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“Why They Are Dead, Horribly Wrong”: What Democrats Whine About When They Whine About ObamaCare

Democrats have reacted to crushing losses in November’s midterm elections in the usual manner: with a circular firing squad. And one of the targets has been the signature policy of the Obama administration, the Affordable Care Act.

Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York took the lead earlier this month, arguing that it was a mistake for Democrats to pass comprehensive health care reform. Retiring Sen. Tom Harkin (Iowa) has come to the same conclusion for different reasons.

While it’s not surprising that this argument has intensified after the midterm bloodbath, it isn’t a new one. Massachusetts congressman Barney Frank was saying the same things in 2012, and former White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emmanuel urged Obama to abandon health care reform in 2010, after the election of Scott Brown to the Senate cost Democrats their brief filibuster-proof majority.

But whether made now or at the time, whether from the left, right, or center, whether driven by policy or pragmatism, all of these arguments have one thing in common: they’re dead wrong. Horribly wrong. Wrong about the ACA, wrong about what was possible in 2010, and wrong about American political history in general.

Before analyzing each variation of the claim that Democrats were wrong to pass the ACA, it’s important to start with this: the ACA has been a remarkable policy success. It has substantially reduced the number of Americans without health insurance, and in so doing has alleviated a great deal of needless suffering, anxiety, and financial stress. It has slowed the growth in health care costs. And its medley of wonky reforms has improved health outcomes.

Furthermore, had it been allowed to work as intended, rather than having its Medicaid expansion ineptly re-written by the Supreme Court and obstructed by Republican statehouses, the scope of the achievement would be even greater.

The ACA doesn’t represent optimal health care policy by any means — to find a better one you need only throw a dart at a map of Western Europe. But it’s a success that Democrats should be very proud of, one that can stand alongside the great achievements of the New Deal and the Great Society.

Arguments that Democrats should not have done health care face a very, very high burden of proof. And they don’t even come close.

Democrats should have focused on something else.
This is a recurring theme in the anti-ACA arguments being made by Democrats. Schumer says Democrats should have focused on the “middle class” rather than health care reform, while Frank argued that the Democrats should have emphasized financial reform instead.

The main problem with these arguments is that no alternative course of action would be remotely worth trading for the ACA. As Paul Krugman points out, “focusing” on the economy in and of itself has no value, and Schumer can’t point to any concrete policy that would have passed had the Democrats not pursued comprehensive health care reform. There was not going to be a second major round of stimulus no matter what. The Obama administration didn’t do nearly enough for underwater homeowners, but this failure was independent of the ACA.

The only alternative policy course that could have arguably been preferable to the ACA would have been legislation addressing climate change. But given the Senate’s heavy tilt towards conservative fossil-fuel states, cap-and-trade legislation was always going to be stillborn. The idea that two Democratic senators from North Dakota, two Democratic senators from Montana, Mary “I’m going to my political grave defending the Keystone pipeline” Landrieu, and other relatively conservative Democrats were all going to vote for major climate change legislation is fantastical. In addition, much of what cap-and-trade would have accomplished can be addressed through regulatory action, which is not the case with health care.

Democrats should have waited for a pony.
Harkin’s argument is somewhat different — and is superficially more appealing — than Schumer’s. Instead of arguing that health care reform was a misguided priority, Harkin argues that the ACA wasn’t good enough. “We should have either done it the correct way or not done anything at all,” he asserts. Democrats should have tried for “single-payer right from the get go or at least put a public option [which] would have simplified a lot.”

This is like saying that Democrats should have gotten “two weeks at the penthouse suite at the Ritz-Carlton in San Francisco…or at least a night at the Motel 6 in Tulsa.” It misleadingly conflates two very different policies with two different political possibilities. Single-payer would certainly have been a better policy than the ACA, but it would be hard to get 20 votes for it in the Senate, let alone 60. (It’s worth noting that Sen. Bernie Sanders’ 2009 single-payer bill had a grand total of zero co-sponsors.)

