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‘Super Committee’ Failure: Super Gridlock In The Muppet Congress

In an age of super heroes and blockbuster movies glorifying those with extraordinary powers, we are left with the Muppets. And that may be doing a disservice to the Muppets.

Only 9 percent of the American people have a positive image of Congress—slightly higher than the percentage that view Fidel Castro favorably. Now that is scary.

Are these bad people? No. Do they not have the best interests of the American people at heart? I believe most do.

Is this all about two different philosophies of government? Certainly, that is a big part of the stalemate.

Unfortunately, most Americans now believe that there is more consensus, more cooperation, and more compromise—and maybe more maturity—on a nursery school play yard than in the U.S. Congress.

We can point to growing polarization, a lack of civility, people coming to Congress in ideological straight jackets, signing ridiculous pledges, being beholden to the more extreme elements of their political party.

But I would argue that American Democracy, at least for the moment, has transitioned into a parliamentary system, without the accountability. It is nearly impossible for Members of Congress to routinely cross party lines, at least on the most important votes. The pressure is great, the ideology has become increasingly rigid, and the politics of bucking your leadership is seriously problematic.

The current gridlock on our most difficult problems can’t be resolved by dissolving the government and holding new elections. It probably won’t be resolved next November. We will be faced, no matter who wins, with equal or greater intransigence from the opposition party.

And our voters will not have a chance to vote, as in a parliamentary system, for or against the party in power or the back benchers. Because our system now allows a minority to stifle the majority so easily in the Senate, through filibusters and holds, but allows the majority to dictate what is brought to the floor and voted on in the House, we are faced with paralysis.

Never before have I seen such a strong sense of a party-lock in Congress. Our recent history is one of moderates in the two parties holding swing votes, people crossing party lines on issues, and the ability to reach compromise when the country demands it.

Now, we exhibit all the markings of a parliamentary system but cannot extricate ourselves from the tendency toward permanent gridlock. Campaigns never end and self-preservation determines many members’ votes. The old approach of “working it out” is gone, at least temporarily, and there is no mechanism, even with the so-called super committee, to bust out of the hold that the system has on Congress.

The American people, after this latest breakdown, are watching as their savings and 401k’s are tanking. They are watching the blame game. They are watching Congress do very little to create jobs and improve their economic plight. For the moment, all they can do is throw up their hands. And the anger builds.

By: Peter Fenn, Opinion Writer, U. S. News and World Report, November 21, 2011

November 22, 2011 Posted by | Republicans | , , , , , | Leave a comment

Republicans And Taxes: Let’s Get Real About The GOP

It would be marvelous to believe that the congressional supercommittee is going to reach a bipartisan deal. Well, actually, I’m not so sure it would be marvelous, substantively. We’ll get to that. But politically, it would be nice to see Washington function for a change. Hard experience suggests to us, however, that when all the smoke clears, there will be no deal. What will happen then? The Republicans will then go in for even emptier posturing than they’re engaging in now, this time with regard to defense cuts. You think things can’t get worse? Just wait.

For a while, when the committee’s six Democrats and six Republicans were able to talk to each other in vague generalities, Washington was able to pretend that things were looking pretty hopeful. There was no precise reason for this hope. Some senators told me that their colleagues on the committee weren’t even telling them anything. But Washington elites cling to hope of bipartisan common sense winning out the way M. Night Shyamalan fans swear that he’s going to regain form in the next movie, for real this time.

But eventually and inevitably, the negotiators had to start talking numbers. And as soon as they got to specifics, two things happened. First, they realized how far apart they were. Second, the leaks started, at which point the rest of us realized how far apart they were.

Let’s compare the plans. The Democratic proposal, released by senator and committee member Max Baucus the other day, looks to cut $3 trillion from the budget. The Republican plan, leaked in parts to The Wall Street Journal and Politico after Baucus moved, cuts just $2 trillion. If it seems odd to you that Democrats are proposing more deficit reduction than Republicans, you aren’t alone. The reason is that the Republicans—surprise, surprise—are doing it all by cuts with no tax revenue, while the Democrats include $1 trillion to $1.3 trillion in new revenue.

