Wednesday, November 19, 2014

GOP Uses Lame Duck Session to Launch New Attacks on the EPA--with Some Dem Help

Now that the election is over, it's time for the House Republicans to go back to one of their favorite pastimes: attacking the EPA.

Yesterday, the House voted on the so-called EPA Science Advisory Board Reform Act. The bill is designed to weaken scientific authority, increase corporate influence over EPA rulemaking, and burden the Science Advisory Board with more work to do on its already limited funds.
This bill modifies the selection requirements and operating procedures of the Science Advisory Board (SAB), which provides scientific advice to the Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
Under this bill, the EPA would be required to select members for the SAB that represent a “balanced” view of scientific issues, regardless of the legitimacy of those views – exposing the Board to potentially politically motivated beliefs not grounded in actual science. Additionally, the bill would allow up to 90% of SAB members to be private-sector scientists with direct ties to the industries – opening the door for corporations to hold powerful influence over its decisions and recommendations to the EPA.

The bill would also require a number of changes to the SAB’s operation. The Board would be required to release to the public all scientific information used in determining its advisories to EPA, indicating any and all "uncertainties" associated with the scientific advice it does provide, and it must ensure that the advice it provides to EPA reflect the views of all Board members.  It also would allow the public to file public comments on those advisories and require the Board to respond to all public comments – forcing the SAB to waste time and limited funds on burdensome administrative requirements instead of actually advising the EPA on science. These additional requirements that the bill demands of the SAB are essentially designed to keep it from getting anything accomplished, especially since the bill contains no additional resources for the board to function.
The White House has already stated that it would veto the bill.

Republicans went ahead anyway. It passed the House 229 to 191 on a mostly party line vote.

Only four Democrats voted for it: John Barrow (GA-12), Jim Matheson (UT-04), Collin Peterson (MN-07), and Nick Rahall (WV-03). Matheson is retiring, and Barrow and Rahall just lost re-election.

Only one Republican voted against it: Chris Gibson (NY-19), who lives in a district with a strong conservationist presence.

Today, the House passed the Secret Science Reform Act of 2014. What is this "secret science" of which Republicans speak?

Let me let Dr. Andrew Rosenberg, director of the Union of Concerned Scientists, explain:
Today, anyone with an Internet connection, including members of Congress, can already look up which studies the agency relies on for crafting new rules. But in many cases it cannot legally publish raw data. This bill would require the agency to make all data public before creating new rules while blocking the agency from disclosing private medical data, trade secrets and industry data.
The result? The EPA would not be able to adopt any new rules to protect public health.
Under HR 4012, some of the best real-world public health research, which relies on patient data like hospital admissions, would be excluded from consideration because personal data could not, and should not, be made public. Demanding public release of full raw data the agency cannot legally disclose is simply a way to accuse the agency of hiding something when it has nothing to hide.
What matters is not raw data but the studies based on these data, which have gone through the scientific process, including rigorous peer review, safeguards to protect the privacy of study participants, and careful review to make sure there’s no manipulation for political or financial gain. As many politicians have taken pains to point out, they are not scientists, so they should listen to scientific advice instead of making spurious demands for unanalyzed data.
And to make matters worse, the CBO reported that meeting the demands of the law would cost between $10,000 and $30,000 for each scientific study used by the agency. The EPA relies on about 50,000 studies per year.

To put it simply, they want to make it more difficult for the EPA to issue rules.

The bill passed 236 to 191.

Seven Democrats voted for it:

John Barrow (GA-12)
Jim Costa (CA-16)
Henry Cuellar (TX-28)
Jim Matheson (UT-04)
Bill Owens (NY-21)
Collin Peterson (MN-07)
Nick Rahall (WV-03)

Again, Chris Gibson (NY-19) was the only Republican to oppose it.

As I noted earlier, Barrow, Matheson, and Rahall won't be returning to the 114th Congress. Neither will Owens.

The White House has already issued its intent to veto this bill should it reach the president's desk (which it won't).