The question of the public option is more complicated. There are variants of the public option — most obviously a universally available Medicare buy-in — that would have been major reforms, representing a pathway to single-payer. But that is precisely why a robust public option was as DOA in Congress as single-payer itself. The public option in the House bill — which would not have been universally available or cheaper than private alternatives — was small potatoes that would not have made the ACA simpler, more popular, or significantly more progressive. And even so, there almost certainly weren’t the votes in the Senate to pass even the neutered version of the public option.

Should the Democrats have just given up then, as Harkin suggests?

No. Let’s put this in historical perspective. Harry Truman tried and failed to pass comprehensive health care reform. Lyndon Johnson, in extraordinarily favorable circumstances, failed to pass comprehensive health care reform. Ted Kennedy’s efforts under the Nixon administration failed. Bill Clinton’s efforts failed. The idea that Democrats will nationalize the health insurance industry the next chance they get is just the purest wishful thinking. And the idea that millions of people should be denied health insurance for such a long-odds gamble is not merely wrong but immoral.

Democrats would have avoided big losses in the midterms.
At the core of these arguments is the fact that the ACA is unpopular, which presumably played a major role in the Democratic Party losing big in the 2010 and 2014 midterms. This argument might be the least convincing of all.

Let’s set aside the fact that Democrats held on to the Senate in 2010 and 2012, despite the ACA’s unpopularity, as well as the presidency. The argument, at its core, is deeply problematic. It presumes that Democrats should maintain power as an end in itself. But it’s not an end in itself — the point of being elected is to do things that benefit your constituents. What’s the point of political capital if you don’t spend it?

Again, it’s worth putting things in historical perspective. The problem with waiting for the perfect, risk-free time to pass major reform legislation is that there’s never a perfect time. There have been three major periods of progressive reform legislation in Congress between the Civil War and 2008. (The fact that there have been only three should give pause to those who think that Obama, Reid, and Nancy Pelosi are worthless sellouts because they failed to completely transform the American political economy in Obama’s first two years.) In 1966, Great Society Democrats lost 47 seats in the House and three in the Senate, a preview of the crack-up of the Democratic coalition that would (with a detour created by Watergate) lead to the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980. In 1938, New Deal Democrats lost 72 seats in the House and seven in the Senate, and this tally doesn’t account for the failure of FDR’s efforts to defeat anti-New Deal Democrats in the primaries. In 1874, the Reconstruction-era Republicans lost 93 (out of 293) seats in the House and a net of seven seats in the Senate, effectively ending Reconstruction.

Does this mean that Lyndon Johnson shouldn’t have signed the Civil Rights Act? That FDR should have waited until he didn’t need Southern segregationists to pass New Deal legislation? That Republicans should have nominated Andrew Johnson rather than Ulysses S. Grant in 1868? Of course not.

The perfect response to these kind of arguments was made by Pelosi: “We come here to do a job, not keep a job. There are more than 14 million reasons why that’s wrong.” This is exactly right. The window for progressive reform in the United States is always narrow and treacherous — you get the best you can get when you have the chance. The unpopularity of the greatest progressive achievement passed by Congress in nearly five decades is unfortunate, but misguided Monday-morning quarterbacking isn’t the right response.

 

By: Scott Lemieux, Professor of Political Science at the College of Saint Rose in Albany, N.Y.; The Week, December 11, 2014

December 12, 2014 Posted by | Affordable Care Act, Democrats, Obamacare | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Not Much Of A Deal”: The Trouble With The Minimum-Wage “Compromise”

Senate Democrats had originally planned to move forward this week on legislation to increase the federal minimum wage to $10.10, but it was delayed in part so the chamber could tackle extended unemployment benefits, which may pass later today.

The delay, however, also carried an unintended consequence: the prospect of a “compromise” on the issue, spearheaded by Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine).

Democratic leaders so far are sticking to the $10.10-an-hour wage they’re proposing, while many Republicans, including more moderate lawmakers, say they are likely to filibuster the bill.

But the moderate Maine Republican says she’s leading a bipartisan group of senators hoping to strike a deal.

