base gets obliterated, or they can act under their own trade laws to do something about it. The inconvenient fact is that we don't have free trade; every country acts to protect their interests. And so should we.

Very good move by the President. Dave Johnson has more.

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House Progressives To Keep Fighting

Despite enormous pressure against them and few institutional allies, the House Progressive Caucus will keep fighting for a public option.

Next week will be gut-check time for the bloc of progressives standing in opposition to any bill that doesn't include a public health insurance option.

The leadership of the Congressional Progressive Caucus plans a "whip count" for early in the week to gauge the strength of their coalition, caucus members tell the Huffington Post. The whip team will also approach members of the Congressional Black, Hispanic, and Asian Pacific American Caucuses.

Democrats hold 256 seats in Congress and need 218 to pass a bill, meaning 39 progressives, voting together, could tank the legislation, assuming all Republicans vote nay.

The whip count will send a message to to the administration, said CPC co-chair Raul Grijalva (D-Ariz.): "Don't cut deals with some elements of our party or with some elements of the Republican Party without including the progressives in that discussion," he suggested. "So we're going to count our votes, see how many we have and that's the number we're going to indicate to both the leadership and the administration."

Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.), a member of CPC leadership, estimates that eighty to 100 members will make the pledge. The progressive caucus met on Thursday, following the president's speech, and members repeated their commitment to seeing the public option included in the bill, said Ellison.

Grijalva guessed the whip count would be lower than Ellison's estimate. "We need firm votes," he said.

I agree with Grijalva, the final number will be lower. However, there will be a number of conservative Democrats in states like Alabama and Idaho and Mississippi who won't vote for any kind of health care bill, because they're basically Republicans. So I would say that if progressives can find somewhere between 25-30 members to stand firm, they'll be able to block anything. They got 32 votes against the Afghan war, so it's not impossible.

While Senate moderates and, in all likelihood, the Administration are pushing hard for a trigger, Obama's own rhetoric in defending the public option works against him here. He acknowledged in his Wednesday speech that his conception of a public option would bring some choice but would be small, only bring in 10 million people tops, wouldn't use Medicare bargaining rates, and is only a small piece of overall reform. In that case, moderates should be able to live with it, since there's so much else in the bill they seek. But of course, that's never how the game is played in Washington.

However this turns out, that vaunted unity in the Democratic caucus doesn't seem to be there completely. And that's actually a good thing. There should be a range of opinions in the caucus, and those debates can work themselves out. If one side is constantly made to knuckle under, it doesn't actually allow for any ideological variance, and doesn't give much of a reason for that side, which reflects the Democratic base, to stay in the Party.

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Legislature Passes Groundbreaking Renewable Energy Legislation; "Green" Governor Will Veto

SB14, which would set a first-in-the-nation standard that utilities must receive 33% of their energy from renewable sources by 2020, passed the Legislature late last night.

“Increased development of renewable energy in California has tremendous potential as an economic development tool. These are clean, green jobs that belong in California. SB 14 sets a clear target with a real deadline, and then makes it as easy as possible to bring renewable energy on line.

In light of the state’s ambitious new carbon emission targets, SB 14 will give energy agencies the flexibility they need in order to meet those goals. Current law “caps” the amount of renewable energy that the Public Utilities Commission may order utilities to buy or build at 20 percent. This bill would remove this cap and require utilities to acquire 33 percent of their electricity from renewable resources by 2020.”

This would make California's renewable energy standard one of the most aggressive in the world. The Governor, feted in magazines and national media as an environmental leader, has vocally backed the 33% standard in the past. But power plant generators have pressured Schwarzenegger to veto the bill. And according to the LA Times, he will.

The Senate did manage to pass the energy bill, which would raise to 33% the amount of energy the utilities must get from renewable sources. Final approval by the Assembly of some minor amendments was expected.

However, a high-ranking administration official said late Friday that the governor may not sign the bill, SB 14 by Sen. Joe Simitian (D-Palo Alto), because of provisions limiting the amount of energy that could come from outside California. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because the bills were not yet on the governor's desk.

That would really be the icing on the cake to the worst Governorship in California history. The one issue on which he staked his legacy, and he is likely to veto the bill most likely to drive the lowering of greenhouse gas emissions, mainly because it would keep too many jobs in the state. Adding a renewable energy standard and mandating a majority of that energy be generated in state, is probably the only bill passed this year that looks to expand the local economy. And because of that, Schwarzenegger will veto it.

And the same magazines will put him on the cover with the slogan "The Greenenator" and talk up his environmental credentials.

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Friday, September 11, 2009

Scaled-Back Prison Bill Done, Water Bill Not

Notes from yet another long session in the Legislature:

The Senate could wait no longer for the Assembly to get their act together, so they passed a reduced prison package along the Assembly's lines, one that falls $200 million short of projections and does not have a sentencing commission. The Governor has announced he'll sign the bill. It's marginally worthwhile for the parole reforms, but really nowhere near what's needed. And so the federal judges will in all likelihood order a mass release, and because little is being done to address root causes, the cost of prisons and the population as a whole are both still likely to increase. The cowards in the Assembly who think they have designs on higher office after this travesty should know that this vote will have importance, but not in the way they think.

The bill to waive CEQA requirements (California Environmental Quality Act) to put a football stadium in Southern California - without an NFL team, mind you - did not get by Darrell Steinberg, despite lots of energy and effort from special interests. He's giving the various parties more time to negotiate a settlement. Sports stadiums are among the biggest corporate welfare projects we have in America.

The much-ballyhooed water deal has been scuttled, as Karen Bass announced she did not have the votes to move it. The Speaker may ask for a special session on water, and the Governor would probably move that as well. The middle-of-the-night rush obviously didn't work, so some transparency would be preferable.

Still waiting on the renewable energy standard bill, which would put California in the vanguard of the nation in terms of its portfolio (33% by 2020).

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Friday Random Ten

Los Angeles just felt a sonic boom from the Space Shuttle landing at Edwards Air Force Base. Good way to start the weekend!

July Jones - The New Pornographers
Stay Away - Nirvana
Blue Train - Cibo Matto
Ejercicio #16 - Kinky
There's More To Life Than This - Bjork
Marathon - Dilated Peoples
Latin Girls - Black Eyed Peas
Pink Bullets - The Shins
Gone Daddy Gone - Gnarls Barkley
Pssyche - Nouvelle Vague

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More Afghan Security Forces, Fine, But Question The Overall Mission Too

We heard more doubts from Democrats today about any escalation in Afghanistan, but I find myself unimpressed with Carl Levin's rationale.

The leading Senate Democrat on military matters said Thursday that he was against sending more American combat troops to Afghanistan until the United States speeded up the training and equipping of more Afghan security forces.

The comments by the senator, Carl Levin, a Michigan Democrat who is the chairman of the Armed Services Committee, illustrate the growing skepticism President Obama is facing in his own party as the White House decides whether to commit more deeply to a war that has begun losing public support, even as American commanders acknowledge that the situation on the ground has deteriorated [...]

In the telephone interview on Thursday, Mr. Levin said he was not ruling out sending more troops eventually, but rather insisted that the United States try again on a years-old project: finding a way to expand and accelerate the training of the Afghan security forces.

“I just think we should hold off on a commitment to send more combat troops until these additional steps to strengthen the Afghan security forces are put in motion,” he said.

Levin reiterated this in a speech. And maybe Afghanistan needs more security forces. But is it at all in the US national security interest to have 68,000 troops and all kinds of trainers and contractors on the ground in Afghanistan so they can strengthen their own security forces? This assumes that what is required in Afghanistan is an American presence and a general military buildup. That's really not our decision to make. The war started to drive out Al Qaeda. Eight years later, Al Qaeda has been driven out. There is no Al Qaeda presence in that country, and in general Al Qaeda is weakened and destabilized, particularly in Pakistan. So what is the rationale for staying? There is no question that we can accomplish the limited goal of denying Al Qaeda safe havens with a much smaller military footprint. Yet the mission has crept into a counter-insurgency for no justifiable reason.

Yet this is what administration officials have proposed: a counter-insurgency program, creation of a national government, a national army, a democratic process, an economy not based on narcotics. If our goal is foster a strong central government, then we are knowingly pursuing something essentially at odds with Afghan history. A strong Afghan national army would mean doubling the number of trained Afghan military personnel that the US is now struggling to field. According to metrics developed by Gen. David Petraeus, a counter-insurgency campaign in Afghanistan would require 1.3 million troops for a decade. That is five times the size of US, NATO, and Afghan government forces today. No one thinks this is feasible and we are not attempting to do so. A classic counter-insurgency strategy therefore is not in the cards.

