Unemployment benefits will run out for many on Monday

Although the March jobs report was encouraging, the unemployment rate and the number of long-term unemployed are still at historically high levels. Unfortunately, unemployment benefits for about 200,000 Americans will run out on April 5 because Congress adjourned for its Easter recess before resolving an dispute over extending those and other benefits. The Hill reports:

The interruption in benefits will last two weeks at a minimum, according to Judy Conti of the National Employment Law Project (NELP), since lawmakers return from spring break on April 12.

As the two-week recess began, Congress was at an impasse over how to extend the emergency unemployment insurance program and other expiring provisions, including increased COBRA health insurance subsidies for the unemployed, the Medicare doctor payment rate and federal flood insurance.

Senate Republicans said the $9.3 billion, 30-day extension preferred by Democrats should be paid for, while Democrats said the bill's cost didn't need to be offset because the program was "emergency spending."

Under the jobless benefits program that ends Monday, Americans out of work are eligible for up to 99 weeks of unemployment benefits. The program, aimed at helping jobless Americans stay afloat when new jobs aren't readily available, gives an unemployed worker more than the 26 weeks of unemployment insurance normally available. But with the program ending, those out of work for as few as six months will see an interruption in their benefit checks.

I love how Republicans who approved every blank check for war in Iraq and tax cut for the top 1 percent always demand that unemployment benefits be "paid for." I don't expect them to hold up action on unemployment benefits forever, but even if Democrats are able to apply extensions retroactively later this month, a lot of families will experience real hardship in the meantime. I hope Democrats succeed in passing a bill that would extend the benefits until the end of the year, so these battles won't recur every month.

Some good news on jobs, but a long way to go

Finally, a decent monthly job report. Here are some highlights, brought to you by Meteor Blades:

The Bureau of Labor Statistics stated in its seasonally adjusted report that some 162,000 new jobs were created in March, the best showing since March 2007, but somewhat below the consensus of experts surveyed earlier in the week. The official unemployment rate held steady at 9.7%. Some 15 million Americans are officially out of work.

The U6 unemployment rate, an alternative measure that includes underemployed Americans as well as a portion of those too discouraged to have looked for jobs recently, rose to 16.9%. [...]

Some 48,000 of the new hires are temporary jobs with the Census. Hiring for the decennial count of the population will continue through June, with an estimated 1.15 million workers eventually hired. As a consequence of the short term nature of these jobs, experts will be largely discounting public employment when judging the health of the labor market during this period. Employment rose in construction, manufacturing, health care and temporary services. It held steady in transportation and warehousing, leisure and hospitality, the retail trade, and wholesale trade. There were losses in the information industry and financial services.

BLS revisions lowered the job losses in January from the 26,000 reported last month to a gain of 14,000 and reduced the job losses for February from 36,000 to 14,000. Average hourly earnings fell 0.1% in March.

Click over for more details and charts. It's going to be a very long climb out of this recession, which was the most severe in seven decades in terms of job losses. Blades notes that if the economy created 200,000 jobs a month from now on, "it would take until October 2013 before the number of employed Americans equaled those with a job in December 2007, when the recession began."

Share any relevant thoughts in this thread.

House race handicapping thread

Swing State Project posted its initial competitive House ratings chart yesterday. On one level, the chart is terrifying, because Democrats hold so many more of the seats in play than Republicans do. On the other hand, I found the chart a bit reassuring, in that Republicans would have to win about two-thirds of the tossup seats and about one-third of the "lean Democrat" seats in order to take back the House majority. That is a tall order when the National Republican Congressional Committee has so much less cash on hand than the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, and the Republican National Committee is spending like there's no election in seven months. Corporate-funded PACs and Republican 527s will spend money on behalf of many GOP candidates, but I still think the cash-strapped NRCC will end up leaving seats on the table.

Swing State Project commenters have been debating prospects for various House races in this thread. Click over to read the chart, then come back and share your thoughts or predictions about any of the competitive House races.

