Roll Call: Latest News on Capitol Hill, Congress, Politics and Elections
March 3, 2015

March 3, 2015

Obamacare’s Worst-Case Outcome

Ezra Klein provides a map of the worst-case outcome should the Supreme Court rule against Obamacare and eliminate health insurance subsidies purchased on federally run exchanges.

Obamacare map

“The result will be a replay of the Medicaid mess that emerged from the Supreme Court’s first Obamacare ruling.”

“In the end, some red states will end up building their own exchanges, just as some red states have accepted the Medicaid expansion. Some red states will hold out, at least for a few more years. America will develop a two-tier health-care system, in which blue states that participate in Obamacare are subsidized by red states that don’t.”

March 2, 2015

There Is a Cost to Global Political Uncertainty

Working Capital Review: “As news of Greece’s revised bailout out plan sinks in, questions turn once again around the intersection of government action(s) and global markets.”

While on the one hand “Eurozone finance ministers on Tuesday approved Greece’s plan meant to ease the hardships created by its international bailout, extending that loan program by four more months,’ the paper simultaneously adds: ‘But though the eurozone ministers were leading the negotiations on behalf of their countries, the response from two of the other creditors — the European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund — conveyed a certain skepticism of whether Greece could live up to the terms of the new agreement.'”

“Indeed, there remains great lack of clarity of what the ultimate outcome will be. “

Posted at 4:17 p.m.

The Death of American Democracy

Matthew Yglesias: “America’s constitutional democracy is going to collapse.”

“Some day … there is going to be a collapse of the legal and political order and its replacement by something else.”

“The breakdown of American constitutional democracy is a contrarian view. But it’s nothing more than the view that rather than everyone being wrong about the state of American politics, maybe everyone is right. Maybe Bush and Obama are dangerously exceeding norms of executive authority. Maybe legislative compromise really has broken down in an alarming way. And maybe the reason these complaints persist across different administrations and congresses led by members of different parties is that American politics is breaking down.”

“Within a presidential system, gridlock leads to a constitutional trainwreck with no resolution. The United States’s recent government shutdowns and executive action on immigration are small examples of the kind of dynamic that’s led to coups and putsches abroad.”

“America’s escalating game of constitutional hardball isn’t caused by personal idiosyncratic failings of individual people. Obama has made his share of mistakes, but the fundamental causes of hardball politics are structural, not personal.”

“The idea that America’s constitutional system might be fundamentally flawed cuts deeply against the grain of our political culture. But the reality is that despite its durability, it has rarely functioned well by the standards of a modern democracy.”

GOP Fears Rise Over Obamacare Insurance Subsidies Case

The Hill: “Republican fears are mounting over a Supreme Court case that the party has long hailed as its best chance to undo ObamaCare.”

“The Supreme Court will hear arguments Wednesday on a GOP-backed case that threatens to erase healthcare subsidies for 8 million people. The vast stakes are raising alarm among Republicans, particularly in the Senate, who increasingly fear a backlash at the polls if their party can’t find a fix.”

“The party has begun to fret about the fallout from King v. Burwell, fearing the sudden loss of subsidies could put pressure on lawmakers and governors to restore them.”

“Republicans are under intense pressure to present a strategy before the court meets next week to discuss the case. Even as ObamaCare remains unpopular nationally, polls show the vast majority of Americans support the subsidies.”

L.A. Times: “Ultraconservative Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Neb.) laid out the consequences starkly this week in a Wall Street Journal op-ed. ‘Chemotherapy turned off for perhaps 12,000 people, dialysis going dark for 10,000. The horror stories will be real. What will happen next is predictable: A deluge of attacks on Republicans for supposedly having caused this.'”

Ezra Klein‘s response to a Republican Obamacare alternative: “This isn’t a plan. It’s the barest possible sketch of some nascent ideas that could, one day, be used as the basis for a plan.”

“The bigger problem is there is absolutely no way House Republicans will permit Senate Republicans to save Obamacare.”

“The idea that the Supreme Court will gut Obamacare and House Republicans will instantly vote to keep the subsidies flowing so long as states get a bit more flexibility to design their alternatives defies belief.”

An Obstacle for Obamacare Opponents?

