Archive for the ‘US Politics’ Category

holy freaking cow!

Tuesday, April 28th, 2009

was my reaction when I heard the news that Arlen Specter is switching to the Democratic party.  I know, he was quite clear that he won't be an automatic 60th vote for cloture for the Democrats.  Oddly enough, he singled out the Employee Free Choice Act as an example of where he won't change his position, even though he used to be a co-sponsor of the bill in a previous Congress.  But I would say that the odds of a significant step on health care reform actually getting passed this year just went up by a good bit.

Some interesting coverage of the story, from:

I know I promised a book review today, but I don't have the energy — feeling a bit sick (upset tummy, not the flu, chill out).  Maybe tomorrow.  But I may also report on my jury duty experience.

universality and targeting

Monday, April 20th, 2009

I ran across this LA Times article today, about (formerly) middle-class workers who have lost their jobs and are shocked to discover that their families don't qualify for most public benefit programs.  In many cases it's because with unemployment benefits, their incomes are still too high to qualify for food stamps or cash assistance; in other cases, they would qualify based on income, but have too much assets — especially cars — to qualify.

I don't know whether this makes those rejected for benefits more or less supportive of these programs.  I can imagine some people thinking "gee, if I can't live on this, how can people live on far less?" and supporting expansion and other people thinking "well, if these programs won't help me when I really need it, what good are they?" and supporting cuts.

Since the Recovery Act passed, I've been spending a lot of my time at work writing about the temporary assistance (TANF) provisions and trying to convince states to use that money to expand benefits for the neediest families.  It's been a tough sell.  Even though any increases would be 80 percent federally funded, state budgets are so tight that in many cases, they're saying they can't find the 20 percent.  And states are nervous about expanding programs with money that is designed to be temporary, because it's always hard politically to cut services back later.  I'm frustrated, but I get it — I know how hard it is to sell any expansion of "welfare."

That said, I'm really shocked by how hard it is in some states, including Virginia, to get the unemployment insurance expansions passed.  For those who believe that welfare is bad, but contributory social insurance, like social security, is good, UI should fall on the "good" side of that divide — it's based on wages and subject to a history of employment. The fact that it's still under fire makes me somewhat more skeptical about the claims that making programs universal will protect them from being attacked as "welfare."


Thursday, February 26th, 2009

I keep saying that I know that Obama's going to disappoint me at some point and then he keeps exceeding my expectations.  As I read his budget document this morning, I kept on finding more and more things that blew me away.  Here's some of them:

  • As Robert Reich said, this budget would substantially increase the progressivity of the federal income tax.  The very rich have gotten the lion's share of the gains in the US economy over the past few decades, while the tax system has gotten less progressive.  This would be a big step towards that.
  • I nearly shouted out loud when I read the section on carbon permits, and saw the phrase "100 percent auction."  This means that, unlike the Senate bill from last year, none of the permits would be given away to  industry.  This is key because giving away permits rewards polluters, and dramatically decreases the funds that are available to provide targeted assistance to low-income consumers and displaced workers.  And Obama's proposal to use some of the money to extend the Making Work Pay tax cut is essentially a version of Cap and Dividend.
  • I was also stunned at Obama's willingness to pick fights on things that aren't going to get headlines or win him any votes.  For example, he says that he will fully fund the Community Development Block Grant, but will seek to distribute the funds through a "more effective formula."  CDBG is one of the few federal programs that provides flexible funds to cities and other local governments, and the current formula is pretty poorly targeted — it provides a little bit of money to almost every local government, regardless of need.  I assume it's obvious why it's politically hard to change that.  It would have been easy for Obama to decide to let this one slide, given the major pieces of legislation he's trying to get through.  But he didn't.

recovery package

Wednesday, February 11th, 2009

I'm still waiting to find out the details of the conference agreement on the recovery package, but I'm cautiously optimistic.  I don't think it's going to be a magic wand, but it will be a big step forwards.  I won't really relax until it clears the Senate, but what I'm hearing sounds like they made some reasonable choices.

MomsRising sent out an alert to their members on the recovery package, and asked for reports "if you or a family member have lost a job, a house, healthcare, or sleep because of the recession."  Here are some of the responses they've gotten.  It kills me to read them.  It's scary out there.

a victory for kids

Wednesday, February 4th, 2009

Obama signed the SCHIP reauthorization today.  About 4 million more kids will have health insurance as a result.  Yes, it matters who is in the White House.