Collins hasn’t released the details of her proposal, which makes sense given that the talks are still ongoing, but Roll Call’s piece suggests she’s open to a minimum-wage increase, so long as it’s smaller. By some accounts, the Maine Republican is eyeing a $9/hour minimum wage, up from the current $7.25/hour, which would be phased in slowly over three years.

But Collins also hopes to trade this modest minimum-wage increase for a partial rollback of the employer mandate in the Affordable Care Act and some small business tax cuts.

The senator is calling her plan “a work in progress.”

One might also call it “something that won’t happen.”

Greg Sargent had a good piece on this yesterday, noting that Dems don’t seem to have much of an incentive to drop their target minimum-wage threshold.

For one thing, Democratic aides point out, the idea of such a compromise may be fanciful. Even if it were possible to win over a few Republicans for a lower raise, you’d probably risk losing at least a few Democrats on the left, putting 60 out of reach (Republicans would still filibuster the proposal).

Indeed, the office of Senator Tom Harkin – the chief proponent of a hike to $10.10 – tells me he’ll oppose any hike short of that…. Labor is already putting Dems on notice that supporting a smaller hike is unacceptable.

Even the balance of the so-called “compromise” is off. As Collins sees it, Republicans would get quite a bit in exchange for Democrats making important concessions on their popular, election-year idea.

That’s not much of a “deal.”

Complicating matters, even if Dems went along with Collins’ offer, there’s no reason to believe House Republicans would accept any proposal to increase the minimum wage by any amount.

It sets Senate Democrats up with a choice: fight for the $10.10 minimum-wage increase they want (and watch Senate Republicans kill it) or pursue a $9 minimum-wage increase they don’t want (and watch House Republicans kill it).

Don’t be too surprised if the party sees this as an easy call.

 

By: Steve Benen, The Maddow Blog, April 3, 2014

April 7, 2014 Posted by | Congress, Minimum Wage | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Expanding Social Security”: The Fiscal Scolds Driving The Cut-Social-Security Orthodoxy Have Deservedly Lost Credibility

For many years there has been one overwhelming rule for people who wanted to be considered serious inside the Beltway. It was this: You must declare your willingness to cut Social Security in the name of “entitlement reform.” It wasn’t really about the numbers, which never supported the notion that Social Security faced an acute crisis. It was instead a sort of declaration of identity, a way to show that you were an establishment guy, willing to impose pain (on other people, as usual) in the name of fiscal responsibility.

But a funny thing has happened in the past year or so. Suddenly, we’re hearing open discussion of the idea that Social Security should be expanded, not cut. Talk of Social Security expansion has even reached the Senate, with Tom Harkin introducing legislation that would increase benefits. A few days ago Senator Elizabeth Warren gave a stirring floor speech making the case for expanded benefits.

Where is this coming from? One answer is that the fiscal scolds driving the cut-Social-Security orthodoxy have, deservedly, lost a lot of credibility over the past few years. (Giving the ludicrous Paul Ryan an award for fiscal responsibility? And where’s my debt crisis?) Beyond that, America’s overall retirement system is in big trouble. There’s just one part of that system that’s working well: Social Security. And this suggests that we should make that program stronger, not weaker.

Before I get there, however, let me briefly take on two bad arguments for cutting Social Security that you still hear a lot.

One is that we should raise the retirement age — currently 66, and scheduled to rise to 67 — because people are living longer. This sounds plausible until you look at exactly who is living longer. The rise in life expectancy, it turns out, is overwhelmingly a story about affluent, well-educated Americans. Those with lower incomes and less education have, at best, seen hardly any rise in life expectancy at age 65; in fact, those with less education have seen their life expectancy decline.

So this common argument amounts, in effect, to the notion that we can’t let janitors retire because lawyers are living longer. And lower-income Americans, in case you haven’t noticed, are the people who need Social Security most.

The other argument is that seniors are doing just fine. Hey, their poverty rate is only 9 percent.

There are two big problems here. First, there are well-known flaws with the official poverty measure, and these flaws almost surely lead to serious understatement of elderly poverty. In an attempt to provide a more realistic picture, the Census Bureau now regularly releases a supplemental measure that most experts consider superior — and this measure puts senior poverty at 14.8 percent, close to the rate for younger adults.

