Weekly Pulse: Bayh-Partisanship=Giving Your Seat to a Republican

By Lindsay Beyerstein, Media Consortium Blogger

You will be shocked, shocked to hear that a Blue Dog Democrat who made a career out of undermining his own party is sucker-punching them on his way out.  Sen. Evan Bayh of Indiana abruptly announced this week that he would not seek reelection in November. Bayh’s departure is ratcheting up insecurity in the Democratic caucus at the very moment they need to take decisive action to pass health care reform.

Bayh could easily have won a third term, but it’s unclear whether any other Democrat can hold the seat. To add insult to injury, Bayh waited until 24 hours before the filing deadline for Democratic primary candidates, sending Indiana Dems scrambling to find a candidate to run in his place. Bayh’s tardiness was calculated. Since no Democrats were ready to file by the deadline, the Indiana Democratic establishment will get to handpick Bayh’s successor.

In a call with state Democratic officials, Bayh said his abrupt departure is for the best, as Evan McMorris-Santoro reports for TPMDC. According to Bayh, he’s doing the party a favor by sparing them a contentious primary process. Thanks a lot.

What does this mean for health care reform?

What does Bayh’s departure portend for health care reform? Monica Potts of TAPPED argues that replacing a conservative Democrat like Bayh with a moderate Republican won’t make that much difference. Bayh was never a reliable Democratic vote.

But Tim Fernholtz of TAPPED dismisses this view as naive. Fernholtz predicts that, for all of Bayh’s faults, the senate will be much worse without him: “In essence, the difference between this insubstantial Hoosier and, say, [GOP hopeful] Dan Coats, is simple: You can buy off Bayh.” Bayh voted for health care reform and the stimulus, no Republican, no matter how “moderate” is going to vote that way.

Anyone who expects a moderate Republican from Indiana to support any part of the Democratic agenda is deluded. On the other hand, the Senate Democrats already passed their bill, their only remaining task would be to pass a “fix” through budget reconciliation to make changes in the legislation that would be acceptable to the House. Of course, reconciliation will be a bitter political fight. One wonders whether the demoralized Senate Democrats will have the stomach for it.

About that health care summit…

Note that congressional Republicans have yet to commit to attending the “bipartisan” health care summit that they called for. Christina Bellatoni of TPMDC reports that yesterday White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs wondered why the Republicans were for the summit before they were against it:

“Right before the president issued the invitation, the—the thing that each of these individuals was hoping for most was an opportunity to sit down on television and discuss and engage on these issues. Now, not accepting an invitation to do what they’d asked the president to do, if they decide not to, I’ll let them leap the—leap the chasm there and try to explain why they’re now opposed to what they said they wanted most to do,” Gibbs said.

Busting the filibuster

On the bright side, the Democrats still have a sizable majority in the Senate, with or without Bayh. Republicans would have to beat all 10 vulnerable Democratic incumbent senators in the next election in order to regain control of the Senate. The more immediate threat to health care reform and the Democrats’ ability to govern in general is the institutional filibuster. Structural reform is needed to break the impasse. Lawyer and author Tom Geoghegan talks with Amy Goodman on Democracy Now! on strategies for busting the filibuster.

Public option resurfacing

Mike Lillis of the Washington Independent reports that four senate Democrats have thrown their lot in with progressives clamoring for a public option through reconciliation. Sens. Sherrod Brown (OH), Jeff Merkley (OR), Kirsten Gillibrand (NY) and Michael Bennet (CO) argue for the public option in an open letter to Majority Leader Harry Reid. The letter reads:

There are four fundamental reasons why we support this approach – its potential for billions of dollars in cost savings; the growing need to increase competition and lower costs for the consumer; the history of using reconciliation for significant pieces of health care legislation; and the continued public support for a public option….

