Tag Archives: US Congress

A Victory For America

19 Dec

Yesterday, the United States Senate overcame the ever present threat of a Republican filibuster and voted 63-33 to invoke cloture for an up or down vote on repealing the discriminatory policy of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell (DADT)”.  Three hours later, the repeal passed the Senate with a vote of 65-31.  The House of Representatives had previously approved the measure, 250 to 175.

Some day, we’ll look back and wonder why it took so long to repeal it.  I think Senator McCain might feel differently as he was the primary opponent to the repeal of this policy, after supporting it in previous years.

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Enacted by President Clinton 17 years ago, DADT had led to the discharge of nearly 14,000 gay service members.  The policy has been the subject of controversy since Clinton backed it as a compromise in 1993, as gay rights advocates attacked it politically and sought relief in the courts. Earlier this year, a federal court declared the law unconstitutional and the decision is now under appeal.  However, the legislative repeal is the victory we all sought.  It is based upon the merits of the issue (not legal technicalities) and comes with the endorsement of a super majority of Senators, including eight Republicans.  It is a momentous occasion for civil rights in America.  President Obama released a statement thanking the Congress for making this possible.

Today, the Senate has taken an historic step toward ending a policy that undermines our national security while violating the very ideals that our brave men and women in uniform risk their lives to defend.

By ending Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, no longer will our nation be denied the service of thousands of patriotic Americans forced to leave the military, despite years of exemplary performance, because they happen to be gay. And no longer will many thousands more be asked to live a lie in order to serve the country they love.

As a veteran who served with dozens of LGBT airmen, seamen, soldiers and marines who served their country in fear, yesterday was a day filled with pride, remorse and hope.

The remorse is due to the fact that I served with three intelligence analysts and Arab linguists who were discharged from the Air Force when it was discovered that they were homosexual.  Losing those airmen in the service of our nation, after hundreds of thousands of dollars in training, in fields crucial to national security, made America less safe.  Soon, that will no longer be the case.

I hope that this victory serves as a penultimate chapter in this long battle for LGBT rights and that we will soon remove the last legislative barriers to full civil rights for all citizens.

Hopes and Fears on Election Day

28 Oct

It is to the consternation of reformers and the delight of conservatives (small c) that little changes on Election Day. In an election season based upon fear – of The Other, the status quo, taxes, healthcare, immigrants – it should be reassuring to know that the world will not end on the evening of November 2nd, no matter the results that appear.

Based upon the issues receiving the most attention nationally, it may come as a surprise that the status of witches, an armed insurrection, and the banning of mosques will not appear on the Congressional agenda in the next term. Our legislatures are naturally reactionary, as members only vote on the bills presented, and most have little power to have any substantive effect, especially as a freshman Senator or Representative. The President has the ultimate power to set the agenda, only partially shared with Congress in the cases of divided government. So if Christine O’Donnell (a long shot), Sharron Angle (a better chance), or Mark Rubio (put money on it) win next Tuesday, what effect will they personally have on the Senate? Almost none.

Image courtesy podbop.org

The base of each party is either blissfully unaware or purposely self-delusional about the most basic of truths of our legislative system: a vote for or against a bill is of no more or less effect if the legislator is a pragmatic centrist or a die-hard ideologue. There is no Tea Party vote that is worth two. There is no Liberal vote that automatically doubles the appropriation of every line item in the spending bill. The Tea Party is about to have their heart broken, the way the grassroot Netroots did years before. Elect a barn-burning Tea Party champion, and they will have the same practical effect as 95% of other Republicans. In Utah, reliable Republican Senator Bob Bennett was dumped for purer Tea Party candidate Mike Lee. How will his voting record differ when elected? It won’t. Even if the Senatorial stenographer is forced, by Tea Party decree, to use a red pen (made in America by non-union non-illegal immigrants) when recording his votes, it counts no different. And he will introduce less legislation, and have less effect in committee, than Senator Bennett did. Sorry.

No pure Tea Partier will be elected enough times to rise to a leadership level to make a serious impact, and any Tea Partier elected next week that does last that long will be nothing more than an insider, corporate Republican by the time they take a committee chair.

No, instead it is in the margins and at the leadership level that some small change can occur. The House is currently composed of 256 Democrats and 178 Republicans, the Senate 59-41. . Where are the Republicans, pundits and Democrats ask, for us to work with on the other side of the aisle? Why are they so recalcitrant? The Republicans they used to work with were voted out of office in New England, New York, New Jersey and North Carolina. The 178 Republicans left are in safe seats. The members in those 178 seats never reached out across the aisle, and their constituents don’t want them to compromise. Democrats, last year you had something better than a Republican from New Hampshire to work with – you had a member of your own party. The failure of that overwhelming and filibuster proof majority to enact legislation will be recognized next week, as those swing seats return Republican overwhelmingly.