Now, Republicans will repeat in these coming weeks that their plan does include “revenue.” And in a way, it does. It’s just not tax revenue. Or wait—it is tax revenue! But from a tax decrease! Yes: The GOP plan says the government will raise $200 billion by cutting corporate and individual taxes. You know, the way the Bush tax cuts increased revenue, which is to say, not in the real world, but in the minds of Mitch McConnell and other delusionals who think the Bush tax cuts raised revenue. So when they go around saying “our plan raises revenues,” remember their track record.

If the time comes for Pentagon cuts, will the Democrats be willing to hold the line and risk the silly accusation of being “soft on defense”? I think we know the answer.

It bears noting, once again, that the Democrats have said with the Baucus plan that they’re ready to deal if Republicans will. Their plan includes $500 billion in entitlement program cuts. They’re prepared to attach increases in Social Security benefits to the so-called chained consumer price index, which would decrease benefits, especially for those in their 80s. That’s not some token nothing. That’s a real concession, so much so that liberals are going to be up in arms about it as time marches on. That chained CPI bit probably wouldn’t make it through Nancy’s Pelosi’s caucus, but other entitlement cuts will. So the Democrats are at least showing up to play some ball.

But the Republicans are staying in the dugout. They aren’t even bothering to take the bus to the stadium. A trillion in taxes, one dollar in taxes, it doesn’t matter; Republicans will not permit a tax increase of any kind. I’m bored of writing this sentence, so you, poor reader, must be even more bored of reading it, but it has to be said, because so many others are out there peddling the falsehood that both sides are equally to blame for the impasse: No—the impasse exists because of Republicans and taxes. Period. If the GOP moved on taxes, the Democrats would give ground on entitlements, as they have now signaled yet again. And the Democrats should not and cannot accept a deal in which there are no tax increases, because they have two-thirds of the country with them and because it’s the right thing.

Put it all together and the odds of an agreement seem long indeed. Could this rump effort of 100 bipartisan House members and 40 bipartisan senators move the boulder? It’s like asking if a Boy Scout could light a fire with two sticks in the rain. Maybe. The conditions have to be just right, and no one really knows what those conditions are.

Assuming no deal, here’s what I’m told is likely to happen after everyone has acknowledged the collapse. The Republicans will, as John McCain and others have suggested, turn up the heat on the question of defense cuts. They will introduce legislation to exempt the Pentagon from cuts. Now remember—these cuts to the Pentagon, 15 percent, were agreed to by both parties in the August debt-ceiling deal. But Republicans, being the clever dialecticians that they are, will decide that the course of history has changed, and that deal will mean no more to them than one of those secret treaties Lenin routinely abrogated back in the day.

So they’ll advance a bill saying: cuts to domestic social programs, sure; cuts to Pentagon, nyet. It will pass the House. It will go to the Senate, and all the Republicans will be for it, and they’ll need 13 Democrats. So then the questions will be: will the Democrats be willing to hold the line and risk the silly accusation of being “soft on defense”? And will the White House also hold the line—bucking, of course, its own defense secretary, who agrees with the Republican position? I think we know the answer.

So the Republicans will have killed another deal with their indefensible and immoral position on taxes, and then, having stuffed that carcass in the trunk, they will retroactively work to kill the deal they agreed to last summer, and spend December demagoguing about how Democrats are going to leave America defenseless and throw hundreds of thousands of poor aeronautical engineers into the streets.

Your tax dollars at work.

By: Michael Tomasky, The Daily Beast, October 29, 2011

October 30, 2011 Posted by | Congress, Deficits, Federal Budget | , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Pay-For-Delay”: Ending Drug Companies’ Deals

An upcoming report by the Federal Trade Commission shows that brand-name pharmaceutical makers continue to cut questionable deals with generic manufacturers that delay the introduction of cheaper drugs onto the market.

Such pay-for-delay arrangements hurt consumers and increase costs for federal programs such as Medicare and Medicaid, according to the report, a copy of which was obtained by the editorial board. These deals are not illegal, but they should be.

Pharmaceutical companies rightly enjoy strong protections for products that often take years and billions of dollars to develop. These protections were so strong at one point that they discouraged would-be competitors from jumping in. The Hatch-Waxman Act of 1984 meant to address this problem by allowing generics to market “bio-equivalent” drugs as long as they did not infringe on the brand-name drug’s patent; the generic could also proceed if it proved the brand-name patent was invalid. The goal was to enhance competition and lower drug prices. That goal is thwarted when brand-name manufacturers engage in the popular practice of paying generic-drug makers to keep their products off the market.