Tuesday, February 3rd, 2009

I think Robert Reich got it dead on in describing the popular anger about Daschle's nonpayment of his taxes. 

In short, many Americans who have worked hard, saved as much as they
can, bought a home, obeyed the law, and paid every cent of taxes that
were due are beginning to feel like chumps. Their jobs are
disappearing, their savings are disappearing, their homes are worth far
less than they thought they were, their tax bills are as high as ever
if not higher — but people at the top seem to be living far different
lives in a different universe….and, not the least, the Washington insiders who have
served on the Hill or in an administration and then gone on to pocket
millions as lobbyists for the same companies they once regulated or
subsidized. To the American who's outside the power centers — the
places of entitlement and I'll-scratch-your-back-while-you-scratch-mine
deal making — the entire system seems rotten.

I think this is right — I'm just as horrified by the $5 million Daschle earned in two years as an "advisor" and "rainmaker," as by the tax issues.

I'm not quite sure why Geithner got away with it and Daschle didn't.  In the abstract, I'd be more worried about the Secretary of Treasury not paying all his taxes than I would about the Secretary of HHS.   Maybe because Congress was convinced that the stock market would collapse if they didn't approve Geithner right away.  Maybe because someone who does his own taxes with TurboTax gets more sympathy than someone whose accountant is fudging things.  (Daschle supposedly asked his accountant in JUNE if he should be reporting the car service as income — it shouldn't have taken more than a week for the accountant to say of course — unless the question he asked is "can you get away with this?" rather than "what is legal?")  Maybe because it's hard to be sympathetic for someone who owes more in unpaid taxes than most people make in a year.  Or maybe he just had bad timing.

Some different points of view from blogs I read:

I agree that Killefer's error was pretty minor, and shouldn't have disqualified her.  I have trouble swallowing Daschle's multiple errors as just as trivial.

welfare and the recession

Monday, February 2nd, 2009

The New York Times ran a front-page story today about the failure of the welfare rolls to increase even as the economy tanks.  It's by Jason DeParle, who covered welfare reform for the Times in the 1990s, and wrote the best book there is on the subject: American Dream, and I think he got it just about right. There are some states with significant percentage increases in their caseloads, to be sure, but the base is so low at this point that the absolute numbers of new cases is pretty small.  And the two states with the highest unemployment rates — Michigan and Rhode Island — have experienced large decreases in the number of families receiving welfare.  Frankly, it scares me.

The article is currently #9 on the Times list of most emailed articles, and it received 171 comments on their website before the Times cut it off.  (I didn't know that the Times cut off comments on their articles… I wonder if this is based on a time limit, a number of comments, or a subjective judgment of the quality of the discussion.  Actually, the comments are far more balanced and reasonable than I would have guessed.)

As the article notes, there are some provisions in the recovery bill that provide incentives to states to let more people receive assistance.  So far, they haven't received much attention, and that's probably a good thing politically.  They're pretty small dollars in the scheme of the bill (although I'd have said the same thing about the family planning provisions, and that didn't protect them).  I think it's really key that Ron Haskins, who was the lead Republican staffer for the Ways and Means Committee during welfare reform, was willing to be quoted in the article that he thinks caseloads ought to be rising:

Even some of the program’s staunchest defenders are alarmed.

is ample reason to be concerned here,” said Ron Haskins, a former
Republican Congressional aide who helped write the 1996 law overhauling
the welfare system. “The overall structure is not working the way it
was designed to work. We would expect, just on the face it, that when a
deep recession happens, people could go back on welfare.”

we started this, Democratic and Republican governors alike said, ‘We
know what’s best for our state; we’re not going to let people
starve,’ ” said Mr. Haskins, who is now a researcher at the Brookings Institution
in Washington. “And now that the chips are down, and unemployment is
going up, most states are not doing enough to help families get back on
the rolls.”

That provides a LOT of political cover to Republicans who don't want to do anything that can be seen as undoing welfare reform.

That said, I don't think it helps things when progressives refer to the bailout as "corporate welfare."  I think the term inherently suggests that welfare is a bad thing.