Wall Street Journal: “Opponents of the health-care law face a potential challenge Wednesday in persuading the Supreme Court to strike down nationwide insurance subsidies: Doing so could put the law at odds with part of the court’s blockbuster health-care decision three years ago.”

“In 2012, the justices largely upheld the Affordable Care Act but ruled by a 7-2 vote that Congress couldn’t put excessive financial pressure on the states to implement a portion of the law that expanded Medicaid.”

“The pressure issue could be relevant in the latest case … States that support the health-care overhaul, along with some legal scholars, say the principle the court’s majority embraced three years ago undermines the case against the insurance subsidies. They argue the pressure on states to create their own insurance exchanges would be at least as strong as the pressure the states faced on Medicaid.”

Obamacare Legal Attack is a Marvel of Reverse-Engineered Absurdity

New York Times Editorial Board: “On Wednesday, the Supreme Court will hear oral arguments in one of the most anticipated cases of the term: King v. Burwell, a marvel of reverse-engineered legal absurdity.”

The four words in question “— ‘established by the State’ — appear in a subsection of the law dealing with the calculation of tax credits. The law’s challengers say this means that credits are available only in the 16 states that have set up their own exchanges.”

“The challengers did not innocently happen upon these words; they went all out in search of anything that might be used to gut the law they had failed to kill off once before, on constitutional grounds, in 2012.”

“After the challengers found the four-word ‘glitch,’ as they initially called it, they worked backward to fabricate a story that would make it sound intentional.”

“Congress, they claimed, sought to induce states to establish exchanges by threatening a loss of subsidies if they did not … Of course, if Congress intended to introduce a suicide clause into a major piece of federal legislation, it would have shouted it from the mountaintops and not hidden it in a short phrase deep inside a sub-sub-subsection of the law.”

“So it is no surprise that no one involved in passing or interpreting the law … thought that the subsidies would not be available on federal exchanges.”

Posted at 5:43 a.m.
Health, Judiciary

How Many Federal Dollars Does the EPA Really Gobble Up?

Inside Climate News: The Environmental Protection Agency has been accused of everything from running this country to waging an economy-destroying war on coal. But it turns out the GOP’s prime target isn’t that big after all.

The agency’s budget represents an almost invisible slice of the federal pie—less than a quarter of a percent of Obama’s proposed $4 trillion budget for the 2016 fiscal year. If approved, the EPA’s budget next year would be 16.5 percent smaller than it was in 2010.

February 27, 2015

A Lingering, Now Global, Epidemic

Washington Post: “A new comprehensive study published in The Lancet looks at the state of obesity around the world, and shares several grim observations, including that no country has managed to curb its obesity epidemic.”

“The United States, as is often the case when addressing obesity, is the country that stands out. There is good news in America: Children in the United States, after all, are less likely to be overweight today than they were in the mid 2000s. But there is also bad news: American kids are still far more likely to be overweight than kids in most other countries.”

Posted at 10:53 a.m.

Food Waste as a Threat to the Economy

The New York Times Editorial Board writes that food waste “is now being measured as a serious threat to the global environment and economy, with an estimated one-third of all the food produced in the world left uneaten at a cost of up to $400 billion a year in waste disposal and other government costs.”

“Most of the uneaten food goes to landfills where it decomposes and produces the dangerous greenhouse gas methane at a volume that amounts to an estimated 7 percent of the total emissions contributing to the global warming threat. This puts food waste by ordinary humans in third place in methane emissions behind the busy economies of China and the United States.”

According to a report by Waste and Resources Action Program, a British antiwaste organization, “by 2030, consumer food waste will cost an estimated $600 billion a year — a 50 percent increase from current costs — unless there is a wide effort to change the trend.”


When is a Republican Obamacare ‘Victory’ not a Victory?

Washington Examiner: “What happens if Republicans win the Supreme Court case against Obamacare? They might end up like the dog that caught the car.”

“Next Wednesday the court will hear oral arguments in King v. Burwell, the case challenging the payment of Obamacare subsidies through the federal exchanges. If the justices bar the payment of subsidies through those exchanges, it would be both a victory for the health law’s critics and a problem for Republicans running Congress.”

