“Obamacare” And The Coming Elections

In 2014, every seat in the United States House of Representatives and 36 seats in the Senate — 21 held by Democrats and 15 by Republicans — will be up for election. Non-presidential election years are always unpredictable. In 2010, Democrats lost six seats in the Senate and 63 seats, and their majority, in the House of Representatives. Could 2014 see similarly significant swings in the makeup of Congress?

The wild card seems to be the Affordable Care Act, which everyone now seems to call “Obamacare.” In the past year, Obamacare has moved from concept to reality. The rollout of the law and its signature website have been beset by problems that have been well documented. The website hasn’t worked. Many of the deadlines have been delayed by executive orders that have angered conservatives who feel President Obama and administrators are bypassing the constitutional legislative process. Some individuals have been affected by the cancellation of their insurance policies or significantly increased premiums and other out-of-pocket costs. There is tremendous uncertainty about how, and when, and whether, other parts of the law may work.

As a result, Obamacare is not very popular with the public. According to the Real Clear Politics average of polling data, more than 50 percent of respondents oppose the law. Obviously, that’s not good news for Democrats who voted for the law. How will they respond?

According to a recent article in the National Journal, the plan for vulnerable Democrats is to distance themselves from President Obama, acknowledge difficulties with the law, but present themselves as working to fix its problems while Republicans just cross their arms and insist on a full-blown repeal. (Modern politics being what it is, I’m confident that the Democratic incumbents will be attacking their Republican challengers on a host of other issues, too, of course.) The National Journal article expresses some skepticism about whether the Democratic strategy is viable, and there is a special election for a House seat in Florida in March that may provide some clues about which way the electoral winds are blowing.

I think it’s still too early to draw hard and fast conclusions about “Obamacare” and its potential impact on the coming elections, because there are still pieces that have yet to fall into place. The deadline for individual enrollment is March 31, so we don’t know how many of the uninsured at whom the law was aimed will eventually sign up. We also don’t know how many people who have coverage under new health insurance plans purchased on the exchanges will fare as they seek health care at hospitals and with doctors, or whether a significant number of businesses might change their health care plans, or employee contribution requirements, in response to developments with the law.

I do agree with one point made by the National Journal article, however: messaging can only carry politicians so far. I think there is a broad understanding on the part of Americans of all political stripes that the rollout of the law and its website has been less than ideal — but by November 2014 the initial rollout problems will be many months old and the attention of the American electorate will likely be on more recent matters. Americans tend to be practical. If there haven’t been substantial new problems, the website crashes and error messages will seem like old news, and arguments that the President is governing by improper executive orders aren’t likely to gain much traction.

The broad awareness of “Obamacare” problems, however, has created a climate where many people are skeptical of the law and therefore receptive to more news about its problems. If the ultimate enrollment figures are well below what was forecast, if people start reporting that under their new plans they can’t get the health care they got before, and if the broad number of people who are covered by group plans through their employers start to see large increases in their premiums, deductibles, and co-payment obligations, no slick ad campaign is going to cure the sense that the law was a disastrous mistake. Carefully messaged TV commercials just won’t hold up if Americans are hearing about real Obamacare-related problems and costs from worried family members, neighbors, and friends.

Time To Activate The Sarcasm Font, America!

Our leaders have done it!  The Senate has approved a package of tax hikes, in order to keep our country from tumbling over the “fiscal cliff.”  The vote to approve the bill was 89-8.  Let’s all bask in that warm bipartisan glow!

The deal was brokered by negotiations between Vice President Joe Biden and Senate Republicans.  We should all take comfort that such intellectual titans were doing the heavy lifting on this crucial matter!  Aren’t you relieved that brainy, detail-oriented statesmen like Biden and Senate leaders scrupulously evaluated the wording of the new taxes and their potential economic impact and the loopholes that inevitably must have been part of the deal?  There is every reason to be confident that this carefully considered legislation will not produce any unintended consequences.  After all, the Senate proudly calls itself “The World’s Greatest Deliberative Body.”  I bet they deliberated on this bill for a few minutes, and maybe even longer!  Oh, and Harry Reid is in favor of it.  What more do we need to know?

