Roll Call: Latest News on Capitol Hill, Congress, Politics and Elections
December 21, 2014

December 20, 2014

Switzerland Will Adopt Negative Interest Rate

“Switzerland is introducing a negative interest rate on deposits held by lenders at its central bank, moving to hold down the value of the Swiss franc amid turmoil in global currency markets and expectations that deflation is at hand,” the New York Times reports.

“The Swiss National Bank said in a statement from Zurich on Thursday that it would begin charging banks 0.25 percent interest on bank deposits exceeding a certain threshold, effective Jan. 22.”

“The bank acted as the crisis in Russia and plummeting oil prices have caused a run on emerging market currencies. Switzerland, known for its fiscal rectitude and banking secrecy, tends to attract capital inflows as money flees chaos elsewhere. But that puts pressure on the franc, threatening to make exporters less competitive and raising the risk that very low price pressures will tip the economy into outright deflation.”

December 19, 2014

Executions Fall to 20 Year Low

death penalty rate Executions Fall to 20 Year Low

The Week: “States executed 35 prisoners in 2014, the lowest number since 1994, according to a report from the Death Penalty Information Center. Meanwhile, the number of death sentences fell to 72, the lowest level in four decades.”

NHL Goes Carbon Neutral

“The National Hockey League has committed to becoming the first major sports league to go carbon-neutral,” National Journal reports.

“Under a partnership with the energy-services firm Constellation, the league will work with its 30 teams to slash its carbon emissions and purchase carbon offsets for all its emissions during the current 2014-15 season. The league is estimated to emit 530,000 metric tons of carbon this season through energy use at its arenas and offices, nearly 2 million miles of team air travel, consumption of goods, and other league operations.”

The Guardian: “As part of the plan, Constellation, a Baltimore-based energy company with 2.5 million customers, will provide carbon offsets and renewable energy certificates equivalent to the 550,000 metric tons of carbon the league uses in a season. That’s equivalent of taking about 115,000 cars off the road, or 50,000 US homes off the power grid, for one year, officials said.”

Immigrants Moving to Middle America

Screen Shot 2014 12 18 at 2.11.36 PM.0 Immigrants Moving to Middle America

Vox: “This map, from a Pew Charitable Trusts report on immigrant populations, looked at the native-born and foreign-born populations of each county in the US in 1990 — and then again, in 2008-2012. The coloring is based on two things: whether the native-born population increased or declined over those twenty or so years, and whether the immigrant population increased or dropped over the same time.”

“Check out the dark green parts of the map: there’s a concentration of them around the Oklahoma and Texas panhandles. Those are counties where the population grew from 1990 to 2012, even though there were fewer native-born Americans — the growth of the immigrant population was so great that it offset the decline of the native population.”

Posted at 7:30 a.m.

Local Governments Have a Big Diversity Problem

Screen Shot 2014 12 18 at 7.58.35 PM 367x335 Local Governments Have a Big Diversity Problem

Vox: “A report from the New American Leaders Project shows that Asians and Latinos are badly underrepresented in state legislatures in almost every state in the union.”

Panel Urges Deep Changes at Secret Service

“An independent panel Thursday recommended sweeping changes at the Secret Service, saying the elite protective agency is ‘starved for leadership’ and calling for a new director, hundreds of new agents and officers and a higher fence around the White House,” the Washington Post reports.

“The panel, created in October after a series of highly publicized security failures, said the fence protecting the executive mansion should be raised at least four feet to make it less vulnerable to jumpers. Panel members were reacting to a Sept. 19 incident in which a man scaled the fence and ran far into the White House through an unlocked front door.”

“The four-person body also urged intensified training for agents, saying they should run crisis response scenarios that could use a mock White House. The report especially targeted the Secret Service’s highly insular culture, calling for a new director from outside the agency, a suggestion sure to rankle some in the service’s old guard.”

A Big Safety Net and High Employment Can Coexist

Screen Shot 2014 12 18 at 7.44.30 PM 308x335 A Big Safety Net and High Employment Can Coexist

Neil Irwin: “Some of the highest employment rates in the advanced world are in places with the highest taxes and most generous welfare systems, namely Scandinavian countries. The United States and many other nations with relatively low taxes and a smaller social safety net actually have substantially lower rates of employment.”

