Roll Call: Latest News on Capitol Hill, Congress, Politics and Elections
January 27, 2015

January 26, 2015

What Happened to America’s Middle Class?

New York Times: “The middle class that President Obama identified in his State of the Union speech last week as the foundation of the American economy has been shrinking for almost half a century.”

“In the late 1960s, more than half of the households in the United States were squarely in the middle, earning, in today’s dollars, $35,000 to $100,000 a year … But since 2000, the middle-class share of households has continued to narrow, the main reason being that more people have fallen to the bottom.”

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“In recent years, the fastest-growing component of the new middle class has been households headed by people 65 and older.”

“Geography also matters. The biggest declines in middle-class households during the previous half-century occurred in the Northeast — states like Massachusetts, Connecticut and New Jersey — where industrial economies gave way to mass suburbanization and increased affluence.”

A Crippling Blow to Obamacare Looms in SCOTUS Ruling

National Journal: “If the Supreme Court tears apart Obamacare this summer, the president won’t be able to put it back together all by himself … The high court is expected to rule this summer in a lawsuit over Obamacare’s insurance subsidies, which more than 80 percent of enrollees are receiving. ”

“Without a fix in Congress or a good administrative option, the only solution would be to convince the states to set up their own exchanges. That would involve convincing Republican governors and Republican-controlled state legislatures, all of whom have already refused to set up their own exchanges once, to cooperate.”

“States are going to have to establish exchanges, whatever that means. But whatever it means, it probably means the state would have to take some kind of affirmative action.”

“Because HHS had considerable flexibility in certifying state exchanges, it might be able to soften some of its standards to make it easier for states to take control of their marketplaces after a Supreme Court decision.”

“Setting up a new system for regulating insurance plans isn’t free–states that initially set up their own marketplaces were eligible for unlimited planning and establishment grants from the federal government, to help them get off the ground. But that funding has expired; states would now have to spend their own money.”

“Furthermore, the looser the standards HHS adopts, the more likely they are to draw another legal challenge.”

“It could just become a never-ending series of lawsuits.”

Posted at 7:27 a.m.
Health, Judiciary

The U.S. Fracking Explosion

Inside Climate News has compiled a map of the nation’s fracking activity. There are “22 states, from California to Texas, Michigan to West Virginia, currently employing this high-intensity form of energy extraction, and five others may soon follow.”

http://insideclimatenews.org/sites/default/files/images/FrackingUSA800px.jpg

“Fracking is used differently in each state, depending on the available fossil fuels. Texas has thousands of wells that tap into deeply buried shale deposits. By contrast, in Indiana, fracking occurs for a small percentage of wells.”

January 23, 2015

Doomsday Clock Moves Dangerously Close to Midnight

National Journal: “It’s 2015, and Cold War fears of nuclear Armageddon have largely faded from public consciousness. But scientists Thursday moved the minute hand of the Doomsday Clock, which for decades has signaled the urgency of threats to humanity, to the second most critical position in its history: three minutes to midnight.”

“‘Unchecked climate change, global nuclear weapons modernizations, and outsized nuclear weapons arsenals pose extraordinary and undeniable threats to the continued existence of humanity, and world leaders have failed to act with the speed or on the scale required to protect citizens from potential catastrophe,’ wrote the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, which has published the Doomsday Clock since 1947, in explaining Thursday’s adjustment.”

Infographic

Who are the Losers in a SCOTUS Obamacare Subsidies Ruling?

Margot Sanger-Katz: “The people who could lose their health insurance as a result of a Supreme Court decision [in favor of the plaintiff in King v. Burwell] are predominantly white, Southern, employed and middle-aged, according to an Urban Institute analysis.”

The groups that have gained the most from Obamacare so far are “blacks, Hispanics, young adults, rural Americans and those with the lowest incomes. But the group that stands to lose the most from the court case has a markedly different profile.”

QS104 infographic

“The new Urban study finds that the biggest regional loser from the court case would be the South. More than 60 percent of people who would lose their individual health insurance live there. Among different income groups, the largest reductions would come for those earning between 200 and 400 percent of the federal poverty level — or between about $40,000 and $80,000 for a family of three. Forty-seven percent of the people who would lose insurance have full-time jobs, and 34 percent have part-time jobs. Sixty-one percent are white. Forty-seven percent have attended at least some college. Ninety-two percent would probably describe their health as better than fair.”

 

Posted at 11:34 a.m.
Health, Judiciary

Why Republicans Can’t Overturn Obamacare

To illustrate how difficult it would be for Republicans to undo Obamacare, Jason Millman writes how Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson conceded Thursday that his state must keep its Medicaid private option.