We not only cannot undertake a counter-insurgency of this magnitude as a matter of resources, we have no need to do so. So you can surge with Afghan forces or surge with US military forces but it doesn't change the calculation - only a negotiated settlement with the insurgency and a counter-terrorism strategy to stop the remote potential of safe havens in the region makes any sense.

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The White House agrees with Joe Wilson, thinks it's a good idea to stop undocumented immigrants from buying things with their own money. Hopefully they'll extend this and stop them from buying over-the-counter prescription drugs and food without showing papers, either. They're at least talking about using SAVE, a much better verification system than the blunt instrument of proof of citizenship, but it's beyond stupid to force undocumented immigrants away from getting any health insurance (basically what this would do) and into emergency rooms as their primary doctor, with higher costs for everyone, because some backbencher yelled during a speech.

A White House spokesman, Reid Cherlin, said that the president’s proposals would bar illegal immigrants from purchasing private insurance through the new government marketplace, known as an exchange, and that verification of immigration status would be required for anyone seeking to purchase coverage [...]

The White House said that illegal immigrants would still be able to purchase health insurance through the private market, as they can now, but acknowledged that the private market was certain to shrink after the creation of the new marketplace.

Many illegal immigrants must now seek medical treatment in emergency rooms, which by law cannot turn them away. In recent years, the federal government has spent $250 million a year to reimburse hospitals for bills that go unpaid as a result. The White House said those reimbursements would continue.

Jellyfish run our government. By the way, watch abortion be next. They'll move to restrict all funding for a women's right to choose, even in private plans, inside the exchanges. You can see it coming.

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The Huge Looming Fight Over Financial Regulations

Today's the anniversary of 9-11, I guess. Why don't they just make it the following Monday and give us all a three-day weekend?

But another anniversary looms around this same time. On September 14, 2008, Lehman Brothers collapsed, and it sparked the biggest financial crisis since the Great Depression. America and other countries committed trillions in resources to keep the biggest banks afloat, and as a result we have rescued the system without fundamentally changing it or ensuring that the same bubble-and-crash couldn't happen again. Instead of taking advantage of the crash and responding to the bailout by immediately moving to financial regulatory reform, to prove that the banksters weren't getting free reign, the Administration waited, and is now trying to move forward without the urgency created by the crisis. Which is why you see high-fiving in the financial media that this regulatory reform effort will not succeed.

Large staffs of lobbyists with powerful financial interests behind them will use time-honored techniques to water down or kill anything that would drain profits and force the banksters to stop gambling with our money. The same interests killed a proposed Consumer Protection Agency in the 1970s with irrational fears about how it would harm ordinary Americans. And in the Senate, that same kind of coalition is forming to kill the Consumer Financial Protection Agency proposed by the Administration.

Nonetheless, I have a couple reasons to be optimistic, as this article in The Hill was the other day. First of all, the push to empower the Fed as a single regulator for a banking sector that it basically is enjoined to has faded rapidly.

The Obama administration's vision for revamping the nation's financial regulatory system could face significant revisions in the Senate, where proposed reform legislation departs from the White House proposal on several key points, according to staff members, lobbyists and a lawmaker briefed on the plans.

A bill taking shape in the Senate Banking Committee could give the Federal Reserve far less authority than the administration sought in the reform proposal it unveiled in June. Senators on both sides of the aisle have expressed a lack of confidence in the Fed in the wake of the financial crisis, challenging everything from the central bank's transparency to its ability to protect consumers.

Some lawmakers oppose giving the Fed responsibility for monitoring systemic risk in the economy, as proposed by the administration, favoring instead vesting that authority with a council of regulators.

"We really do take what the administration did as advisory. We have our own ideas," said one Democratic staff member familiar with the legislation who was not authorized to speak on the record. "We've been thinking about this a long time."

The second reason why I'm sanguine is that the Justice Department is finally stepping up with enforcement - and I think AIG represents the beginning, not the end.

U.S. investigators are probing the former head of American International Group Inc's (AIG.N) Financial Products unit, Joseph Cassano, and other executives for securities fraud, a law enforcement source familiar with the case said on Friday.

The source said that a grand jury may be impaneled this month in New York to consider potential charges that executives failed to disclose the value of toxic assets to the bailed-out insurance company's outside accountants and shareholders.

"The investigation is really who knew what and when about these assets," said the source, who asked not to be identified because the probe was ongoing. "They were holding toxic credit default swaps and may not have disclosed their real worth."

I don't think there's a single part of this sector that couldn't be probed in the same way. Look at this horrow show of overdraft fees on debit cards, for example. You cannot literally promise lighter enforcement in exchange for tighter regulation, but I think the firms get the message.

This actually will be a more expensive fight than health care reform in terms of lobbying, once everyone gets down to it. Chris Dodd's centrality to it while he fights for his political life is a bit worrying, but he's not the real problem here. It's the Mark Warner types who can deep-six anything meaningful.

...Yves Smith is not so hopeful.

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More End-Of-Session Notes

A few end-of-the-session tidbits for you:

CapAlert reports that Karen Bass will try again to get some of the more spineless members of her caucus to support a prison reform bill better than the scaled-back effort it already passed. Bass talked about adding the "alternative custody" provisions into the bill, which would get it to the proper level of cuts, but not the sentencing commission, which still looks dead, sadly.

• One bill we know to be dead is SB88, which would have forced localities to get permission from the state before going into bankruptcy. This was a union-backed bill to protect their local contracts, but city governments balked. Sen. Mark DeSaulnier says he'll try to broker a compromise for next year. Those bankruptcies are probably right down the pike, so he'd better hurry.

• The bill that the Governor arrogantly vetoed earlier in the week, in a hissy fit because he wasn't getting his way on water or prisons, was a bill to initiate a Vietnam Veteran's memorial day. It was authored by Republican Assemblyman Paul Cook, and he's whipping support to undergo the first legislative veto override in Sacramento in about 30 years, which is truly a sad legacy. Only in California could securing an override on an uncontroversial bill be something that could end a political career, as Cook acknowledged today. An override would be at least a sign of life in the Legislature.

• A lot of rumbling about the water bill, which is being written completely in secrecy, and without the input of politicians who represent the Sacramento Delta. Bass hinted at a bond issue to finance whatever comes out of conference, which would cost $600 million $800 million in debt service annually without any consequent gains in revenue to pay for it.

Could be another long night...

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President Snowe's Capriciousness

Despite the Obama joint session of Congress speech having moved the needle in the public for health care reform, Republicans still feel cocky that nothing's happening this year. They'll even put out phony whip counts to prove it. But if there's one reason to err on their side, it's because the moderates that have largely co-opted the debate seem destined to destroy it of their own volition.

Another Republican negotiator voiced concerns to Fox. Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-ME, said there is still concern about the size of the package which is carrying a near $900 billion price tag. “Maybe we could shrink that to $800 billion or below,” the moderate senator said, citing a skeptical public with bailout fatigue and concern for rising deficits. Snowe said she is certain there will be amendments offered in committee to scale back the scope of the bill.

As for the much-touted idea of a “trigger,” a set time at which if current plans don’t provide affordable, quality care, a government-run plan kicks in, this appears to be more talk in the media than in the negotiating room. Snowe told Fox that she thinks the White House is talking about it more than senators. She would not even concede that it will be offered as an amendment, and as the Baucus plan currently stands, there is no mention of a “trigger.” Baucus even told reporters that it was not mentioned in compromise talks.

That the trigger is a non-starter in the Senate is certainly interesting. But Snowe is being completely ridiculous here. She's lowering costs just for the sake of lowering costs. This won't help people get affordable health care; quite the opposite. It won't lower the deficit because the President has asserted that the legislation will be deficit neutral or he'll veto it. She just wants to take $100 billion out of the bill for the purposes of giving herself cover for voting for it. This is despite her stated interest in improving the subsidies to those who can't afford insurance, which, um, cost money. This is just not the way to legislate:

Ideally, we'd have policymakers identify the problem, come up with a solution, and then figure out how to pay for it. Instead, we have a few too many policymakers come up with a price tag first, whether it's sufficient in solving the problem or not.... (b)ecause it just sounds better. Less is necessarily superior to more, the argument goes, for vague, personal reasons that have nothing to do with addressing the problem at hand.