“In short, more people may work when countries offer public services that directly make working easier, such as subsidized care for children and the old; generous sick leave policies; and cheap and accessible transportation. If the goal is to get more people working, what’s important about a social welfare plan may be more about what the money is spent on than how much is spent.”

Transgender Workers Get Civil Rights Protections

“Employment discrimination based on gender identity is forbidden under the Civil Rights Act, the U.S. Justice Department said Thursday, announcing a change in the way it will litigate claims,” the Los Angeles Times reports.

“The department will no longer take the position that the “prohibition against discrimination based on sex does not encompass gender identity per se (including transgender discrimination),” Atty. Gen. Eric H. Holder Jr. said this week in a memo to U.S. attorneys.”

“It’s a reversal of a position the department took as recently as 2006, the memo says.”

December 18, 2014

Number of Uninsured Americans Near Historic Low

“New federal government data shows the percentage of Americans without health insurance was at or near historic lows this year following the roll-out of the Affordable Care Act, and appears certain to fall to record levels next year,” Time reports.

“The data released Thursday from the National Center for Health Statistics’ National Health Interview Survey found that 11.3 percent of Americans were without coverage in the second quarter of 2014, down from 13.1 percent in the first quarter and 14.4 percent throughout 2014. An analysis by the White House Council of Economic Advisers finds the drop in the uninsured to be the largest in nearly five decades, amounting to roughly 9.7 million Americans getting insurance, consistent with other Affordable Care Act estimates.”

“The new data does not include the nearly 2.5 million who have already selected coverage in the latest round of open enrollment which began last month, or the 400,000 who’ve gained coverage in Medicaid or the Children’s Health Insurance Program from September to October, according to new data from the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services, as more states expand access to the program with federal money under the law.”

Posted at 11:47 a.m.

Could Major League Baseball Have a Team in Cuba?

At a dinner in one of Fidel Castro’s palaces in 1999, the Cuban leader told Major League Baseball executives about the great possibilities for the game of baseball if the United States and Cuba normalized diplomatic and economic ties, the New York Times reports.

“Fifteen years after that dinner, the vision of an active relationship between Cuba and Major League Baseball became a little more real Wednesday after President Obama’s announcement that he planned to restore full diplomatic relations with the island nation.”

“When Castro took power in 1959, Cuba’s pool of talented baseball players — one of the largest outside the United States — became off limits to major league teams, except for the stream of players who escaped the island and defected. The 19 Cuban-born players who were major leaguers in all or part of the 2014 season — like Los Angeles Dodgers outfielder Yasiel Puig — made up the highest number since 1967, when there were 30. But scouts and general managers have said it would be far higher if teams could send representatives to Cuba and sign players, and then develop them.”

“Significant foreign policy announcements from Washington do not usually prompt the baseball commissioner’s office or the players union to respond. But in the hours after Obama addressed the nation Wednesday, both released terse statements saying that they were monitoring the situation.”

Posted at 8 a.m.
Foreign Affairs

Health Care Gap Between Whites and Minorities Narrows

A new New England Journal of Medicine study uncovers evidence that hospitals are reducing racial disparities in care.

Screen Shot 2014 12 17 at 11.28.20 PM 445x304 Health Care Gap Between Whites and Minorities Narrows

“Reviewing more than 12 million hospitalizations between 2005 and 2010, researchers set out to find whether hospital quality was improving — and whether minority groups were still being left behind. By 2010, angioplasty rates for all heart attack victims rose dramatically as the disparity gap also narrowed, according to the study. That year, 91.7 percent of white patients received the procedure within 90 minutes, compared to 86.3 percent of blacks and 89.7 of Hispanic patients — so the treatment gap between whites and blacks was cut by more than half in those five years.”

