Weekly Pulse: Judge Rules Against Health Reform, Takes Cash from Opponents

by Lindsay Beyerstein, Media Consortium blogger

The Virginia federal judge who ruled against a key component of health care reform on Monday has ties to a Republican consulting firm. Judge Henry Hudson is a co-owner of Campaign Solutions, as Amy Goodman of Democracy Now! reports.

Hudson, a President George W. Bush appointee, has earned as much as $108,000 in royalties from Campaign Solutions since 2003. A cached version of the firm’s client roster lists such vocal opponents of health reform as Sens. Mitch McConnell (R-KY), Jim DeMint (R-SC), and Olympia Snowe (R-ME), Rep. Todd Tiahrt (R-KS), the Republican National Committee and the American Medical Association.

In November, Collins and Snowe joined McConnell in signing an amicus brief to challenge the constitutionality of health care reform in a separate suit in Florida. Campaign finance records show that Campaign Solutions has also worked for Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli, who is spearheading the lawsuit. Tiahrt added an amicus brief to Cuccinelli’s lawsuit.

Today, the mandate. Tomorrow, the regulatory state?

Hudson ruled that the individual mandate of health care reform is unconstitutional. The mandate stipulates that, after 2014, everyone who doesn’t already have health insurance will have to buy some or pay a small fine. The judge argues that this requirement exceeds the federal government’s power to regulate interstate commerce.

The Commerce Clause gives the federal government the power to regulate commerce between the states and international trade. Suzy Khimm of Mother Jones explains that this clause underpins the power of the federal government to regulate the economy in any way:

But the issues at stake in Cuccinelli v. Sebelius (Ken Cuccinelli is the conservative attorney general of Virginia; Katherine Sebelius is President Barack Obama’s Secretary of Health and Human Services, or HHS) are actually far broader. Hudson’s ruling doesn’t just show how the Supreme Court could gut the health law—it shows how the court could neuter the entire federal government.

Is it constitutional?

Chris Hayes of The Nation interviews Prof. Gillian Metzger, a constitutional law scholar at Columbia University, about the merits of challenges to the constitutionality of health care reform. According to Metzger, “the argument that [the mandate] is outside the commerce power is also pretty specious given the existing precedent.”

Steve Benen of the Washington Monthly accuses Judge Hudson of committing an “inexplicable error” in legal reasoning. There is a longstanding precedent that the federal government can regulate economic activity under the Commerce Clause. Hudson acknowledges this, but he maintains that this power doesn’t cover regulations of “economic inactivity” (i.e. not buying health insurance). As Benen notes, people who don’t buy insurance aren’t opting out of the market, they’re opting to let society absorb their future medical costs. Everyone who does buy insurance pays more because freeloaders coast without insurance and hope for the best.

Luckily for the Obama administration, the judge did not bar the implementation of health reform while the case works its way through the courts. The Supreme Court will ultimately hear this case. In the meantime, the federal government can continue building the infrastructure that will eventually support health care reform.

This is the third time a federal judge has ruled on the constitutionality of health care reforms and the first victory for the anti-reform contingent.

Mandatory mandate

Paul Waldman reminds TAPPED readers why the mandate is critical to any health care reform based on private insurance. With a single-payer system, you don’t need a mandate because everyone is automatically covered. A mandate only comes into play when you have to force people to buy insurance.

Without a mandate, healthy risk-takers who don’t buy insurance will starve the system of premiums while they are well and bleed the system for benefits when they get sick. Meanwhile, people who already know they’re sick will sign up in droves, and the Affordable Care Act will force insurers to accept them.  Without a mandate, the private health insurance industry would collapse and take health care reform down with it.

Is expanding Medicare the answer?

Matthew Rothschild of the Progressive argues that the legal headaches over the individual mandate illustrate why it would have been legally and procedurally easier to achieve universal health care by simply expanding Medicare to cover everyone.

At Truthout, Thom Hartmann argues universal health insurance in the form of “Medicare Part E” would spur economic growth and innovation because entrepreneurs could start businesses without worrying about how to provide health insurance for their employees.

Meanwhile, Brie Cadman reports at Change.Org, Sen. Tom Coburn (R-OK) is trying to defund health care reform by cutting funds for preventive health care. Coburn is urging his fellow Republicans to vote against a House-passed measure that would allocate $750 million for the 2011 Prevention and Public Health Fund. Cadman notes the irony of a medical doctor like Coburn, who also claims to be a fiscal conservative,  trying to scuttle funds to control preventable diseases which would otherwise cost society billions of dollars a year.