Likewise, Democratic leadership is in trouble. New Yorker’s should cheer for Harry Reid to lose – Chuck Schumer, a strong Democrat from a strong Democratic state, would likely take over leadership. A prime example of how the Democrat’s are unable to effectively govern is that they choose leaders like Reid and Daschle, in weak positions at home, who have no room to either compromise or take bold positions. Hyper-partisan and embittered Nancy Pelosi is another matter – she has the political capital and strength of seat to be a leader, but not the social skills, patience, or aptitude to drop a grudge to win a vote. No matter – Pelosi is about to be demoted, and in or out of office, Reid seems destined for a smaller role. Closer to home, Rep. Slaughter should be fired for her abuses in the Rules Committee alone – for the first time in 221 years, not a single piece of legislation was brought to the floor open for an amendment. That’s the post-partisan Hope and Change I know Obama was going to instill to Washington. Unfortunately, she has as much chance of losing as O’Donnell has of winning.

Americans of pure motive and progressive (small p) spirit should hope for one thing next week: a Republican take over of both the House and Senate. Any other combination produces two years of gridlock. If power is truly divided, both parties share responsibility for the country’s problems. John Boehner becomes Gingrich, and Obama becomes Clinton, and taxes and the deficit have a small chance of being addressed. If the Democrats keep both houses in a weakened state, then we endure 111th Congress Redux, a sequel with less action and more fighting, and everyone waits for 2012. Worse, if only one house swaps, then nothing will ever come out of conference committee, and both parties will argue they need full control in 2012. President Obama has always been more of an individual force than a Democratic insider – more Change will occur if he places his 2012 fortunes above those of his party, and deals with Republican leadership for the next two years to strengthen his own hand (at the expense of Democrats as a whole).

In New York, there is even less change coming. The Assembly is stuck. The Senate will swap to a minor advantage for the Republicans, and Dean Skelos may not survive as leader. Andrew Cuomo is going to enter into office in the peculiar position of having a large electoral victory, but no mandate to actually do anything. Rarely is the faux incumbent placed in office simply for not being “The Other Guy.” Cuomo’s campaign technique of staying low and letting Paladino self-destruct will work politically, but leaves him, unlike Spitzer, weak entering office. The strongest man in the Albany three-way is Sheldon Silver. Woe to Western New York.

Healthcare Reform 2, Electric Boogaloo

17 Jan

Last September, President Obama said the following during his address on health care to the Joint Session of Congress:

Then there’s the problem of rising cost. We spend one and a half times more per person on health care than any other country, but we aren’t any healthier for it. This is one of the reasons that insurance premiums have gone up three times faster than wages. It’s why so many employers — especially small businesses — are forcing their employees to pay more for insurance, or are dropping their coverage entirely. It’s why so many aspiring entrepreneurs cannot afford to open a business in the first place, and why American businesses that compete internationally — like our automakers — are at a huge disadvantage. And it’s why those of us with health insurance are also paying a hidden and growing tax for those without it — about $1,000 per year that pays for somebody else’s emergency room and charitable care.

When he uttered the underlined portion of the address, I hoped he would expand on it and make it a central pillar of the healthcare reform cause.  After all, making businesses more competitive while expanding coverage appeals to most interest groups.  However, this sentence was all we got in the speech and the debate became a race to the bottom with words like socialism, fascism and corporatism thrown about by the chattering class and the masses.

I’ve always thought that a very simple way to explain the need for comprehensive healthcare reform would be to explain that employers should not be responsible for bearing the burden of employee healthcare.  It’s an anachronism and we’re about to codify it in law for a very long time.

Once upon a time in America, employers needed to offer health insurance as an incentive for an employee to join his/her firm.  Over the years, unions demanded health care from their employers and non-union shops offered benefits to their employees as well.  Since health insurance wasn’t a large cost, it made sense for employers to keep their employees healthy (read: well enough to work) and offer an incentive to keep employee turnover to a minimum.  That’s the shortest version of why your employer provides healthcare that I can give without delving into a 10,000 word post on the matter.  Let’s just assume we’re all educated enough to see the big picture, agree on this general framework and move on.

In 2010, employer-provided healthcare has essentially been codified into our socioeconomic system by law and regulation.  As healthcare costs have risen dramatically over the past two decades, employers have shouldered a large burden of the cost.  Providing healthcare to employees can be viewed as a disincentive for companies to hire, grow and invest in their workforce.  It limits profit margins for US based companies which compete in the global marketplace as most other indutrialized nations offer some form of socialized care.  There is a reason that GM has expanded its factory footprint in Canada (with full union membership) while closing factories in the US.

Employer-provided healthcare also limits flexibility for employees.  Leaving one job for another or making professional career changes may result in the loss of health insurance.  It also limits available healthcare options for employees who may want more or less coverage than their employer offers.  Worst of all, it hides the true cost of healthcare from the consumer and provides poor value and diminishing returns to those in the system.

