TWiA explores the intersection of policy and politics, and most importantly, how that intersection affects real people. It's dedicated to the proposition that good government is possible, it matters, and taxpayers deserve nothing less. Its starting point is that facts are facts, science is real, data are real, and we can and must learn from history. Below you'll find facts and opinions that derive from fact, informed by a close and careful study of these issues that began in 1968 and has never stopped. Note, when we discuss generic "Democrats" and "Republicans" or "conservatives" and "liberals," etc., we're talking about elected officials, unless otherwise noted. Also, bonus bear news and other awesomeness. We appreciate comments and arguments, so please chime in, and if you like it, spread the word.
This Week in Health Care
We've been saying this pretty much since the Affordable Care Act began to take effect: not every change in your insurance coverage can be attributed to the law. Health insurance changes constantly, premiums go up but never down, plans are dropped and new ones offered instead. It's the nature of the beast. If you get your health insurance through your employer, the law barely affects you at all (except to the extent that it drives down the cost of health care, makes it so your kid can stay on your plan until age 26, eliminates lifetime caps, denies insurers the capability to toss you off if you get sick, and ensures that insurance companies pay out in coverage 80% of what they take in as premiums, or write you a check for your share of the difference).
National Journal has put together a piece that effectively runs down what people want to blame on the ACA, and what they can legitimately blame on it. As expected, there's a vast discrepancy between the two. So the next time someone with private health insurance through their employer says, "Obamacare is raising my premiums!" you can say, "No, your insurance company is raising your premiums. But Obamacare will see that you get some of your money back if they don't use it right."
Side Note 1: Speaking of the private insurance industry, industry leaders are preparing to spend half a billion dollars in advertising and promotion, to compete for their share of the tens of millions of new customers coming their way. They know the law is here to stay, and it means huge profits for them.
Side Note 2: 93 percent of hospital executives think Obamacare will make health care better. On the other hand, a quarter of head and neck surgeons think Obamacare has death panels. We wouldn't want our head or neck operated on by the congenitally ignorant. Just sayin'.
This Week in Carnival Barkers
Last week, we wrote about Rep. Darrell Issa (R/CA) spending taxpayer dollars to ferry a few Republican colleagues around the country to complain in public about the ACA and to listen to people who feel the same way that they do about it. These junkets obviously serve no real public interest; they're purely an anti-ACA promotional effort, aimed at getting headlines in local news, at our expense.
This week, he took the carnival to Texas.
Texas, may we remind you, is the state with the most uninsured people in the country. It's also a state where the Republican governor and legislature have refused to allow Medicaid expansion that won't cost them anything but would bring some of the tax dollars they send to Washington back to them, and improve the health of their most at-risk citizens.
When Randy Farris, the regional administrator of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services was allowed to speak, this is what Issa told him:
"Issa asked Farris whether he knew that all applicant information ended up on the federal site. Farris said private information was not stored there. 'You need to watch more Fox, I’m afraid,' Issa said."
No American needs to watch more Fox. A healthy democracy demands that the citizenry be more informed, not less. Watching Fox has the opposite effect, according to this and this and this and this and this and this and this and this and this.
And by the way, Congressman Issa, you're wrong on the facts, too. But then, since you apparently watch so much Fox, that shouldn't be a surprise.
This Week in Money
Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Krugman has a rare knack for making economics understandable, even for those of us who aren't economics geeks. Here he describes why income inequality matters to every American who wonders why he or she isn't doing better financially, and to the economy as a whole. And he does it in language a lay person can comprehend. Give it a read.
The Washington Post's Ezra Klein, meanwhile, is one of those who feel that full employment is a more critical issue--that widespread unemployment contributes to income inequality to a greater extent than income inequality contribues to widespread unemployment.
And right-leaning writer Josh Barro wrestles with the problem that the conservative response to any financial problem--essentially, cut taxes, cut spending, deregulate, etc.*--is always the same, no matter what the real-world situation they say they're addressing: Conservatives Have No Idea What To Do About Recessions.