Sunday, November 16, 2014

CA's AGO Argues against Court-Ordered Prisoner Release in order to Keep "Important Labor Pool"

I've heard California Attorney General Kamala Harris's name floated on many occasions for either Senate (when Boxer or Feinstein eventually retires) or Governor (when Jerry Brown retires). She is widely praised as a liberal rising star.

Or maybe not-so-liberal.....
Federal judges on Friday ordered California to launch a new parole program that could free more prisoners early, ruling the state had failed to fully implement an order last February intended to reduce unconstitutional crowding.
The judges, for a second time, ordered that all nonviolent second-strike offenders be eligible for parole after serving half their sentence. They told corrections officials to submit new plans for that parole process by Dec. 1, and to implement them beginning January.

Most of those prisoners now work as groundskeepers, janitors and in prison kitchens, with wages that range from 8 cents to 37 cents per hour. Lawyers for Attorney General Kamala Harris had argued in court that if forced to release these inmates early, prisons would lose an important labor pool.
That's right: the California Attorney General's Office argued that it couldn't release non-violent offenders because they are too valuable a source of cheap labor. $0.08-$0.37 per hour cheap. 

Rather than release non-violent offenders per the court order, Governor Jerry Brown has taken to privatizing prisons instead.

Lot of money to be made in the prison industry, isn't there?

Saturday, November 15, 2014

"Obamacare: Reducing the First Derivative of the Health Care Cost Curve!"

"Reducing the First Derivative of the Health Care Cost Curve" -- it's practically bumper sticker-worthy, right?

Well, maybe not. But it was what I thought when I read an article in Think Progress yesterday, "Obamacare Premiums To Increase By Less Than 4 Percent On Average."

According to the Center for American Progress, premium rates for the individual market in states with federally-facilitated marketplaces will rise by an average of 3.9% next year. For silver plans, the increase will be lower: 3.45% on average.

This is a significant improvement on the status quo ante; as the article points out, from 2008 to 2010, the average premium rate increase was 10.9%.

Viewed from the perspective of a technocrat or policy wonk, this is clearly a success: you are "bending the cost curve." Although the cost continues to go up, you have controlled its rate of escalation. The slope of the curve is getting smaller.

However, many people will not view the rate increase with the eye of a technocratic manager or market-fetishizing policy wonk. The 3.9% increase is just that: an increase. It is less money in your pocket.

And those rising rates are being accompanied by stagnant wages for most Americans. As of last year, 95% of income gains since the recession had gone to the top 1%. Many people have yet to feel the recovery that gets talked about on the news.

And therein lies one of the political failures of the Affordable Care Act. When people see their rates go up, their first instinct may be to blame the Affordable Care Act. (Framing in news stories doesn't help.) However, the fault lies not in what the ACA did--it lies in what the ACA didn't do, (namely, provide high-quality health coverage to all as a public good or a right). And that's a distinction that can often get lost.

Celebrating a 3.9% increase in health insurance premiums as a success because it is better than the much higher increase in the alternate reality version of 2014/2015--that without the ACA--makes one sound very removed from the experience of those struggling to get by. You're saying, "You have less money, but at least it's more than you would have had otherwise!" That's just not compelling.

Democrats often have a habit of underselling and overselling the Affordable Care Act at the same time. They undersell it by not talking enough about (or campaigning for) the most successful part--the Medicaid expansion---or explaining the many seemingly small yet very meaningful measures included to improve public health. And they oversell it by acting as though it made health care a right (you don't purchase rights on the market).

Back in 2010, some Democrats described the Affordable Care Act as a starter home for health care reform. Well, I think it is long since time to start talking about building those additions.

Low Turnout is Not Inevitable

Oregon had turnout of 69.5%---which is low for them. They surpass 80% turnout during presidential years. Vote-by-mail works.

100% turnout is difficult. Even countries with mandatory voting don't get 100% turnout. But Oregon shows that reducing barriers to voting can greatly increase participation.

Friday, November 14, 2014

Which 31 Oily Democrats Just Voted to Force the Approval of the Keystone Pipeline?