Big pharma’s lobby

That’s nice, but let’s not forget who’s really in charge. In AlterNet, Paul Blumenthal recaps the sorry history of collusion between the White House, the pharmaceutical lobby group PhRMA, and the Senate. According to Blumenthal the White House steered pharmaceutical lobbyists directly to Sen. Max Baucus (D-MT), chair of the powerful Finance Committee, who was entrusted with crafting the White House’s favored version of health care reform.

Abortion and health care reform

As if we didn’t have enough to worry about, Nick Baumann of Mother Jones notes that the National Right to Life Committee (NRLC) is making abortion is an obstacle to passing health care reform through reconciliation. The NRLC is insinuating that Bart Stupak (D-MI) and his coalition of anti-choice Democrats will vote against the Senate health care bill because it it’s slightly less restrictive of abortion than the bill the House passed. The good news is that it’s procedurally impossible to insert Stupak’s language into the Senate bill through reconciliation. The bad news is that Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) needs every vote she can get to pass the Senate bill and anti-choice hardliners could be an obstacle.

This post features links to the best independent, progressive reporting about health care by members of The Media Consortium. It is free to reprint. Visit the Pulse for a complete list of articles on health care reform, or follow us on Twitter. And for the best progressive reporting on critical economy, environment, health care and immigration issues, check out The Audit, The Mulch, and The Diaspora. This is a project of The Media Consortium, a network of leading independent media outlets.

Weekly Audit: Don’t Let Citizens United Wreck Our Economy

By Zach Carter, Media Consortium Blogger

In a landmark decision last week, the Supreme Court ruled that corporations could spend unlimited funds to influence American elections, overturning a century of legal precedent. The Court’s ruling in Citizens United v. FEC undermines the integrity of the U.S. government, as President Barack Obama emphasized at his State of the Union address. But the decision also deals a damaging blow to the U.S. economy by encouraging lawmakers to write economic rules that benefit specific companies at the expense of everyone else.

The editors of The Nation lay out the High Court’s hubris in no uncertain terms:

The Citizens United campaign finance decision by Chief Justice John Roberts and a Supreme Court majority of conservative judicial activists is a dramatic assault on American democracy, overturning more than a century of precedent in order to give corporations the ultimate authority over elections and governing. This decision tips the balance against active citizenship and the rule of law by making it possible for the nation’s most powerful economic interests to manipulate not just individual politicians and electoral contests but political discourse itself.

Citizens United and the financial crisis

How does this ruling have any bearing on the economy? Markets are not simply the product of random interactions between consumers and producers. Even under the most radical, laissez-faire economic theories, markets are defined, coordinated and policed by the government. For the economy to function at all, we need the government to define what constitutes fair play.

But over the past few decades, we’ve watched Congress and the executive branch rewrite those rules of the game under heavy corporate influence, creating artificial profits for a set of favored companies with very bad consequences for the broader economy.

The U.S. banking industry serves as a prime example. Since the 1980s, banks have been spending like crazy in all kinds of elections, and getting just about anything they want in return. I interviewed Harvard University Law Professor and TARP Oversight Panel Chair Elizabeth Warren for AlterNet, and she presented a concise but unsettling economic history of consumer protection law:

Thirty years ago we had laws that put some basic fairness into the consumer credit market. Over time, the large financial institutions captured the regulators who were supposed to be the cops on the beat to enforce those laws. They also pumped hundreds of millions of dollars into Washington to make sure that no new cops were put on the beat. Without good laws, the industry started selling ever-more-deceptive products, and their friendly regulators looked the other way.

The bank lobby and the AIG bailout

In Mother Jones, Corbin Hiar reveals how even a bank that engineered a massive tax fraud scheme was able to benefit from the AIG bailout. Major financial institutions convinced Congress to block any regulation of credit default swaps (CDS) all the way back in 2000. CDS contracts were essentially insurance on the value of financial assets—if the assets lost value, banks would still get paid as if they were highly profitable.