“Which is why a Senate GOP working group has been meeting for months to figure out what to do should the challenge to Obamacare succeed.”

Republicans need “to find a way to continue paying subsidies to the estimated 7.5 million Americans who receive taxpayer-funded help to pay their insurance premiums through the federal Obamacare exchange.”

“The prospect of seeing those people lose their subsidies — even though some have received them for a short period of time, and even though Obamacare has imposed burdensome costs on many other Americans — is just too much for Republican lawmakers to risk.”

“Hill Republicans fear such a scenario would create huge pressure on Republican governors, who originally declined to create Obamacare exchanges in their states, to change course and set up state exchanges. The result could ultimately be an Obamacare that is even more firmly rooted and difficult to repeal than it is now — all because of a Republican ‘victory’ in court.”

Jonathan Chait points out that “Private polling by a conservative group found that ‘huge majorities’ would want Congress to restore subsidies for people who had lost them. ‘We’re worried about ads saying cancer patients are being thrown out of treatment, and Obama will be saying all Congress has to do is fix a typo,’ one staffer confesses.”

Posted at 10:36 a.m.
Health, Judiciary

Costs Could Skyrocket if Supreme Court Scraps Subsidies

The Hill: “The cost of healthcare premiums could rise as much 779 percent if the Supreme Court erases ObamaCare subsidies in a majority of states this year, according to a new study.”

“A victory for the plaintiffs in King v. Burwell would erase subsidies in 37 states using, causing premiums to spike an average of 255 percent, according to new research by the nonpartisan group Avalere Health.”

“Nine states, including Florida and North Carolina, would see premiums spike more than 300 percent. Alaska and Mississippi face the most damage, facing increases of 449 percent and 779 percent, respectively.”

Map: Avalere

Posted at 6:17 a.m.

Which Recreational Drug is the Least Safe?

Christopher Ingraham: “Compared with other recreational drugs — including alcohol — marijuana may be even safer than previously thought. And researchers may be systematically underestimating risks associated with alcohol use.”

“Those are the top-line findings of recent research published in the journal Scientific Reports, a subsidiary of Nature. Researchers sought to quantify the risk of death associated with the use of a variety of commonly used substances. They found that … weed [was] roughly 114 times less deadly than booze.”

Stop Bickering About Keystone. Focus on a National Energy Policy

The Washington Post Editorial Board believes all the attention focused on the construction of the Keystone pipeline is “misplaced.”

“It would have been better placed on the Capitol, where Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), without much fanfare, reintroduced a bill that would address the nation’s greenhouse-gas emissions in a serious way.”

“Environmentalists should have kept their sights higher, on creating a national carbon policy that would reduce demand for dirty fuels, cutting emissions by attacking the root problem.”

“Mr. Van Hollen’s market-based version is elegant and effective. It would put a slowly declining cap on the country’s carbon dioxide emissions, requiring an 80 percent cut by 2050, and rely on basic economics, not Environmental Protection Agency commands.”

“Firms putting coal, oil or natural gas into the U.S. market would have to buy permits that account for the carbon dioxide those fuels release when burned. That is, energy companies would finally have to pay the full cost of the products they sell. “

February 26, 2015

Do We Really Want Rising Wages?

Washington Post: Whether wages rise soon “depends on how much shadow unemployment is left. That’s everyone who’s not officially ‘unemployed’—not working, but actively looking for a job—but basically is.”

“The White House, as you can see above, calculates that about half the decline is due to aging, which is in line with other estimates. Another chunk is due to the crisis. And the rest is unexplained. (That’s the blue part of the graph).”

“It’s important to remember, though, that this whole time the Boomers have still been retiring, and in greater numbers than before. So if none of the shadow unemployed were coming back, the labor force would be shrinking right now. That’s why, as economist Scott Sumner argues, the labor force participation rate really is recovering even though it’s not going up: returnees are exactly balancing out retirees. It’s not as much of a recovery as we’d like, but a flat participation rate is still one.”

“The economy’s biggest problem is that workers’ wages have fallen, in inflation-adjusted terms, for 15 years now, but we kind of don’t want that to change right now. If it did, that would mean the Great Recession had pushed millions of people into early retirement. It’d be better if more of those people came back, and then wages started rising again.”