“After months of silence, Hutchinson provided a clear message — the state must keep the private option, though he will look for cost-saving reforms that gives Arkansas policymakers more flexibility to administer the program.”

“From a political standpoint, the important thing Thursday was Hutchinson’s tone. He spoke candidly about the benefits of the private option.”

“Also notable was his insistence that the state just can’t just drop coverage for those who’ve gained it, and that the state’s health-care industry can’t tolerate ongoing uncertainty, year-to-year, whether coverage will be continued. Hutchinson called for a two-year extension of the private option in its current form, as a new task force will consider possible changes to the program.”

“Those comments show the larger implications for Republican governors if the Supreme Court this summer overturns the health insurance subsidies provided through the federal-run ACA exchanges. That could disrupt new coverage for millions who’d no longer find health insurance affordable without subsidies, and it could be left to the states to fix the situation if Congress does nothing.”

Posted at 7:39 a.m.
Health

January 22, 2015

Inhofe: ‘Man Can’t Change the Climate’

Bloomberg: “Oklahoma Senator James Inhofe, the most outspoken global warming skeptic in Congress, voted along with 97 of his colleagues on Wednesday on a resolution stating that ‘climate change is real and not a hoax.'”

“Inhofe has not, however, changed his view that the rise in global temperatures has anything to do with human activity.”

“‘Climate is changing, and climate has always changed, and always will, there’s archeological evidence of that, there’s biblical evidence of that, there’s historic evidence of that, it will always change,’ Inhofe said on the Senate floor. ‘The hoax is that there are some people that are so arrogant to think that they are so powerful that they can change climate. Man can’t change climate.'”

The roster of how the votes played out is listed on Wired.

Posted at 10:43 a.m.
Energy & Environment

Senate: No Link Between Human Activity and Climate Change

The Guardian: “It is nearly 27 years now since a Nasa scientist testified before the US Senate that the agency was 99% certain that rising global temperatures were caused by the burning of fossil fuels.”

“And the Senate still has not got it – based on the results of three symbolic climate change votes on Wednesday night.”

“The Senate voted virtually unanimously that climate change is occurring and not, as some Republicans have said, a hoax – but it defeated two measures attributing its causes to human activity.”

“But the Senate voted down two measures that attributed climate change to human activity – and that is far more important. Unless Senators are prepared to acknowledge the causes of climate change, it is likely they will remain unable and unwilling to do anything about it.”

Posted at 10:39 a.m.
Energy & Environment

Obamacare Enrollment Continues at a Strong Clip

Reuters: “The Obama administration said on Wednesday that more than 7.1 million people have signed up for 2015 healthcare coverage through the federal government’s insurance marketplace as of last Friday.”

“The figures, which show more than 400,000 new applicants for the week from Jan. 10 through Jan. 16 alone, do not include enrollees at 14 state-run marketplaces.”

With state exchanges included, Charles Gaba of ACA Signups estimates that “the actual number is closer to 9.7 million.”

“At least 33 states have now reached the ‘official’ 2015 [qualified health plan] enrollment target laid out for them by either the HHS Dept (10.4 million nationally) or, in some cases, individual state governments/exchanges. Again, this means roughly 30% more enrollees than the April 19, 2014 total, but in some cases it’s higher or lower.”

 

Posted at 7:49 a.m.
Health

Unemployment No Longer a Top Concern Among Americans

Gallup: “Healthcare costs and lack of money or low wages rank as the most important financial problems facing American families, each mentioned by 14% of U.S. adults. Fewer Americans than a year ago cite the high cost of living or unemployment, and the percentage naming oil or gas prices is down from 2012.”

Most Important Financial Problem in U.S., Recent Trend

“The American economy continues to recover. With Gallup’s Economic Confidence Index in positive territory for the first time since the Great Recession, and with President Barack Obama stating that the U.S. last year had its best year for job growth since 1999, certain financial problems have receded from the nation’s memory, while others have persisted in the forefront. Americans have consistently cited healthcare, a topic of fierce debate this decade, as one of the most important financial problems, and it remains so.”

In Texas, a Family Earning Less Than $4,000 is ‘Too Rich’ for Medicaid

Jason Millman: “A common misconception about the Medicaid program is that all poor people automatically qualify for the health insurance program. They don’t — and depending on where you live, it can be incredibly hard to get coverage.”

“If you live in one of the 23 states that didn’t expand coverage, the limits can be really strict, according to a new report from the Kaiser Family Foundation. The result is that a lot of people end up being caught in a gap where they make too much money to qualify for Medicaid but too little to get assistance through the new Obamacare health insurance exchanges.”