There’s lots of new taxes in this proposal:  increased estate taxes, increased capital gains taxes, and increased income taxes for those people who, purely through dumb luck and undeserved good fortune, make more than $400,000 a year.  What’s important, though, is that the draconian spending cuts that everyone wanted to avoid would be delayed for two months under this proposal.  Thank God!  That will allow the President, the Senate, and the House even more time to really roll up their sleeves and come up with meaningful spending cuts that wouldn’t be ruinous.  Once the tax increases take effect, of course, our leaders will be eager to make tough spending decisions that will incur the ire of government workers and the special interest groups that are invested in the continuation of every federal program, no matter how ill-conceived, bloated, or unsuccessful that program might be.  Maybe, after two months of thoughtful analysis, our leaders also might decide that what they should really do is impose more taxes on us, and further shore up the revenue side of the budget.  And we can be sure, too, that our leaders won’t wait until the last minute to take action.  Long before the two-month extension period expires, our leaders will have agreed upon well-reasoned spending reductions and program cuts and “revenue enhancements” that will delight every American.

Of course, this well-crafted Senate proposal still needs to be approved by the House of Representatives.  With this kind of quality legislation pending, though, why would any member of the House of Representatives vote “no”?

A Pox On All Their Houses

I’ve consciously refrained from writing anything about the “fiscal cliff” because I knew anything I had to say would come out as a vitriolic screed that wouldn’t accomplish anything.  But now that we’ve reached the last day before the automatic spending cuts and tax increases take effect and no deal has been struck, the time for the pointless yet heartfelt screed has come.

I say a pox on all their houses.  By that I mean the White House and both Houses of Congress; I mean the President and Congress, Republican and Democrat, “progressives,” liberals, conservatives, and “tea partiers.”  Congratulations to you all!  You’ve maneuvered us into a situation where tax increases and spending limits that were consciously designed to be so foolish and draconian that they would force a compromise look like they might actually take effect unless a lame duck Congress and a disengaged President strike some poorly thought out, last-minute deal that the American public has no opportunity to consider or voice an opinion on — just like the deal that got us into this stupid “fiscal cliff” predicament in the first place.  Your little plan about a “supercommittee” to reach a grand compromise failed, you frittered away the intervening months raising money from your pet interest groups and electioneering without doing anything to make meaningful progress on the tax policy changes and spending reductions that every conscious American knows must occur to avoid enormous impending debt problems, and now you are frantically trying to avoid the imminent, painful consequences of your years of stupid politicking, indolence, and irresponsibility.

What’s sad about this is that the President and the Republican and Democratic leadership probably all think they’ve got the other guys just where they want them; they likely think the opposing side is bound to knuckle under today and give them a huge, last-minute victory.  Here’s some news for you all:  we shouldn’t be governing through a process that sees us lurching endlessly from crisis to crisis.  Your failures to do things like propose, debate, and pass meaningful budgets, hold hearings on spending, tax and budget proposals that allow citizens to comment and thoughtful changes to be evaluated, and engage in the standard activities of government as our Constitution contemplates reflects badly on you all.  Even if an eleventh-hour deal is reached and everyone declares they won, you’ve achieved no victory.  The American people have come to realize that, unfortunately, we have no real political leaders — just political hacks, buck-passers, and pipsqueaks who don’t have the sense or courage to put the interests of the country ahead of their personal political interests and the narrow perspectives of the pressure groups that contribute to their campaigns.

I know most of the people reading this will say “hey, it’s not my guy’s fault!”  Supporters of President Obama will say it is the no-new-tax-pledge intransigence of the tea partiers that have brought on this ridiculous crisis; tea partiers will say it is the President’s and the Senate’s unwillingness to make meaningful spending cuts that is to blame; and everyone will point the finger elsewhere.  My response is that it is everyone’s fault.  In the past, when large problems have loomed, American politicians have managed to reach compromises that have allowed the country to move forward.  The difference is that, in the past, our political leaders included real statesmen.

There is a reason why there was a huge fall-off in the number of Americans who voted in the most recent election.  Naive notions about hope and change and broad social movements to achieve fiscal responsibility have given way to disgust and outrage at the continuation of politics as usual.  The “fiscal cliff” crisis will just exacerbate those feelings.  Having a disillusioned, disgusted, and angry electorate is not a good thing for our country.