Just now, the House voted 252 to 162 to force the approval of the Keystone XL pipeline. Justin Amash (MI-03) voted present as he has frequently done with KXL bills because, while supporting the construction of the pipeline, he opposes the process by which his fellow Republicans have been going about to force its approval.

Which 31 Democrats are so bought by the oil industry that they voted with the Republican caucus?

John Barrow (GA-12)
Sanford Bishop (GA-02)
Bob Brady (PA-01)
Jim Clyburn (SC-06)
Jim Cooper (TN-05)
Henry Cuellar (TX-28)
Mike Doyle (PA-14)
Al Green (TX-09)
Gene Green (TX-29)
Ruben Hinojosa (TX-15)
Sheila Jackson Lee (TX-18)
Dan Lipinski (IL-03)
David Loebsack (IA-02)
Sean Maloney (NY-18)
Jim Matheson (UT-04)
Carolyn McCarthy (NY-04)
Mike McIntyre (NC-07)
Patrick Murphy (FL-18)
Rick Nolan (MN-08)
Donald Norcross (NJ-01)
William Owens (NY-21)
Colin Peterson (MN-07)
Nick Rahall (WV-03)
Cedric Richmond (LA-02)
David Scott (GA-13)
Terri Sewell (AL-07)
Albio Sires (NJ-08)
Bennie Thompson (MS-02)
Marc Veasey (TX-33)
Filemon Vela (TX-34)
Tim Walz (MN-01)

Bob Brady's name stands out for me as a particularly shameless one--he represents Philadelphia and some of its southwest suburbs. Donald Norcross, who represents the Philadelphia suburbs in South Jersey, was just sworn in (His predecessor--Rob Andrews--resigned back in February to become a lobbyist), and this is one of his very first votes.

Given that 162 Democrats opposed it, there is not a veto-proof majority. Recent statements from the president have indicated that he may be likely to veto the bill because it is an attempt to override his authority.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Steve Israel is Stepping Down from the DCCC. Who Will Replace Him? Who Should?

After the election last week, when Democrats lost over a dozen seats, Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi decided to offer Steve Israel a third term at the helm of the DCCC. Politics, as we well know, is one place where failure is consistently rewarded. Thankfully, he turned down the offer.

In 2012, as chair of the DCCC, Steve Israel was only able to net 8 seats even though Obama won re-election by 4%. Some of that was a function of Republican gerrymandering and a tendency for Democrats to aggregate in cities, where many "wasted" votes accumulate in deep blue districts. Democrats did, for instance, win a plurality of votes cast (48.8% to 47.6%). However, Democrats did run 2.3% and almost 6.3 million votes behind the president. One cannot blame failure on the design of districts: targeting and candidate selection matter a lot, too. I would recommend checking out Howie Klein of Blue America's Down With Tyranny blog for examples of bad targeting and bad candidates. They are numerous.

The electorate in 2016, a presidential year, will likely be far more favorable to Democrats than that from this year. But coasting on demographics is not a strategy. Democrats need to be able to pick good candidates and present a coherent, progressive policy vision---someone and something to vote for.

According to Politico, Jim Himes (CT-04), Jared Polis (CO-02), and Donna Edwards (MD-04) are three of the top contenders for the position.

One thing that Democrats need to do is to counter the (not entirely unjustified) perception that they are just as bought by Big Business as the Republicans. According to a Hart Research poll on Election Night, 80% of voters said that politicians from both parties "do too much to support Wall Street financial interests and not enough to help average Americans."

If Democrats want to confirm that perception, then they should put Jim Himes (D-Stamford) in charge of the DCCC.

When I first saw Himes's name, I immediately remembered that time last year when he was a lead co-sponsor of a bill written directly by Citigroup to gut regulation of derivatives.

The New York Times interviewed Himes when reporting on the bill:
The legislation, Mr. Himes said in an interview, poses no financial risk to the country. And while he is the second-largest recipient among House Democrats of financial sector donations, that is not what is compelling his vote, he said.
"It hardly determines, thank goodness, how legislators think about these issues,” said Mr. Himes, a former Goldman Sachs executive.
That last line is perfection. 
Earlier that same week, he was one of 30 Democrats to join Republicans in voting to allow your 401(k) advisor to scam you.