“Fourteen states currently set Medicaid eligibility for parents at below half of the federal poverty level. One of the most stringent requirements is found in Texas, the largest state sitting out the Medicaid expansion. Medicaid coverage in Texas is cut off for parents earning above 19 percent of the federal poverty level — or $3,760 for a family of three.”

“As you can see below, it’s not hard in a lot of states to wind up making too much money to qualify for Medicaid.”

Posted at 6:20 a.m.
Health

The Secret to a Good Education: Money

Max Ehrenfreund: “More recent research … has found that when schools have more money, they are able to give their students a better education. A new study on those who went to school during the school-finance cases a few decades ago found that those who attended districts that were affected by the rulings were more likely to stay in school through high school and college and are making more money today.”

“The authors, Kirabo Jackson and Claudia Persico of Northwestern University and Rucker Johnson of the University of California, Berkeley, released a revised draft of their as-yet-unpublished paper this week. The benefits were most obvious for students from poor families. They found that a 10 percent increase in the money available for each low-income student resulted in a 9.5 percent increase in students’ earnings as adults. A public investment in schools, they wrote, returned 8.9 percent annually for a typical pupil who started kindergarten in 1980.”

“The findings are evidence that public schooling can be a way for children who grow up in poverty to overcome their circumstances …The group found that the increased funding had the greatest effect if it was used to raise teachers’ salaries, reduce class sizes or lengthen the school year.”

Posted at 5:54 a.m.
Education

January 21, 2015

Senate Will Vote on Whether Climate Change is a Hoax

Science Insider: “The U.S. Senate’s simmering debate over climate science has come to a full boil today, with lawmakers trading feisty remarks as they prepare to vote on at least two measures offered by Democrats that affirm that climate change is real—with one also noting that global warming is not ‘a hoax.”

“In an effort to highlight their differences with some Republicans on climate policy, several Democrats have filed largely symbolic amendments to a bill that would approve the Keystone XL pipeline. They are designed to put senators on the record on whether climate change is real and human-caused. The backers are now pushing for votes on those measures as soon as today.”

“The Democratic amendments vary in detail and whether they call for specific actions on climate policy. But they share one thing in common: that lawmakers should at least accept climate science, regardless of party affiliation.”

It’s Expensive Being Poor

Charles Blow: “Earlier this month, the Pew Research Center released a study that found that most wealthy Americans believed ‘poor people today have it easy because they can get government benefits without doing anything in return.’”

“This is an infuriatingly obtuse view of what it means to be poor in this country … Allow me to explain … a few illustrations of ‘how extremely expensive it is to be poor.’”

“First, many poor people work, but they just don’t make enough to move out of poverty — an estimated 11 million Americans fall into this category.”

“And yet, whatever the poor earn is likely to be more heavily taxed than the earnings of wealthier citizens, according to a new analysis by the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy.”

“In addition, many low-income people are ‘unbanked’ (not served by a financial institution), and thus nearly eaten alive by exorbitant fees.”

“One way to move up the ladder and out of poverty is through higher education, but even that is not without disproportionate costs … And often, work or school requires transportation, which can be another outrageous expense.”

Obamacare Wish May Doom Republicans in 2016

Talking Points Memo: “A Supreme Court decision to overturn Obamacare subsidies would directly affect millions of Americans in key swing states and pose a political dilemma for Republicans ahead of the 2016 election — at least unless they can get behind a viable health care alternative.”

“A ruling in the looming case King v. Burwell could wipe out health insurance subsidies for some 3 million Americans in a dozen states that could decide the 2016 election and rely on the federal HealthCare.gov exchange, according to new research by professors Theda Skocpol of Harvard University and Lawrence R. Jacobs of the University of Minnesota.”

“In Florida, nearly 1.2 million Americans are enrolled in a federal exchange plan as of early 2015. In Ohio, Virginia, Pennsylvania, New Hampshire and North Carolina a total of 1.3 million Americans would lose their plans. Notably, in each of those states the number of federal exchange customers who risk becoming ineligible for subsidies exceeded the 2012 presidential election winner’s margin of victory in that state, Skocpol and Jacobs found.”

“Ironically, the negative consequences of a Supreme Court ruling to restrict the subsidies would be most prevalent in Republican-heavy states, which overwhelmingly refused to build their own exchanges.”

State of The Union is Better but Still Troubled

The New York Times‘ Upshot Staff’s take on the State of the Union is, “in short: The state of union, while far stronger than when Mr. Obama took office, remains troubled.”