I'll get the ball rolling by talking about Iowa's third district, where seven Republican challengers are competing for the right to face seven-term incumbent Leonard Boswell. I haven't seen any public or internal polling on this race. Swing State Project's "lean D" rating is defensible, because Boswell underperformed the top of the Democratic ticket in 2006 and 2008. However, Boswell is continuing to raise money while the winner of the GOP primary will probably be broke. Many people on the ground believe State Senator Brad Zaun will beat the insiders' favorite Jim Gibbons in that primary, which could put the NRCC off making big play for this district. Even if Gibbons wins the primary, I doubt the NRCC will spend serious money here. Iowa is losing a district after the 2010 census, and the winner of the IA-03 election will probably be thrown into the same district as Tom Latham, who currently represents IA-04. So beating Boswell wouldn't deliver a long-term gain for the GOP. Republicans have dozens of targets that look more inviting than this district.

The floor is yours.

Republicans and Democrats raising big money for governor's races

With 37 governor's races coming up this November, the Republican Governor's Association and the Democratic Governor's Association are pulling in big money. The RGA "raised $9 million in the first quarter of 2010 and has $31 million cash on hand," CNN reported yesterday. The DGA raised $8 million during the first quarter, setting a new record for the organization, and has $22 million on hand. A DGA press release noted that first-quarter receipts in 2010 exceeded the organization's fundraising during the first six months of 2006.

The RGA and DGA set fundraising records in 2009, with the Republican organization bringing in $30 million and its Democratic counterpart raising $23 million. I'm pleasantly surprised that the DGA has been able to stay so competitive with the RGA's fundraising in 2010. The first couple of months of the year were rocky for Democrats politically, and many major Republican donors have been fleeing the Republican National Committee for various reasons, including RNC staffers' embarrassing fundraising plans and massive overspending on luxury hotels, limos and nightclubs. I suspect a lot of contributions that would have gone to the RNC in other years are flowing to the RGA.

Yesterday's press release from the DGA noted:

Since 2006, the DGA has compiled an impressive winning record on targeted races. In the six races where both governors committees have spent at least $500,000, DGA has won four. [...]

The strong first quarter fundraising piggybacks on two consecutive record-breaking years for the DGA and builds on what was already the largest cash-on-hand in organizational history. With $22 million already in the bank, the DGA will spend more on races in 2010 than it spent in 2006, 2007, 2008 and 2009 combined. Grassroots donors are fired up about the GOP’s redistricting takeover plan and they boosted the DGA tothe $8 million mark with a surge of contributions in the final days of the first quarter.

“Even as we’re raising more than ever before, we’re spending that money wisely,” said Nathan Daschle, the DGA’s executive director. “We’ve trimmed our operating expenses significantly so that we can put more resources where it matters – into the races on the ground – and our burn rate is the lowest it’s ever been. We are committed to spending every dollar wisely because the stakes are so high – Republicans are planning to win so many governorships that they can redistrict themselves back to power.”

Some of the key redistricting states with competitive gubernatorial elections include California, Texas, Florida, Ohio and Pennsylvania.

Sebelius warns insurers on denying coverage to sick kids

Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius wrote to the head of the insurance industry's lobbying arm yesterday warning against efforts to continue to deny coverage to children with pre-existing conditions. Excerpt from the letter, which you can download as a pdf file at Greg Sargent's blog:

Health insurance reform is designed to prevent any child from being denied coverage because he or she has a pre-existing condition. Leaders in Congress have reaffirmed this in recent days in the attached statement. To ensure that there is no ambiguity on this point, I am preparing to issue regulations in the weeks ahead ensuring that the term "pre-existing condition exclusion" applies to both a child's access to a plan and to his or her benefits once he or she is in the plan. These regulations will further confirm that beginning in September, 2010:

*Children with pre-existing conditions may not be denied access to their parents' health insurance plan;

*Insurance companies will no longer be allowed to insure a child, but exclude treatments for that child's pre-existing condition.