Furthermore, the elderly poverty rate is highly likely to rise sharply in the future, as the failure of America’s private pension system takes its toll.

When you look at today’s older Americans, you are in large part looking at the legacy of an economy that is no more. Many workers used to have defined-benefit retirement plans, plans in which their employers guaranteed a steady income after retirement. And a fair number of seniors (like my father, until he passed away a few months ago) are still collecting benefits from such plans.

Today, however, workers who have any retirement plan at all generally have defined-contribution plans — basically, 401(k)’s — in which employers put money into a tax-sheltered account that’s supposed to end up big enough to retire on. The trouble is that at this point it’s clear that the shift to 401(k)’s was a gigantic failure. Employers took advantage of the switch to surreptitiously cut benefits; investment returns have been far lower than workers were told to expect; and, to be fair, many people haven’t managed their money wisely.

As a result, we’re looking at a looming retirement crisis, with tens of millions of Americans facing a sharp decline in living standards at the end of their working lives. For many, the only thing protecting them from abject penury will be Social Security. Aren’t you glad we didn’t privatize the program?

So there’s a strong case for expanding, not contracting, Social Security. Yes, this would cost money, and it would require additional taxes — a suggestion that will horrify the fiscal scolds, who have been insisting that if we raise taxes at all, the proceeds must go to deficit reduction, not to making our lives better. But the fiscal scolds have been wrong about everything, and it’s time to start thinking outside their box.

Realistically, Social Security expansion won’t happen anytime soon. But it’s an idea that deserves to be on the table — and it’s a very good sign that it finally is.

 

By: Paul Krugman, Op-Ed Columnist, The New York Times, November 22, 2013

November 23, 2013 Posted by | Social Security | , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

“Highlighting The GOP’s Worst Qualities”: For Democrats, Raising The Minimum Wage Is Good Policy, Better Politics

As Congress considers raising the minimum wage for the first time since 2009, Democrats have a golden political opportunity to pressure congressional Republicans on an issue that splits the GOP’s base — and highlights the GOP’s worst qualities.

The battle is currently being led by Senator Tom Harkin (D-IA) and Rep. George Miller (D-CA), who have crafted a bill that would raise the federal minimum wage to $10.10 per hour, up from the current level of $7.25. The bill, titled the Fair Minimum Wage Act of 2013, would immediately raise the minimum wage to $8.20 an hour, then to $9.15 an hour after one year, $10.10 an hour after two years, and tie it to the Consumer Price Index thereafter.

There is a litany of evidence backing up the value of such a proposal. The current minimum wage of $7.25 an hour has lagged far behind productivity growth over the past decades, and falls short of most living wage standards. A worker employed full-time at the current minimum wage would make $15,080 for a full 52-week year, 19 percent below the poverty line for a family of three. As over 100 economists agreed in a June 2013 letter supporting a $10.50 hourly minimum wage, raising the wage “will be an effective means of improving living standards for low-wage workers and their families and will help stabilize the economy. The costs to other groups in society will be modest and readily absorbed.”

Opponents of raising the minimum wage generally argue that such a policy would hurt job growth. “When you raise the price of employment, guess what happens? You get less of it,” House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) declared in response to President Obama’s call to raise the minimum wage at his 2013 State of the Union address. Contrary to the Speaker’s claim, however, there is little to no evidence that modest increases in the minimum wage actually eliminate jobs.

As strong as the economic case for raising the minimum wage is, however, the political case is even more persuasive. The Harkin-Miller bill has almost no chance of becoming law during the 113th Congress; it will almost certainly be blocked in the Senate, and even if Democratic leadership can round up 60 votes, the bill stands no chance in the Republican-controlled House of Representatives. But the GOP could pay a steep price for killing the measure.