“That’s the best way to tell that the economy still has a ways to go before it’s back to normal. Higher wages should never be bad news in any sense.”

Posted at 10:53 a.m.

Obamacare Users Are a Savvy Group

Wall Street Journal: “About 1.2 million people who bought coverage on in 2014 dropped their health plan and picked a new one through the site for 2015, the Obama administration said Wednesday.”

“The extent of people’s willingness to consider shifting to a different insurance carrier came as a surprise to federal officials, said Andy Slavitt,” principal deputy administrator for the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, who will become  acting administrator.

“This is a much more active consumer than anybody expected,” Mr. Slavitt said, noting that in other programs such as the federal employees’ health plan, or Medicare prescription drug benefits, as few as 10% of customers changed plans from year to year. ‘We wanted to create maximum choice while we had maximum consumer protection,’ he said.”

Huffington Post: “One number that didn’t seem to surprise many experts was the more than 4 million people, or about half the total using the federally run website, who were using it for the first time. The “non-group” insurance market — that is, the market for people buying coverage on their own, rather than through an employer — has always been fluid.”

Posted at 7:33 a.m.

The Suprising Success of an Anti-Obamacare State

Governing: “With the end of the second open enrollment period for the Affordable Care Act, the enrollment leader is not California, the largest state in the country by population with an insurance marketplace budget of about $400 million. Instead, Florida — a state where public officials have decided against using any public dollars toward enrollment — led the way.”

“The Sunshine State boosted enrollment between last year and this year by about 600,000 people to 1.6 million total, attracting the attention of national groups focused on expanding insurance coverage. To them, the state’s own strategies, a well-coordinated and data-driven approach, made the difference.”

“The fact that Florida has more people clustered in several urban areas … is a likely factor in the state’s success. The way Florida used its federal grant support also matters a whole lot, said Jessica Kendall, who directs enrollment assistance for the national group Families USA. ‘You can find those factors in other states, but Florida was able to coordinate in ways that I haven’t seen elsewhere,’ she said.”

Posted at 6:42 a.m.

Indifference About Obamacare Ruling From Many Governors

Politico: “The Supreme Court this June could cut off millions of Americans from affordable Obamacare coverage. The response from the nation’s governors gathering in Washington this week was an assortment of shrugs.”

“For some Republican governors it was a shrug of indifference. They say the onus falls on President Barack Obama and Congress to figure out what to do if the Supreme Court invalidates Affordable Care Act subsidies in their states. And if Obamacare falls apart, well, they say, good riddance.”

“For others — among them potential 2016 contenders Scott Walker of Wisconsin and John Kasich of Ohio — it’s a shrug of uncertainty.”

“Governors are largely on the sidelines of the subsidy fight — but in the center of the 2016 map. Administration allies doing Obamacare outreach worked hard to sign up millions of people in states like Florida, Ohio and Pennsylvania, the classic presidential battlegrounds, and homes to some of the likely contenders.”

“Although the issue primarily affects states with Republican governors — Democrat-led states largely built their own insurance exchanges — a handful of Democratic governors with Republican legislatures are also grappling with how to respond. Some would like to build their own exchanges but need to figure out how to pay for it and how to overcome likely Republican opposition.”

Are the Poor More Charitable?

Vox: “Even during the downturn and recovery, the poorest Americans upped their charitable giving. Meanwhile, the highest-income people gave less and less, the Chronicle of Philanthropy reported in October.”

“The rich also give to charity differently than the poor: compared to lower-income Americans, the rich’s charitable giving places a far lower emphasis on helping their disadvantaged peers. When the poor and rich are (figuratively and literally) moving farther apart, an empathy gap naturally opens up between the upper and lower classes — after all, if I can’t see you, I’m less likely to help you.”

“Taken together, the trends paint a disturbing picture for the future of both the American economy and philanthropy: as the rich get richer and more removed from the daily lives of the poor, the bulk of charitable giving is also likely to become further removed from the needs of the poor.”