CDS insurance encouraged banks to engage in risky mortgage lending, and allowed them to book huge profits on those risky mortgages during the housing boom, even though many of those mortgages were doomed from the get-go. AIG binged so heavily on CDS that the company was on the brink of bankruptcy in the fall of 2008. But an AIG bankruptcy would have hammered the major banks who served as AIG’s betting partners, most notably Goldman Sachs. Those banks would have received just pennies on the dollar from a bankrupt AIG. But under the bailout, the New York Federal Reserve paid the banks off at full value, without demanding any concessions whatsoever.

“The credit crunch was an existential threat to every over-leveraged big bank. What’s most shocking about the AIG bailout … is that these endangered banks were able to extract such a sweet deal from the government,” Hiar writes. “The banks were paid the full value of all the CDS contracts they had made with AIG—including those mortgage-backed securities they had bought when it was clear the subprime market was collapsing.”

The only AIG counterparty to even consider taking CDS losses was Swiss banking giant UBS, which was negotiating a separate settlement with the U.S. government over a massive tax evasion scheme. But even the tax fraudsters at UBS ultimately received full payment on their CDS exposure, and it now appears that the Swiss bank will be able to protect its wealthy tax-evading clients.

With the AIG bailout, the corporate takeover came full-circle. The banks purchased radical deregulation in Congress, and when the deregulated banks destroyed themselves, the government paid out billions to save them. The rest of the economy was ravaged by predatory lending, and taxpayers, not bankers, footed the bill for bank losses.

Redefining corruption

So the Citizens United decision will not introduce corporate influence in elections. Instead, it takes an uneven playing field and tilts it further in the favor of corporate executives. The Roberts court didn’t just open the floodgates for corporate cash in U.S. elections and call it a day. It also explicitly redefined “corruption” to give corporations—and anyone else—greater leeway to financially curry favor with politicians. Heather K. Gerken details the new definition for The American Prospect:

The most important line in the decision … was this one: “ingratiation and access … are not corruption.” For many years, the Court had gradually expanded the corruption rationale to extend beyond quid pro quo corruption (donor dollars for legislative votes). It had licensed Congress to regulate even when the threat was simply that large donors had better access to politicians or that politicians had become “too compliant with the[ir] wishes.” Indeed, at times the Court went so far as to say that even the mere appearance of “undue influence” or the public’s “cynical assumption that large donors call the tune” was enough to justify regulation. “Ingratiation and access,” in other words, were corruption as far as the Court was concerned.

Most of us would consider the key lawmakers ensnared in the Jack Abramoff scandal as fundamentally corrupt—Abramoff flew former Republican Whip Tom DeLay of Texas to Scotland for golfing vacations in an effort to win greater leverage over DeLay’s legislative agenda. The court’s ruling claims that this kind of activity is not corrupt, and bars Congress from passing any laws to counteract it. As filmmaker Alex Gibney emphasizes in an interview with Amy Goodman of Democracy Now!, the court has essentially taken Tom DeLay’s corporatist philosophy and made it a piece of constitutional law.

“Tom DeLay’s view is, we spend more money on potato chips than we do on political campaigns. His view would be, let the money rush down like great waters,,” Gibney says. “I think the court was channeling Tom DeLay when they issued their recent decision.”

Why citizens need to speak out now

So what can we do about this? As GRITtv’s Laura Flanders discusses in a roundtable discussion with several progressive leaders, there will be a long fight for a Constitutional Amendment to ban corporate influence in politics. Until then, as progressive strategist Mike Lux explains, citizens will have to take an aggressive stance against Corporate America as shareholders. Corporate power is exercised by a handful of executives, but the resources that support that power come from ordinary Americans who own stock in those companies, primarily through retirement plans. By demanding that the giant firms we own do not highjack our democracy with lobbying, we can limit some of the damage from the court’s recent decision.

If you liked the bank bailouts, then there’s plenty for you to love about the Citizens United decision. If you didn’t, then it’s time to speak up.