I realize we're talking about a lot of money here, but the difference between a $900 billion reform package and an $800 billion package is $10 billion a year. Given the size of the U.S. economy, the federal government's budget, and the willingness of lawmakers to spend freely when it was debt-financed Bush-era initiatives on the line, an additional $10 billion a year to help Americans have quality, affordable health coverage is more than reasonable.

Making health care reform worse, based on nothing but capricious standards on what price tags sound nice is absurd.

More from the usual suspects. The only thing I can think of for this is that she has enough cachet inside the Administration that the Republicans are using her as a vehicle to create a terrible bill that everyone will blame the Democrats for passing.

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Stop Him Before He Capitulates Again!

Having done his best to destroy the health care bill, Max Baucus wants a stab at the climate change bill.

But while Baucus has been the public face of health care negotiations, a dedicated team of his aides has been working on the climate bill. As the Finance Committee chairman and the second-most-senior Democrat on the Environment and Public Works Committee, Baucus is in a uniquely powerful position on climate issues.

The Finance Committee is charged with overseeing the flow of money in and out of government, a jurisdiction that Baucus believes gives his committee control over how hundreds of billions of dollars in pollution allocations would be distributed to industry and consumers under a cap-and-trade system.

That turf puts Baucus in direct conflict with Sen. Barbara Boxer, chairwoman of the Environment and Public Works Committee, who believes her committee has control over cap-and-trade allocations. Boxer would fold the provisions into her broader climate and energy bill, which would establish caps on greenhouse gas emissions for the next several decades, according to Senate Democratic aides.

Massachusetts Democratic Sen. John Kerry, who’s working with Boxer to draft the climate and energy bill, says they are still working out the jurisdictional dispute with Baucus.

I've got a way to work it out. Tell him, "Butt out or we'll take your gavel away." Seriously, nobody elected Max Baucus President, and his philosophy does not reflect the majority of Democrats in the Senate, let alone in the country. Senate Dems have been talking about a way to have secret votes to keep committee chairs on top of their committees - it's beyond time to brandish that as a weapon.

My other question is, how the hell does a coal-state Dem get to be #2 in rank on the Environment and Public Works Committee?

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The Good Trigger?

The worst part about the Obama Administration's back room deals with the health industry wasn't just that they would impose far less cuts on stakeholders than they ought to shoulder, but that there was no mechanism beyond a handshake to ensure that the industry would even bother with those cuts. But in the President's speech the other night, he talked about imposing "automatic cuts" to reimbursement if the industry didn't abide by their commitments. It's basically a trigger - if health care growth fails to slow by the prescribed amount, then a variety of options at government's disposal would kick in. It's the brainchild of a health policy wonk named Judy Feder, and she explains the idea here.

How does a fiscal trigger work?

The idea of a trigger is that one establishes in advance a target for savings in the system, agrees on measures that need to be achieved, track that progress as the program is implemented, and if shortfalls are found, then certain actions are automatically triggered in.

What are those actions? What happens when you pull the trigger?

David Cutler and I put forward a range of options and believe a menu should be specified in the legislation. That menu could include further reductions in Medicare or changes in the tax treatment of employer-based efficiency or a strengthening of a public plan to further competition with insurers.

And why do we need this? I thought the plan already had savings in it.

The reason that David Cutler and I have been so supportive of a trigger is that we are firmly behind the cost-saving measures that are in legislative proposals and on which there is enormous agreement to change the health-care delivery system. Payment reform, a value-based purchasing system, moving away from the overprovision of low-value and high-cost procedures, and rewarding providers for better care and management of chronic illness. There's work and experience showing those measures can achieve huge savings systemwide. David Cutler and Rand's Melinda Buntin estimated (pdf) the savings at $2 trillion over the next decade.

But CBO is very cautious about scoring those measures. So it's our belief that for scoring purposes, we can put underneath them a failsafe that guarantees CBO will score the savings.

The basic idea is to force stakeholders to live up to their commitments, because the outcome would be far worse for them. And it would get us past the often arbitrary, almost always conservative scoring mechanism from the CBO (which is actually the bigger deal here, since the fiscal scolds always rely on those numbers to stop reform, but it would be harder to do so with a favorable score).

This is not a substitute for a public plan. It's a completely different area of the policy. And it can surely be screwed up or watered down in innumerate ways. But a smart legislator could use this tool to basically threaten the health industry with major cuts to their payments or essentially kicking a leg out from the stool that keeps them fat and happy. And they could ratchet up the savings the industry would have to provide year over year to keep them in line. I'm not totally convinced that will be the end result, but if Henry Waxman's in the room, we've got a fighting chance.

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Wishing He Could Take It Back, Maybe?

Rep. Joe Wilson is trailing his 2010 opponent in a snap poll taken days after his outburst on the House floor.

Republican Congressman Joe Wilson trails challenger Rob Miller 44-43 in the wake of his shouting out ‘you lie’ during President Obama’s speech to Congress on Wednesday night. Wilson defeated Miller 54-46 in the 2008 election.

62% of voters in his district say they disapprove of Wilson’s actions while just 29% think they were ok. While there is consensus on that, respondents were pretty divided about whether the substance of his comment- that Obama was lying- is correct. 42% say they think the President was lying while 46% believe he was not.

Wilson’s approval rating comes in at 41%, with 47% of voters disapproving of his job performance. He gets good marks from 68% of Republicans, 38% of independents, and 11% of Democrats.

“In a matter of seconds Joe Wilson turned himself from a safe incumbent into one of the most vulnerable Republicans in the country for 2010,” said Dean Debnam, President of Public Policy Polling.

In an almost more important statistic, Obama has an approval rating of 50% in this lean-conservative district, better than what he yielded here (45%) in 2008.

Meanwhile, Democrats are prepping the full-on hissy, in a rare show of political savvy.

Speaker Nancy Pelosi has agreed the House should vote next week on scolding Rep. Joe Wilson (R-S.C.) for his outburst during President Barack Obama's speech unless he apologies on the floor of the House.

"There was a violation of the rules of the House," said Pelosi spokesman Brendan Daly. "It needs to be resolved by an apology or a resolution."

A Democrat, likely House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), will introduce a "resolution of disapproval" Monday or Tuesday unless Wilson formally apologizes on the House floor. The House returns Monday.

This isn't censure, but a resolution that forces people on the record. Some Democrats would claim that this distracts from the overall goal of health care, but I disagree for a couple reasons. One, the media's focused on it anyway and there's no stopping their soccer scrum. Two, this puts Republicans in a rough position and a tough vote and that's always desirable. Three, it highlights the obstructionism of Republicans in a way that looks bad for them contrasted with the President's speech.

I don't know if it will matter ultimately, both to the overall health care debate or to Wilson's chances in 2010, which is a long way off. But it rides an activist-driven wave, which is always good. Now if Max Baucus and Kent Conrad can stop caving to Wilson's demands...

UPDATE: Other outlets are calling it censure.

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Moment Of Truth For Schwarzenegger As Legislature Passes Anti-Rescission Bill

I mentioned this yesterday, but California lawmakers gave final approval to a bill that would ban the practice of rescission, where insurance companies drop coverage for policyholders after they try to use it based on alleged technical inaccuracies in their application form. Here's what AB2 would do:

AB 2 would require:

• Individual health care service plans to be subject to an independent external review before denying or rescinding coverage.

• The state to establish standard information and health-history questions to be used on policy applications.

• That intentional misrepresentation be shown before an individual health care service plan can be rescinded.

This language basically complies with what would appear in federal legislation before Congress banning rescission.

Now Arnold Schwarzenegger has a choice to make. Does he side with people who are denied coverage after paying premiums for years? Or does he side with his usual pals in the Chamber of Commerce who will push for anything, no matter how immoral, to maximize profits?

Everyone should know that Schwarzenegger vetoed a similar bill to this last year. He's always been a Chamber of Commerce sock-puppet and I don't expect him to change now. However, Schwarzenegger has been an alleged proponent of health care reform at the national level, and in a recent letter endorsed the concept of guaranteed issue of insurance, which obviously conflicts with allowing insurers to rescind policies. He also supports continued state regulation of the insurance industry.

