Tag Archives: harry reid

Obama’s Fiscal Commission Prepares to Carve Its Turkey

The dread report of the White House’s National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform is due out this week.  One of the Commission’s co-chairs, the putative Democrat and consummate wheeler-dealer Erskine Bowles, has been up on the Hill flogging their plan to reduce the debt by cutting the country’s already skimpy programs for the old, the sick, and the poor. His partner, motor-mouth Republican Alan Simpson, continues his ranting and ravings against the greedy geezers who want to sink the entitlement-cutting ship before it’s launched. Both of them have taken to boo-hooing because no one appreciates all the work they are doing to save the nation from certain fiscal doom, and nobody is willing to pitch in to meet this noble goal.

Fiscal Commission's Plan: Starve the Old to Stuff the Rich

Personally, I’m still waiting to hear how Wall Street is going to pitch in and do its part–or the people with high six-figure incomes who claim they still aren’t rich enough to give up their tax cuts. Or, for that matter, Bowles and Simpson themselves, who retired on fat  pensions and don’t have a financial care in the world.  Since none of this is likely to happen any time soon, we’d better take a good hard look at what these sanctimonious old coots have come up with.

We already know a lot about what to expect from the Fiscal Commission Plan, since the co-chairs released their own preliminary proposals (as yet unapproved by the 18-member Commission) earlier this month. According to people with access to the Commission’s thinking, they seem to think their best bet is to achieve consensus on a proposal to change the way Social Security’s annual cost of living increases (COLAs) are calculated. What seems like a mere accounting adjustment would, in reality, severely affect benefits over time. The National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare explains the impact of this scheme:

This proposal will affect current and future beneficiaries uniformly.  The impact would occur after benefits are initiated, with each COLA, as the yearly increase in benefits would be slightly lower than would have been the case without the change.  The impact would be greater with each successive COLA.  For example, the Social Security benefits paid to someone collecting benefits for 10 years would be about 3 percent lower, on average, if the chained-CPI was used for the COLA instead of the current CPI-W.  After 20 years this reduction would reach 6 percent and 9 percent after 30 years.

This is is bad enough–especially since old people’s cost of living increases faster than the national average because of exploding health care costs. But of course, there’s more, in the form of a plan that would raise the retirement age to 67 and eventually 69. Working until you drop dead or  literally are forced out of the labor market is utilitarian nineteenth-century thinking. But at that time, at least there was an expanding need for workers in a burgeoning industrial capitalist economy. The one big profitable industry surviving in America today is so-called financial services, which consists of a small number of overpaid people passing money back and forth amongst themselves. They certainly don’t need any more workers, and if they do, they’ll get them in India. Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders said of the idea that it was not only “reprehensible,” but “also totally impractical. As they compete for jobs with 25-year-olds, many older workers will go unemployed and have virtually no income.”

There was no such ringing takedown of the plan, of course, from Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, whose mealy-mouthed statement tells us what we can expect from our Democratic Senate. “I thank the leaders of the bipartisan debt commission for their work,” Reid said. “While I don’t agree with every one of their recommendations, what they have provided is a starting point for this important discussion. I look forward to the full commission’s recommendations and to working with my colleagues on both sides of the aisle to address this important issue.”

Nancy Pelosi had somewhat stronger words, calling the preliminary proposals “simply unacceptable”–but then, she’s nothing but the soon-to-be-ex-Speaker of the House. In fact, co-chair Simpson has been predicting, with something close to glee, the “bloodbath” that’s likely to ensue next spring, when the new Republican House refuses to extend the debt limit and threatens to send the nation into default “unless we give ’em a piece of meat, real meat, off of this package.”

When all is said and done, there’s pretty much no way this so-called debate will end up without most of us, old and young alike, getting screwed. An already stingy program that ought to be expanded to cover elders as their numbers grow instead  is going  to be reduced, and the only question is how and by how much. It makes no sense, but it may well have political traction because the pols can sell it as an attack on rich grannies–“the greediest generation” as Simpson calls the old–while the young are hoodwinked into thinking it’s good for them. And since its full effect will take  years to be felt, the current crop of opportunistic politicians will be long gone into splendid retirement by the time these young people realize how wrong they are. Alan Simpson was frank about this fact in the Washington Post on Friday, using another one of his nauseatingly folksy metaphors:

 It takes six to eight years to pass a major piece of legislation. . . . On a piece of legislation that you know is going to go somewhere someday, you want to get a horse on the track. That might be not much. Then the next session you want to put a blanket on the horse. Nobody’s paying attention then. Then you put some silks on the horse. Then you clean the outfield and the infield. And then you put a jockey on the horse in the sixth year, and you can win it. Because the toughest part is to do the initial thing, and so it’s usually so watered down, it’s just gum, you could gum it. Then you begin to build it the next year, the next year and then you get it done. That’s what I see.

And just in case you thought it couldn’t get any worse, consider this warning from Allan Sloan, Fortune’s senior editor, who wrote an op-ed in the the Washington Post on Thanksgiving day:

[P]rivatizing Social Security, slaughtered when George W. Bush proposed it five years ago, seems about to rear its foul head again. You’d think that the stock market’s stomach-churning gyrations – two 50 percent-plus drops in just over a decade – would have shown conclusively the folly of retirees’ having to bet their eating money on the market. But you’d be wrong. Stocks have been rising the past 18 months, and you can bet that we’ll see a privatization push from newly elected congressmen and senators who made it a campaign issue.