I urge you to share this information with your members and to help ensure that they cease any attempt to deny coverage to some of the youngest and most vulnerable Americans.

A spokesperson for House Speaker Nancy Pelosi sent Sargent the following statement:

The intent of Congress to end discrimination against children was crystal clear, and as the House chairs said last week, the fact that insurance companies would even try to deny children coverage exemplifies why the health reform legislation was so vital. Secretary Sebelius isn’t going to let insurance companies discriminate against children, and no one in the industry should think otherwise.

Let's hope this works. I wouldn't be surprised to see insurance companies challenge the new regulations in court. They were probably counting on that loophole.

Passover open thread

Happy Passover to those in the MyDD community who celebrate the holiday. You don't have to be Jewish to attend a seder. President Obama is having one in the White House.

Our seder plate is "fired up and ready to go" with a beet in place of the shankbone (it's an accepted alternative). We also follow the relatively new tradition of placing an orange on the seder plate. Here's why.

Consider this an open thread.

Founding Father signed health insurance mandate into law

State attorneys general have filed two federal lawsuits challenging the individual mandate to purchase health insurance, which President Barack Obama signed into law last week. Those lawsuits look like pure political posturing to me, given the well-established Congressional powers to regulate interstate commerce and taxation.

It turns out that precedent for a health insurance mandate is much older than the 1930s Supreme Court rulings on the Commerce Clause. Thanks to Paul J. O'Rourke for the history lesson:

In July, 1798, Congress passed, and President John Adams signed into law “An Act for the Relief of Sick and Disabled Seamen,” authorizing the creation of a marine hospital service, and mandating privately employed sailors to purchase healthcare insurance.

This legislation also created America’s first payroll tax, as a ship’s owner was required to deduct 20 cents from each sailor’s monthly pay and forward those receipts to the service, which in turn provided injured sailors hospital care. Failure to pay or account properly was discouraged by requiring a law violating owner or ship's captain to pay a 100 dollar fine.

This historical fact demolishes claims of “unprecedented” and "The Constitution nowhere authorizes the United States to mandate, either directly or under threat of penalty...”

Perhaps these somewhat incompetent attorneys general might wish to amend their lawsuits to conform to the 1798 precedent, and demand that the mandate and fines be linked to implementing a federal single payer healthcare insurance plan.

O'Rourke posted the full text of the 1798 legislation as well.

I'm not one to claim American's "Founding Fathers" could do no wrong. After all, President Adams also signed the Sedition Act, which violated the First Amendment. But Republican "strict constructionists" say we should interpret the constitution only as 18th-century Americans would have understood it. Some claim judges should cite only 18th-century sources when interpreting the constitution. Well, Congress enacted and the president signed a health insurance mandate less than a decade after the U.S. Constitution went into effect.

I don't expect these facts to affect Republican rhetoric about health insurance reform. Thankfully, Iowa Attorney General Tom Miller is not wasting our state's money on this frivolous lawsuit. So far I haven't heard any Republicans demand his impeachment, as some GOP legislators are doing in Georgia.

Finally, Obama makes recess appointments

After months of obstruction by Senate Republicans, the White House announced on March 27:

“The United States Senate has the responsibility to approve or disapprove of my nominees. But if, in the interest of scoring political points, Republicans in the Senate refuse to exercise that responsibility, I must act in the interest of the American people and exercise my authority to fill these positions on an interim basis,” said President Barack Obama. “Most of the men and women whose appointments I am announcing today were approved by Senate committees months ago, yet still await a vote of the Senate. At a time of economic emergency, two top appointees to the Department of Treasury have been held up for nearly six months. I simply cannot allow partisan politics to stand in the way of the basic functioning of government.”

 

Following their appointment, these nominees will remain in the Senate for confirmation.

Obama Administration appointees have faced an unprecedented level of obstruction in the Senate.

* President Obama currently has a total of 217 nominees pending before the Senate. These nominees have been pending for an average of 101 days, including 34 nominees pending for more than 6 months.