Well, here's his chance. The Legislature has acted to ban what I call insurer-assisted suicide, and Arnold can make his decision by either signing the bill or vetoing it.

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Americans United For Change Goes After CIGNA

One of the most despicable moments in the past few years came when CIGNA denied one of their customers, 17 year-old Nataline Sarkysian, a liver transplant. Bowing to public pressure after several days, CIGNA reversed itself and approved the transplant - but not before Sarkysian died. It was a perfect example of how insurance company CEOs get rich off of denying care. Americans United For Change remembered this sorry episode in a new political ad airing in Washington.

"This year Cigna CEO Ed Hanway will retire with a $73 million golden parachute. Seventy three million dollars. That's 292 liver transplants. Nataline only needed one. If insurance companies win, we lose."

Insurance companies are winning in some of the latest iterations of the health care bill in Washington, closing in on getting an individual mandate for everyone in the country to buy insurance, while maintaining a monopoly on the under-65 market by scuttling the public option, which would compete with private insurers and offer a not-for-profit alternative. They would get millions of new customers while potentially passing increased costs on to their customers. Nevertheless, they are still bellyaching about the meager changes to their bottom lines that would be more than offset by a forced market:

The insurers “would prefer to have absolutely no public plan on the table,” said Ana Gupte, an analyst with Sanford C. Bernstein & Company. Still, Ms. Gupte said, the insurers should benefit from the expansion in coverage — especially under Mr. Baucus’s proposed rules limiting the premiums that insurers would be able to charge from one person to the next. Under his proposal, premiums could vary by 7.5 times from the least expensive policy for the same benefits to the most expensive policy, based on age and other factors like use of tobacco.

Insurers also say they are worried about many of the new fees and taxes being proposed, including Mr. Baucus’s idea of charging the industry $6 billion a year in fees, in addition to taxing the most generous policies.

The industry also points to proposed cuts in payments to private insurers that now cover the elderly under Medicare — cuts that could amount to more than $100 billion over 10 years. “It’s a major issue,” said Ms. Ignagni, adding that health plans might not be able to continue to operate in some areas if the Medicare payments were cut too much.

There are still plenty of ways to ensure quality and affordable coverage for everyone under this plan. Insurance companies could be treated like regulated public utilities. They could have competition with a public insurance option that would force them to lower prices and improve quality. They could see an end to their corporate welfare in the form of Medicare Advantage payments, where they get free money from the government to run Medicare plans without any significant increase in quality. Any number of things could occur that would still allow insurers to skim off the top of a trillion-dollar industry and make very good livings.

But they want it all. And they traditionally have gotten there through denial of care, necessitated by a relentless drive for profit. The Sarkysian family knows this pretty well.

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Between A Rock And A Hard Place In Iran

In the next few weeks, expect to hear the Wurlitzer ramp up again for action against Iran. We got a taste of this already this week, when a US envoy to the IAEA claimed that the Islamic Republic had enough uranium to make a nuclear weapon. That's not been confirmed anywhere, but it's a sign that Washington is moving toward tougher rhetoric as a precondition to action. Engagement went out the window after the election chaos, I fear, and while Iran has delivered a document calling for a global nuclear freeze, which the US, despite President Obama's call for an end to nuclear weaponry, summarily rejected. The document isn't really much of a proposal; it doesn't mention Iran's nuclear program at all, and is generally vague about its offer to help fight terrorism and collaborate on energy issues.

The problem for the United States is that Russia seems to be satisfied with the document.

Foreign Minister Sergey V. Lavrov on Thursday all but ruled out imposing new sanctions against Iran over its nuclear program, brushing aside growing Western concerns that Iran had made significant progress in recent months in a bid for nuclear weapons.

Mr. Lavrov said he believed that a new set of proposals that Iran gave to European nations on Wednesday offered a viable basis for negotiations to end the dispute. He said he did not believe that the United Nations Security Council would approve new sanctions against Iran, which could ban Iran from exporting oil or importing gasoline.

“Based on a brief review of the Iranian papers, my impression is there is something there to use,” Mr. Lavrov said at a gathering of experts on Russia. “The most important thing is Iran is ready for a comprehensive discussion of the situation, what positive role it can play in Iraq, Afghanistan and the region.”

Without Russian buy-in on sanctions, they won't happen. Either the Russians will block them in the Security Council or they won't participate, rendering them meaningless.

Obama, almost to a fault, seeks common ground, so I could see him accepting the Iranian document and moving forward with it. But there will be a lot of pressure on him to take action as well.

...True to my theory, the US did accept the Iran talks. They had little choice given Russia's intransigence, and I actually think it's the right move, not the least of which because it will piss off John Bolton.

In coordination with European allies, Washington said today it would accept Iran's offer of comprehensive talks, to test out if Iran was serious about negotiations.

The comments from the State Department came as China and Russia said they weren't prepared to support new sanctions on Iran at this time given Tehran's written proposal this week [...]

"The United States and five partner countries have decided to accept Iran's new offer to hold talks, even though Iran insists it will not negotiate over its disputed nuclear program," State Department spokesman PJ Crowley was cited by the AP.

"As the EU indicated today, Javier Solana is in touch with Iranian officials to try to set up a meeting as soon as possible," Crowley further said in an email.

They're basically calling Iran's bluff.

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Na Ga Happen

I don't doubt that tenthers want to use nullification or something like it to block health care reform in their states, but they'll back down so fast it'll make your head spin. These are some of the same right-wing governors who claimed they wouldn't accept stimulus money and then ran around their states withe giant novelty checks touting the funding. They're hypocrites, and won't give their opponents an opportunity to pull out some low-income person who was denied federal care and died because of their callousness.

Although, if Texas or any other Southern state wants to secede, and take all their right-wing Congressmen with them, I wouldn't exactly object.

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Illegal Logic

John Aravosis uncovers an amazing nugget in TIME Magazine. Apparently, there are Democrats who saw Rep. Joe Wilson yell "You Lie!" at the President of the United States and thought, "that guy has a point." And they happen to be the ones writing the health care bill in the Senate Finance Committee.

The controversy over Republican Rep. Joe Wilson's shouting out "You Lie!" at the President over his claim that illegal immigrants wouldn't benefit from health-care reform apparently sparked some reconsideration of the relevant language. "We really thought we'd resolved this question of people who are here illegally, but as we reflected on the President's speech last night we wanted to go back and drill down again," said Senator Kent Conrad, one of the Democrats in the talks after a meeting Thursday morning. Baucus later that afternoon said the group would put in a proof of citizenship requirement to participate in the new health exchange — a move likely to inflame the left.

So many things wrong with this, starting with caving to an extremist. But it's worse than that on the policy end. The exchanges are just health insurance purchasing centers, like a Wal-Mart for insurance. You don't have to receive a subsidy to buy insurance on the exchanges; in fact, if your family makes over $88,000 a year, you can't be eligible for a subsidy, though you can still purchase there. What Conrad is saying is that he would make it illegal for a non-citizen to BUY something.

Not only that, but proof of citizenship laws, which we don't have in most states for voting, are onerous and disproportionately tilted away from the poor and the elderly, as well as potentially restrictive to legal immigrants with green cards, in this case. As the New York Times says today:

Should we take a harder line? Force people to prove citizenship in emergency rooms? That’s illegal, for good reason. Make verification requirements so onerous that not a single illegal immigrant slips through? Very expensive, and not smart. It would be highly likely to snag deserving citizens — like old people who don’t have their original birth certificates. And besides, we’ve tried that: A House oversight committee reviewed six state Medicaid programs in 2007 and found that verification rules had cost the federal government an additional $8.3 million. They caught exactly eight illegal immigrants.

In the case of an epidemic, like swine flu, should illegal immigrants go untreated so they can infect legal residents and American citizens?

Hard-line Republicans insist that they will fight for citizenship verification. They could, in theory, get the country to spend whatever it takes to do that and proudly report back to their voters. But there is a line beyond which antipathy to the undocumented can be damaging to those voters’ health, not to mention the federal budget. Mr. Wilson and his admirers seem to have crossed it.

Not to mention the fact that buckling to these demands will not get one Republican vote on any health care bill.

This is the Senate Finance bill, not the overall bill. But Democrats are so wishy-washy when it comes to, well, anything, that we actually could see this rotten, xenophobic, piss-poor policy in a bill supposedly designed to expand access to health care.

