Missouri businesses seek to curb cities’ powers on minimum wage, discrimination

Business groups are aligned behind an effort to challenge the power of local governments to set their own rules on a variety of things, from discrimination law to the minimum wage. And they expect a warm reception in the Missouri General Assembly.

The effort is being greeted with howls from city leaders. It’s hypocritical, they say, for a legislature that complains about the federal government foisting one-size-fits-all policies on the state to do the same thing to local governments.

Kansas City Mayor Sly James “deeply believes that states should not be in the business of telling cities how to run themselves,” said his chief of staff, Joni Wickham.

The chamber is focused on a three-pronged agenda. It wants to ban local governments from implementing discrimination laws that are stricter than the state’s. It wants to prohibit cities from boosting their minimum wage. And it wants to ban cities from mandating benefits such as vacation or sick leave.

The legislation may also take aim at other local ordinances, such as one recently passed in Columbia prohibiting private employers from asking about a job applicant’s criminal history or conducting background checks before making a conditional job offer.

Last week, President Barack Obama announced he’ll grant at least six weeks of paid leave to federal employees after the birth or adoption of a child. And in his State of the Union address Tuesday night, he called on Congress to require companies to give workers up to seven days of paid sick leave a year.

He’s also encouraging state and local governments to pass their own paid leave requirements if Congress fails to act.

The idea is sure to be greeted with hostility in Jefferson City, where Senate leaders listed “pushing back against the federal government” among their top legislative priorities for the year.

With minimum wage and paid sick leave ordinances gaining momentum nationally, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the National Restaurant Association, the American Legislative Exchange Council and other groups have ramped up efforts to resist workplace regulations.

The Missouri chamber has historically opposed efforts to add sexual orientation and gender identity to the state’s Human Rights Act alongside things such as race, gender and age. They’ve argued doing so would open businesses up to litigation.

A.J. Bockelman, executive director of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender advocacy group Promo, says the Chamber’s efforts position it against a rising tide of public support for gay rights.

Same-sex marriage is now legal in 36 states, and court rulings have allowed same-sex couples to marry in St. Louis and Jackson County. Yet under Missouri law a person can be fired from a job, evicted from an apartment or kicked out of a public place just for being gay.

The chamber’s proposed legislation also puts it at odds with some of its biggest members, Bockelman said. St. Louis-based Monsanto Co., for example, has offered same-sex domestic partner benefits for more than 10 years and brags that it was named one of the “Best Places to Work for LGBT Equality” by the national gay-rights group Human Rights Campaign. The same types of benefits are offered by Kansas City-area companies like Cerner Corp., Burns & McDonnell and Sprint Corp.

(Excerpted from Kansas City Star 1/20/15)

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Hating Good Government

It’s now official: 2014 was the warmest year on record. You might expect this to be a politically important milestone. After all, climate change deniers have long used the blip of 1998 — an unusually hot year, mainly due to an upwelling of warm water in the Pacific — to claim that the planet has stopped warming. This claim involves a complete misunderstanding of how one goes about identifying underlying trends. (Hint: Don’t cherry-pick your observations.) But now even that bogus argument has collapsed. So will the deniers now concede that climate change is real?

Of course not. Evidence doesn’t matter for the “debate” over climate policy, where I put scare quotes around “debate” because, given the obvious irrelevance of logic and evidence, it’s not really a debate in any normal sense. And this situation is by no means unique. Indeed, at this point it’s hard to think of a major policy dispute where facts actually do matter; it’s unshakable dogma, across the board. And the real question is why.

Before I get into that, let me remind you of some other news that won’t matter.

First, consider the Kansas experiment. Back in 2012 Sam Brownback, the state’s right-wing governor, went all in on supply-side economics: He drastically cut taxes, assuring everyone that the resulting boom would make up for the initial loss in revenues. Unfortunately for his constituents, his experiment has been a resounding failure. The economy of Kansas, far from booming, has lagged the economies of neighboring states, and Kansas is now in fiscal crisis.

So will we see conservatives scaling back their claims about the magical efficacy of tax cuts as a form of economic stimulus? Of course not. If evidence mattered, supply-side economics would have faded into obscurity decades ago. Instead, it has only strengthened its grip on the Republican Party.

Meanwhile, the news on health reform keeps coming in, and it keeps being more favorable than even the supporters expected. We already knew that the number of Americans without insurance is dropping fast, even as the growth in health care costs moderates. Now we have evidence that the number of Americans experiencing financial distress due to medical expenses is also dropping fast.

All this is utterly at odds with dire predictions that reform would lead to declining coverage and soaring costs. So will we see any of the people claiming that Obamacare is doomed to utter failure revising their position? You know the answer.

And the list goes on. On issues that range from monetary policy to the control of infectious disease, a big chunk of America’s body politic holds views that are completely at odds with, and completely unmovable by, actual experience. And no matter the issue, it’s the same chunk. If you’ve gotten involved in any of these debates, you know that these people aren’t happy warriors; they’re red-faced angry, with special rage directed at know-it-alls who snootily point out that the facts don’t support their position.

The question, as I said at the beginning, is why. Why the dogmatism? Why the rage? And why do these issues go together, with the set of people insisting that climate change is a hoax pretty much the same as the set of people insisting that any attempt at providing universal health insurance must lead to disaster and tyranny?

Well, it strikes me that the immovable position in each of these cases is bound up with rejecting any role for government that serves the public interest. If you don’t want the government to impose controls or fees on polluters, you want to deny that there is any reason to limit emissions. If you don’t want the combination of regulation, mandates and subsidies that is needed to extend coverage to the uninsured, you want to deny that expanding coverage is even possible. And claims about the magical powers of tax cuts are often little more than a mask for the real agenda of crippling government by starving it of revenue.