* One of the other things on Barro's list of preferred conservative policies is "school choice." We have to assume the economic benefit he's referring to there is the benefit to those raking in tuition money by running private and charter schools (at the expense of public schools), not to the students. A new book explains that when you control for demographics (i.e., take into account the fact that private school kids are already more advantaged in many ways, and charter school kids often less so) public school students are weeks or months ahead of their private/charter school counterparts when it comes to academic achievement. If we weren't constantly trying to draw tax dollars away from the public school system to fill the wallets of certain individuals, those public schools would be doing even better. The lesson? If your kid already has all the advantages, send him or her to a public school, because he or she will excel. If you send him or her to a private school, he or she will probably still excel. But it'll cost you more, and it'll drain resources needed to allow other American kids to do the same. An educated populace is good for all of us and should, one hopes, be a conservative goal.
This Week in Short-term Memory
Representative Paul Ryan (R/WI) has been in the news a lot lately, mostly because, as chairman of the House Budget Committee, he worked with Senator Patty Murphy (D/WA) to come up with the budget compromise that's headed to President Obama's desk soon, and which will theoretically avert any budget-related government shutdowns in the near future.
This week, he's in the news for a different reason--because he apparently has the worst short-term memory in politics.
He was being interviewed by conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt, who asked him about the next time the debt ceiling issue comes around. Ryan said, “With respect to the debt limit, you and I and our colleagues are going to have to meet early after the holidays to decide what’s the right course going forward in that. We’ve never just done nothing.”
"We've never just done nothing." We're starting to feel like a broken record (kids, ask your parents), but really, Congressman?
Apparently Ryan doesn't remember the government shutdown his party threw in October. Which seems odd, since it was the agreement that ended the shutdown that was responsible for the fact that he and Murray have spent so many hours together since October, working on a budget deal. Part of that whole shutdown deal involved a clean--meaning no concessions--increase in the debt ceiling. The time before that, when the Republicans threatened to default on the debt ceiling, they caved and it was increased with no concessions. The last two times Ryan's party has tried to take the debt ceiling hostage, they've failed, no ransom has been paid, and they've voted to raise the debt ceiling because it's how our system works. Most times in the history of the debt ceiling, it's been raised without a fuss, and without either side demanding concessions. It's simply a mechanism for paying the bills Congress has already run up.
So when Ryan says, "We've never just done nothing," Ryan is apparently mistaking the word "never" for the words "almost always." Either that, or his memory is really, really, really bad.
Side Note: Once again, Republicans who want to play (and lose) a game of chicken over the debt ceiling are not sure why they want to do so, only that they want to. Ryan suggested perhaps tying the Keystone XL pipeline to the debt ceiling, for reasons beyond human comprehension. And although Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell earlier said he couldn't imagine Republicans risking default again, now he says he can't imagine them not risking default, although he also can't explain why.
This Week (Year) in Voting
Eight states passed 9 laws this year that make it harder for people to vote (and many more have such laws pending, or have introduced them). This is on top of restrictive voting laws passed in almost half of the states in the last 5 years. State legislatures shouldn't have to be reminded that the vote is one of the most important aspects of a representative democracy. Everyone who is of age and hasn't had voting rights taken away because of a particular act (felons, we here at TWiA World Headquarters believe, shouldn't be able to vote while serving their sentences, but once they've paid that debt to society, the right should automatically revert to them) should be able to vote. It should be easy to register and easy to participate in our democracy.
It's probably not a surprise that the vast majority (83%) of those restrictive voting laws were passed in red states, by Republicans (although at least one, Virginia, just elected Democrats to the top statewide offices, so maybe the issue will be revisited). And that such laws were more likely to be passed in legislatures that were becoming more Republican-dominated. The reason often cited for these laws, "widespread voter fraud," is bogus; no matter how many taxpayer dollars Republicans spend looking for the kind of voter fraud these laws might prevent, they can't find any. And they're really trying.
The US Supreme Court this year decided that because the Voting Rights Act was "working," one of its most important aspects--pre-clearance for states with bad records on voting rights issues--should be done away with. One can hardly argue with their reasoning. After all, any time a law works, you get rid of it, right? That's why as homicides decrease nationwide, we've eliminated laws against murder, and... oh, wait. We don't do that.