In 2004, the FTC did not identify a single settlement in a patent litigation matter involving drug makers that raised pay-for-delay concerns. In its new report, the agency points to 28 cases that bear the telltale signs of pay-for-delay, including “compensation to the generic manufacturer and a restriction on the generic manufacturer’s ability to market its product.”

Sens. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa) and Herb Kohl (D-Wis.) have introduced the Preserve Access to Affordable Generics Act to close the pay-for-delay loophole. The bill would make such schemes presumptively illegal and empower the FTC to challenge suspicious arrangements in federal court. The most recent version gives companies a chance to preserve certain deals if “clear and convincing evidence” proves that their “pro-competitive benefits outweigh the anti-competitive harms.” The Obama administration estimates that eliminating pay-for-delay could save the government $8.8 billion over 10 years; the Congressional Budget Office offers a dramatically more conservative savings estimate of roughly $3 billion over the same period.

The legislation should appeal to the deficit-reduction “supercommittee,” which has been tasked with identifying ways to cut the federal deficit.

By: Editorial Board Opinion, The Washington Post, October 24, 2011

October 26, 2011 Posted by | Big Pharma, Congress, Consumers, Government, Health Care Costs | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Three Reasons Why It’s Better For The Economy If The Super-Committee Fails To Get A Deal

Last Thursday’s Washington Postheadline blared: “Debt panel’s lack of progress raises alarm on Hill.”

In fact it is far better for everyday Americans if the so-called Super Committee fails entirely to get a deal.

The overarching reason is simple: any deal they are likely to strike will make life worse for everyday Americans — and worsen our prospects for long-term economic growth.

Of course that’s not the view of many denizens of the Capitol who are still obsessed by the notion that it is critical for the Congress to produce a “compromise” that raises revenue and cuts “entitlements.”  There are three reasons why these people are wrong:

1). Any deal would likely slash the income of many everyday Americans. You could design a plan to substantially reduce the deficit without big cuts in Social Security, Medicare or Medicaid. My wife, Congresswoman Jan Schakowsky, who served on President Obama’s Fiscal Commission, designed just such a proposal last year.  And, of course, Social Security has nothing to do with the deficit in the first place.

Unfortunately, however, in order to get Republican support any large-scale deal in the Super Committee would almost certainly require big cuts in either Social Security, Medicare or Medicaid — or all of them.  Substantial cuts in any of these programs will make life harder for everyday Americans and reduce the likelihood of long-term economic growth.

Without a “deal” in the Super Committee, the current budget plan does not cut Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid — and that’s a good thing.

According to the Social Security Administration, the average monthly Social Security check now averages the princely sum of $1,082 — or about $13,000 per year.  Next year, for the first time since 2009, payments will increase by $39 per month to offset inflation, but $18 a month of that increase will go right back out the door in the form of Medicare premium increases.

Already under current law, Medicare Part B premiums, that cover services like doctors, outpatient care and home health services, must be set annually to cover 25% of program costs.  And remember that Medicare recipients aren’t getting an “entitlement” — they are getting an earned benefit that they paid for throughout their working lives. The same, of course, is true of Social Security.

Mean while, Medicaid is the principle means of assuring that America actually begins to provide health care for all — including nursing home and home care.

The problem with medical care costs isn’t that “greedy” seniors and others are gobbling up too much care.  The problem is that the costs of providing care are going up too fast.  In fact, the per capita costs of providing health care in America is 50% higher than anywhere else on earth, and the World Health Organization only ranks health care outcomes as 37th, in the world.

Medicare is actually the most efficient means in the American economy for providing health care.  Any action by the “Super Committee” that reduces the percentage of Americans on Medicare — say, by raising the eligibility age from 65 to 67 — would cost the American economy.

  • According to a study by the Kaiser Family Foundation, if such a proposal were operational in 2014 it would raise total health care spending in America by $5.7 billion per year.
  • This is so because, while it would save the Federal government a net of about $5.7 billion ($24 billion savings in Medicare payments largely offset by $18 billion of increased Medicaid payments and subsidies to low-income participants in exchanges), it would also generate an additional $11.4 billion in higher health care costs for individuals, employers and states — resulting in a net cost to the economy of $5.7 billion.