This post features links to the best independent, progressive reporting about the economy by members of The Media Consortium. It is free to reprint. Visit the Audit for a complete list of articles on economic issues, or follow us on Twitter. And for the best progressive reporting on critical economy, environment, health care and immigration issues, check out The Mulch, The Pulse and The Diaspora. This is a project of The Media Consortium, a network of leading independent media outlets.

Weekly Diaspora: Protecting Haitian Refugees Through Immigration Reform

By Nezua, Media Consortium Blogger

On Tuesday, the worst earthquake in 200 years struck just off the coast of Port-au-Prince, Haiti, as The Nation reports. Bringing “catastrophic destruction” to the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere, the disaster has spurred relief efforts worldwide. Crises like this are important reminders of how the treatment and protection of refugees must be a part of immigration reform.

Temporary protected status for Haitian refugees

In September of 2009—just one year after Haiti was decimated by four successive hurricanes and tropical storms that affected at least 3 million people—New America Media (NAM) made a prescient call to halt all deportation to Haiti, and grant Haitians temporary protected status (TPS) status in the U.S. “before more Haitians die or are impacted by natural disasters.”

Andrea Nill, writing for NAM’s EthnoBlog, reminds us it was only ten months ago, in March of 2009 that the Obama administration indicated it would “continue deporting undocumented Haitians,” in spite of the critical situation on the ground. Yesterday, Nill argued that not granting Haitian refugees TPS at this point would be “inconsistent with the promises the Obama administration has already made to the people of Haiti.” Later in the day, Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Secretary Janet Napolitano responded by stating deportations to Haiti would, indeed, be temporarily halted.

[ED. NOTE: Stay tuned for more coverage of Haiti and relief efforts. The Media Consortium will release a special report compiling our member's coverage of the crisis and ways to help later today.]

Legalize the undocumented; boost the economy

It’s a fortunate confluence of circumstance, when doing the right thing could also help our faltering economy. Jorge Rivas of RaceWire highlights a new study on the beneficial economic effects of legalizing undocumented workers through comprehensive immigration reform. The study came about through a partnership between the Center for American Progress and Dr. Raul Hinojosa-Ojeda, associate professor at the University of California, Los Angeles. The research suggests that legalization would yield $1.5 trillion to the U.S. Gross Domestic Product over a 10-year period, generate billions of dollars in additional tax revenue, increase wages for all levels of workers in the U.S. (the “wage floor”) and create hundreds of thousands of jobs.

Detention center cover up continues

RaceWire also reveals new developments in the horrific tale of corrupt immigration officials “desperate to conceal” multiple incidents of abuse in Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detention centers. Violations of law include “covering up evidence of gross mistreatment, undercounting the number of detention deaths, discharging patients right before they die, and major efforts to avoid scrutiny from the news media.” Reportedly, ICE has made great efforts to cover up detention conditions and cruelty. (Video below).

 

‘Draconian’ anti-immigration legislation passed in Mississippi

Rev. Jeremy Tobin of American Forum reports on a piece of “draconian” anti-immigration legislation passed in Mississippi in March of 2008. SB 2988 makes it a felony for an undocumented immigrant to work in the state. The bill includes a waivable fine for employers that cooperate with the prosecution of undocumented workers. SB 2988 oppresses immigrants and weakens the power of organized labor. According to Tobin, one frustrated legislator said that the bill was “making it a crime to work an honest job.”

Tobin calls out various organizations that backed the bill. These groups “started out anti-civil rights” and have since “reinvented themselves to be anti-immigrant rights.” He also notes that a “disturbing” number of Mississippi Democrats voted for SB 2988.

This post features links to the best independent, progressive reporting about immigration by members of The Media Consortium. It is free to reprint. Visit the Diaspora for a complete list of articles on immigration issues, or follow us on Twitter. And for the best progressive reporting on critical economy, environment, and health care issues, check out The Audit, The Mulch, and The Pulse . This is a project of The Media Consortium, a network of leading independent media outlets.

