Roll Call: Latest News on Capitol Hill, Congress, Politics and Elections
December 19, 2014

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.
Health

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.
Health

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.
Economy

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 healthcare.gov. 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.
Health

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.
Health

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.
Health

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.
Health

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.”

Nearly $3 Trillion Spent on Two Wars

“The Afghanistan war, the longest overseas conflict in American history, has cost the US taxpayer nearly $1tn and will require spending several hundred billion dollars more after it officially ends this month,” according to Financial Times calculations and independent researchers.

“Around 80 per cent of that spending on the Afghanistan conflict has taken place during the presidency of Barack Obama, who sharply increased the US military presence in the country after taking office in 2009. The enormous bill for the 13-year conflict, which has never been detailed by the government, will add to the pervasive scepticism about the war in the US, where opinion polls show a majority of Americans believe it was a bad idea.”

“With the Iraq war having already cost the US $1.7tn, according to one study, the bill from the Afghanistan conflict is an important factor in the broader reluctance among the American public and the Obama administration to intervene militarily in other parts of the world — including sending troops back to Iraq.”

Will Cheap Oil Kill Keystone XL?

“Greens who want President Barack Obama to kill the Keystone XL pipeline are adding a new weapon to their arsenal of protests and lawsuits — the world’s glut of cheap oil,” Politico reports.

“The same collapse in oil prices that is pumping dollars into motorists’ wallets also risks undermining the case for building the 1,179-mile pipeline in two crucial ways: It’s squeezing the western Canadian oil industry that has looked to Keystone as its most promising route to the Gulf Coast. And anti-pipeline activists hope that falling prices will make it politically safer for Obama to reject the project, despite the new Republican Congress’ pledges to put Keystone at the top of its 2015 energy agenda.”

“The oil price is crucial to the Keystone debate because the latest State Department environmental study on the project says prices in the $65-to-$75 range are a potential danger zone for oil production in western Canada — the point where transportation costs driven higher by failing to build the pipeline could ‘have a substantial impact on’ the industry’s growth. Cheaper oil also makes it easier to blame Keystone for the greenhouse gases that the Canadian oil fields send into the atmosphere.”

Dropping Oil Prices is Crushing Louisiana Budget

“The continuing drop in the price of oil likely will require state government to change its spending plan for a second time to balance this year’s budget,” the Baton Rouge Advocate reports.

“And for next year’s budget, which is being drafted now, the collapsing oil prices are added to an already monumentally large shortfall in revenues. ‘We’re going to have to make some tough choices,’ Commissioner of Administration Kristy Nichols warned Friday in an interview.”

“The administration is chipping away at the size of next year’s budget hole, and decisions are still weeks away, but Nichols said everything would be considered, including the possibility of more cuts to higher education and the possibility of no merit pay raises for state workers. Nichols’ staff will start meeting with agency officials Monday. The executive budget proposal is due on Feb. 27. Then negotiations begin with legislators who will rewrite and vote the budget into law during their session that begins in April.”

Really interesting: “The general rule of thumb is about $12 million less available to state government for every $1 drop in the average annual price of oil.”

Wishes for Wall Street

Michael Lewis wishes that no person under the age of 35 should be allowed to work on Wall Street.

“Upon leaving school, young people, no matter how persuasively dimwitted, will be required to earn their living in the so-called real economy. Any job will do: fracker, street performer, chief of marketing for a medical marijuana dispensary. If and when Americans turn 35, and still wish to work in finance, they will carry with them memories of ordinary market forces, and perhaps be grateful to our society for having created an industry that is not subjected to them. At the very least, they will know that some huge number of people — their former fellow street performers, say — will be seriously pissed off at them if they do risky things on Wall Street to undermine the real economy. No one wants a bunch of pissed-off street performers coming after them.”

He’s got 7 other wishes for Wall Street in the piece.

December 12, 2014

Wealth Gap is Widening

Pew Research: “The Great Recession, fueled by the crises in the housing and financial markets, was universally hard on the net worth of American families. But even as the economic recovery has begun to mend asset prices, not all households have benefited alike, and wealth inequality has widened along racial and ethnic lines.”

“The wealth of white households was 13 times the median wealth of black households in 2013, compared with eight times the wealth in 2010, according to a new Pew Research Center analysis of data from the Federal Reserve’s Survey of Consumer Finances. Likewise, the wealth of white households is now more than 10 times the wealth of Hispanic households, compared with nine times the wealth in 2010.”

FT 14.12.11 wealthGap2 Wealth Gap is Widening

Posted at 2:41 p.m.
Economy

They’re Not Skeptics, They’re Deniers

“How should reporters write about lawmakers and others who dispute the scientific consensus that climate change is largely driven by humans? A group of 48 scientists, science writers, and other experts—including popular educator Bill Nye—have some strong views on the subject. The group issued a statement last week taking the media to task for using the phrase ‘climate skeptic,’ saying that the word ‘denier’ is more accurate,” National Journal reports.

The statement from Nye and the others says the distinction between “skeptic” and “denier” is important in political debates.

“As scientific skeptics, we are well aware of political efforts to undermine climate science by those who deny reality but do not engage in scientific research or consider evidence that their deeply held opinions are wrong. The most appropriate word to describe the behavior of those individuals is ‘denial.’  Not all individuals who call themselves climate change skeptics are deniers. But virtually all deniers have falsely branded themselves as skeptics. By perpetrating this misnomer, journalists have granted undeserved credibility to those who reject science and scientific inquiry.”

What Caused the Collapse in Oil Prices?

Wall Street Journal: “The sudden plunge in global crude oil prices from over $100 a barrel to under $65 has been portrayed as a showdown between Saudi Arabia and the U.S., two of the world’s biggest oil producers. But the reality is more complex, involving Libyan rebels and Indonesian cabdrivers as well as Texas roughnecks and Middle Eastern oil ministers. It reflects both the surging supply of crude and the crumbling demand for oil.”

Screen Shot 2014 12 12 at 2.34.52 PM 445x240 What Caused the Collapse in Oil Prices?

Hunger and Homelessness a Growing Problem

Hunger and homelessness are on the rise in cities across the country, and Congress isn’t helping, the U.S. Conference of Mayors said in a report released Thursday, the Washington Post reports.

“The report was not a comprehensive look at all cities, but included responses from the mayors of 25 cities and found that in the past year, 71 percent of those cities saw an increase in requests for emergency food assistance, and 43 percent saw an increase in the number of families experiencing homelessness. You can see a breakdown of the report by the numbers by my colleague Niraj Chokshi here.”

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