Chronicle of Philanthropy

“If Americans’ incomes move apart and the rich and poor increasingly live apart physically — it becomes much easier for people to be blind to how people outside their own class are living. And that suggests impacts well beyond even the realm of charity — the fraying of the social fabric of the nation, as the sense of “community” people feel increasingly is limited to those in one’s own tax bracket.”

February 25, 2015

Put Aside the Obamacare Rhetoric and Examine the Facts

E.J. Dionne: “We don’t talk about it much, but by closing the ‘doughnut hole’ in the Medicare drug program, thus providing more help, the law has saved 8.2 million seniors over $11 billion since 2010. That comes to $1,407 per beneficiary. How many elderly Americans want that to go away? This is something else that “repealing Obamacare” would mean.”

“Are you a budget hawk? The slowdown in Medicare cost inflation between 2009 and 2012 saved the government $116.4 billion. Sylvia Mathews Burwell, the secretary of Health and Human Services, is way too careful a wonk to claim that all this was caused by the health-care law, but largely good things have happened — including, by the way, to employment — since it passed. Its critics predicted all sorts of catastrophes. They were wrong.”

“Oh, yes, and between the Medicaid expansion and the children’s health insurance program, 10 million people gained coverage. And that’s with two of the states with the largest number of uninsured, Texas and Florida, staying out of the Medicaid expansion.”

“I am sorry to burden you with all these numbers, but the arguments you usually hear about the law are remarkably fact-free. As Burwell says, they typically focus on a single word — that would be ‘Obamacare’ — not what the law does.”

“But it’s lots more fun for opponents of Obamacare to scream ‘socialism’ and make scary and groundless predictions.”

Economic Mobility Starts at the Local Level

Vox: “Here’s one basic reason we know localities matter when it comes to social mobility: rates vary drastically from city to city in the US.”

“The US has one of the lowest intergenerational mobility rates among advanced countries, according to the OECD. But as with unemployment or earnings or any other economic statistic, mobility isn’t uniform nationwide.”

“A study by  Raj Chetty and Nathaniel Hendren of Harvard and Emmanuel Saez and Patrick Kline of Berkeley found ‘that mobility varies widely by metro area — a child growing up in America may altogether have less economic opportunity than a child born in Norway, but you’re probably far more likely to climb the income ladder if you’re born in Iowa than in Alabama, as their map of mobility shows. The below map shows the average eventual income percentile rank of kids who grow up in homes below the median income.'”

Mobility by area

“As the New York Times’ David Leonhardt wrote in his dissection of these numbers, ‘fairly poor children in Seattle — those who grew up in the 25th percentile of the national income distribution — do as well financially when they grow up as middle-class children — those who grew up at the 50th percentile — from Atlanta.'”

Ruling Against Obamacare Would Cause ‘Massive Damage’

New York Times: “The Obama administration told Congress on Tuesday that it had no plans to help low- and moderate-income people if the Supreme Court ruled against the administration and cut off health insurance subsidies for millions of Americans.”

“Sylvia Mathews Burwell, the secretary of health and human services, said a court decision against the administration would do ‘massive damage’ that could not be undone by executive action.”

“The implicit message is that the White House has no contingency plans, so if the court strikes down subsidies, the justices will be responsible for causing hardship to lower-income people and chaos in insurance markets around the country.”

Burwell: “Millions of people would lose their health insurance subsidies and therefore would no longer be able to afford health insurance … Second, without tax subsidies, healthy individuals would be far less likely to purchase health insurance, leaving a disproportionate number of sick individuals in the individual insurance market, which would raise the costs for everyone else.”

Posted at 8:32 a.m.
Health, Judiciary

Americans Love Their Bad Coffee

Washington Post: “With upscale artisanal coffee brewers dotting city streets across the country, America might fancy itself a nation of high-end coffee drinkers.”

“But just the opposite is true: People in this country, on the whole, are actually drinking worse coffee today than they have in the past. And the reason appears to be that they value cheapness over quality — and convenience over everything.”

“Indeed, the bulk of this country runs not on single-drip artisanal coffee, but standard, pre-ground coffee, which, by most coffee snobs’ measures, is one of coffee’s most inferior forms.”

“The rise of coffee pods, which come pre-ground, provides what is without question the most compelling evidence of the country’s desire for convenience. Sales of coffee pods have grown by a blistering 138,324 percent — yes, 138,324 percent — over the past 10 years.”