Weekly Audit: Unemployment Fueling Political Storm

By Zach Carter, Media Consortium Blogger

Unemployment figures in the U.S. are staggering: The official rate stands at 10.2%, the highest in 26 years. A broader measure that includes people who are involuntarily working part-time or who have given up looking for work is at 17.5%. That's a full-blown economic emergency.

But, as Joshua Holland explains for AlterNet, President Barack Obama's response to the unemployment crisis has not matched the urgency of his response to the crisis on Wall Street. This isn't just unfair, it's bad economics.

"It's important to understand that the economic crisis in which we find ourselves is not just a function of a shaky financial system but of a crash in consumption that's come along with the evaporation of $14 trillion worth of the wealth of American families," Holland writes.

Widespread joblessness can be every bit as damaging to the economic structure as a financial crisis. When people are out of work, they buckle down on household expenses. When several million people cut back at the same time, the economic machine grinds to a halt. If people are not buying and selling stuff, the economy isn't working.

As Mary Kane explains for The Washington Independent, about 40% of families don't have enough money to cover expenses through a three-month stretch of unemployment--even if one member of the household is receiving unemployment benefits. Kane highlights a Brandeis University study that reveals the haggard state of the American household and the unfair distribution of wealth along racial lines. A full 66% of African-American and Latino families can't afford three months without work. At a time when 5.6 million workers have been jobless for at least six months, the study highlights just how dire finances have become for many households.

GRITtv's Laura Flanders discusses potential labor market remedies with economist Dean Baker and The Nation's John Nichols. Baker suggests a work-share arrangement, in which employers cut back on their workers' hours to allow more people to work. To prevent losses for households, the government would step in and pay for the shortfall in hours. Employers would have more part-time jobs available, but the government would make sure everyone was paid as if they were working full-time. Baker also endorses a public jobs program, which he says could be especially useful in cities like Detroit and Cleveland that have been hit particularly hard by the economic downturn.

Nichols highlights the political consequences of failing to fix the unemployment mess. Unemployment directly affects the lives of voters. If widespread joblessness persists through November 2010, Democrats will net huge Congressional losses. If Obama thinks it's hard to garner bipartisan support for his legislative priorities now, imagine a few dozen more Republican obstructionists.

It's not that Obama failed to respond to the unemployment crisis. He did. That's what the stimulus package was all about. Today's 10.2% unemployment is a catastrophe, but it would be more like 12% without the stimulus package. But, given the seriousness of the issue, Obama is not giving unemployment enough attention.

In fact, Obama's economic priorities are a mirror-image of his campaign promises, as Robert Scheer argues in both a column for TruthDig and an interview with Amy Goodman on Democracy Now! After talking tough about reining in recklessness on Wall Street and making the financial system more accountable, Obama has hired many of the very policy makers who pushed through the deregulatory agenda back in the 1990s. Top Obama administration officials like Larry Summers, Timothy Geithner, Gary Gensler and Neal Wolin helped make this mess in the first place.

"This is not a minor criticism," Scheer says. "I think the guy is betraying his own presidency."

Obama's timid efforts to rein in Wall Street and heal the ailing job market are setting the stage for a political disaster. If Obama and Congressional Democrats can't take strong action to fix the economy, they will find themselves with much narrower majorities next November. The economy, and the public institutions that support it, are supposed to work for everyone, not just the financial elite.

This post features links to the best independent, progressive reporting about the economy by members of The Media Consortium. It is free to reprint. Visit the Audit for a complete list of articles on economic issues, or follow us on Twitter. And for the best progressive reporting on critical economy, environment, health care and immigration issues, check out The Mulch, The Pulse and The Diaspora. This is a project of The Media Consortium, a network of leading independent media outlets.