So, limited choice, rising costs, overconsumption of services and poor value are the legacies of this employer-centric model of health insurance.  What Obama and the Democrats have done with the current healthcare bill is essentially implement an individual mandate for insurance, thereby increasing the risk pool while also implementing some moderate reforms on the manner in which insurance companies must deliver the insurance (prohibiting recision, killing lifetime maximums, increasing preventive care).  They have eliminated adverse selection in the system, but have they done nothing to fundamentally alter the flawed employer-centered delivery mechanism or the cost centers for businesses.  Until the delivery system is changed, we are not only doing little to reduce costs, we are doing nothing to free employers from the burden of providing healthcare.

There are two ways to fix that problem, one is to standardize a universal, single-payer system and the other is to establish a market wherein individuals are mandated to buy coverage but must choose from an array of regulated offerings. I’m a standardized, universal man myself, but I’m also interested in the Swiss or German or Swedish models.

We have chosen to do neither in this “reform” process and the likelihood of a bill passing which appeals to anyone but the health insurance lobby grows smaller every day.  The irony of the process is that the right wing teabag movement decries “government takeover” and ‘islamofascosocialism” at every opportunity while overlooking the fact that the PhRMA, AHIP and the rest of the insurance lobby is quite happy with the outcome.  The left ignores much of the benefits contained in the new industry regulations which expand/protect access because the bill is too much of an industry giveaway.  No one is happy.  It’s not compromise if both parties walk away from the negotiating table feeling as if they were f’d in the a.

I can’t but help think that if the President had treated Americans like adults from the start and set the tone for the debate in a way that focused on the benefits of removing the responsibility for health insurance from our employers, that we would be in a much different position.

It seems the ever-so-progressive Council on Foreign Relations has come to a similar conclusion and released a background paper on this issue last week.

The United States spent 16 percent of its GDP in 2008 on healthcare, higher than any other developed nation. The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office (CBO) estimates that number will rise to 25 percent by 2025 without changes to federal law (PDF). Employer-funded coverage is the structural mainstay of the U.S. health insurance system. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, about 71 percent of private employees in the United States had access to employer-sponsored health plans in 2006. A November 2008 Kaiser Foundation report says access to employer-sponsored health insurance has been on the decline (PDF) among low-income workers, and health premiums for workers have risen 114 percent in the last decade (PDF). Small businesses are less likely than large employers to be able to provide health insurance as a benefit. At 12 percent, healthcare is the most expensive benefit paid by U.S. employers, according to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

Some economists say these ballooning dollar figures place a heavy burden on companies doing business in the United States and can put them at a substantial competitive disadvantage in the international marketplace. For large multinational corporations, footing healthcare costs presents an enormous expense. General Motors, for instance, covers more than 1.1 million employees and former employees, and the company says it spends roughly $5 billion on healthcare expenses annually. GM says healthcare costs add between $1,500 and $2,000 to the sticker price of every automobile it makes. Health benefits for unionized auto workers became a central issue derailing the 2008 congressional push to provide a financial bailout to GM and its ailing Detroit rival, Chrysler.

Is it too late to change the framework for this debate in order to center the discussion on the burdens we place on business?  If healthcare reform in its current incarnation were to fail, re-igniting the debate around this central pillar might be a way to begin the conversation anew and focus the debate on policy.  Think of what GM could do if they were relieved of that $5BN annual cost?  Would they be able to expand their workforce, raise compensation levels, invest in innovation, re-tool factories, expand to new markets?  Absolutely.

Rep. Alan Grayson’s Greatest Hits

1 Oct

Rep. Alan Grayson (D, FL) will undoubtedly be all over the news today for the following unapologetic slamming of Republicans

His statement on the floor of Congress which caused a controversy:

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It’s important to remember that he isn’t necessarily making blind accusations here.  Several Republicans have taken to the floor and made statements which informed Grayson’s speech yesterday.

His non-apology apology:

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Doubling down on his non-apology apology in front of corporate media enablers at CNN:

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As a dedicated C-SPAN nerd, I’ve been a fan of Alan Grayson’s antics on the floor for about a year.  He spices up floor debates with gimmicks, but he also kicks a whole lot of ass in the House Financial Services Committee.

I’d like to pull a few of my favorite Alan Grayson videos featuring his tough questioning of Federal Reserve personnel.  Plain and simple, he is a YouTube All-Star for politinerds and he asks tough questions in an attempt to figure out exactly what the Fed has done with $1,200,000,000,000.

Who did the money go to?

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Who the hell is in charge at the Federal Reserve?

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This one is my favorite.  He asks if the Federal Reserve has engaged in market frontrunning.  The general counsel for the Federal Reserve is totally flummoxed.

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Is he a grandstanding muckraker?  Probably, but he’s one of the few guys in Congress asking tough questions, regardless of his reasons for doing so.  After all, we are talking about $1.2 Trillion in money which has been lent/spent on the bailout of our financial industry and a healthcare system in horrible disrepair.  It would be nice if more Congresspeople spent their time on these two issues rather than worrying about fucking ACORN and birth certificates.