“America’s fast-growing obsession with single-serve pods is such that it has made Keurig Green Mountain, the maker of K-Cups, the best-selling brand of coffee in the United States.”

Obamacare’s Positive Effect on the Uninsured Rate Nationwide

Greg Sargent in the Washington Post: “Gallup data sent my way shows that the ACA is also lowering the uninsured rate in states that have not set up their own exchanges … This strongly suggests the federal exchange is probably working in those states to lower the uninsured rate.”

“Gallup’s topline finding, to be sure, is that the uninsured rate is dropping more sharply in states that are fully participating in Obamacare by expanding Medicaid and setting up an exchange.”

“I asked Gallup to calculate the drop in the uninsured rate in the 34 states that are on the federal marketplace or are state/federal partnership states, all of which would lose subsidies and see major disruptions if the Court rules against the ACA.”

“Among adults in all those states, Gallup says, the uninsured rate has fallen by 2.8 percentage points.”

“There’s a high probability that the changes we see in these data reflect the federal or partnership exchanges’ efforts to expand healthcare coverage … The rates of uninsured are coming down nationally. They are not coming down uniformly in all states, but even those states that have not implemented the Medicaid expansion, and have defaulted to the federal marketplace or state/federal partnerships, have seen a statistically significant decline.”

Climate Skeptics Aren’t Ignorant. They’re Partisan

Yale Law School: “Deep public divisions over climate change are unrelated to differences in how well ordinary citizens understand scientific evidence on global warming, according to a new study published by Professor Dan Kahan.”

“In fact, members of the public who score the highest on a climate-science literacy test are the most politically polarized on whether human activity is causing global temperatures to rise.”

“These were the principal findings of a Yale-led study published recently in the journal Advances in Political Psychology.”

“Kahan said the results justify reassessing at least some popular common science-communication strategies. ‘One conclusion is that it’s misguided to fixate on what percentage of the respondents in an opinion survey say they ‘believe in’ climate change,’ said Kahan. ‘What people say they believe about global warming is not a measure of how much they know, or even how worried they are about it; it is an expression of their cultural identities.’”

“According to Kahan, the study also casts doubt on the value of social-marketing campaigns that feature the message that ‘97% of climate scientists’ accept human-caused climate change.”

“‘Republicans and Democrats alike already understand that climate scientists have shown we face huge risks from global warming,’ said Kahan. ‘Just telling people that over and over — something advocacy groups have been spending millions of dollars doing for over a decade — misses the point: Positions on climate change have become symbols of whose side you are on in a cultural conflict divorced from science.’”

February 24, 2015

Scrutinizing the Funding Behind Climate Studies

The Hill: “Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) wants oil and coal companies to reveal the extent to which they have funded research questioning the causes of climate change.”

“He said he will soon write to various companies, trade organizations and others involved in fossil fuels in an attempt to find whether they are paying for skeptical climate research.”

“Markey’s comments came after The New York Times reported that Willie Soon, a prolific scientist questioning the human role in climate change, received more than $1.2 million from the industry and did not consistently report that funding when publishing his research.”

Meanwhile, the Guardian reports that “Richard Berman, a one-time lobbyist turned industry strategist, has zeroed in on another target: Barack Obama’s new power plant rules.”

Nicknamed “Dr. Evil” by Washington insiders, Berman “has secretly routed funding for at least 16 studies and launched at least five front groups attacking Environmental Protection Agency rules cutting carbon dioxide from power plants, the Guardian has learned.”

“The Employment Policies Institute, a tax-exempt organisation headed by Berman and operating out of his office according to tax filings, funded a series of reports by an ultra-conservative thinktank, the Beacon Hill Institute.”

“The reports, claiming the power plant rules would lead to rolling blackouts, send electricity prices skyrocketing, and devastate local economies, are being published in 16 states by a network of pro-corporate and ultra-conservative thinktanks.”

“Those familiar with Berman say he is a prime example of a new industry strategy of bypassing traditional lobbying organisations, and using thinktanks, foundations, experts, and social media to shape the public conversation and – ultimately – legislation.”

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