“While the unemployment rate is falling rapidly, there has been less progress in pulling back in the millions of Americans who dropped out of the labor force entirely during the recession and slow recovery.”

“The proportion of the population with a job fell nearly five percentage points from late 2007 to late 2010 — and the economy has regained only one of those five percentage points since. Some of that is because of longer-term demographic changes, particularly with the baby boom generation reaching retirement age. But there are millions who left the labor force when the economy went south and do not yet see the opportunities that might coax them to rejoin the work force.”

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“The acceleration in job creation has not, as of yet, been matched with an acceleration in wages. Hourly earnings have been rising around 2 percent a year since 2011 — in other words, barely above the rate of inflation.”

Posted at 6:54 a.m.
Economy

Obama ‘Turns the Page’ to a New Policy Agenda

Ezra Klein contends that “the most striking sentence in President Obama’s 2015 State of the Union came near the start: ‘Tonight, we turn the page.'”

“It is the seventh year of Obama’s presidency. But it’s the first in which the economy is no longer in crisis. And so it’s the first in which Obama’s State of the Union proposals no longer reeked of crisis.”

Obama sotu unemployment

“The ‘turn the page’ line wasn’t just rhetoric. It was policy, too. In every State of the Union since Obama took office, he has offered policy built for an emergency.”

“But not this time. The tax increases Obama proposed in Tuesday’s speech are simply there to pay for tax cuts for the middle class … It’s the kind of plan Democrats offer when the economy is doing well rather than when it’s doing poorly.”

“What’s notable, too, is what wasn’t in the speech: there was little about Obamacare … He could have directed people to the (smoothly functioning) HealthCare.Gov marketplaces and bragged about how many have already enrolled. The absence of any serious discussion of Obamacare was clearly intentional — and fit a speech in which Obama seemed intent on looking forward to new problems and policies rather than backwards to older ones.”

Posted at 6:25 a.m.
Budget & Taxes, Economy

January 20, 2015

Americans Are Loving Life

Gallup: “Americans’ outlook on life is the best it has been in at least seven years. More Americans were ‘thriving’ and fewer were ‘struggling’ in 2014 than has been the case since Gallup and Healthways began tracking Americans’ life evaluations daily in 2008. In 2014, 54.1% of Americans, on average, rated their lives highly enough to be considered thriving and 42.1% were classified as struggling.”

U.S. Life Evaluations: Americans' Current and Future Life Ratings

“Americans, on average, rated their lives in 2014 better than in any year since Gallup and Healthways began tracking this metric in 2008, and this likely reflects increasing optimism about their future, finances and the U.S. economy. This uptick in thriving coincides with an increase in Americans’ ratings of their standard of living, a rise in their economic confidence at the end of 2014, and more Americans saying now is a good time to find a quality job.”

Posted at 12:10 p.m.
Economy, Social Issues

A New Political Era Where Facts Don’t Matter

Paul Krugman observes that “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.”

“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.”

“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.”

“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.”

Poll: Majority Support Single-Payer System for Health Care

The Hill: “More than five years after the single-payer system was scrapped from ObamaCare policy debates, just over 50 percent of people say they still support the idea, including one-quarter of Republicans, according to a new poll.”

“The single-payer option – also known as Medicare for all – would create a new, government-run insurance program to replace private coverage. The system, once backed by President Obama, became one of the biggest casualties of the divisive healthcare debates of 2009.”

“The idea remains extremely popular among Democrats, with nearly 80 percent in support, according to the poll, which was shared first with The Hill by the Progressive Change Institute.”

Posted at 11:10 a.m.
Health

Time for a New Energy Policy: Slash Subsidies; Impose a Carbon Tax

The Economist: “The plunging price of oil, coupled with advances in clean energy and conservation, offers politicians around the world the chance to rationalise energy policy.”

“Falling prices provide an opportunity to rethink this nonsense … rich countries still underwrite the production of oil and gas. Why should American taxpayers pay for Exxon to find hydrocarbons? All these subsidies should be binned.”

“An obvious starting point is to target petrol. America’s federal government levies a tax of just 18 cents a gallon (five cents a litre)—a figure that it has not dared change since 1993. Even better would be a tax on carbon. Burning fossil fuels harms the health of both the planet and its inhabitants. Taxing carbon would nudge energy firms and consumers towards using cleaner fuels. As fuel prices fall, a carbon tax is becoming less politically daunting.”

“Governments have a legitimate role in making sure that energy is abundant, clean and secure. But they need to learn the difference between picking goals and deciding how to reach them. Broad incentives are fine; second-guessing scientists and investors is not. A carbon tax, in other words, is a much better way to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases than subsidies for windmills and nuclear plants.”