Congratulations, Mr. President, And Good Luck

President Obama was re-elected last night, narrowly beating Mitt Romney.  I congratulate the President on his victory and wish him success.  In my experience, a successful President usually means we have a successful America.

Democrats kept control of the U.S. Senate, while Republicans kept control of the House of Representatives.  In short, the United States is in for more divided government.  After two consecutive “wave” elections, the message of this election seems to be to maintain the status quo.

Divided government is not necessarily a bad thing.  The Constitution, with its complex system of checks and balances, contemplates divided government, where one man or the passions expressed in one election can’t fully control the direction of the nation.  Our system — wisely, I think — contemplates compromise and collaboration to accomplish legislative goals.  Our problem lately is that we haven’t had meaningful compromise, or perhaps even meaningful attempts at compromise, from the President or the two Houses of Congress.  Perhaps that unwillingness to compromise was due to the rapidly shifting views of the electorate and the looming presence of the 2012 election, but with that election now one day behind us that rationale no longer exists.

With more divided government a reality, President Obama and the congressional leaders of both parties need to figure out how to compromise, because only through compromise will we be able to address the huge problems confronting our nation.  We all know what those problems are:  the “fiscal cliff” of self-imposed cuts and tax increases that will take effect in less than two months, trillion-dollar deficits that extend into the foreseeable future, adding to a dangerous amount of national debt, and entitlement programs that are on the road to bankruptcy unless reforms are instituted.  All of these issues, and others, have reached the point of criticality.

We can no longer afford drift and inaction in the face of these challenges.  It is time for President Obama and Congress to grapple with these issues and to reach the kinds of rational compromises that people of good will, but different political viewpoints, can find acceptable.  It will be a big task that requires leadership, bipartisanship, and a recognition that the needs of the country must take priority over momentary political advantage.

When I left our house at 5 a.m. today for the morning walk with Penny and Kasey, I noticed that some of our neighbors of both parties who had put candidate signs in their yards had removed them already.  They recognize that the election is over and it is time to move on with our lives.  We need some of that same attitude at both ends of Pennsylvanian Avenue.

Patton Put-On

You have to hand it to federal employees — they may be mindless bureaucratic drones in their jobs, but when it comes to spending tax dollars, they’ve got more creativity than Pablo Picasso.

The latest evidence of this phenomenon comes from the Department of Veterans’ Affairs, which ponied up $5 million for two week-long training sessions for human resources personnel at the World Center Marriott in Orlando, Florida — apparently the world’s largest convention hotel.  The $5 million included $52,000 spent to create a parody of the opening scene of the film Patton, as well as $84,000 for promotional items like highlighters and hand sanitizers.  (A story about the contents of the video, with a link to the video itself, is here.)  In all, 1,800 people attended the conferences, at a cost of $2,734 per person.

The VA has an important function, of course, but spending $5 million so HR personnel can be trained at a glitzy conference center — as opposed to spending the funds to better help veterans with their health care, job training and placement, and social reintegration needs — doesn’t seem like a wise use of tax dollars.

Credit should be given to the House of Representatives committee that is investigating this incident, as well as the possibility that the VA officials deciding where to hold the conference may have received improper gifts.  Congress has an important role to play in examining federal funding and shining a spotlight on waste.  The current oversight work recalls the watchdog efforts of prior legislators, such as former Democratic Senator William Proxmire and his “Golden Fleece” awards given to agencies that engaged in frivolous spending.  Ferreting out and ending wasteful federal spending shouldn’t be a partisan issue.

Our Do-Nothing Congress

President Obama has indicated that his 2012 re-election campaign will focus on a “do-nothing” Congress.  Now a Washington Times analysis finds that 2011 was, in fact, one of the most inactive congressional years ever. Congress passed only 80 bills — the fewest since 1947, when such records first began being kept — and many of those bills were non-substantive.  The House was far more active than the Senate, which experienced the most futile, unproductive legislative year ever.