And why this hatred of government in the public interest? Well, the political scientist Corey Robin argues that most self-proclaimed conservatives are actually reactionaries. That is, they’re defenders of traditional hierarchy — the kind of hierarchy that is threatened by any expansion of government, even (or perhaps especially) when that expansion makes the lives of ordinary citizens better and more secure. I’m partial to that story, partly because it helps explain why climate science and health economics inspire so much rage.

Whether this is the right explanation or not, the fact is that we’re living in a political era in which facts don’t matter. This doesn’t mean that those of us who care about evidence should stop seeking it out. But we should be realistic in our expectations, and not expect even the most decisive evidence to make much difference.

(Excerpted from New York Times 1/19/15)

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State of the Union Address

My only agenda for the next two years is the same as the one I’ve had since the day I swore an oath on the steps of this Capitol — to do what I believe is best for America. If you share the broad vision I outlined tonight, I ask you to join me in the work at hand. If you disagree with parts of it, I hope you’ll at least work with me where you do agree. And I commit to every Republican here tonight that I will not only seek out your ideas, I will seek to work with you to make this country stronger. (Applause.)

Because I want this chamber, I want this city to reflect the truth — that for all our blind spots and shortcomings, we are a people with the strength and generosity of spirit to bridge divides, to unite in common effort, to help our neighbors, whether down the street or on the other side of the world.

I want our actions to tell every child in every neighborhood, your life matters, and we are committed to improving your life chances as committed as we are to working on behalf of our own kids. (Applause.) I want future generations to know that we are a people who see our differences as a great gift, that we’re a people who value the dignity and worth of every citizen — man and woman, young and old, black and white, Latino, Asian, immigrant, Native American, gay, straight, Americans with mental illness or physical disability. Everybody matters. I want them to grow up in a country that shows the world what we still know to be true: that we are still more than a collection of red states and blue states; that we are the United States of America. (Applause.)

I want them to grow up in a country where a young mom can sit down and write a letter to her President with a story that sums up these past six years: “It’s amazing what you can bounce back from when you have to…we are a strong, tight-knit family who’s made it through some very, very hard times.”

My fellow Americans, we, too, are a strong, tight-knit family. We, too, have made it through some hard times. Fifteen years into this new century, we have picked ourselves up, dusted ourselves off, and begun again the work of remaking America. We have laid a new foundation. A brighter future is ours to write. Let’s begin this new chapter together — and let’s start the work right now.

For a complete transcript of the State of the Union Address click here

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Schaefer and Haahr Push to Have Public Universities Subsidize Anti-Gay Discrimination

State Sen. Kurt Schaefer of Columbia has filed a bill that would allow religous groups on college campuses to discriminate while enjoying all the benefits of being subsidized by public funds through the university. Schaefer’s bill mirrors State Rep. Elijah Haahr’s HB 104, a bill that prohibits universities from “burdening” any religious organization with the expectation of not discriminating against members of the public even though that organization is being subsidized by the public.

Sadly, these anti-gay discrmination bills aren’t new.

Over the past ten years, many Christian groups, such as the InterVarsity Christian Fellowship and Christian Legal Society, have tried to challenge these policies on various campuses by requiring that candidates for officer positions not identify as gay, because homosexuality is against their religious beliefs. When campuses then revoke their privileges, they claim that it’s a violation of their religious freedom, but so far, courts have upheld universities’ “all-comers” policies — as in, all who come must be free to participate equally.

And when the United States Supreme Court looked into current ‘all comers’ policies in 2010, it found that they are fine.
Christian Legal Society v. Martinez

Holding: A public college does not violate the First Amendment by refusing to officially recognize a student organization unless it allows all students to join the group, even if that all comers policy requires a religious organization to admit gay students who do not adhere to the group’s core beliefs.

There’s only one issue truly in play here: whether anti-gay student groups can force public universities to subsidize their discriminatory behavior. The answer today is the same one the Supreme Court gave in 2010: Absolutely not.

In a recent interview, Stephanie Perkins, Deputy Director of PROMO, summed up what’s at stake.
“Religious freedom is a fundamental part of Missouri, and we value our religious beliefs,” said Stephanie Perkins, Deputy Director of PROMO, Missouri’s statewide LGBT advocacy organization. ”But those beliefs don’t allow us to discriminate against others in a student group.”

“Freedom means for everyone, and no student should be turned away from opportunities to succeed and expand their university experience on campus just because of who they are,” said Perkins.
It’s pretty simple, really.

(Excerpted from Progress Missouri 1/15/15)

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The Rise in Health Care Coverage and Affordability Since Health Reform Took Effect

New results from the Commonwealth Fund Biennial Health Insurance Survey, 2014, indicate that the Affordable Care Act’s subsidized insurance options and consumer protections reduced the number of uninsured working-age adults from an estimated 37 million people, or 20 percent of the population, in 2010 to 29 million, or 16 percent, by the second half of 2014. Conducted from July to December 2014, for the first time since it began in 2001, the survey finds declines in the number of people who report cost-related access problems and medical-related financial difficulties. The number of adults who did not get needed health care because of cost declined from 80 million people, or 43 percent, in 2012 to 66 million, or 36 percent, in 2014. The number of adults who reported problems paying their medical bills declined from an estimated 75 million people in 2012 to 64 million people in 2014.


(Excerpted from Commonwealth Fund 1/15/15)

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House Passes Bill To Make Everything Harder And Worse

The Regulatory Accountability Act (RAA), which the House passed on Tuesday, is ostensibly aimed at cutting costly regulations imposed by federal and independent agencies, but it would actually make it much more difficult to pass and enforce protective measures overseen by the government.