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 Mulch: Murkowski Vs. the EPA

By Sarah Laskow, Media Consortium Blogger

On Thursday afternoon, Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) pulled out a rarely-used Congressional tool in an attempt to keep the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) from regulating carbon and other greenhouse gasses. Sen. Murkowski offered a “resolution of disapproval” of the EPA’s impending action, which would limit companies’ carbon emissions.

The resolution would overturn the EPA’s finding that carbon dioxide is harmful to the public health. Three Democrats—Sen. Ben Nelson (D-NE), Sen. Blanche Lincoln (D-AR), and Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-LA)—joined Sen. Murkowski and 35 Republicans in sponsoring the resolution.

“Ms. Murkowski’s Mischief‘”

“This command and control approach is our worst option for reducing the gasses associated with climate change,” said Sen. Murkowski on the floor of the Senate yesterday. She called the EPA’s actions “backdoor climate regulations with no input from Congress” and said they would damage the country’s flailing economy.

The EPA first announced in April 2009 that carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gasses posed a threat to the public health. The agency formalized that finding last month, giving itself the power to regulate emissions of greenhouse gasses under the Clean Air Act. In March 2010, for instance, the agency is expected to announce carbon emissions rules for the auto industry that would match California’s higher standards. Sen. Murkowski’s resolution would derail that process.

Sen. Murkowski argued that she wants to give Congress room to come up with a legislative solution to climate change, but her critics see a more dangerous tilt to her resolution. “It’s a radical attempt by the legislative branch to interfere with executive branch scientists,” writes David Roberts at Grist.

Responding to “Ms. Murskowski’s mischief” on the Senate floor yesterday, Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-CA) called the resolution an “unprecedented effort to overturn scientific decision” and “a direct assault on the health of the American people.”

Resolution of disapproval

What is a “resolution of disapproval?” Grist’s Roberts called it “the nuclear option.”

“It would rescind the EPA’s endangerment finding entirely and thereby eliminate its authority over both mobile and stationary sources,” Roberts explains. “Furthermore, the administration would be prohibited from passing a regulation “substantially the same” as the one overruled, so the constraint on the EPA would effectively be permanent.”

This type of resolution was created by the Clinton-era Congressional Reform Act. The resolution has one big advantage: It cannot be filibustered. Passage requires only a majority in both houses of Congress. Members have tried using it in the past to delay the Dubai Ports World deal, derail FCC regulations on new media, and stop the flow of bailout funds.

Kate Sheppard at Mother Jones has been following Sen. Murkowski’s actions closely. She reports that “Senate supporters of climate action say Murkowski could obtain the votes of moderate Democrats from coal, oil, and manufacturing states. However, a resolution would still need to be approved by the House and signed by the president—both long shots, to put it mildly. ‘I think we’re a little worried about [Murkowski’s resolution] winning. I’m not sure we’re worried about it becoming law,’ a Senate Democratic staffer says.”

But Grist’s Roberts argues that passage in the Senate alone would be a problem. “Even if blocked by the House or vetoed by the president, such a public, bipartisan slap at the administration would be highly embarrassing and demoralizing,” Roberts writes. “It would mean at least ten conservative Democrats washing their hands of the administration’s initiative.”

Climate change and Congress

Sen. Murkowski insists that she’s still ready to work with her colleagues on climate change and that it’s better to approach the problem of climate change via legislation, not regulation.

But no one in Washington believes that climate change legislation is going to pass—even come to the Senate floor—any time soon. The issue was already in line behind health care, and the election of Republican candidate Scott Brown to Sen. Ted Kennedy’s Massachusetts seat this week means that none of the bills that the Senate is working on are likely to come to a vote this year.

“There was hope that the [climate] bill would come to the floor in the spring,” writes Steve Benen at Washington Monthly. “Regrettably, a narrow majority of Massachusetts voters have made it significantly more likely that Congress won’t address the problem at all. Proponents focused on solutions have vowed to “persist,” but Massachusetts has made a difficult situation considerably worse.”

The role of special interests

Sen. Murkowski has come under criticism for allowing Bush-era EPA administrators, now lobbyists representing clients on climate change issues, to help her craft an earlier amendment cracking down on the EPA. Yesterday, she said that those criticisms are “categorically false.”

But as JP Leous reports at Care2, Sen. Murkowski does receive substantial backing from energy industries that oppose climate change legislation and regulation.

“According to OpenSecrets.org Sen. Murkowski has received hundreds of thousands of dollars from polluting companies, and some of her biggest campaign contributors in recent years include firms with fossil-fueled motives like Exxon Mobil Corp,” Leous writes “Add those dots into the mix and a different picture emerges — and it starts to look like a person who is poised to introduce legislation next week attacking the Clean Air Act.”

On the Senate floor yesterday, Sen. Boxer charged, “Why would the Senate get in the business of repealing science? Because that’s what the special interests want to have happen now. Because they’re desperate.”