I know a lot of money has been flowing to Joe Wilson's opponent in 2010, but a far better use of those dollars would be to funnel them toward primary opponents for Kent Conrad and Max Baucus.

UPDATE: Conrad is now clarifying that there would be no federal subsidies, and requiring proof of citizenship would just be used to determine qualification for government assistance. Of course, you end up with the same problem, then; those without proper proof of ID would have trouble getting subsidies that could be available to them. The larger point is that there was no need to react to a teabagger yelling and screaming. This was already implicit in the bill, and allowed for the HHS Secretary to determine a best practice. This blunt instrument is not the way to do it, and makes Democrats look weak (but that's redundant).

UPDATE II: As this GAO report notes, checkpoint systems like Baucus and Conrad want were implemented under the Bush Administration to ensure undocumenteds didn't get on Medicaid, and for every $100 they spent, 14 CENTS in Medicaid savings were achieved. It's wasteful and spiteful!

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Thursday, September 10, 2009


Lindsey Graham is a tool.

That is all.

Actually, that's not quite all. Graham didn't know whether he would be allowed to clap for the university system while not being construed as clapping for the public option. So he half-stepped it.

And he's once again seated next to John McCain. When are those two going to move to Vermont or Massachusetts and make it official?

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Stick A Fork In Him

The South Carolina GOP just abandoned Mark Sanford.

The tide of support from his own Republican Party officially turned against disgraced Gov. Mark Sanford Thursday as the South Carolina GOP called for his resignation.

South Carolina Republican Chairman Karen Floyd and the state party’s executive committee held a 5 p.m. conference call before announcing that they had decided it was time for Sanford to go.

SCGOP spokesman Ryan Meerstein said over two-thirds of those voting favored the governor’s resignation. He added that a letter from Floyd to the governor would be released later in the evening.

That's pretty much it. They say that in politics, if you're explaining, you're losing, and I would say this ridiculously long letter from Sanford's website represents a whole lot of explaining, including the measuring of hours logged on state planed by past Governors. He held a companion press conference today, too. The funniest part of all this is that Sanford, the ultimate conservative's conservative, is being taken down for profligate personal spending, and his facts and figured thrown up to defend himself just don't cut it. That's of course because the forced resignation on these uses of state travel expenses are a sideshow, cover for the SC GOP to just dump him because they fear a backlash from their "family values" base.

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The Poor, The Adrift, The Uninsured

We interrupt yesterday, today and tomorrow's media soccer scrum ("Does Ellen DeGeneres Think Michael Vick Should Agree With Joe Wilson About Health Care?") to bring you the consequences of a Gilded Age economy:

The U.S. Census Bureau has just announced that the poverty rate for 2008 was 13.2%. This means the number of people in poverty has increased by about 2.5 million, to 39.8 million. To give you some perspective, 2.5 million is more than the number of people who live in Detroit and San Francisco combined.

The Census data is just devastating, particularly when you take into account that the numbers come before the job loss in the first 8 months of this year. In addition to the uptick in the poverty rate, real median household income fell 3.6%, the biggest drop in 40 years. The richest tenth of one percent saw their incomes rise by 35% over the last 10 years while median incomes stayed flat. And the number of Americans lacking health insurance increased by about 700,000 to at least 46.3 million, which does not account for the under-insured. In fact, if it wasn't for government programs, this number would be far worse.

Things would have been worse but for one thing: continued expansion of government-provided health insurance coverage. Between 2007 and 2008, the proportion of Americans reporting any private coverage fell by 0.8 percentage points, from 67.5 percent to 66.7 percent. Meanwhile, the percentage reporting some form of government coverage rose by 1.2 points, from 27.8 percent to 29.0 percent [...]

First, the absolute number of uninsured has increased. Second, employer-based coverage is eroding. Third, adverse trends in private coverage are partly masked in the overall numbers by the rise in public coverage.

Fourth, improved insurance coverage among children--thanks largely to Medicaid and SCHIP--is more than offset by increases in the number and proportion of uninsured working-age adults. As shown in the final column, the number of uninsured adults increased by almost 9 million in nine years. Since working-age adults are much more likely to actually get sick, this is a significant economic and public health concern.

Yes, it's been government - eeevil, socialist government - which has had to step into the breach and take care of its citizenry amid a failing private market. And that includes your local fire department, increasingly becoming a primary care doctor for millions of Americans.

In 2008, fire departments around the country responded to 15.8 million medicals calls, a 213 percent increase over the 5 million medical runs record in 1980. The combining of cities’ fire and emergency medical services accounts for some of the increase.

But as the logs of a Washington, D.C., fire company show, the lack of health insurance by too many people—especially low-income families—has turned some local fire departments into mobile emergency rooms.

In one 24-hour period this summer, D.C.’s Engine Company No. 10 responded to more than two dozen emergency calls—two fires and the rest were medical emergencies. It is the same throughout the District. The Times reports the D.C. fire department responded to more medical emergency calls per capita than any other in the nation—and most come from poor neighborhoods [...] such calls tie up a community’s resources and cost communities more because so many calls for emergency medical care aren’t true medical emergencies. Also, the increasing reliance on first responders and on 911 also comes at a time when firefighters and paramedics all across the country are being laid off, as the nation’s economic woes place a strain on public budgets. The recession is shrinking our resources and reducing manpower while the demand for emergency medical care is skyrocketing.

Best health care system in the history of man.

This is bigger than just health care, though, and it's driving a lot of the anxiety out there. Recessions are disruptive events, but in previous years quick turnarounds would blunt the pain. More recently, jobless recoveries that last years and years have become the norm, and as a result, people cannot keep up. Inequality has risen to an almost comical degree, while more and more people sit on the other side of a gated community. This breeds anger, unrest, and ultimately enormous amounts of needless suffering.

And as long as government is captive to interests which place their corporate well-being above the well-being of the people, it will remain this way.

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The Al Qaeda Slump

It's going to be a real blow to neocon efforts to frighten their way to victory, once they recognize that they may have to find a new enemy.

Osama bin Laden's al-Qaida is under heavy pressure in its strongholds in Pakistan's remote tribal areas and is finding it difficult to attract recruits or carry out spectacular operations in western countries, according to government and independent experts monitoring the organisation.

Speaking to the Guardian in advance of tomorrow's eighth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, western counter-terrorism officials and specialists in the Muslim world said the organisation faced a crisis that was severely affecting its ability to find, inspire and train willing fighters.

Its activity is increasingly dispersed to "affiliates" or "franchises" in Yemen and North Africa, but the links of local or regional jihadi groups to the centre are tenuous; they enjoy little popular support and successes have been limited.

This has a host of implications on our foreign policy moving forward:

• The article credits CIA drone strikes in part, although I do think they increase the amount of extremist activity in general. But there have always been extremists; Al Qaeda provided a durable network. Once which is foundering. And if the demand for extremism dries up with the lack of a durable network, then ultimately the entire project will topple upon itself.

• Of greater benefit is monitoring and law enforcement techniques, which have been proven effective in disrupting "core Al Qaeda," which is down to 6 or 8 people and maybe another couple hundred on the margins. To the extent that these techniques work, they are not labor-intensive, involve global cooperation and do not have a role for the US military to any strong extent. You do not put 100,000 troops in the field to deny 8 men safe havens. Much of the intelligence, in fact, is coming from relatives and friends, suggesting that giant military apparatuses are not required to deal with a movement that has become broadly unpopular.

• The Pakistan campaign is really helping disrupt Al Qaeda, as the Pakistani and Afghan Taliban have turned on the unit, probably because it's giving them so much trouble.

This all adds up to yet another reason why we have no need continuing escalation in Afghanistan. The local Taliban hate Al Qaeda and would not be likely to offer them safe havens should they topple the central government, which is unlikely outside the areas where they have ethnic solidarity. In Pakistan they're simply on the run. There's a better chance of Al Qaeda consolidating in a place like Somalia than Afghanistan. They don't exist there right now, and no group fighting for control wants them in place. So why are we still fighting there?

Nancy Pelosi said today that there's no support in the country for a further escalation. If people truly understood the lack of a threat from Afghanistan, how our presence has inflamed the insurgency, and how we can through a variety of containment, law enforcement and intelligence techniques maintain national security without a military footprint, that support would drop even further from the perilous point it's at right now.