Also unsurprisingly (to anyone, apparently, but five SCOTUS justices), the states that have recently enacted more restrictive voting laws just happen to be states with higher black turnout, come election day. Republicans want to make it harder for black folks to cast their votes. But there's no racism going on here. The racism, Republican officials explain, is only incidental to the effort to keep Democrats from voting.
That makes us feel a lot better.
Fortunately for the nation, in 10 states, 13 bills expanding voter access were passed. These laws make registration easier, extend early voting hours, and the like. Given that our population keeps growing and more and more votes are being cast (particularly in presidential election years), we need more of this kind of thing, and less of the other. The Presidential Commission on Election Administration reports that "Nearly half of Americans live in precincts where long lines at the voting booth were a problem in the 2012 election cycle." And yet, Republican officials want to make voting more challenging instead of less.
One wonders when exactly they decided that since they couldn't win elections on the merits, they would have to start winning them by preventing the other side from exercising their Constitutional right. Could it have been around the time a black man was elected President? Or is that just a silly coincidence?
The Brennan Center for Justice has just issued a set of recommendations to improve access to the polls. One has to hope that the people with the power to put these into effect are paying attention.
This Week in Shame
Congress is taking their Christmas break (not that they worked particularly hard when they were in session), but in doing so, they're leaving some vitally important business unfinished.
1.3 million long-term unemployed people will lose their unemployment benefits on December 28. These people have been unemployed for 27 weeks or longer. When you're unemployed for that long, unemployment insurance is just about the only thing that can keep you in the market, looking for work (a basic requirement for anyone to collect benefits). These are people who were working, and weren't fired for cause. Most of them were laid off because of the Great Recession, and the fact that the recovery has been creating a lot more very low-wage jobs than middle class jobs isn't helping any. Many of them live where jobs are particularly scarce (nationwide, there are about three people out of work for every job opening, but regionally the numbers can go much, much higher).
The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office says that extending their benefits would create 200,000 jobs, because every dollar they get in benefits generates more than half again that much in economic activity. In other words, cutting those benefits will lead to a situation in which there will be fewer job openings, not more. And cutting doesn't force those collecting unemployment to start working--they're already trying to find work. Instead, it causes them to give up and drop out of the labor market, becoming an even more significant drag on the economy, and leading to poverty and homelessness.
Who are these people? They're us. Friends, neighbors, family members. The guy you nodded to at the bus stop, the woman who sat behind you in church. They're trying to do the right thing. Three days after Christmas, they'll have their legs knocked out from under them by a Congress that didn't even try. You can meet seven of them here.
The senators and House members, Democrat and Republican, who go home to their districts this week won't have to worry about how they're going to put food on the table next week. One wishes they had devoted a few minutes of effort to protect those who will.
(Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid says extending these benefits will be the Senate's first priority after the New Year, and he predicts a vote by January 7. We hope he lives up to his word--and, considerably less likely, that the House goes along with it.)
This Week in Gun Safety
Saturday was the one-year anniversary of the horrific school shooting in Newtown, CT that took the lives of 26 innocent victims. As terrible as that event was, far more people are shot in their own homes and the streets of their neighborhoods every year than are killed in mass murders. A few of those stories are collected here: 100 Stories About Gun Violence Since Newtown.
We think of post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, being a syndrome exclusively suffered by soldiers who have been in combat. The truth is, many Americans live in what are effectively war zones, their lives impacted on a regular basis by gun violence. These people, too, can suffer from PTSD, as this harrowing report from Oakland, CA's East Bay Express makes clear. We have nearly as many guns in this country as we do people, and in areas where guns are commonplace, so is gun violence. Whole neighborhoods suffer as a result.