If Nancy Pelosi wants to tell voters that Democrats are just as much of shills for Wall Street as Republicans are, then by all means, please do put Jim Himes in charge of the DCCC.

Jared Polis, while not quite as bad, is still pretty bad. Polis consistently ranks as one of the richest members of Congress. How did he make his money?
As an 18-year-old, he traveled to Russia and made money trading privatization vouchers — you know, the botched, scandal-ridden privatization which wrecked Russia's economy and led to the domination of the economy by ex-KGB oligarchs. Next stop: Silicon Valley!
In October 1999, right before the first dotcom crash, Polis, then known as Jared Polis Schutz, sold Bluemountain.com, his family's online greeting-cards website, to Excite@Home for $780 million, including $350 million in cash that Excite couldn't really spare. Excite sold it for $35 million in September 2001, and filed for bankruptcy a month later. People still talk about it as one of the most spectacular cashouts of the dotcom boom.
He later sold ProFlowers, an online florist, to John Malone's Liberty Media. (All told, he's started a dozen companies.)
You may remember Representative Polis from when he threw a book at Diane Ravitch and called her evil. 
Why such rude behavior? Maybe it's because he owns a couple of charter schools.

He's a Democratic "education reformer" par excellence.
As a member of the “New Democratic Coalition,” Polis has consistently pushed an agenda that is as anti-teacher, anti-union and anti-public education as any group of Democrats in the nation.
This past summer Polis was pushing language to amend the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Authorization Act (ESEA).  But rather than correct the worst elements of the bills, Polis was pushing the corporate education reformer’s agenda.
In one release, Congressman Jared Polis bragged, “We need an entrepreneurial approach to encourage high-quality, proven models of success in education.”
One of Polis’ proposed amendments would have required local schools to  “make progress towards the goal of cutting achievement gaps in half in 6 years or towards 100% proficiency, or face interventions including transformation, turnaround, restart and closure.”
Another Polis amendment would have provided, “more flexibility for charter schools to use Charter Schools Program grants” and require states and schools to “allow per-pupil revenue to be split across districts.”  [Rather self-serving coming from someone who is tapping into public funds for a charter school he himself set up].
Yet another amendment Polis co-sponsored would provide that “district and non-statewide charter authorizers as eligible entities, increase the authorization level to 330 million, and will increase the percentage of funds for expansion and replication to 20% of the overall funding.”  [Polis’ proposal being that in the face of scarce public funds, more and more taxpayer dollars should get diverted away from the public schools, and instead be used to subsidize schools like the ones he is involved in].
And where are these ideas coming from?
As the New Democrat Coalition began to prepare their amendments they proudly met with Michelle Rhee, founder of StudentsFirst, former Washington, D.C. Schools chief and confidant to non-other-than, Jeb Bush.
Another great person to show that Democrats care more about the rich than anyone else. Other names than Himes, Polis, and Edwards have been floated, but I'm solidly in support of Donna Edwards as chair of the DCCC. Edwards is a member of the Congressional Progressive Caucus and actually votes like one.

Her career background contrasts sharply with that of Himes and Polis. She was the first executive director of the National Network to End Domestic Violence and later worked for Public Citizen and the Center for a New Democracy. In 2006, Edwards primaried a seven-term Conservadem who had voted for the Iraq War and the repeal of the estate tax.

She has a solidly progressive voting record in the House, and it would be great to see an African-American woman chair the DCCC. MoveOn has a petition up now urging Pelosi to appoint Edwards.

I encourage you all to sign.

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Why I'm Not Rooting for Mary Landrieu to Win on December 6th

Earlier this week, the DSCC cancelled all of its ad buys for Mary Landrieu in the lead-up to the runoff on December 6th.

Mary Landrieu has managed to pull off odds-defying victories in runoffs in the past, and she still might win.

Like pretty much everyone on this site, I like the prospect of having a 47th seat for Team Blue. But, in this case, I'm not so sure I want it.