It is actually a stealth attack on all the various statutes Congress has passed over the last 40 years to protect public health environmental quality,” according to Ronald White, director of Regulatory Policy at the Center for Effective Government. White told ThinkProgress that the RAA adds at least 70 new procedural steps into a process that already takes years for agencies to navigate through Congress. He said this is part of “a whole slew of anti-regulation legislation” that he expects to see in coming months.

The RAA for its part would hamper the rule issuing and enforcing processes currently in place for clean air, clean water, safe food, stable financial markets, safe workplaces, and fair wages, according to the Center for Effective Government.
For one, the measure would require all federal agencies to conduct cost-benefit analyses including speculative estimates of “indirect” costs — even when some agencies are barred from relying on cost-benefit analyses for adopting standards. For instance, the RAA would require the EPA to consider the cost of any new clean air rule, even though the Clean Air Act prohibits the EPA from factoring in cost when adopting new standards.

“The whole point is that these acts all say that costs come into account after you’ve made a decision to protect public health,” said White. “The Clean Air Act says costs should be considered in strategies, but not in what constitutes appropriate levels of air quality. That’s based on science, not cost.”

Furthermore, the RAA would mandate that federal agencies adopt the least costly rule unless the agency can demonstrate that the additional benefits of any alternative justify additional costs. The legislation would also allow any interested party to ask an agency to hold a public hearing to challenge data that the agency used in drafting proposed rules. The only way to avoid the public hearing is for the agency to revoke the information being petitioned. It is not hard to foresee industry lobbyists taking advantage of this to request numerous public hearings relating to information they see as harmful to their goals.

“The goal of administrative procedure is to ensure that the government’s adoption of regulation is accountable and fair, but not at the expense of hamstringing the ability of agencies to fulfill the public interest,” wrote Sidney A. Shapiro, Wake Forest University law professor and Center for Progressive Reform scholar, this week. “The House obviously has no such concern.”

“It’s telling that the newly-empowered Republican majority in Congress has made it its first order of business to protect the profits of its corporate benefactors at the expense of the public interest,” writes Shapiro.

In an analysis for the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), Celia Wexler, a representative for the Scientific Integrity Initiative at UCS, says this “special-interest interference” jeopardizes the mandates of the Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act. “The RAA emphasizes the costs to businesses, not the long-term benefits to the public,” she writes.

The Clean Water Act and Clean Air Act have offered economic benefits as well over the 40 years since their passage. The Administration has been pursuing an update to the CWA that would protect about 20 million acres of wetland and two million miles of streams. A recent analysis found that the economic benefits of this update would be between $300.7 million and $397.6 million.

The CAA’s track record is even more impressive. A 2013 study by the EPA concluded that between 1970 and 1990, the total monetized health benefits of the Act was between $5.6 and $49.4 trillion. By removing harmful pollutants from the air, the CAA helps people stay healthy — keeping them at work, at school, and out of the hospital.

(Excerpted from Think Progress 1/14/15)

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The GOP’s scramble to court Wall Street

Deregulating Wall Street is distasteful stuff that can claim no real public support or economic merit, but for reasons both political and financial, the Republicans have decided it’s best done quickly.

Scarcely had the Republicans taken their oaths last week when they sought to enact, under an urgency provision that required a two-thirds vote for passage, a delay of one Dodd-Frank provision — the Volcker Rule — that prohibits publicly insured banks from making bets with their own (that is, taxpayer-insured) funds on risky collateralized loan obligations. Dodd-Frank was enacted in 2010; the Securities and Exchange Commission has given the banks till 2017 to divest themselves of these positions; the Republicans, apparently believing that seven years didn’t give the banks enough time to dispose of this profitable paper, wanted to extend that to 2019. Since the bill required a two-thirds super-majority, Democrats were able to defeat it, but on Wednesday, Republicans again brought it to a vote, this time requiring just a simple majority for passage — and it passed.

But why the urgency? Why the rush to let the banks run amok, even before Republicans turn their attention to authorizing the Keystone XL pipeline, repealing Obamacare and reversing the president’s executive orders on immigration? Those are all causes, however, that Republicans want to highlight, for which their base is clamoring. Deregulating Wall Street, by contrast, isn’t high on the tea party’s to-do list, if it’s on it at all. By scurrying to give the banks what they want, Republicans can get it out of the way and hope that any public memory of this unseemly spectacle is eclipsed by the epic, more popular battles to come.

By pushing mega-bank welfare to the head of the line, Republicans also sent a clear signal to Wall Street that they’ll do whatever it takes to further feather the bankers’ nests.

(Excerpted from Washington Post 1/14/15)

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For the Love of Carbon

It should come as no surprise that the very first move of the new Republican Senate is an attempt to push President Obama into approving the Keystone XL pipeline, which would carry oil from Canadian tar sands. After all, debts must be paid, and the oil and gas industry — which gave 87 percent of its 2014 campaign contributions to the G.O.P. — expects to be rewarded for its support.

But why is this environmentally troubling project an urgent priority in a time of plunging world oil prices? Well, the party line, from people like Mitch McConnell, the new Senate majority leader, is that it’s all about jobs. And it’s true: Building Keystone XL could slightly increase U.S. employment. In fact, it might replace almost 5 percent of the jobs America has lost because of destructive cuts in federal spending, which were in turn the direct result of Republican blackmail over the debt ceiling.

Oh, and don’t tell me that the cases are completely different. You can’t consistently claim that pipeline spending creates jobs while government spending doesn’t.

Let’s back up for a minute and discuss economic principles.