The one thing you could do to cut Medicare costs without hurting ordinary families or the economy as a whole is to require Medicare to negotiate with the drug companies for lower prices the same way the Veterans Administration does today.  That would cut hundreds of billions in costs to the government over the next ten years, but don’t expect the Republicans to include that as an acceptable cut in “entitlements” as part of a Super Committee deal.

Of course, America has no business cutting the income of seniors who get $13,000 a year in Social Security payments regardless of anything else that is in a deal.  The deficit problem should be fixed by asking millionaires and billionaires to pay their fair share and by jobs plans that put America back on a path of sustained economic growth.  And we have no business reducing access to health care for everyday people so that CEO’s can fly around in their corporate jets, oil companies can keep their tax breaks, or Wall Street hot shots — who we all bailed out just three years ago — can pack in their huge bonuses.

Even if a Super Committee proposal includes increases in revenue to the government from millionaires and billionaires, that is not reason that normal people — whose real incomes have dropped over the last decade — should also be called upon to “share in the sacrifice.”

The problem isn’t that everyday Americans are gorging themselves on excesses that “America can’t afford.”  The problem is that Wall Street, the financial sector and the 1% have gobbled up all of the increases in economic growth that the country has produced over the last two decades.

That has meant that the standard of living for normal people has been stagnant.  But just as problematic, it has lead to a stagnant economic growth.  Since the incomes of everyday people haven’t increased at the same rate as increased worker productivity, there simply haven’t been enough new customers to buy the new products and services that American businesses produce. That is the formula for recession and depression.  And that’s just what happened.

American corporations are sitting on two trillion dollars of cash.  The reason they aren’t hiring has nothing to do with the need for more tax breaks.  What stops them isn’t lack of “confidence,” it’s a lack of customers.

For decades the International Monetary Fund (IMF) has preached the need for fiscal constraint and austerity.  According to the Washington Post, now even the IMF is warning that, “austerity may trigger a new recession, and is urging countries to look for ways to boost growth.

If you want to lay a foundation for long-term economic growth in America, the last thing you would do is reduce the income going to ordinary Americans — even over the long run.  That’s not the problem — just the opposite.  We do not need ordinary people to “share in the sacrifice.” We need policies that will increase the share of income going to ordinary people and reduce the exploding inequality between the 99% and the 1%.

Any deal in the Super Committee will almost certainly do just the opposite.

2.). The worst effects of sequestration could be solved without a “grand bargain”. The one big downside of a failure of the Super-Committee to act would be the level of discretionary spending cuts that would be required through the resulting sequestration.  This is particularly true of cuts in education funding.

The budget deal that was struck in order to prevent Republicans from plunging America into default last summer requires an additional $1.2 trillion reduction in the deficit over the next ten years.  If the Super Committee fails to agree on the distribution of these cuts, they will automatically be spread over defense and non-defense segments of the budget beginning in 2013.  But there would be no cuts in Social Security, Medicare or Medicaid.

Congress would have the ability to adjust these sequestration requirements between now and 2013, regardless.  But the “fast track” authority that would require up or down votes on a proposal from the “Super Committee” would expire if the Committee cannot reach agreement by November 23rd.

The best solution to the problem of big cuts in discretionary spending would be to put together a smaller deal to raise some revenue and reduce cuts in discretionary and – if necessary — military spending — after the mandate of the Super Committee has expired.

The Congress will have a year to help solve this problem, and the pressure to ameliorate some of the cuts in military spending that have so far proved ineffective at forcing Republicans to consider big revenue increase, may be more persuasive when it comes to smaller increases as the actual date of sequestration (2013) draws near.

Of course it’s possible that the Super Committee itself could come with a small-bore deal of this sort, simply to avoid the full force of sequestration.  But that would be very different than a $1.2 trillion dollar package that includes cuts in Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid.   Progressives should avoid cuts to these programs at all costs, because any cuts that sliced Social Security, Medicare or Medicaid benefits would require changes in the structure of the programs themselves that would last forever.  Cuts in discretionary spending — as bad as they might be — are one-time events and do not fundamentally change the structure of the American social contract.

3). There is no reason for Congress to fear that its failure to act on a “Super Committee” agreement will have massive adverse consequences on “market confidence,” since the level of the deficit will not be affected. That has already been set — with a mandate for a $1.2 trillion cut. The Wall Street gang and the ratings agencies might sputter something about government dysfunction for a day or two.  But the fundamentals will not be affected, since the level of government borrowing won’t be affected by whether or not there is a deal.