I don’t think you can assess the performance of a Congress by simply counting how many new laws were enacted.  Quality, not quantity, should be the measuring rod.  Yet even by that measure, our Congress has been a colossal failure.  Last year saw the United States lose its AAA credit rating and rack up enormous deficits that are adding to our already staggering national debt.  How did our legislative leaders respond?  They created an ad hoc “supercommittee” that allowed them to punt on the issue, the “supercommittee” couldn’t reach agreement, and as a result another year slid by without anything meaningful being done to address our headlong rush to fiscal ruin.

No rational person can defend the pathetic performance of our Congress.  I’m not sure, however, that President Obama stands to benefit much by pointing out how little has been accomplished.  He’s the leader of the government, after all, and he ran in 2008 as someone who could bring people together.  That hasn’t happened.  Emphasizing that Congress is hopelessly deadlocked and inert, while true, just reflects poorly on President Obama’s leadership abilities.  He hasn’t been able to forge a consensus, build support in the country as a whole, or find an alternate way to deal with urgent problems like the debt.  If President Obama is just going to throw up his hands, why should we return him to office?


Turning The Page

Today John Boehner and Nancy Pelosi — the Speaker of the House and the House Minority Leader, respectively — jointly issued a statement announcing the end of the United States House of Representatives page program.

The House page program began in the 1820s.  In the decades since, thousands of young people have served as pages.  In recent years, however, technology has rendered the pages obsolete.  With the introduction of email, the internet, and smart phones, pages are no longer needed to deliver messages or documents to House members.  Eliminating the program is expected to save more than $5 million a year.

I recognize that there are certain civic attributes to the idea of giving young people firsthand experience with the legislative process.  Nevertheless, I applaud this decision, both because it was done through bipartisan agreement and because it represents exactly the kind of careful evaluation that Congress needs to perform on all federal programs and expenditures during this time of runaway budget deficits.  The savings may not seem like much in an era of trillion-dollar deficits, but small savings can add up — and in any case, why spend even $5 million on an unnecessary program, when most of that money would need to be borrowed?

Our Cowardly Senate

Tonight all of the debt ceiling drama is in the House of Representatives, where Speaker John Boehner is hoping to round up enough bills to pass his proposal to increase the debt ceiling and avoid a default.

Meanwhile, what’s happening in the Senate?  Nothing.  The house that likes to call itself “The World’s Greatest Deliberative Body” has become the World’s Greatest Do-Nothing Body.  They wait, criticize the House of Representatives, try to dodge any responsibility or avoid taking any position that might cause them any kind of political pain, and spend their time pondering political maneuvering at the expense of the good of the country.  Although my inclinations are to favor budget-cutting to get us to fiscal sanity, I think you would be as disappointed in the performance of the majority-Democrat Senate if you were a hard-core progressive.  Why haven’t they independently debated and passed the Senate solution to the problem?  Because they don’t want to commit to anything.

Who knows what will happen with the Boehner plan, or whether our fractured, grossly dysfunctional and leaderless government will allow our country to suffer a needless, ruinous, and impoverishing default.  One thing is clear, however:  it is hard to imagine a more gutless, craven performance than we have seen from the Senate during this entire debt ceiling issue.  They have been a pathetic embarrassment to the concept of responsible representative government.

Our Gilded Congress

Congressional disclosure forms were released yesterday and they show that our elected public servants are doing very well, indeed.

The wealth in Congress knows no party-line boundaries; Republicans and Democrats alike are doing well.  According to the reports, the Minority Leader and Majority Leader in the Senate are both multimillionaires who saw their wealth rise in 2010.  So did the the Speaker of the House and the House Minority Leader.  Other Members of Congress reported on gifts they received and, in one case, a member of Congress paid herself some hefty interest on a loan she made to her own campaign committee.

There are exceptions, of course, and I am not suggesting that only paupers should be elected to the Senate and the House of Representatives.  But when Americans wonder why Members of Congress, at times, seem out of touch with bread-and-butter issues like jobs and housing prices, they might do well to reflect on the vast personal wealth in Congress and the deferential and preferential treatment our elected representatives receive as a matter of course.  It’s easy to downplay the effect of high gasoline prices or unsold homes in middle-class neighborhoods if you have millions of dollars in personal investments to reflect upon as a fellow Senator gives you a ride on her private jet.