For more than seven years — ever since the Bush-era housing and debt bubbles burst — the United States economy has suffered from inadequate demand. Total spending just hasn’t been enough to fully employ the nation’s resources. In such an environment, anything that increases spending creates jobs. And if private spending is depressed, a temporary rise in public spending can and should take its place. That’s why a great majority of economists believe that the Obama stimulus did, in fact, reduce the unemployment rate compared with what it would have been without that stimulus.

From the beginning, however, Republican leaders have held the opposite view, insisting that we should slash public spending in the face of high unemployment. And they’ve gotten their way: The years after 2010, when Republicans took control of the House, were marked by an unprecedented decline in real government spending per capita, which leveled off only in 2014.

The evidence overwhelmingly indicates that this kind of fiscal austerity in a depressed economy is destructive; if the economic news has been better lately, it’s probably in part because of the fact that federal, state and local governments have finally stopped cutting. And spending cuts have, in particular, cost a lot of jobs. When the Congressional Budget Office was asked how many jobs would be lost because of the sequester — the big cuts in federal spending that Republicans extracted in 2011 by threatening to push America into default — its best estimate was 900,000. And that’s only part of the total loss.

Needless to say, the guilty parties here will never admit that they were wrong. But if you look at their behavior closely, you see clear signs that they don’t really believe in their own doctrine.

Consider, for example, the case of military spending. When it comes to possible cuts in defense contracts, politicians who loudly proclaim that every dollar the government spends comes at the expense of the private sector suddenly begin talking about all the jobs that will be destroyed. They even begin talking about the multiplier effect, as reduced spending by defense workers leads to job losses in other industries. This is the phenomenon former Representative Barney Frank dubbed “weaponized Keynesianism.”

And the argument being made for Keystone XL is very similar; call it “carbonized Keynesianism.” Yes, approving the pipeline would mobilize some money that would otherwise have sat idle, and in so doing create some jobs — 42,000 during the construction phase, according to the most widely cited estimate. (Once completed, the pipeline would employ only a few dozen workers.) But government spending on roads, bridges and schools would do the same thing.

And the job gains from the pipeline would, as I said, be only a tiny fraction — less than 5 percent — of the job losses from sequestration, which in turn are only part of the damage done by spending cuts in general. If Mr. McConnell and company really believe that we need more spending to create jobs, why not support a push to upgrade America’s crumbling infrastructure?

So what should be done about Keystone XL? If you believe that it would be environmentally damaging — which I do — then you should be against it, and you should ignore the claims about job creation. The numbers being thrown around are tiny compared with the country’s overall work force. And in any case, the jobs argument for the pipeline is basically a sick joke coming from people who have done all they can to destroy American jobs — and are now employing the very arguments they used to ridicule government job programs to justify a big giveaway to their friends in the fossil fuel industry.

(Excerpted from New York Times 1/12/15)

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Kicking Dodd-Frank in the Teeth

The 114th Congress has been at work for less than a week, but a goal for many of its members is already evident: a further rollback of regulations put in place to keep markets and Main Street safe from reckless Wall Street practices.

The attack began with a bill that narrowly failed in a fast-track vote on Wednesday in the House of Representatives. It is scheduled to come up again in the House this week.

The bill, introduced by Representative Michael Fitzpatrick, a Pennsylvania Republican who is a member of the House Financial Services Committee, has three troublesome elements. First, it would let large banks hold on to certain risky securities until 2019, two years longer than currently allowed. It would also prevent the Securities and Exchange Commission from regulating private equity firms that conduct some securities transactions. And, finally, the bill would make derivatives trading less transparent, allowing unseen risks to build up in the system.

Of course, you wouldn’t know any of this from the name of the bill: the Promoting Job Creation and Reducing Small Business Burdens Act. Or from the mild claim that the bill was intended only “to make technical corrections” to the Dodd-Frank legislation of 2010.

Here’s the game plan for lawmakers eager to relax the nation’s already accommodating financial regulations: First, seize on complex and esoteric financial activities that few understand. Then, make supposedly minor tweaks to their governing regulations that actually wind up gutting them.

“We’re going to see repeated attempts to go in with seemingly technical changes that intimidate regulators and keep them from putting teeth in regulations,” predicted Marcus Stanley, policy director at Americans for Financial Reform a nonpartisan, nonprofit coalition of more than 200 consumer and civic groups across the country. “If we return to the precrisis business as usual, where it’s routine for people to accommodate Wall Street on these technical changes, they’re just going to unravel the postcrisis regulation piece by piece. Then, we’ll be right back where we started.”

The Dodd-Frank law, as written back in 2010, was by no means a comprehensive fix for a risky banking system. And it is more vulnerable to attack, in part, because of its complexity and design. Dodd-Frank delegated so much rule-making to regulators that it essentially invited the institutions they oversee to fight them every inch of the way.

And when Congress backs the industry in these battles, it’s no contest.

Still, it is remarkable to watch the same financial institutions that almost wrecked our nation’s economy work to heighten risks in the system.

“The truth about Dodd-Frank is it’s pretty moderate and pretty compromised already,” Mr. Stanley of Americans for Financial Reform said. “Any further compromise and it tends to collapse into nothingness.”

(Excerpted from New York Times 1/11/15)

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Inside The GOP’s Long Game To Ignite A New Battle Over Social Security

Republicans are seizing a once-every-20-years opportunity to force a crisis in the Social Security disability program and use it as leverage to push through reforms, a long game that they have been quietly laying groundwork for since taking control of the House in 2010.

In less than two years, the Social Social disability insurance program will start being unable to pay its full benefits and House Republicans said this week that they aren’t going to simply give it more revenue from the retirement side, as has been done historically. It’s the latest episode in a protracted campaign over the disability program — and it raises the question of what exactly Republicans plan to do now.