It’s also worth noting that even after Standard and Poor’s downgraded the U.S. debt because of the process leading up to the debt ceiling deal, it had no effect on the interest rates the government is paying for bonds.  In fact those interest rates dropped to record lows.  U.S. government debt remains the safest investment in the world, no matter what S&P did, and the market reflected that indisputable fact.

In other words then, Congress does not have its back against the wall like it did during the debt ceiling “hostage” crisis.  When it came to the debt-ceiling deadline, failure was not an option.  In the case of the “Super Committee” failure to come to an agreement is a very real option — in fact, it’s the best option.

There are some in Congress — most notably in the Senate — who truly believe that what the country needs is a “grand bargain” that cuts the deficit by making ordinary people “share in the sacrifice” even if millionaires and billionaires are asked to share some as well.

Hopefully those who are working for such bargain will be thwarted by two important political realities.

First, that cuts in Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid are politically toxic.  People get really angry when you take away something they have earned.

Second, the Republican’s stubborn unwillingness to give an ounce of new revenue from the pockets of millionaires and billionaires – who, after all, are the true core constituency of the Republican Party.

This time a little “gridlock” may be a good thing.

October 25, 2011 Posted by | Class Warfare, Conservatives, Consumers, Economic Recovery, Elections, GOP, Ideologues, Ideology, Lawmakers, Middle Class, Right Wing, Voters | , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

GOP Congressman Equates Purchasing Health Insurance With Buying An Expensive Vacation Home

Just when you thought it could not get more ridiculous, GOP Congressman and Chairman of the House Appropriations Labor-Health and Human Services subcommittee, Denny Rehberg, has come up with a novel idea. He wants the Congressional super committee to solve $1.2 trillion in deficit reduction by simply killing off the expansion of Medicaid and the subsidies that will open the door to health care for millions of Americans.

In making his argument, Rehberg noted that expanding the Medicaid safety net program, and providing subsidies to low and middle class workers, is akin to the “expensive vacation home” that the average American would choose not to buy if that American was facing a deficit as serious as the nation’s.

Before getting to the heart of Rehberg’s suggestion, one can’t help  but wonder what makes the Congressman think that the “average” American  can afford an expensive vacation home (or any vacation home for that  matter) on what the average American earns, even if that American is not  in debt?

But should we be surprised by the Congressman’s view of the world?  This is the same Denny Rehberg who is not only listed as number 23 on  the list of the wealthiest members of Congress, but is the same Congressman Rehberg who had no idea what the minimum wage was in his own state (check out this video as it is priceless.)

Of course, far more important is Rehberg’s inability to grasp that  getting treatment for cancer or unblocking that clogged artery that is  going to make someone a widow or widower is not quite the same as  purchasing a vacation home—expensive or otherwise.

And while life might not be worth living for Rep. Rehberg and friends    without that idyllic home on the lake, the average American would   still  prefer to remain alive, thank you very much, which is precisely   why  Medicaid coverage was extended to more people and subsidies are to  be made available to the   working poor and middle-class so that medical  care will become an   option in their lives.

When asked how low and middle class  Americans will manage to purchase   health care, should the mandate requiring them to do so be  found to be Constitutional by SCOTUS, Rehberg answered that Health and  Human Services would be able to grant waivers to those who cannot afford  coverage without Medicaid or subsidies.

Thus, Rehberg’s solution is to simply leave millions of Americans without coverage by way of a waiver. Nice.

Health Care For America Now’s Executive Director, Ethan Rome, put it this way:

Rep.  Rehberg’s proposal is yet another part of the Republican assault on the  middle class. Denny Rehberg says that basic health care is a luxury  item, as if a mother in Montana taking her children to the doctor or a  cancer patient getting treatment is the same as buying ‘an expensive  vacation home.’

Considering that estimates place the uninsured under age 65 in Montana at somewhere between 16 percent and 20 percent of the population, a number well in excess of the national average, I suspect that Rehberg’s fellow Montanan’s might disagree with his approach.

Let’s hope they voice that disagreement at the ballot box next November.


By: Rick Ungar, Mother Jones, October 6, 2011

October 7, 2011 Posted by | Class Warfare, Congress, GOP, Ideologues, Income Gap, Medicare, Minimum Wage, Politics, Republicans, Right Wing | , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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