Unfortunately for those of us who live in rural areas where guns are prevalent, rural sheriffs from across the country are refusing to enforce gun laws. Some declare them unconstitutional--as if such a declaration by a county sheriff held more weight than a decision by the US Supreme Court, which has already found a raft of possible gun restrictions constitutional. SCOTUS, in District of Columbia v. Heller, found that the Second Amendment doesn't allow for the ownership and carrying of any gun, anywhere, any time. Any sheriff who thinks his belief outweighs that of the Supreme Court is himself acting in an unconstitutional manner, because the Constitution tells us that only the Court can make that call. And although some sheriffs claim the laws are hard to enforce, or don't work, urban police chiefs make the opposite claim--such laws are necessary and effective. Any sheriff who chooses not to enforce laws that have been passed and ruled constitutional should step down from his position rather than himself break the law, or let those under his care die because he loves guns more than human beings.
Side Note: Here's a powerful statement from a man in prison for murder--with a gun--who argues that guns are too easily available, and that with a gun, it's too easy to kill.
This Week in the Crazy
This summer, we celebrated the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg, the battle that saw the most casualties of that bloodiest, most divisive of wars. When I was growing up, I thought every American had learned from the Civil War that no cause could be worth dividing the nation like that again.
Apparently, I was wrong. Because Greg Brannon, a Republican candidate for Senate in North Carolina, is running ahead of Senator Kay Hagan (D) in polls there. And Greg Brannon is a secessionist. More than that, he "opposes public education, claiming it 'does nothing but dehumanize' students. He doesn't believe that states have to follow Supreme Court decisions. He contends bipartisan compromises in Washington 'enslave' Americans. He hails the the late Sen. Jesse Helms—who died in 2008 without ever renouncing his support for racial segregation—as a 'modern hero.' He claims that 'all ten of [Karl] Marx's planks of Communism'—including the abolition of private property—'are law in our land today.' In October, Brannon cosponsored and spoke at a rally supporting nullification—the notion that states can invalidate federal laws at will—that was cosponsored by the League of the South, a secessionist group seeking 'a free and independent Southern republic.'
He's supported by Senator Rand "Crybaby" Paul (R/KY), who's had his own issues with secessionist neoConfederates, Ann Coulter, Erick Erickson, and the National Organization for Gun Rights, a pro-gun death organization that almost makes the NRA's leadership look not entirely insane. Almost.
It's a long way until the 2014 elections. But the fact that a man who has no understanding of the country he lives in, a man who appears better suited for an asylum than for the United States Capitol, is running ahead of anybody is a sad commentary on the state of our nation.
This Week in the First Amendment
There are some TV shows we never want to mention by name around here, because they're just too omnipresent and bizarre and frankly kind of scary. But we'd like to take this opportunity to remind Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal what the Constitution's First Amendment says, because this week, in reference to some truly obnoxious comments one of the stars of said unnamed TV show made, Jindal said, "I remember when TV networks believed in the First Amendment." A certain half-term governor of a far more northern state had similar comments, but we're still waiting for her to apologize for comparing the national debt to slavery.
For Gov. Jindal's reference: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances."
A&E is a private entity, not Congress. If they had wanted to suspend a liberal for making stupid, bigoted remarks, Jindal would surely defend the right of a corporation to make any personnel decision they wanted, within the letter of the law. Claiming that their act had anything whatsoever to do with the First Amendment is simply absurd.
This Week in Equality
Congratulations, New Mexico!
This Week in How You Can Help
People with serious illnesses in their families often need a secure, private way to communicate with networks of family members, friends, and loved ones. Caring Bridge.org offers people the capability to build a private website, accessible only to those who have been invited to see it (or, conversely, open to anyone--the users themselves set the privacy parameters). These 70,000+ sites don't show up on search engines. The personal information of the users is never sold. And there are no ads to spoil the experience. These sites are for people who need a good way to communicate what's going on with them to those who want to know, or who they want to know. But Caring Bridge is a nonprofit funded by donations, and like most, they could always use a few bucks. If you have some this week, think about tossing it their way.
This Week in Bears
"Smarter than the average bear" used to be a phrase used only to describe Yogi Bear, but that's no longer the case. This bear avoided New Jersey's annual bear hunt by taking up residence in the crawlspace of an empty house, wrapping himself in insulation, and taking a nap. We think that's kind of a genius plan, and we salute him.