The last time this happened was 1994, and liberal analysts say that another simple reallocation between the disability and retirement funds, as has been done 11 times in the past, would keep both funds solvent until 2033. That meant that conservatives had to act now if they wanted to squeeze the crisis for all it’s worth. For the last few years, they’ve been highlighting instances of fraud and other problems with the program, setting the stage for the big move this week.

Democrats are sounding the alarm, warning that Republicans have taken a “hostage” and will leverage it to pursue broad changes to Social Security as a whole. With memories still fresh of their failed effort to privatize Social Security in 2005, conservatives wonks are less sure that the new GOP Congress would have the political will to do that, though they wouldn’t necessarily mind if it did.

The hostage in this metaphor is the disability insurance program and a late 2016 deadline, at which point it won’t be able to pay its full benefits to its 11 million beneficiaries. The new Republican House has approved a rule that says Congress can’t just transfer tax revenue from the Social Security retirement fund, as it has been done routinely in the past, to cover the looming shortfall. If nothing is done, beneficiaries would face an estimated 20 percent cut.

(Excerpted from Talking Point Memo 1/10/15)

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Behold the Republican Immigration Strategy: Mass Deportation

It’s a new year, with a new Congress, but the same old Republican Party hard line on immigration. Harder, actually.

The New York Times and Politico are reporting that the House is getting ready to vote next week on a legislative package that would repeal the broad executive actions taken by President Obama to protect immigrants from deportation. The idea is to gut the president’s ability to use discretion in deciding whom to deport, and to restore the enforcement dragnet that Mr. Obama and the Homeland Security Department recently, and wisely, curtailed.

The G.O.P. is not just seeking to undo the executive actions Mr. Obama announced last November, for young immigrants known as Dreamers and many of their parents. The party also wants to repeal earlier actions going back to 2012, protecting hundreds of thousands of Dreamers and the families of active-duty service members.

That is a lot of people to force back into the deportation line.

What’s striking about this early Republican move is that it is not just stray artillery fire from the party’s wingnut brigade, led by Representative Steve King of Iowa, but a product of the House leadership.

So much for the G.O.P. not being the scary party. This counts as a definite screw-you to immigrants from the party that keeps saying it wants to moderate its stance toward new Americans, and thus broaden its appeal beyond angry white people, but can never bring itself to do so.

“Only three words describe the Republican approach to immigrants: deportation, deportation, deportation,” said Representative Luis Gutiérrez, Democrat of Illinois, in a statement on Friday. “The ‘deport them all’ contingent in the Republican Party has the pen and the gavel in the House. I know the Republicans will stop at nothing, but I didn’t think they would start with everything.”

(Excerpted from New York Times 1/9/15)

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The right’s wrong idea of governance

The problem for the Republicans who now control both the House and the Senate is that they are divided between their right and their far right. The number of bona fide moderates can be counted on one hand — although, if you wanted to be generous, you might get to a second hand. As a result, the Republicans’ own measure of success will be out of line not only with President Obama’s priorities but also with what most middle-of-the-road Americans would take as a reasonable test of what it means for government to work.

The notion of Boehner as a moderate is belied by the new House rules he and the Republican leadership have concocted. They’re designed to rig the legislative playing field in favor of right-leaning policy.

One example: The new rules would provide for “dynamic scoring” of tax cuts, which sounds very cool and forward-looking but for the fact that they aim to assert tax cuts won’t cost what they’ll actually cost. This, in turn, will make it easier for the Republicans to shower money on their favored constituencies while pretending to be fiscally responsible.

For good measure, the House leadership included another rule flatly designed to force cuts to Social Security’s disability program. If Republicans want to debate such cuts, fine, but don’t sneak them in through the fine print.

Then there is the move by both House and Senate Republicans to change the employer mandate in the Affordable Care Act. Currently, employers with 50 or more full-time workers have to provide health insurance to employees who work 30 hours or more, or pay a fine. Republicans want to limit the mandate to Americans who work 40 hours or more. In USA Today this week, Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) wrote that the purpose of the change is “so more people can work full time.”

But the change would have exactly the opposite effect. Currently, only 7 percent of American workers put in between 30 and 34 hours a week, but 44 percent work 40 hours a week. In other words, wrote Yuval Levin, a conservative policy analyst and a foe of Obamacare, altering the law in this way “would likely put far, far more people at risk of having their hours cut than leaving it at 30 hours.” So much for more people working “full time.”

Keep in mind that all these ideas come from the Republican mainstream, the people who tell us they are interested in “governing” and being “reasonable.”

How far have the goal posts been moved in the GOP? Just because Boehner and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) say they want to avoid government shutdowns and debt-ceiling hostage-taking, they are to be regarded as heroes of sane policymaking. But if we’ve sunk so low that this is now the test of “governance,” we are still a long way from the real thing.

(Excerpted from Washington Post 1/7/15)

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Why the Republican Congress’s First Act Was to Declare War on Math

The first substantive act of the new, all-Republican Congress was a telling one: House and Senate leaders, now in partisan accord and able to impose an undiluted partisan imprint upon the institution, struck a blow in their decades-long struggle on behalf of low taxes for the rich and against the bookkeeping standards that have stood in their way. In a rapid vote yesterday, the House directed the Congressional Budget Office to use “dynamic scoring” — a Washington term of art to describe imposing conservative ideology upon the once-neutral task of measuring the budgetary impact of legislation.