“The researchers found more progress than that, though. Looking across 17 quality “measures for heart attacks, heart failures and pneumonia, researchers found that racial disparities were reduced in every category between 2005 and 2010. Importantly, they found hospitals were providing care more equally within hospitals, as well as between hospitals — meaning hospitals that serve higher rates of minority patients also saw improvements, the study authors wrote.”

Posted at 7 a.m.

Vermont Won’t Enact Single-Payer Health Care

Vermont Gov. Peter Shumlin (D) “dropped his plan to enact a single-payer health care system in his state — a plan that had won praise from liberals but never really got much past the framework stage,” Politico reports.

Said Shumlin: “This is not the right time.”

“Shumlin faced deep skepticism that lawmakers could agree on a way to pay for his ambitious goal and that the feds would agree to everything he needed to create the first state-based single-payer system in 2017.”

“And that was all before Shumlin, a Democrat, almost lost reelection last month in one of the country’s most liberal states. And it was before MIT economist Jonathan Gruber, the now notorious Obamacare consultant who also advised Vermont until his $400,000 contract was killed amid the controversy, became political poison.”

New York Moves to Ban Fracking

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) announced that the state will not lift its ban on fracking, National Journal reports.

“The long-awaited decision marks a decisive turn in the years-long battle over fracking in New York State. Energy companies are eager to unlock potentially vast reserves of natural gas in rock underlying the state in the Marcellus Shale. But environmentalists have put strong pressure on the Democratic governor to keep fracking out of the state.”

“The Democratic governor’s decision followed the release of a highly-anticipated health and environmental study on the impacts of fracking. The study, conducted by the Cuomo administration, concluded that while data is limited and risks surrounding fracking are not fully known, the potential adverse impacts appear significant enough for the Health Department to recommend that fracking should not be allowed.”

December 17, 2014

So Can You Buy a Cuban Cigar Now?

Bloomberg: “The news that the U.S. will restore diplomatic relations with Cuba dropped like a bombshell this morning. But let’s be frank: unless you’re Henry Kissinger, your first question isn’t about the geostrategic implications of this development. It’s about how soon you’ll be able to buy legendary Cuban cigars, so coveted that John F. Kennedy sent his aide Pierre Salinger to acquire a supply of 1200 just before he imposed the embargo in 1962. At W. Curtis Draper Tobacconist, a favorite lobbyist hangout down the block from the White House, the atmosphere was palpably excited (and smoky).”

“A White House briefing for reporters suggests that, at least initially, obtaining a Cuban Cohiba won’t be quite as simple as visiting your local tobacconist. “Authorized travelers to Cuba will be allowed to return with $400 of general goods and up to $100 for tobacco/alcohol for personal consumption,” said a senior administration official. Visitors to Cuba will be able to bring back cigars. But Cuban cigar makers apparently won’t be able to export their wares to the U.S.”

“At least not right away. The embargo will be around indefinitely—Obama called for ‘an honest and serious debate about lifting it.’ Eventually, though, the warming of relations between the U.S. and Cuba will almost certainly change this–and perhaps soon. That would alter the $13 billion U.S. cigar market, where there’s expected to be an intense demand for Cuban cigars.”

Posted at 2:37 p.m.

Obamacare Enrollment Surges Ahead of Deadline

Nearly 2.5 million consumers selected plans since the beginning of Obamacare open enrollment – more than one million in just the last week.

A new analysis by Avalere Health “estimates that exchange enrollment will total 10.5 million people by the end of 2015, though enrollment could fluctuate up or down by approximately 1 million individuals.”

“As of late 2014, 6.7 million individuals enrolled in coverage through state and federal exchanges. In the first three weeks of open enrollment for 2015, 664,000 new consumers applied for coverage and selected a plan through Since the federally facilitated exchange has generally represented 68 percent of total exchange enrollment, Avalere estimates that roughly 977,000 individuals signed up for coverage across all exchanges between November 15 and December 5.”

Posted at 8:55 a.m.

As Financial Industry Grows, the Economy Suffers

“Wall Street is bigger and richer than ever, the research shows, and the economy and the middle class are worse off for it,” the Washington Post reports.