Let me explain.

First of all, Landrieu's victory is no longer a factor in which party controls the Senate. Republicans have--unfortunately--already cinched control.

And since it is no longer a race about who will control the Senate, it is good to think of the longer-term implications of the race. And that is where I see problems with a Landrieu victory. (Some of the following comes from a diary I wrote last year.)

After Max Baucus retired earlier this year, Ron Wyden took over the gavel of the Senate Finance Committee, freeing up the gavel for the Energy Committee. Mary Landrieu was next in line, and she was elected chair by her Democratic colleagues.

Mary Landrieu is the last Democrat one would want to be the party's highest ranking member in the Energy Committee (well, other than Joe Manchin). She has a 51% lifetime score with the League of Conservation Voters. Only six Democrats who are definitely returning to the 114th Congress have below an 80%.

Mary Landrieu has consistently been one of the top recipients of oil and gas money in the Senate. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, she is the second largest recipient of oil and gas contributions this election cycle--and the biggest Democratic recipient. She received $512,336, second only to John Cornyn (R-TX) and $50,000 more than Mitch McConnell (R-KY).

During the 2008 election cycle, she was the top congressional recipient of contributions from BP, and she went to bat for BP to get the EPA to lift the ban that prevented it from securing federal contracts.
While Mary Landrieu acknowledges climate change, she opposes any serious climate action. Last year, she criticized Obama’s climate plan for being too hard on fossil fuel industries, saying he should just approve the Keystone XL pipeline instead. Accordingly, she voted to block the EPA from issuing any such regulations. Since Obama went forward anyway—much to her dismay--she joined 43 Republican colleagues and 9 Democratic ones in lobbying the EPA to slow down the rulemaking process.

The "Energy Security" page on Landrieu's website reads as a paean to oil and gas, with only a passing reference to wind and solar (to say that natural gas is a better job creator).

Since taking the gavel of the Energy Committee, she has shepherded the passage of a bill to approve the Keystone XL pipeline, teaming up with Joe Manchin against all of the other Democrats on the committee to pass it.

Landrieu has also been a champion of increasing natural gas exports. The expansion of LNG (liquefied natural gas) terminals would increase fracking, and life cycle analyses of LNG have also shown it to be as dirty as coal.

If Mary Landrieu were to lose, then Maria Cantwell (D-WA) would become the top-ranking Democrat in the Energy Committee. Cantwell has a 90% lifetime score with the League of Conservation Voters. Since she entered the Senate in 2001, she has received a perfect score seven times and will likely get one this year as well. She has shown a consistent commitment to weaning the nation off fossil fuels and investing in the transition to a clean energy economy.

I expect Democrats to take back the Senate in 2016. That year, there will be a number of Republican freshman elected in the 2010 wave that will have to face a different, more Democratic-friendly presidential year electorate: Mark Kirk in Illinois, Pat Toomey in Pennsylvania, Ron Johnson in Wisconsin, Kelly Ayotte in New Hampshire, Rob Portman in Ohio, and Marco Rubio in Florida. Richard Burr of North Carolina could also be a target, as could Johnny Isakson in Georgia. And if Chuck Grassley and John McCain retire, Iowa and Arizona could be competitive as well.

Having a 47th member of the caucus now would make that path to 50 (or 51) much easier. But I think the prospects are already good--just as long as Democrats can get their act together.

If (or should I say when?) Democrats take back the Senate, I want them to have the ability to set out a bold and comprehensive clean energy agenda. They could take up Barbara Boxer and Bernie Sanders's Sustainable Energy Act, which has the endorsement of 350.org, the Center for American Progress, Public Citizen, and the Sierra Club.

And if we end up with a Democratic Senate but a Republican president, I want an Energy Committee chair that can serve as a bulwark against Republican energy policy. Mary Landrieu would not be such a bulwark.

The time for action on climate change is yesterday. And we don't have any chance of meaningful action in Congress for the rest of the decade if Mary Landrieu remains at the helm of the Energy Committee.