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Affordability And Open Exchanges

I've read a lot of the more skeptical commentary about the President's speech last night, but the person who seems to have crystallized my thoughts about it is Ron Wyden, who sits on the Senate Finance Committee. He agrees, as everyone should, that the President gave the cause of reform a big boost last night by making an exceptional case for why we need to do this. But he hones in on the two areas, in terms of the specific policy, where the bills on offer clearly need to improve:

Wyden believes the proposal wouldn't allow nearly as many people as it should to choose to enter so-called health insurance exchanges, if they're unhappy with the insurance their employers provide.

"Only people who are unemployed and uninsured and work at very small businesses would be allowed choice and competition in the exchanges," Wyden noted "Anybody who works at a mid-size business who doesn't like what they have, a government bureaucrat steps in and says you don't have choices.

Separately, Wyden is concerned that the proposal--which Obama said would cost $900 billion--might not be able to provide generous enough subsidies for middle class uninsured people who will, under the terms of the plan, be required to buy health insurance.

"If you have a family making $65,000 a year and they're paying $8300, $8400 for their premiums and copayments and deductibles...that's going to be another area that you're going to have to hone in on," Wyden added.

Wyden was also critical of the funding mechanism of taxing insurance companies, which he thinks wouldn't hit them at all, but hit consumers. I agree that it will not hit insurers, because it's not designed to do that. It's designed to essentially limit the employer deduction by encouraging insurers not to hand out policies that cost more than $21,000 a year for the individual. Wyden ought to know this, since his Wyden-Bennett proposal attacks the employer deduction directly by phasing it out. If the work-around insurance tax is the best we can do to get at that employer deduction, I'll take it.

On the other two points, Wyden is on the money. Affordability is a major problem in the bill, with or without a public option. $900 billion is not likely to cover it, especially considering that some of that money will have to fund these high-risk pools that have now been included. It's not just that people don't want to tithe 10-20% of their income to private companies - they don't want to tithe that to anyone. So the coverage subsidies have to be strengthened, and revenue raised to pay for it. This is problematic because of all the deals and sacred cows protecting various pots of money. But a bill that passes but doesn't work will be a political nightmare.

The other point is that Obama is telling a white lie when he says "Everyone should have the same choice as members of Congress have." If you get insurance through an employer, you simply don't have that choice, and this protects a busted, inefficient insurance delivery system. Wyden's Free Choice Act would break the firewall on the exchanges and allow employees the option of using them. His framing of a "government bureaucrat" keeping you from accessing the exchange plays to right-wing arguments, but it's undeniably effective.

Plenty of people are focused on the public option (although opening the exchanges would be the only thing that could make the public option viable), so these will be my main concerns over the next several weeks - making the subsidies affordable, opening the exchanges, and making sure the regulatory apparatus for insurance companies is actually workable. The provision encouraging employers to only hire people with rich families has got to go as well. Basically, the less of the Baucus document and the more of HR 3200, along with the additional tweaks mentioned above, the better.

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The Big Lie On Fiscal Conservatism

Perhaps my favorite moments in the speech were the parts where the President had the temerity to mention that "fiscal conservatives" don't give a damn about being fiscally conservative.

Part of the reason I faced a trillion dollar deficit when I walked in the door of the White House is because too many initiatives over the last decade were not paid for – from the Iraq War to tax breaks for the wealthy. I will not make that same mistake with health care [...]

Add it all up, and the plan I’m proposing will cost around $900 billion over ten years – less than we have spent on the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, and less than the tax cuts for the wealthiest few Americans that Congress passed at the beginning of the previous administration.

Sarah Palin lashed out at this by saying that the President hates 9/11 (no link because I don't want to validate her), which proves they've got absolutely nothing to rebut this. I'm not Andrew Sullivan's biggest fan, but he nailed this a couple days ago.

If you believe in fiscal conservatism, the last place on earth you should look for salvation is the GOP. They have single-handedly destroyed America's finances since the 1980s, with the sole exception of George H W Bush, who was rejected by his own party precisely because of his fiscal sobriety. The current debt is overwhelmingly inherited by Obama, and it would have been nuts to enter office in the downdraft of the sharp recession and set about cutting spending. Bush had eight years to restrain it and he didn't. He let it rip. Think of the GOP's phony concerns about the cost of the current healthcare bill and compare it with the GOP's prescription drug entitlement that Rove rammed through the Congress when the GOP held total power. The costs then were about eight times as great as the proposed costs now. But that was a Republican measure and so it doesn't somehow count as evidence of fiscal irresponsibility. But Nancy Pelosi only has to raise an eye-brow and the alarms go off.

You cannot say this enough. The fiscal scolds who only pop up under Democratic Presidents are out of their minds if they think progressives should let them get away with their selective outrage designed entirely to forestall a progressive agenda. They have no credibility.

...John Dingell on this. In general Democrats have been very feisty today:

Q: Republicans, though, say that the bill explodes the deficit after 10 years because the revenues don't keep pace with spending growth.

A: Well, I'll give you several answers. First, that's fully consonant with Republican practices. They did it all the time, and can speak with authority to the evil of it. But that doesn't mean it's so. I don't honestly believe that's the case [that deficits expand], and the work has not been concluded. But if this is as factual as some of the other things they've said about the bill, I wouldn't pay too much heed.

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Remember These Moments

True to the reality of a weak political media and an inattentive public, the chatter over the results of the July budget revision, despite major cuts to the social safety net, has completely subsided. No taxes got increased and nobody "important" got hurt, so it was just time to move on. Politicians just move on to the business of raising corporate money, special interests can move on to the business of writing laws that help their bottom line, and everybody in Sacramento can praise everybody else for "sacrificing" to get things done.

Only, for the people living under the consequences of these budgets, created through a choice not to properly pay for needed services, the budget battle is not forgotten. And it doesn't consist of a group of numbers in a column. It's entirely real and it hits them every single day. Here's just one example.

Six domestic violence shelters in California have been forced to close while dozens more are scaling back services after Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger eliminated all state funding for the program that supports them.

Shelters in the Central Valley town of Madera, the Sierra foothill town of Grass Valley and in Ventura County in Southern California have closed. Others in the San Francisco Bay area, Los Angeles and Bakersfield are on the verge of closing.

Many centers are laying off staff and closing satellite offices that serve remote areas of the state as they cope with the budget cuts. A national domestic violence group describes California's as the deepest cuts to such programs nationwide, even as other states have reduced funding.

In Madera County, officials have turned away six domestic violence victims and eight children since the county's only shelter closed Aug. 7, said Tina Figueroa, the shelter's director. The Martha Diaz Shelter served about 100 victims a year, many of them low-income and with no place else to turn, she said.

So 100 victims of domestic violence in smallish Madera County now have truly nowhere to turn, and will either suffer under the boot of their abusive partners or, in many cases, be killed by them. The director of domestic violence policy in the LA City Attorney's office pretty clearly calls these programs "homicide prevention." It also saves money relative to what you spend prosecuting the eventual homicides. I've seen "tough on crime" conservatives over the years invoke the name of victims and stir up public support for laws in their name. They go curiously silent when hundreds of domestic violence victims are put at risk of death because they want to save rich people and corporations from having to pay for their fair share of the commons.

These closures are the direct result of line-item cuts by the Governor. So the blood is on his hands. Leland Yee has a bill that attempts to cover the domestic violence shelter budget with cash from a crime victims fund, but under 2/3 rules, it's not likely to pass this week.

Kudos to the AP for doing a story on this; but there need to be many more. There's a human face on the budget cuts that has completely been lost and forgotten. Those suffering are right to suspect that nobody in Sacramento cares about them.

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Where You Stand Depends Upon Where You Sit

Word leaked last week of an official meeting, before Obama's speech, between him and the chairs of that Congressional Progressive Caucus, Congressional Black Caucus, Congressional Hispanic Caucus, and Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus. But that never happened. The White House never called.

Meanwhile, today, seventeen Senate Democratic moderates, basically everyone in Evan Bayh's moderate coalition along with Arlen Specter, have been summoned to the White House. That was an appointment kept.

I suppose this could be to crack the whip, but given the juxtaposition of these events as well as political reality of who is perceived to be needed to pass a bill, that's not likely. The strategy to respect the ability of progressives to hold up legislation has of yet not borne fruit.

This is a good a time as any to print Raul Grijalva's reaction to the speech:

“I am pleased that President Obama made the right choice to recognize the importance of a public option as part of the health care reform legislation.