Misc political notes

Thursday, January 29th, 2009
  • Tuesday is a special election, to choose a new chair of the Fairfax Board of Supervisors, replacing Gerry Connolly who is now in Congress.  Special elections can be crazy, because turnout is generally low and so small groups can affect the results.  Fairfax county's budget is probably bigger than several states.  I strongly support Sharon Bulova, as does the Washington Post. Vote Tuesday, Feb 3, 6 am to 7 pm, at your regular polling place.
  • I received a long phone survey tonight that led me to the definite conclusion that Kaye Kory (who represents this district in the Fairfax school board) is considering challenging Delegate Bob Hull in the primary.  A quick google search found that both Not Larry Sabato and the Falls Church News think she is running against him.  Then again, NLS thought she was running two years ago.  I told the pollster that I didn't know which one I'd support.  I have no idea what, if any, policy differences there are between them.
  • Still don't know who I'm supporting for Governor.

lose your job, lose your health care

Wednesday, January 28th, 2009

One of the joys of our system of employer-provided health insurance is that the odds are pretty good that if you lose your job, you'll also lose your health insurance

Well, you can continue your coverage with COBRA, but relatively few workers who have just lost their job can afford to pay 102 percent of their premiums for an extended period of time. The average COBRA payment eats up something like half of the average unemployment insurance benefit.

If you're young and healthy, you might be able to buy an individual plan for less than your COBRA payments, especially if you're willing to accept a high deductible and hope you don't get sick.  If you have children, they might qualify for public insurance, through SCHIP or Medicaid, but unless you were seriously living paycheck to paycheck and have no assets, you probably won't qualify.

The Economic Recovery bills moving through Congress attempt to deal with this problem in a couple of different ways:

  • it would provide a federal subsidy for part of the cost of COBRA payments
  • it would extend how long you could continue to participate in your former employer's plan if you were within 10 years of qualifying for Medicare, or had worked for your old employer for at least 10 years.
  • At least on the House side (it may be in the Senate bill too, but I haven't found it), it would let states cover workers receiving unemployment benefits under Medicaid, without regard to income or assets.

I'm not an expert on health care policy, but this strikes me as a bit of a kludged together package.  For one thing, it leaves out the 60 percent of unemployed workers who don't qualify for unemployment insurance, most of whom probably didn't get employer-provided benefits in the first place, and so can't get COBRA either.  For another, COBRA is a pretty expensive way to cover people — Medicaid is  lot cheaper. 

I'm not really objecting to the proposal — it's better than doing nothing, and I recognize that health care reform isn't likely to happen in the next month.  But this really isn't a substitute for doing health care reform for real.

still buzzing

Wednesday, January 21st, 2009

OK, I know you're all probably getting sick of my obsessing over the inauguration, but indulge me for one more post.  I'll get back to being my usual jaded wonky self soon enough, I promise.

I loved these pictures of Obama's first day on the job.  It still hardly seems real that he's actually the president.  So it's amazing to see him in the Oval Office, getting down to business.

At work, everyone was trading their inauguration stories.  It sounded like the people who just wandered down to the Mall and found spots near the Washington Monument generally had a better experience than many of the people who had tickets, who spent a lot of time on lines to get through security (and some of whom didn't make it in at all).

I really enjoyed reading about the experiences of these kids from Chicago who were selected for a trip to DC at Share My Inauguration.*  They clearly appreciated the historic moment, but also had a definite kids' perspective on the whole experience.

As I said yesterday, I had a better time at the inauguration for not being responsible for keeping D safe and happy.  I think he probably showed good judgment in turning down my invitation to come with me.  But I'm also a little sad that I don't think he appreciates quite how momentous a day it was.  He's learned about segregation and Martin Luther King, Jr. in school, but it's a pretty abstract concept to him.  And there's something lovely about that innocence too.  But I wonder if 8 years from now, he's going to be pissed that I didn't schlepp him down to the Mall so he could claim bragging rights.

One of the things that was interesting about the inauguration is that everyone there was consciously aware that it was a Historical Moment.  I wonder if the people who attended the March on Washington knew right away that it would be Important.  I'm pretty sure that most of the people who attended Woodstock (the other comparison I heard a lot) didn't know that it was an Event until after the fact.

* Full disclosure: I was asked to plug this site as part of MomCentral blog tour, but I'm happy to do so.  They seem to be great kids, and I'm glad that they got the opportunity to be here.