* The 15 nominees President Obama intends to recess appoint have been pending for an average of 214 days or 7 months for a total of 3204 days or almost 9 years.

* President Bush had made 15 recess appointments by this point in his presidency, but he was not facing the same level of obstruction. At this time in 2002, President Bush had only 5 nominees pending on the floor. By contrast, President Obama has 77 nominees currently pending on the floor, 58 of whom have been waiting for over two weeks and 44 of those have been waiting more than a month.

I put the full list of recess appointees with their bios after the jump. In the good news column, Obama named Craig Becker to the National Labor Relations Board. Unfortunately, he also named pesticide and biotech lobbyist Islam A. Siddiqui as the U.S. Trade Representative's Chief Agricultural Negotiator. More than 100 organizations opposed Siddiqui's nomination "as a textbook case of the 'revolving door' between industry and the government agencies meant to keep watch."

Also bad news: Obama did not use his recess appointment power to name Dawn Johnsen as head of the Office of Legal Counsel. I thought she had already been confirmed, because in January it became clear that there were 60 senators supporting her nomination. However, the Senate Judiciary Committee has repeatedly postponed considering her confirmation, raising questions about whether the Obama administration really wants Johnsen to do this job.

 

There's more...

Student loan reform is change we can believe in

The student loan reform that Congress just approved as part of the budget reconciliation bill has been overshadowed by the health insurance reform process, but it's very good news for future college students. Senator Tom Harkin's office summarized some benefits in a March 18 press release, which I've posted after the jump. The most important change is that the government will stop subsidizing banks that currently make big profits on student lending. Instead, the federal government will expand its direct student loans, saving $61 billion over 10 years. Most of the savings will go to increase Pell grants.

Just a couple of months ago, student loan reform appeared endangered because of Republican obstruction and corporate-friendly Democrats who didn't want to cut student loan companies like Sallie Mae out of the equation. In early February, the New York Times reported on the extensive lobbying campaign against this bill. (One of the key lobbyists for the banks was Jamie Gorelick, a familiar name from Bill Clinton's administration.)

Scott Brown's victory in the Massachusetts Senate election made it even less likely that Democrats could round up 60 votes to overcome a filibuster of student loan reform.

Fortunately, Senator Tom Harkin and other strong supporters of this reform were able to get the measure included in the budget reconciliation bill that was primarily a vehicle for passing "fixes" to health insurance reform. Not only is student loan reform a good idea in itself, I agree with Jon Walker that adding it to the health reform improved the political prospects for getting the reconciliation bill through the Senate. Democrats from several states were said to be balking on the student loan reforms, but only three senators who caucus with Democrats were willing to vote no on yesterday's reconciliation bill.

This reform is scaled back somewhat from the original proposal, which would have saved $87 billion over 10 years and passed the House of Representatives last September on a mostly party-line vote. The original proposal would have provided larger increases in Pell grant funding, because it was budget neutral. In order to be included in the budget reconciliation measure (and therefore not subject to a Republican filibuster in the Senate), the student loan reform had to reduce the deficit. But that compromise was well worth making in order to move to direct lending by the government.

Regarding health insurance reform, financial regulation and many other issues, I'm one of those "cynics and naysayers" President Obama decried in yesterday's speech in Iowa City. But this student loan reform is a big step in the right direction, and the Democrats in the White House and Congress who kept pushing for it deserve credit.

There's more...

House passes revised reconciliation bill

It wasn't nearly as suspenseful as Sunday's vote, but the House of Representatives passed the revised budget reconciliation bill tonight by a vote of 220-207 (roll call). The bill contains changes to the health insurance reform President Obama signed into law on Tuesday, as well as a student loan reform that replaces subsidized private loans with direct lending by the government. The Senate had approved the bill earlier today, but minor changes were made in the section regarding Pell grants, which is why the House had to vote on the new version.

Here's your laugh for the day: MSNBC's Chris Matthews still thinks he was right and Representative Alan Grayson was wrong about whether changes to the health care bill could be passed using the budget reconciliation process.

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