“A public option is the most effective way to achieve our goals of controlling costs, eliminating abuses of patients by insurance company abuses, and providing quality health care to all.

“However, the President needs to be more direct on what the public option means and what it will do for the American people.

“President Obama was elected to bring change and progress. I fear that if my party and the President do not appreciate the mandate the American people have given us, the people will lose confidence in the idea that they can vote for change and get what they voted for.

“We in the majority must have the courage to do what is in our power to do, and pass a bill that guarantees access to affordable, quality health care.

“Doing nothing is not an option. That is why I oppose efforts to delay and kill real reform with a so-called “trigger”. We cannot wait and just hope that the insurance companies will develop a conscience.

“The defenders of the way things are want to diminish and destroy the public option because they fear it will be effective. A national insurance plan would have the bargaining power to get lower drug prices and better deals with health providers.

“We cannot rely solely on the insurance companies' good faith efforts to provide for our constituents. A robust public option is essential, if we are to ensure that all Americans can receive healthcare that is accessible, guaranteed and of high-quality. Health insurance reform is an investment in our future that we cannot afford not to make.”

The President said quite the opposite yesterday, actually, defending the concept of a public option but reassuring skeptics that it wouldn't have the market share or the rate-setting ability to do anything meaningful to costs. But that's not a ringing endorsement of the policy. It's a downplaying of what the plan on offer would do. In that sense, it's correct - the public option available now would firewall people who get coverage through an employer and wouldn't be able to set rates to bargain for lower premium costs. But of course, enshrining it in legislation would give it the opportunity to expand, which is the whole point behind the progressive push. So Obama really soft-sold the public option last night, and invited weak alternatives like co-ops or triggers. So Grijalva was right to attack the President on this point.

The public option is not a fetish. It's a policy prescription which, if done right, could save massive amounts of money for people, businesses and the government, as well as provide decent health care for everyone. It's only considered a fetish by Villagers insulated from the consequences of having no insurance. Those fighting for its enshrinement are simply doing right by their communities, secure in the belief that a competitive option to insurance CEOs is the best chance for quality and affordable health care as a fundamental right and not a privilege to succeed.

They're demanding another meeting. Good for them.

...The only hope is that the President is telling ConservaDems that they'd better not join a Republican filibuster, but I simply find that unlikely.

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Covering The Undocumented Is Cheaper, Actually

Rep. Joe Wilson gave a bumbling, stumbling response to his comments last night.

Once again the media has taken one sensationalistic remark and let it overshadow the entire speech last night, which was a political winner for reform. But it's worth digging down into the substance of the claims and the actual policy behind it. Right now, the way things are, undocumented immigrants (there are no illegal people) can go to an emergency room and get treatment. They can purchase their own health insurance. They can go to a free clinic. They can, in a variety of ways, access health care if they need it.

The plans on the table would provide more security for those with insurance, and provide exchanges for those without coverage. The undocumented can access those exchanges, because it would require them to pay for coverage with their own money. The bill would also provide subsidies to people who cannot afford coverage. The undocumented would not be eligible for those subsidies. It says that in every single bill draft. Rush Limbaugh, being a little more honest than usual today, says "It will cover undocumented aliens. Now it may not specifically say so in the bill... " He's talking about enforcement and verification statutes, which is a red herring, because a driver's license or some form of ID is typically required at the point of service if you have an insurance card. There are lots of checks in the system already.

That said, I agree with this:

The Baucus plan currently going around, of course, explicitly states that "[no] illegal immigrants will benefit from the health care tax credits" and limits the insurance mandate to U.S. citizens and legal residents. But Dana is right to ask whether undocumented immigrants should be covered in some capacity. Beyond potentially skewing employer hiring incentives, the exclusion of immigrants from the plan will create a financial burden on the system anyway -- which seems to be conservatives' big concern. By law, hospitals are not allowed to refuse care to anyone in an emergency situation, whether the person is insured or not. The cost of the uninsured then falls both on the hospitals and on the government, which provides $250 million annually as reimbursement through Section 1011 of the Medicare Modernization Act, which has been extended through this year.

So, tax dollars are already being spent on care for uninsured and undocumented immigrants. And hospital resources are being strained since the losses aren't fully accounted for, which can have an effect on the quality of medical care provided to the general population. Regardless of the system in place, coverage of undocumented immigrants is a problem that's going to need to be dealt with. Given that, shouldn't we be working toward a solution that's more transparent and just?

The President talked about the $1,000 hidden tax on everyone with insurance as a result of funding ER care. That would not change if immigrants had to use continue to use the ER as their primary doctor. That status quo is grossly inefficient and we all pay for it; in fact we pay more than if we just offered subsidies and brought everyone under the umbrella of universal care. In addition, having an underclass of people prone to disease without preventive care is a major public health problem.

In a general sense, this kind of "blame the brown people" argument will be consistently made until we deal fully with the undocumented within our borders, through both workplace enforcement and some legitimate path to citizenship. Until you do that, these political footballs will always surface, and cowardly Democrats will thunder "we will not pay for undocumented workers!" when we already are paying for them, and could lower that payment.

...I knew somebody would turn that into being Obama's fault.

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Let The World Be Flat, Then

Here's something everyone can sink their teeth into - the White House enforcement of trade laws! Actually, it's more serious than it sounds. The Chinese are undercutting American manufacturers on price through actions of questionable legality, and the Obama Administration needs to make a choice on whether or not to enforce that.

By Sept. 17, Obama must decide whether to slap a 55 percent tariff on tires imported from China, as recommended by a federal trade panel, or leave the matter alone, as a phalanx of lobbyists representing manufacturers in China and U.S. companies that import from them are urging.

From 2004 to last year, the number of Chinese tires imported to the United States more than tripled, and their share of the U.S. market rose from 5 percent to 17 percent. Over the same period, the share of the U.S. market served by U.S. factories declined by a similar amount. More than 5,000 U.S. jobs were lost.

Opponents of the tariff say the U.S. industry's shrinkage is unrelated to the surge in Chinese imports. The U.S. manufacturers, they say, have strategically moved into pricier, more profitable tires, shifting production of cheaper tires overseas.

This is a measure designed to save American manufacturing jobs. The "world is flat" crowd tells us that we shouldn't bother so much with that, because globalization has provided cheap crap for us all and the world must freely trade. The answer to that is that all countries restrict their own markets. Toyota wouldn't exist without tariffs. A lot of major industries overseas wouldn't. In particular, Chinese industry receives government subsidies that violate international trade law, and they should face the consequences.

In one of the largest U.S.-China trade cases ever, the U.S. Commerce Department has issued a preliminary finding that Chinese steel pipe producers have received government subsidies in violation of trade law, helping them overrun the competition.

The volume of steel pipes imported from China more than tripled between 2006 and 2008, rising from $632 million to $2.6 billion, according to the Commerce Department.

The subsidies from the Chinese government allowed the firms to overwhelm their U.S. rivals, according to six U.S. companies that filed the complaint along with the United Steelworkers union. The companies alleged that their Chinese rivals received discounts on raw materials and loans from government-owned firms.

To even the playing field, the Commerce Department has ordered that tariffs ranging from an estimated 11 percent to 31 percent be imposed on the steel pipes from China.

The steel pipes at issue in the case are those used primarily by the oil and gas industry. They are known as "oil country tubular goods." By dollar volume of imports in the industry, the case represents the largest U.S.-China trade case ever, attorneys said.

If you want to argue for a level playing field, you have to be willing to call out both sides and seek one that's truly level. Good for the Obama Administration, so far, for making that case.

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Legislature Home Stretch Update

There's lots of significant news in the Legislature's last week regarding various bills, and it's extremely difficult to keep up with it all, probably by design. I should point out that, while the legislative calendar has an end date, there's no actual reason for some of the forced bottlenecks that result in hundreds of bills being passed at the last minute. It creates a shroud of secrecy in which special interests rule, and saps the public trust. A Democratic leadership actually interested in positioning government as somewhat decent would remove these forced bottlenecks from the internal legislative rules and allow bills to be approved on a rolling basis. That said, this is the system we have now, and here's a bunch of news about various bills:

• A new bill would exempt non-General Fund workers from furloughs. This would reverse one of the dumbest provisions in the budget bill, the practice of forcing furloughs on workers not paid by state government, saving almost no money and depriving people of needed services. Of course, the Governor will probably veto this one, because he hates admitting how wrong he is.