Making A Statement And Fulfilling A Promise

The House of Representatives, now under Republican control, has passed legislation to repeal the “health care reform” legislation passed by the last Congress.  Democrats in the Senate, who control that chamber, are saying that repeal legislation will never come to the floor for a vote — and, of course, President Obama would be expected to veto any repeal legislation that would happen to reach his desk.

So, was the House vote a waste of time?  I don’t think so.  By voting to repeal the “health care reform” legislation, the Republican majority was fulfilling a campaign promise.  We should applaud politicians who do so, not condemn them.  The general public would have a more favorable view of politicians generally if more politicians actually tried to keep their promises.  By acting so promptly, the Republicans are demonstrating that elections have consequences.  And, of course, you never know whether political pressure will build on the Senate to consider some form of repeal legislation.  If Democrats in the Senate consider the legislation to be such a great success, why should they duck a vote on its proposed repeal?

Now that the Republicans in the House have met one of their promises, they need to turn to working on the others.  If I had a vote, I would urge them to focus on deficit reduction and a careful analysis of potential federal spending cuts.

Congress And The Constitution

Earlier this week, after the new Congress was seated, members of the House of Representatives read most of the Constitution aloud.  The decision to do so was surprisingly controversial.  Some pundits contended that the reading of the Constitution was a sop to “tea party” activists, and others suggested that the Republican majority of the House was treating the Constitution as if it were some kind of sacred document (which, in a very real sense, it is).

You wouldn’t think that the reading of our country’s foundational document — the one that establishes the structure of our government, identifies its three branches and defines their powers and responsibilities, and articulates the rights of American citizens — would provoke such a firestorm.  Why shouldn’t members of Congress and CSPAN viewers be reminded of what the Constitution actually says?  And to those who say the House of Representatives was just wasting time, I would respond that the floors of the House and the Senate have often been commandeered by members to address minutiae, in the form of turgid speeches about arcane issues like National Olive Month or the accomplishments of a local high school marching band. The simple, precise language of the Constitution is vastly superior to 99.9% of the commentary ever heard in the House or Senate.

I’m not sure that reading the Constitution aloud will have any impact on how this Congress does its job.  But I also don’t see how it can possibly hurt, either.  Every once in a while, it is useful to remember your roots, and your purpose.

Good Time Charlie’s Got The Blues

The House Ethics Committee voted today, 9-1, to recommend that the full House of Representatives censure New York Democrat Charles Rangel.  “Censure,” if adopted, means that Rangel would appear in the well of the House of Representatives and be orally rebuked by the Speaker of the House with respect to his misdeeds.  It is viewed as a serious sanction, second only to expulsion from the House of Representatives.

Rangel, predictably, reacted emotionally to the Committee’s recommendation.  The 80-year-old Congressman, who has served for 40 years, apologized, said he didn’t know how much longer he had to live, and added he hoped that the committee would indicate that his actions were not taken “with the intention of bringing any disgrace on the House or enriching myself personally.”  He also made the Nixonian statement that he is not a crooked politician.

I’m tired of politicians who flout the rules, make an emotional apology, and then think everybody should forget about their ethical and legal shortcomings.  In this instance, the House Ethics Committee found, on a bipartisan basis, that Rangel was guilty on 11 of 13 charges.  The charges included that he improperly used official resources to raise money for his “Rangel Center” — which received a spike in corporate donations after Rangel became chair of the House Ways and Means Committee — that he failed to pay taxes on property in the Dominican Republic, and that for years he filed misleading disclosure forms that failed to list hundreds of thousands of dollars in assets.

Censure sounds like pretty light punishment for a pattern of violations of House rules that extended over a number of years.  When you were a kid, getting yelled at by your parents was no big deal — it was grounding that really hurt.  If Representatives can flout House rules for years and then, upon discovery, apologize, claim simple oversight, and retain their position after some finger-wagging by Madame Speaker, House ethics rules are pretty toothless.