Americans strongly favor raising the minimum wage. According to a Hart Research Associates poll conducted in July, an overwhelming 80 percent of Americans support raising the minimum wage to $10.10, then adjusting it for the cost of living, as the Harkin-Miller plan proposes. The basic parameters of the bill are supported by 92 percent of Democrats, 80 percent of Independents, and even 62 percent of Republicans.

The poll also suggests that the issue could prove critical in the 2014 midterms. The Hart poll found that 74 percent of registered voters believe that raising the minimum wage in the next year should be an important priority for Congress, and 38 believe it is very important — 51 percent of registered voters would be more likely to support a candidate for Congress who favored raising the minimum wage to $10.10 an hour, while just 15 percent said they would be less likely. Furthermore, 37 percent believe that — should Congress fail to raise the minimum wage this year — Republicans would be to blame. Just 15 percent would blame the Democrats.

In the wake of the Republican Party’s disastrous government shutdown strategy, it finds itself in a very precarious political position — especially on the critical question of whether they are actually interested in what’s best for the country. A high-profile act of obstruction to block a minimum-wage hike — a raise that is supported by four-fifths of Americans, and almost two-thirds of Republicans — would surely compound that problem. If Democrats want to paint congressional Republicans as elitists who are out of step with the needs of average Americans, this is how they do it.

On Friday, the Obama administration signaled its support for the Harkin-Miller bill, and it would be wise to be very vocal about that position. If the White House throws its full weight behind congressional Democrats’ efforts, then the minimum wage could form the backbone of an effective economic pitch for the 2014 midterms.

 

By: Henry Decker, The National Memo, November 8, 2013

November 9, 2013 Posted by | Democrats, GOP, Minimum Wage | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Government By A La Carte”: House Republican’s Goal, Shut Down The Government With No Political Repercussions

Plan A was for the House to pass a spending measure that gutted the Affordable Care Act, which the Senate could then clean up and send on to the White House. Plan B was the House bill to go ahead and defund the health care law and dare the Senate to pass it. Plan C was the House bill to delay health care benefits for a year and dare the Senate again.

Plan D was a half-hearted House Republican effort to embrace budget talks that House Republicans spent six months avoiding. And Plan E is, well, kind of silly.

House Republican leaders Tuesday told rank-and-file members that they will attempt to pass several separate bills to reopen the government a few agencies at a time.

A GOP aide confirmed that leaders want next steps to include passage of a series of continuing resolutions that fund individual government programs — an idea floated by Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, Monday.

Why House Republicans don’t just make Cruz the Speaker and get it over with is unclear.

Regardless, this new plan is hilarious. Republicans could pass a center-right spending bill and end the shutdown, but what they’d prefer to do is break up the federal spending bill into chunks, and slowly turn the lights on piecemeal. Staffers were referring today to “mini-CRs.”

The idea, apparently, is to identify the parts of the Republicans’ shutdown that make the public upset, then pass a spending measure that resolves just that part of the crisis while leaving the rest of the government shut down. Americans are annoyed by closed federal parks? No sweat, Republicans say, they’ll pass a mini-CR that provides funding to reopen the parks — and nothing else.

And then when some other part of the shutdown creates public pressure, presumably Republicans would consider flipping the switch on that, too. The goal, apparently, is to shut down the government without feeling the political repercussions of a wildly unpopular government shutdown.

Sigh.

It didn’t take long for Democratic policymakers to dismiss the nonsense.

“We just decided in there we’re not going to do that,” Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, said after leaving Tuesday’s Senate Democratic Conference meeting.

White House spokesman Jay Carney also ripped the idea as “not serious.”

“If they want to open the government, they should open the government,” Carney said.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) called it “just another whacky idea.” Rep. Nita Lowey (D-N.Y.) asked why opening federal parks is more important than “ensuring seniors, poor mothers, and children have access to meals and critical services?” A senior Senate Democratic aide said the House gimmick has “no chance” of success.

House Republicans can either keep their shutdown going, or they end this fiasco. The time for stunts, gimmicks, and partial pseudo solutions has long since passed.

 

By: Steve Benen, The Maddow Blog, October 1, 2013

October 2, 2013 Posted by | Government Shut Down, Republicans | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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