• Democrats on that vaunted water committee have decided against floating a bond to pay for any restoration or overhaul of the Delta. This means Republicans won't vote for it, and very little will come of this very important committee thrown together at the last minute. Some conference committee reports are here, but a deal looks remote, as it would need votes from some of the empty chairs in the Yacht Party.

• One bill that has cleared both chambers would set up "Education Finance Districts", "in which three or more contiguous school districts can band together to try to increase local taxes." This is a small step to make it easier for districts to pass parcel taxes to fund schools, but at this point every little bit helps. The 2/3 rule for approving such taxes would remain.

• With all the talk of health care reform, it's notable that an anti-rescission bill has once again passed the legislature. The bill would also simplify insurance forms. Last session, Arnold Schwarzenegger vetoed it. There's something you don't hear much about from the Democratic leadership - Arnold Schwarzenegger vetoed a bill that would have banned insurance companies from dropping patients after they get sick. He sided with the forces of insurer-assisted suicide. This is your modern Yacht Party on this issue:

"Any of those who have read the various exposés in the Los Angeles Times and others . . . is aware that health insurers have admitted and acknowledged they engaged in a form of post-claims underwriting," said Sen. Mark Wyland (R-Escondido). "It is unethical and, considering what some of these people have endured, it really borders on the immoral."

However, Wyland said he would not vote for the bill because the Department of Insurance has proposed new rules to solve the problem, and he wants to see how they work.

Hey, give 'em a chance to see if the immorality stops! If not, we can think it over.

• The Legislature may extend a homebuyer's tax credit passed in a previous budget agreement that was nothing but a bailout for developers. It only credited new construction, and was structured only to benefit high-income households who could afford new construction. By the way, sales of new units have fell since this was enacted, so it's not even meeting its intended purpose. But it's a giveaway to a special interest, so off the money may go, even though we cannot afford it at this time.

• A bill to ban bisphenol A (BPA) from children's products was delayed after the Assembly couldn't muster 41 votes. The debate in the Assembly last night was pretty fierce.

• Cities and counties reacted angrily to a proposed bill to slow local government bankruptcies until vetted by the California Debt and Investment Advisory Commission. On the merits this looks to be a bill that would install more control on locals from Sacramento, although there are arguments on both sides. But mainly it's about the fate of union contracts in local bankruptcies, I don't think either side would deny that.

• A roundup of other bills passed yesterday can be found here.

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Spanky Duvall Just A Master Storyteller

Somehow, Michael "Spanky" Duvall thinks that he can get away with this statement:

Assemblyman Duvall Denies Reports that He Had Affair

I want to make it clear that my decision to resign is in no way an admission that I had an affair or affairs. My offense was engaging in inappropriate story-telling and I regret my language and choice of words. The resulting media coverage was proving to be an unneeded distraction to my colleagues and I resigned in the hope that my decision would allow them to return to the business of the state.

Apparently, Duvall was spinning a tale, in a private conversation never meant to be heard by anyone but his colleague, about a man named "Michael Duvall" who just happened to be sleeping with the same woman that everyone in Sacramento has seen him palling around with for the last several months. It was a bit of magical realism, I guess.

Actually, Duvall would be legally culpable if he admitted an affair with an industry lobbyist on a committee on which he sat. So this is CYA stuff.

I'm beginning to rethink my position that a Yacht Party member is equal in value to an empty chair in the Legislature. Actually, the empty chair has significant advantages. It's a predictable non-vote, equivalent to a no vote under the 2/3 rules, and crucially, the empty chair has almost no possibility of ever saying anything this stupid. I wouldn't be surprised if the Yacht Party just decided to keep the seat vacant. Would save them a lot of trouble.

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The Corporatist Five

The Supremes heard that Citizens United case yesterday, and Dahlia Lithwick sez be very afraid.

When we first met this case, it involved a narrow question about whether a 90-minute documentary attacking Hillary Clinton could be regulated as an "electioneering communication" under McCain-Feingold. The relevant provision bars corporations and unions from using money from their general treasuries for "any broadcast, cable or satellite communications" that feature a candidate for federal election during specified times before a general election. A federal court of appeals agreed with the FEC that the movie could be regulated. Citizens United, the conservative, nonprofit advocacy group that produced the film, appealed. The issue last spring was whether a feature-length documentary movie was core political speech or a Swift Boat ad. But the court surprised everyone when it ordered the case reargued in September, this time tackling the constitutionality of McConnell and Austin.

Justices Antonin Scalia, Anthony Kennedy, and Clarence Thomas are already on record wanting to overturn these cases. Justice Samuel Alito and Chief Justice John Roberts have been inclined to wait. The question today is whether we wait no more [...]

Solicitor General Kagan stands to defend the FEC, not in a frock coat but a tasteful blue pantsuit, and when Scalia pounces on her, two sentences into her opening, she scolds him as if he were an impudent 2-L: "I will repeat what I said, Justice Scalia: For 100 years this court, faced with many opportunities to do so, left standing the legislation that is at issue in this case." Kagan is so loose and relaxed, you'd think this was her 100th argument. Which allows Roberts to dispense with the kid gloves and accuse her, respectively of "giving up" an argument she made in her opening brief and "changing positions." When she is asked, in effect, if she wants to lose this case in a big way or a little way, Kagan is eventually forced to reply, "If you are asking me, Mr. Chief Justice, as to whether the government has a preference as to the way in which it loses if it has to lose, the answer is yes."

One of the ways the Roberts Court hopes to make all conflicting case law in the campaign finance realm disappear is to blame all prior bad case law on Kagan. When everyone is thoroughly confused about what rationale the government may advance in order to limit corporate spending, Roberts can gleefully conclude that all of Austin "is kind of up for play. …" Poof. And Austin is a problem no more.

As Kennedy bemoans the "ongoing chill" of limiting corporate speech, Scalia recites a lyric ode to the greatness of America's "single shareholder corporations. … The local hairdresser, the local auto repair shop, the local new car dealer." Kagan points again to the "100-year-old judgment of Congress that these expenditures would corrupt the federal system," forcing Scalia to retort that "Congress has a self-interest" and that "I doubt that one can expect a body of incumbents to draw election restrictions that do not favor incumbents." Kagan corrects him, noting that "in fact, corporate and union money go overwhelmingly to incumbents." And that this law "may be the single most self-denying thing that Congress has ever done."

Kagan goes on to distinguish humans from corporations by pointing out that "we have beliefs; we have convictions; we have likes and dislikes." When she urges that it's in the corporation's self-interest to maximize profits and that "individuals are more complicated than that," Scalia does another verse on "the new auto dealer who has just lost his dealership." It's a vision of fluffy corporate bunnies so compelling, it makes you want to give Exxon a great big hug and an African violet for the holidays [...]

Olson very effectively uses his five minutes of rebuttal time to taunt Kagan for the government's changed positions. And while it looks as though there are five votes to fundamentally alter the way American elections will work, we've been through enough renditions of the Roberts Court slapping litigants around at oral argument then loving on them in decisions to make such predictions unwise. Of course, as Waxman suggests in his closing, it does take a somewhat "self-starting" institution to be deciding a case about campaign finance laws in which no litigant has directly raised the issues and no factual record even exists.

Aside from how wonderful it is to read Dahlia Lithwick, this severely depressed me. As we already have what amounts to corporate control of government, opening up the meager restrictions on campaign finance through corporate entities may not mean as much as everybody assumes. Corporations currently funnel hundreds of millions to candidates through PACs anyway. But two things stand out upon reading this. First of all, the kind of significant campaign finance reform we need right now - in particular public financing to level the playing field - will never make it through the brick wall of the corporatist Roberts Court, which clearly has a lock on these issues for 20 years at a minimum. Second, if you read through these arguments, and the general set of opinions of the Court over the last term, you can only conclude that George W. Bush was a successful President. With a legacy that far exceeds his lack of accomplishments in domestic or foreign policy. Bush handed the Court to the Federalist Society right for a decade or more, and while the legal system can still put up a fight with respect to civil liberties, on most issues the ultimate answer will fall on the side of the corporation over the people every single time without question. And that's a frightening prospect.

I think the only path to checking this power lies at the state level and with corporate charters. But state interests can be arguably more corruptible than federal ones.

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