The Congressional Budget Office is a 40-year-old institution that has acquired enormous clout within Washington by virtue of its reputation for ideological neutrality. It furnishes Congress and the public with budgetary estimates that, if necessarily imperfect (as all predictions must be), are arrived at fairly. It is also a perfect modern expression of an old Progressive Era–ideal: that policymakers should be informed by the work of impartial experts. That the conservative majority has set out to corrupt this institution as one of its first major acts is, therefore, perfectly fitting.

Congress voted yesterday to require the CBO’s measurement of the budgetary cost of legislation to incorporate assumptions about how it will affect economic growth. Specifically, the GOP’s assumptions.

To understand the stakes of the disagreement, consider the following. In 2012, President Obama was threatening to block any extension of the Bush tax cuts for the highest earners, and he made this promise a key point of differentiation between himself and Mitt Romney. The Congressional Budget Office predicted that the expiration of these tax cuts would have only minor, short-term effects on the economy. Conservatives made far more dire assessments. A study commissioned by pro-business organizations predicted that ending the Bush tax cuts for the rich would cost hundreds of thousands of jobs and reduce economic productivity. “This report shows the president’s small business tax hike threatens hundreds of thousands of jobs, and will lead to even less economic growth, less investment and lower wages for American workers,” warned John Boehner. “These tax increases will have painful impacts on the economy and job creation,” insisted the Heritage Foundation. These predictions were the perfectly predictable expression of the conservative worldview, which deems tax rates on “job creators” to be the overriding factor in the success or failure of the economy.

Almost nothing that has happened in the two years since has made that conservative argument look good. In February 2013 — just after the Bush tax cuts on the highest earners expired — the Congressional Budget Office published a forecast for the budget and the economy over the next several years. The CBO forecast that the unemployment rate would fall to 7.6 percent by the end of 2014. If the conservative analysis was correct, and higher tax rates on job creators were depressing job growth, we might expect the unemployment rate today to be higher than the CBO forecast. Instead it is much lower. Unemployment fell below 6 percent by the third quarter of last year. Indeed, the economy appears to be accelerating into a phase of more rapid growth just at the time conservatives predicted that higher taxes would have the opposite effect. This development has not given Republicans even the slightest pause.

The new, “dynamic” CBO will be systematically biased to make conservative proposals appear misleadingly cheap and liberal proposals misleadingly costly to the public fisc. This would be true even if the Republicans were soliciting a fair range of forecasting perspectives. By its design, the dynamic scoring rule allows the party in power to game its effects. It applies “dynamic scoring” only to legislation affecting 0.25 percent of Gross Domestic Product. As Chye-Ching Huang and Paul Van de Water point out, congressional leaders can manipulate this requirement easily: They can break up large pieces of legislation into smaller bills to avoid dynamic scoring, or combine smaller pieces into a major bill, if needed to make their agenda appear more affordable. Dynamic scoring is subject to abuse by its very design.

It is possible the Republicanized CBO continues to function in some distorted form, advancing Republican legislative goals by passing off slanted analysis as impartial. Or it is possible it simply loses all of its previous credibility and mutates into another partisan mouthpiece. Either way, the Republican right has struck a powerful blow against the sort of academic expert they have always loathed.

(Excerpted from New York Magazine 1/7/15)

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The health of Missouri is going downhill

We used to be among the nation’s healthiest states. But we’ve been plummeting toward the bottom half of the pack.

The United Health Foundation, which has been ranking the overall health of states since 1990, recently named…Missouri among the seven states that have sunk the furthest on its list over the past 25 years. The rankings are based on a broad range of health, environmental and socioeconomic data.

Missouri used to be among the better half of states at 24th place; now it’s a dismal 36th. In much of the Midwest, we just haven’t been making a major public commitment to improving the health of our citizens, they say, and the results are catching up with us.

“Missouri has just been (reluctant) to take policy actions to improve health,” she said. “There’s a lack of engagement or belief that policies can work.”

Missouri slumps

Consider the data cited by America’s Health Rankings:

▪ Over the past 25 years, the nation’s cancer death rate has been slowly going down. Missouri’s has been creeping up.

▪ In 1990, the rate of heart disease deaths was lower in Missouri than for the nation as a whole. Now the rate is higher.

▪ Diabetes used to be slightly less prevalent in Missouri than in the rest of the nation. Now it’s just as common.

Out of the 27 measures used in the rankings, Missouri is among the bottom 20 states in 18 categories. In four categories —including smoking and immunizing adolescents — it’s among the 10 worst.

Some relatively simple policy changes, starting with raising the state’s tobacco tax, could benefit the health of Missourians.

At 17 cents per pack of cigarettes, Missouri has the lowest tobacco tax in the nation. The average state tax is $1.54 per pack. New York’s tax is the highest at $4.35 per pack.

“We’re just ignoring some of the evidence out there that higher taxes discourage smoking,” Patrick said.

Missouri also can do more to prevent drug deaths, she said. It’s the only state in the nation that doesn’t have a system for monitoring sales of prescription painkillers and other potentially dangerous drugs, she said.

“The illegal drug distribution industry knows, ‘Go to Missouri,’” Patrick said. “Nobody is monitoring there.”

The drug death rate has been increasing in Missouri during the past few years while it has remained fairly flat nationwide.

A factor that stands out for Patrick is funding for public health.

“Since the beginning of the rankings, Missouri has been near the bottom,” she said. “Many times, county health departments feel that public health functions are being pushed over to them by the state.”

According to the Trust for America’s Health, Missouri budgets less money per capita for public health than any other state. The national median for state spending is $27.49 per person. In Missouri, it’s $5.86.

Missouri’s tight budget for public health “didn’t happen on any one person’s watch,” Archer said. “But collectively, we just let it go downhill.”