“There’s a prominent theory among some economists and policymakers that says the big problem with the American economy is that a lot of Americans don’t have the talent to compete in today’s global marketplace. While it’s true that the country would be better off if more workers had more training — particularly low-skilled, low-income workers — that theory misses a crucial, damaging development of the past several decades.”

“It misses how much the economy has suffered at the hands of some of its most skilled, most talented workers, who followed escalating pay onto Wall Street — and away from more economically and socially valuable uses of their talents.”

“The financial industry has doubled in size as a share of the economy in the past 50 years, but it hasn’t gotten any better at its core job: getting money from investors who have it to companies that will use it to generate growth, profit and jobs. There are many ways to quantify how that financial growth-without-improvement hurts the economy.”

The Daily Cal asked author Michael Lewis why he went to work on Wall Street: “I couldn’t figure out what else to do.”

The Pros and Cons of Cheap Gas

Stephen Colbert had an amusing and informative segment on the impact of falling oil prices and its impact on foreign policy and the environment.

December 16, 2014

Congress Quietly Ends Ban on Medical Marijuana

“Tucked deep inside the 1,603-page federal spending measure is a provision that effectively ends the federal government’s prohibition on medical marijuana and signals a major shift in drug policy,” the Los Angeles Times reports.

“The bill’s passage over the weekend marks the first time Congress has approved nationally significant legislation backed by legalization advocates. It brings almost to a close two decades of tension between the states and Washington over medical use of marijuana.”

“Under the provision, states where medical pot is legal would no longer need to worry about federal drug agents raiding retail operations. Agents would be prohibited from doing so.”

Posted at 12:26 p.m.

Climate Change Denial Turns Absurd

“For years, the fossil-fuel industries have been telling us that global warming is a hoax based on junk science,” Dana Millbank writes.

“But now these industries are floating an intriguing new argument: They’re admitting that human use of coal, oil and gas is causing carbon dioxide in the atmosphere to rise — but they’re saying this is a good thing. We need more CO2 in our lives, not less.”

“This was some creative thinking, and it took a page from the gun lobby, which argues that the way to curb firearm violence is for more people to be armed.”

Top Global Hot Spots to Watch

 Top Global Hot Spots to Watch

The Atlantic: “Foreign policy often involves making difficult and debatable choices about which parts of the world matter more to a given country—and which, by extension, matter less. It’s about defining national interests and determining where those interests are most evident and endangered. This is why the United States has done far more to stop ISIS in Syria and Iraq than, say, sectarian war in the Central African Republic.”

“In short, it’s about priorities. And according to a new survey of U.S. foreign-policy experts and practitioners, those priorities could look a lot like the map above in 2015, at least from America’s point of view. The map sorts potential conflicts around the world into three tiers of risk: red for high-priority threats, orange for moderate-priority threats, and yellow for low-priority threats. According to Paul Stares, the report’s lead author, it’s a color-coded snapshot of “where the balance of U.S. attention and resources should be devoted” in the coming year. As such, it’s also a guide to the places and conflicts that are likely to receive relatively little attention from America’s national-security apparatus in the months ahead.”

Bakers Refuse Cakes for Gay Weddings

New York Times: “The refusals by the religious merchants — bakers, florists and photographers, for example — have been taking place for several years. But now local governments are taking an increasingly hard line on the issue, as legislative debates over whether to protect religious shop owners are overtaken by administrative efforts to punish them.”

“There have been more than a half-dozen other instances of business owners, most citing their understanding of Christian faith, declining to provide services for same-sex weddings. They include a photographer in New Mexico, a florist in Washington State, a bakery in Oregon, an inn in Vermont and wedding chapels in Idaho and in Nevada. And new cases continue to arise — over the last few weeks, a wedding planner in Arizona declined to work with a lesbian couple, and a business in California refused to photograph the wedding of a gay male couple (and then closed its doors after an outcry).”

“The cases are largely being fought, and some say fueled, by two legal advocacy organizations: the American Civil Liberties Union, which supports sames sex-marriage, and the Alliance Defending Freedom, which opposes it. Each side cites bedrock American principles: First Amendment rights of religion and speech versus prohibitions in 21 states against discrimination in public accommodations on the basis of sexual orientation.