The Democratic Senators who co-sponsored the resolution also come from energy producing states where companies object to the new EPA regulations.

If at first you don’t succeed…

If Sen. Murkowski’s resolution does pass the Senate, there’s little chance it will pass the House as well. But this isn’t the only option that regulation opponents are looking at to fight the EPA. The Chamber of Commerce and other groups are planning to challenge the regulatory action in court, as Mother Jones’ Sheppard reports.

Last week, these opponents met to discuss their strategy. What’s interesting, Sheppard says, is that “the group was apparently divided on the best course of action. The Hill observes that “two camps have emerged.” One wants to challenge whatever rules the EPA issues, while another wants to question the science of global warming itself.”

We’re back to that old saw? With legislation off the table, the fight over climate change, for now, is in the regulatory arena.

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

What's unfair to residents of coal-dependent states?

Politicians in both parties have complained that proposed federal climate change bills are "unfair" to Midwestern states, which rely largely on coal to generate electricity. Utility companies and corporate groups have tried to reinvent themselves as defenders of the public interest against those who would unjustly "punish" consumers living in coal-dependent states.

Physicians for Social Responsibility released a report this week on "Coal's Assault on Human Health." This report should be required reading for all members of Congress, especially Democrats who have demanded more subsidies for coal-burning utilities in the climate-change bill. From the executive summary (pdf file):

Coal pollutants affect all major body organ systems and contribute to four of the five leading causes of mortality in the U.S.: heart disease, cancer, stroke and chronic lower respiratory diseases. [...] Each step of the coal lifecycle--mining, transportation, washing, combustion, and disposing of post-combustion wastes--impacts human health. Coal combustion in particular contributes to diseases affecting large portions of the U.S. population, including asthma, lung cancer, heart disease, and stroke, compounding the major public health challenges of our time. It interferes with lung development, increases the risk of heart attacks, and compromises intellectual capacity.

In yesterday's Des Moines Register, Lee Rood highlighted some of the extra burdens Iowans bear because of coal-fired power plants. Several other Midwestern states, such as Missouri and Indiana, rely even more heavily on coal for electricity.

Over the past year, Iowa Independent has published many outstanding reports on coal ash disposal. I recommend reading the latest piece by Jason Hancock: "Effects of coal ash contamination go beyond health risks."

It's clear that coal-fired power plants extract a huge toll on public health. Creating financial incentives to move away from coal as a source of electricity isn't "unfair," especially since low-income Americans could receive increased subsidies for utility bills.

What's unfair is for corporations and politicians to fight for the status quo, without regard for Americans who die prematurely or suffer from preventable health problems because of coal.

In one blog post I can't do justice to the extensively documented report by Physicians for Social Responsibility, but here's one more excerpt from the executive summary (pdf file):

A nationwide study of blood samples in 1999-2000 showed that 15.7% of women of childbearing age have blood mercury levels that would cause them to give birth to children with mercury levels exceeding the EPA's maximum acceptable dose for mercury. This dose was established to limit the number of children with mercury-related neurological and developmental impairments. Researchers have estimated that between 317,000 and 631,000 children are born in the U.S. each year with blood mercury levels high enough to impair performance on neurodevelopmental tests and cause lifelong loss of intelligence.

When conservatives who supposedly want to protect unborn children stop clamoring for more coal-fired power plants, I'll take them more seriously.

You don't have to believe in global warming to recognize the dangers of relying on coal and the benefits of moving toward cleaner ways to generate electricity.

There's more...

Weekly Pulse: Swine Flu Postgame Show

By Lindsay Beyerstein, TMC MediaWire Blogger


So far, swine flu hasn't developed into the deadly global pandemic that many feared. Was it all media hype, as Cervantes argues for AlterNet? Or did all that quarantining and hand-washing actually help? While we'll never know what might have been, perhaps we should consider the relatively mild swine flu as a cheap lesson--a dry run, if you will.

There's more...

Connecticut legislature working toward passage of mandatory sick days

It seems only logical that if we as a nation value public health that restaurant and hospitality industry workers should not come to work sick. Yet, 85 percent of food-service workers do not get paid time off when they are ill. To make matters worse, those workers, who usually get hourly pay that is lower than the minimum wage, cannot afford to take time off for illness. So, they come to work sick.

It does not take a policy expert to figure out this poses not only a public health concern, but concern for the children of workers' without paid sick pay.

Connecticut took a step forward this past Friday when paid sick days legislation (SB 601) cleared the judiciary committee with a vote of 19-13. Forty percent of Connecticut workers are currently without paid sick days. The bill still needs to pass the Senate.

There's more...

Diaries

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