Obama’s Attempts to Chip Away at Wealth Inequality

Matt Schiavenza of the Atlantic comments on President Obama’s series of tax reform proposals aimed at reducing inequality, which will be announced during the president’s State of the Union address.

“Capital gains tax reform has been a Democratic Party goal for years. But its inclusion at the center of Obama’s economic agenda signals renewed attention on wealth, rather than income, inequality … The easiest way to get rich isn’t to make a lot of money. It’s to have a lot of assets in the first place. Better yet to inherit it.”

“Under current tax laws, America’s highest earners pay income tax of 39.6 percent. Capital-gains taxes, even after Obama’s shift, cannot exceed 23.8 percent. The Center for American Progress characterizes this difference as a government subsidy for investment income, and an expensive one at that.”

“The Congressional Budget Office estimates that this subsidy amounts to $1.34 trillion over the next ten years. Sixty-eight percent of that went to the top one percent. Given this situation, it comes as no surprise that the country’s 400 top earners, or 0.0003 percent of the taxpaying population, earned 12 percent of capital gains benefitting from lower rates.”

“If implemented, Obama’s plan will strive to narrow this gap. Will it work?”

Posted at 7:47 a.m.
Economy

An Obamacare Pricing Pandemonium in Year Two

A New York Times analysis reveals that “it is clear that a kind of pricing pandemonium is underway, one that offers a case study of the ambitions and limits of the Affordable Care Act during this second year of enrollment.”

“The wild disparity in prices results from many insurers trying to attract more customers by pricing plans as low as they can. But it is not at all clear that the low prices will be sustainable, so prices may well swing sharply upward as time goes on. Nationwide, some of the plans that offered the least expensive prices for 2014 raised premiums sharply for coverage this year.”

“The variations in premium prices are also a direct result of what the insurer-friendly health care law permits. Insurers can target territories, choosing areas within a given market where they can attract enough members and put together provider networks that will negotiate on price. In addition, insurers were given some protection by the federal government to reduce possible losses in the early years, so some are experimenting with very low prices that may not be sustainable over the long term.”

“Insurers say they still do not have a firm grasp of what premium levels will allow them to cover the people who are signing up and not lose money on their medical care.”

Posted at 7:16 a.m.
Health

January 19, 2015

Abstract of the Week

From the Report of the Commission on Inclusive Prosperity by Lawrence Summers and Ed Balls:

“History tells us that societies succeed when the fruits of growth are broadly shared. Indeed, no society has ever succeeded without a large, prospering middle class* that embraced the idea of progress. Today, the ability of free-market democracies to deliver widely shared increases in prosperity is in question as never before. The primary challenge democracies face is neither military nor philosophical. Rather, for the first time since the Great Depression, many industrial democracies are failing to raise living standards and provide opportunities for social mobility to a large share of their people. Some of those countries that have produced economic growth have done so in a manner that has left most of their citizens no better off. This is an economic problem that threatens to become a problem for the political systems of these nations—and for the idea of democracy itself.”

“The citizens of industrial democracies continue to value their freedom and their opportunity to participate in the task of self-government. But they also count on their political systems to create circumstances in which they can use their talents and their labor to provide a decent standard of life for themselves and their families. When democratic governments and market systems cannot deliver such prosperity to their citizens, the result is political alienation, a loss of social trust, and increasing conflict across the lines of race, class, and ethnicity. Inclusive prosperity nurtures tolerance, harmony, social generosity, optimism, and international cooperation. And these are essential for democracy itself.”

Posted at 12:18 p.m.
Economy

Richest 1% Will Soon Control Half of World’s Wealth

“The richest 1 percent are likely to control more than half of the globe’s total wealth by next year, the charity Oxfam reported in a study released on Monday. The warning about deepening global inequality comes just as the world’s business elite prepare to meet this week at the annual World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland,” the New York Times reports.

“The 80 wealthiest people in the world altogether own $1.9 trillion, the report found, nearly the same amount shared by the 3.5 billion people who occupy the bottom half of the world’s income scale. (Last year, it took 85 billionaires to equal that figure.) And the richest 1 percent of the population, who number in the millions, control nearly half of the world’s total wealth, a share that is also increasing.”

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From the report: “Between 2002 and 2010 the total wealth of the poorest half of the world in current U.S. dollars had been increasing more or less at the same rate as that of billionaires. However since 2010, it has been decreasing over that time.”

Posted at 11:57 a.m.
Economy

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