In an emailed response, the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services said that in recent years it has supported efforts to expand Medicaid and implement a prescription drug monitoring program. The department is “continuously looking for potential initiatives and resources that could help improve health and wellness in our state … (and) is always working to ensure both state and federal resources are used as effectively as possible.”

But Missouri lawmakers have balked at expanding Medicaid or starting a prescription drug monitoring program.

(Excerpted from Kansas City Star 1/3/15)

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We demand better of those who govern Missouri

Politics is killing us in Missouri. Politics of fear and division in our city streets is killing us. Politics of money and power in the halls of our Capitol is killing us.

It’s killing us in rural hospitals without Medicaid expansion. It’s killing us in communities of color without reforms to our policing and justice systems. It’s killing us when hard-working Missourians scrabble and scrape by with poverty wages, only to be preyed upon by predatory lenders, or to die of some treatable disease because they can’t afford health insurance.

At the start of this legislative session, our legislators have a simple choice: Will they save lives, or sacrifice them to the political game? Will they be swayed by the forces of political pressure and big money, or will they lead us through this crisis with the moral clarity that Missourians elected them to show?

It is a new year, a new session, and a new chance to make the welfare of the people the supreme law, as our state motto commands us.

To our legislators: What we are asking of you is simple. Before anything else, do the Dignity Test. Ask yourself: Does this choice threaten or enhance the life and dignity of everyday Missourians?

It’s a brief question, but one of highest importance. Missourians are dying. Real lives hang in the balance.

Your political realities may be complicated. Your policy-making decisions may be intricate. But this higher standard is simple and clear: Put human life and dignity first.

(Excerpted from ; St. Louis Post-Dispatch 1/6/15)

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Missouri’s Republican lawmakers continue opposition to Obamacare and Medicaid expansion

Bob Onder hasn’t been sworn in as a state senator yet, but his first priority is already clear.

“Fighting the effects of Obamacare in Missouri is at the top of my legislative agenda,” Onder said.

The only bill the Republican from St. Charles has filed so far would strip an insurance company of its license to sell policies in Missouri if it were to accept federal subsidies for plans sold through Missouri’s federally run health exchange.

But he doesn’t intend to stop there. Onder also made another campaign promise regarding the federal health law that he intends to keep

“I will do everything I can,” he said, “to prevent Medicaid expansion.”

As it turns out, keeping that promise probably will be pretty easy.

Legislative leaders in the Missouri House and Senate have said any discussion of Medicaid expansion is off the table in 2015. A group of Republican senators has promised to filibuster expansion if it somehow did get traction.

The Republican-dominated General Assembly has repeatedly balked at the idea of accepting billions of federal dollars to offer Medicaid coverage to around 300,000 uninsured Missourians — a key provision in the federal health care law.

While odds are long for success, proponents of expansion continue to lean on two factors they hope will sway skeptical lawmakers.

The first is a coverage gap.

Currently, to be eligible for Medicaid in Missouri, a non-elderly adult must have a dependent child and can earn no more than 19 percent of the poverty level, or roughly $3,700 for a single mother with two children. Federal tax credits help offset costs of insurance for those earning between 138 percent and 400 percent of the poverty level.

Medicaid expansion was supposed to cover the 200,000 Missourians earning between 19 percent of the poverty level and 138 percent. As things stand, though, they qualify neither for Medicaid nor federal subsidies to help them purchase private insurance.

That means a family of four earning up to $95,000 a year qualifies for assistance. A similar family earning $32,000 doesn’t.

The second concern of proponents is the phasing out of federal funding for hospitals to offset the costs of providing care to the uninsured.

When the federal health law was written, it was assumed hospitals would no longer need that money because the previously uninsured would have either subsidized private coverage or Medicaid.

The Missouri Hospital Association has warned rural hospitals will face huge cutbacks, or even closure, without Medicaid expansion.

“It won’t be the president that closes rural hospitals,” said state Rep. John Rizzo, a Kansas City Democrat. “It will be the rural legislators themselves who opposed Medicaid expansion.”

(Excerpted from Kansas City Star 1/04/15)

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How can America inspire the Slacktivist Generation to action?

I wanted to do something for my country during the holidays, so I went to the movies.

I watched the Christmas Day opening of “The Interview,” to show North Korea that I wasn’t afraid of its threats to blow up theaters that screen the parody of Kim Jong Un.

My patriotic gesture was a form of Slacktivism — a uniquely American form of engagement in which statements are made without any real sacrifice. The Slacktivist gets icy water over the head to fight Lou Gehrig’s disease, or tweets out hashtags to fight kidnapping in Nigeria (#BringBackOurGirls). The Slacktivist wears color-coded bracelets for causes, “likes” causes on Facebook — and goes to see a Seth Rogen film to defy North Korea.

This can be traced back to September 2001, when President George W. Bush launched wars without calling for sacrifice from Americans — other than to spend money. “Fly and enjoy America’s great destination spots,” he said. “Get down to Disney World in Florida. Take your families and enjoy life, the way we want it to be enjoyed.” He also asked Americans to “hug your children” and to pray for those in uniform.

But hugging children isn’t a sacrifice. The problem is that the nation’s wars have been detached from any notion of sacrifice for the country — except for the fewer than 1 percent of Americans who serve in the military.

In mid-December, the National Conference on Citizenship released its annual “civic health indicators” (volunteer work, contact with friends and family, confidence in institutions) and found a “broad decline” in 16 of 20 areas. The study was backed by the Census Bureau and the Corporation for National and Community Service.

Similarly, Census and the Bureau of Labor Statistics found that volunteering in 2012 (the most recent data available) was at the lowest percentage (25.4 percent) since the government started counting in 2001.