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Weekly Pulse: Pelosi Champions Public Option

By Lindsay Beyerstein, Media Consortium Blogger

A plan to reform health care that includes a robust public option would actually cut the deficit, according to preliminary estimates by the Congressional Budget Office (CBO). For the purposes of this analysis, a robust public option was defined as one that reimburses doctors at Medicare rates plus five percent. The latest CBO estimate is critical for Democrats because President Barack Obama said he wouldn't sign a health care bill that adds to the deficit. (There's a double standard at work. Health care has to pay for itself or save money. But as Jo Comerford notes for Democracy Now!, the president has no compunction about bloating the budget with defense spending.)

As health care reform moves into the closed-door, intra-party negotiation phase, House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi is emerging as a champion of a the public option. Pelosi has always said that she can't pass a bill without some kind of public plan, though she has wavered about how tough that plan should be on payouts to providers. But according to Brian Beutler of TPMDC, yesterday's "favorable CBO report seems to have settled all that, and Pelosi's decided to go all in for a public option."

And why not? A clear majority of Americans now favor a public option, as John Byrne reports in Raw Story. According to a Washington Post/ABC News poll published on Tuesday, 57 percent of respondents favor a public health insurance option to compete with private insurers. That's an increase of five percentage points in two months.

Two bills made it out of committee in the Senate, one with a public option (the Health Education Labor and Pensions Committee's effort) and one without (the Senate Finance bill). So, proponents of the public option are putting pressure on Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid to include one in the final bill. The Progressive Change Campaign is running ads in Reid's district asking whether he's strong enough to back a public option. Reid might be more susceptible than usual to progressive pressure because he's up for reelection and facing dismal poll numbers, according to Alex Koppelman in Salon.

The public option has come back from the abyss several times, thanks to a combination of popular appeal, political courage, and determined progressive activism. But Mike Lillis of the Washington Independent argues that Democrats shot themselves in the foot by taking single payer off the table early on. Single payer health care would abolish private health insurance and cover everyone through a Medicare-like system. It would be an easier and cheaper way to achieve universal coverage than any of the options Congress is considering now, but it's an anathema to the insurance industry.

As Lillis observes, a basic principle of negotiation is to ask for more than you think you're going to get and negotiate down from there. But the White House made a point of shooting down single payer in May and Congressional Democrats held but one hearing on the prospect. Talk about lousy business skills.

By choosing the public option -- not single payer -- as the left-most negotiating point, Democrats left themselves with few places to go but toward more conservative proposals for insurance reform, experts say, including the co-op model and a system of triggering public plans only if private insurers fail to meet certain cost and coverage targets. In the blood sport of congressional negotiating -- which dictates that you over-ask, and then move toward your goal during the subsequent bartering -- Democrats were asking merely for the public plan they wanted in the final bill.

While we're on the subject of preemptive concessions to unreasonable political parties, Amanda Marcotte of RH Reality Check describes how Democrats have bent over backwards to accommodate the anti-choice lobby on funding abortions under a public plan. Democrats have proposed elaborate bureaucratic workarounds to make sure that abortions are only covered by private money. Still, anti-choice militants like Michelle Bachmann (R-Minn) are accusing them of backing abortion fieldtrips for school kids. Speaking of starting high and negotiating downward, Dems should threaten to overturn the Hyde Amendment, which bans the use of federal funds for most abortions. Let's see what the anti-choicers are prepared to give up in exchange.

In a sense, it's reassuring that legislators are taking the public option seriously enough to argue about how it might pay for abortions. If they didn't think we were going to get a public option, it would be a moot point.

This post features links to the best independent, progressive reporting about health care by members of The Media Consortium. It is free to reprint. Visit the Pulse for a complete list of articles on health care reform, or follow us on Twitter. And for the best progressive reporting on critical economy, environment, health care and immigration issues, check out The Audit, The Mulch, and The Diaspora. This is a project of The Media Consortium, a network of leading independent media outlets.

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