Posted at 11:01 a.m.
Social Issues

Same Sex Couples Divorce at Lower Rates

A new UCLA research report from M.V. Lee Badgett and Christy Mallory finds that same-sex couples are divorcing at lower rates than traditional couples.

“Now that same-sex couples have the ability to marry or enter some other form of legal relationship in many states, we also see that couples sometimes dissolved those legal relationships. Administrative data from two states shows that same-sex couples end their marriages at a rate of 1.1% annually, on average, and an average of 1.6% of couples dissolve their legal relationships if a broader set of states is included. This rate is slightly lower than the annual rate of divorce among married different-sex couples.”

Andrew Gelman: “The other thing I wonder is how this will play out over time. The first wave of same-sex marriage is not necessarily typical of what will happen in future years, and in other states. So it will be interesting to see this go forward. It would also be interesting to see the age distribution of the newlyweds. I’d expect that in the first years of same-sex marriage we’d see a lot of older couples and then the average age of marriage would settle down to a lower level, comparable to that of traditional wives and husbands.”

December 15, 2014

Another GOP Governor Backs Medicaid Expansion

Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam (R) “became the latest Republican governor to announce support of Obamacare’s Medicaid expansion — and the third in the nation since Republicans gained more power at the state and federal levels in the November midterm elections,” the Washington Post reports.

“Like most other Republican governors who want to take the health-care law’s generous federal funding, Haslam is now offering a plan that deviates from the Medicaid expansion envisioned under the Affordable Care Act. Haslam, who made the announcement almost a month after his re-election, said the Obama administration has verbally approved the approach… These moves have somewhat been telegraphed over the past year. These governors had said they wouldn’t accept the Obamacare Medicaid expansion as written, but they were exploring other ways to take federal funds while crafting a plan that worked best for their states.”

“Nine Republican governors have expanded Medicaid so far, while Indiana Gov. Mike Pence is still negotiating with the feds on leveraging an existing state program to expand coverage.”

Posted at 12:53 p.m.

If Supreme Court Breaks Obamacare Will GOP Fix It?

National Journal: “There’s a very real chance the high court will invalidate Obamacare’s insurance subsidies in most of the country, which would be devastating for the health care law. It would become almost entirely unworkable in most states, and the cost of coverage would skyrocket.”

“That loss for the Affordable Care Act might seem like a clear-cut political win for the GOP, but the reality would be far messier. The law would still require people to buy health insurance or pay a penalty, leaving people on the hook for a product that—sans subsidies—they could not afford. And as many of those people live in Republican-run states or 2016 battlegrounds, they’ll be asking for a solution.”

“That would leave Republicans with a difficult choice: Do they continue to push for an all-out repeal of the law—creating a standoff with Democrats who will dig in in the hopes of legislation undoing the Supreme Court’s decision—or do they seek a deal that alleviates the law’s burden on those who’ve lost their subsidies? Such a deal would likely include pullbacks of major parts of the law, but it would also require Republicans to give up on a full ‘root-and-branch’ repeal.”

Posted at 9:07 a.m.

Distributed Generation Like Solar Will Double By 2023

A new report by Navigant Research projects that distributed generation will roughly double in the next nine years.

Navigant 1 638x368 Distributed Generation Like Solar Will Double By 2023

Think Progress: “Distributed generation (DG) is the decentralized production of electricity by small-scale systems — most often in the form of rooftop solar, but it can include biomass, wind, and other forms of renewable power as well. Navigant Research’s analysis also included natural gas and diesel generators of 6 megawatts or less, along with solar arrays of one megawatt or less and small wind turbines of 500 kilowatts or less.”

“According to their forecast (unfortunately behind a paywall) the total capacity for DG installed around the world will grow from 87.3 gigawatts in 2014 to 165.5 gigawatts in 2023. Most of the growth is anticipated to come from the deployment of solar. Geographically, the biggest increase in the projection was in Western Europe, with North America and the Asian Pacific not too far behind.”

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