The cause of this is fairly clear: Americans are not being asked to serve their country. With the passing of the World War II generation, veterans are just 7 percent of the population, roughly half of what they were in 1970. Fewer than 20 percent of incoming members of Congress served in the military; in the ’70s, more than 70 percent had served.

John Bridgeland, who worked on national-service initiatives in the Bush White House, sees the decline of military service as the cause of Washington’s problems. “The World War II generation that served together had higher levels of charitable contributions, volunteering, voting, social trust, trust in one another,” he told me. “Even the gap between rich and poor was at its lowest levels. This greatest generation had an ethic of service that transcended politics and partisanship and belief.”

Bridgeland’s solution, joined by retired Gen. Stanley McChrystal, is to expand national service — military and other forms — to 1 million 18- to 29-year-olds each year, up from the current 100,000. While far from mandatory national service, this would be enough to create a social expectation that each 18-year-old would either join the military or spend a “service year” after high school earning a stipend serving in AmeriCorps, the Peace Corps and the like. They figure it would cost about $10 billion in taxpayer money and another $10 billion in private funds.

“In the World War II generation, people felt like happiness wasn’t some individual right but something we helped one another achieve,” Bridgeland says. “We’re trying to rescue that notion for a generation that’s lost its way.”

McChrystal and Bridgeland, who work on the Aspen Institute’s Franklin Project, have a difficult sales job ahead of them. Bush expanded the Peace Corps and AmeriCorps after 9/11, but most service programs have been frozen or cut in recent years, as Congress refuses President Obama’s requests for them.

But there’s hope in the form of the would-be presidential and vice presidential candidates.

That raises the hopeful possibility that national service could return to the agenda — and that a generation of Americans might be able to do something for their country other than pay $9.50 to hear dong jokes.

(Excerpted from Washington Post 12/30/14)

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The Republican’s Magical Mystery Tour (Starting Next Week)

According to reports, one of the first acts of the Republican Congress will be to fire Doug Elmendorf, current director of the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office, because he won’t use “dynamic scoring” for his economic projections.
Dynamic scoring is the magical-mystery math Republicans have been pushing since they came up with supply-side “trickle-down” economics.

It’s based on the belief that cutting taxes unleashes economic growth and thereby produces additional government revenue. Supposedly the added revenue more than makes up for what’s lost when Congress hands out the tax cuts.
Dynamic scoring would make it easier to enact tax cuts for the wealthy and corporations, because the tax cuts wouldn’t look as if they increased the budget deficit.

Incoming House Ways and Means Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) calls it “reality-based scoring,” but it’s actually magical scoring — which is why Elmendorf, as well as all previous CBO directors have rejected it.

Few economic theories have been as thoroughly tested in the real world as supply-side economics, and so notoriously failed.
Ronald Reagan cut the top income tax rate from 70 percent to 28 percent and ended up nearly doubling the national debt. His first budget director, David Stockman, later confessed he dealt with embarrassing questions about future deficits with “magic asterisks” in the budgets submitted to Congress. The Congressional Budget Office didn’t buy them.

George W. Bush inherited a budget surplus from Bill Clinton but then slashed taxes, mostly on the rich. The CBO found that the Bush tax cuts reduced revenues by $3 trillion.

Yet Republicans don’t want to admit supply-side economics is hokum. As a result, they’ve never had much love for the truth-tellers at the Congressional Budget Office.

In 2011, when briefly leading the race for the Republican presidential nomination, Newt Gingrich called the CBO “a reactionary socialist institution which does not believe in economic growth, does not believe in innovation and does not believe in data that has not been internally generated.”

The CBO has continued to be a truth-telling thorn in the Republican’s side.

The budget plan Paul Ryan came up with in 2012 — likely to be a harbinger of what’s to come from the Republican Congress — slashed Medicaid, cut taxes on the rich and on corporations, and replaced Medicare with a less well-funded voucher plan.
Ryan claimed these measures would reduce the deficit. The Congressional Budget Office disagreed.
Ryan persevered. His 2013 and 2014 budget proposals were similarly filled with magic asterisks. The CBO still wasn’t impressed.
Yet it’s one thing to cling to magical-mystery thinking when you have only one house of Congress. It’s another when you’re running the whole shebang.

Now that Elmendorf is on the way out, presumably to be replaced by someone willing to tell Ryan and other Republicans what they’d like to hear, the way has been cleared for all the magic they can muster.

In this as in other domains of public policy, Republicans have not shown a particular affinity for facts.

Climate change? It’s not happening, they say. And even if it is happening, humans aren’t responsible. (Almost all scientists studying the issue find it’s occurring and humans are the major cause.)

Widening inequality? Not occurring, they say. Even though the data show otherwise, they claim the measurements are wrong.
Voting fraud? Happening all over the country, they say, which is why voter IDs and other limits on voting are necessary. Even though there’s no evidence to back up their claim (the best evidence shows no more than 31 credible incidents of fraud out of a billion ballots cast), they continue to assert it.

Evolution? Just a theory, they say. Even though all reputable scientists support it, many Republicans at the state level say it shouldn’t be taught without also presenting the view found in the Bible.

Weapons of mass destruction in Iraq? America’s use of torture? The George W. Bush administration and its allies in Congress weren’t overly interested in the facts.

The pattern seems to be: if you don’t like the facts, make them up.
Or have your benefactors finance “think tanks” filled with hired guns who will tell the public what you and your patrons want them to say.

If all else fails, fire your own experts who tell the truth, and replace them with people who will pronounce falsehoods.
There’s one big problem with this strategy, though. Legislation based on lies often causes the public to be harmed.

(Excerpted from Huffington Post 21/29/14)

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