Lame Ducks

On November 15 Congress will reconvene for a “lame duck” session to try to complete unfinished business before the end of the term.  This year, the lame duck session is especially lame, with dozens of Members of the House of Representatives and several Senators booted out by their disaffected constituents.  This article summarizes some of the issues confronting the lame duck Congress — and when you look at the list you begin to understand, perhaps, why voters were so frustrated.

For example, this Congress has not passed any spending bill to specifically authorize expenditures by the various agencies of the federal government.  In order to prevent a general government shutdown, they will need to enact some kind of omnibus, catch-all spending bill.  As we all know from the “stimulus” legislation and “health care reform” legislation passed earlier by this Congress, the bigger the bill, the more opportunity there is for Members of Congress to insert spending for pet projects or political cronies.  This Congress’ failure to deal with spending in the proper way, by debating specific bills in an orderly fashion and allowing opportunities for amendments, has helped to crystallize the sense of rampant corruption and backroom deal-cutting that, I think, contributed so mightily to the electorate’s “throw the bums out” mentality earlier this week.  Will the lame ducks be able to resist one last opportunity to insert a sweetheart deal in some unreviewed provision of a sprawling bill that undoubtedly will be rushed to the floor and considered without an opportunity for amendment?

Other issues also are looming.  Should the Bush-era tax cuts be extended, and if so, how?   Should the impending cuts in Medicare reimbursements to doctors be avoided or modified?  Should unemployment compensation benefits be extended again, and if so for how long?  Should a $250 check be sent to all Social Security recipients?  (The latter proposal, if adopted, will simply confirm the complete spending irresponsibility of this failed Congress.)  Or will the lame ducks decide to do as little as possible, and concentrate instead on a higher priority — finding out how to keep some kind of job in Washington before their terms expire?

A Chance To Do Some Comparison Shopping

The 2010 midterm elections will leave the United States House of Representatives controlled by Republicans and the United States Senate controlled by Democrats.  It is unusual for one House of Congress to be controlled by one party while the other House is controlled by the other party — and it will give American voters a real opportunity to do some comparison shopping.

We should be able to compare how each party runs their House during the same political environment.  Which issues will get the most attention in the House, and which in the Senate?  Will there be significant differences in their focus?  Will they respond to the inevitable crises in different ways?  How will they conduct their affairs and discharge their duties?  Will robust debate and floor amendments be permitted by the rules in one House, but not in the other?  Will congressional hearings and fact-finding really address the nuts and bolts of issues, or will it be used for grandstanding?  Will members of the minority party be treated with decency and respect and be given a chance to meaningfully participate?  Will the legislators roll up their sleeves and discharge their constitutional obligation to do things like establish budgets and pass appropriations bills?

I, for one, would like to see Members of Congress stop trying to become media celebrities and instead focus on doing their jobs — so that Congress actually will fulfill its constitutional legislative role in a meaningful way.  During the next two years of a Congress divided, we will see, from their actions, how the Senate Democrats and House Republicans actually attempt to govern.  That is a lot more instructive than listening to the latest set of talking points.

Thoughts On The Framers

The networks are saying that the U.S. House of Representatives will flip to the Republicans, but the Senate, in all likelihood, will stay with a Democratic majority.

If I recall my high school Civics class correctly, the House was supposed to reflect the passions of the American people, but the Senate was supposed to be largely immune from those passions.  In this election, it looks like the House results are reflecting the passions, as the Framers intended.  In many states, the House Democrats who voted in favor of broad expansions of federal governmental power and significant deficit spending are being wiped out.  The message in favor of a smaller, less intrusive, less costly federal government seems clear.

In the Senate, the World’s Greatest Deliberative Body has not been quite as driven by those voter passions.  New, conservative candidates like Rand Paul and Marco Rubio have won in some races, but in other states the voters have rejected some of the more fringe-oriented candidates — like Christine O’Donnell in Delaware.  Of course, the design of the Constitution means that more than 60 of the Senate did not stand for election in this cycle.  These current Senators will deal with the new members of the Senate but also will be thinking, hard, about what the political climate will be when they stand for reelection in two years, or four years.

The Constitution was carefully designed to have a bicameral legislature with houses with different interests and different perspectives.  In this election, that careful design seems to have worked as intended.