Why is privatizing Social Security such a turkey? Because retirees shouldn’t have to depend on the market’s vagaries for survival money. More than half of married couples older than 65 and 72 percent of singles get more than half of their income from Social Security, according to the Social Security Administration. For 20 percent of 65-and-older couples and 41 percent of singles, Social Security is 90 percent or more of their income. That isn’t projected to change.

Arrayed against these grim prospects are a small group in Congress, led in the Senate by Bernie Sanders and Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island, and in the House by Jan Schakowsky of Illinois. Says Shakowsky

Social Security has nothing to do with the deficit. Addressing the Social Security issue as part of the deficit question is like attacking Iraq to retaliate for the 9/11 attacks – there is simply no relationship between the two and attempting to conflate them does a grave disservice to America’s seniors. Taking money from Social Security retirees whose average total income is $18,000 per year and average benefit is $14,000 ($12,000 for women) is simply wrong. It places them at fiscal risk and hurts the economy because they will be unable to purchase the goods they need.  Americans in poll after poll have indicated their opposition to benefit cuts – particularly at a time when Wall Street bankers are making record bonuses.’

Schakwosky has her own plan, which will be an antidote to whatever the Fiscal Commission comes up with. But her ideas are unlikely to make any headway in the lame duck Congress or with the Democratic leadership, as they wait, already on bended knee, for the coming of the Republicans.

Lieberman Filibuster Could Give Health Care Reform “Joe-mentum”

Joe Lieberman’s latest threat to block the Senate Democrats’ “compromise” reform bill is the health care news item of the day. As CNN reports it:

Lieberman has emerged as the main obstacle to Reid’s efforts to get a health care bill through the Senate before Christmas, if ever.

An independent from Connecticut who sits with the Democratic caucus, Lieberman ratcheted up his public opposition to the bill Sunday. On the CBS program “Face the Nation,” Lieberman said he would join a Republican filibuster if the bill contained either a government-run public health insurance option or a proposed alternative to the controversial provision — expanding Medicare to people as young as 55.

Lieberman also called for eliminating a provision to provide long-term home health care to the disabled while adding more cost containment measures to the $848 billion Democratic bill.

“We don’t need to keep adding on to the back of this horse until the horse breaks down and we get nothing done,” Lieberman said.

Lieberman, who ought to be quite familiar with the back ends of horses, has been making such threats for months. He does it every time something in the legislation fails to please him (and, presumably, his corporate donors in Connecticut, which is insurance industry central). By now it’s pretty clear that Lieberman is enjoying his little run of absolute power over the party that abandoned him three years ago. As Ezra Klein puts it, “At this point, Lieberman seems primarily motivated by torturing liberals.” And as I wrote earlier today, he’ll probably get his wish.

What I want to know, though, is precisely what Lieberman means when he says he’ll “join a Republican filibuster.” Does he just mean he’ll stand with the Republicans, thereby preventing Democrats from gaining the 60-vote majority they need for cloture? Or will Lieberman actually get up and talk? If it’s the latter, then I say let him do it. 

The fact is, Joe Lieberman is one of the dullest and most anemic speakers ever to make it into the national spotlight. I’ve had the misfortune to cover him through two Democratic primary campaigns, and I can’t remember a single speech, even at a brief campaign stop, where I wasn’t struggling just to stay awake. Even when Lieberman tried to liven things up, he just made them worse: I still remember his performance in the final days before the 2004 New Hampshire primary, when he was running around telling everyone he had “Joe-mentum” (right up to the moment when he came in fifth).

The longest one-man filibuster on record is 24 hours (achieved by Strom Thurmond in 1957 to block Civil Rights legislation). Can you imagine Lieberman going on for even a fraction of that time? We wouldn’t need to talk about death panels any more, because we’d all die of boredom. The most famous filibuster scene of all time is fictional: Jimmy Stewart, in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, talks until he makes himself hoarse and eventually passes out from sheer exhaustion. But if Joe Lieberman were carrying the filibuster, it would be everybody else who’d pass out.

I predict that if Joe Lieberman engages in a filibuster, we will see Republicans defecting from their party to support cloture, just to shut him up. In other words, this just might be the one and only path that could lead to bipartisan health care reform.

Emanuel’s Deal with Lieberman: Another Step Down the Road to Tepid Health Care Reform

It wouldn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that Harry Reid’s Medicare buy-in scheme would be DOA in the political mud of Washington. Still, that Rahm Emanuel would surface to order the Senate to cut a deal with  perennial spoiler Joe Lieberman, as Politico this morning reports, just confirms the snake oil salesman has been at the heart of this entire creeped-out process. Politico reports:

 Lieberman threw health care reform into doubt Sunday when he told Reid that he would filibuster the bill if it allowed Americans ages 55 to 64 to purchase coverage in Medicare. His comments on CBS’s “Face the Nation” set off a series of private meetings Sunday between the Senate leadership and top White House aides, including Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel, who encouraged Reid to cut the deal with Lieberman, the official said. The White House declined to comment.

The idea that Joe Lieberman could singlehandedly block the big health care reform bill with a filibuster announced on a Sunday morning talk show is pretty preposterous. Everyone knows Lieberman is a spoiler and that  he will change his position at the drop of a hat—anything to enhance his political position. Emanuel is using him as a foil. 

The political strategy for winning  the  timid health care reform now on the table  has depended from the beginning on Obama encouraging liberals by signalling  his backing for a public option or some co-op look-alike, thus laying out some raw red meat to be attacked by Dick Armey’s camp. Then as opposition mounts to rampant socialism, the Dems back down in seeming “compromise’’ or abject “defeat’’—take your pick–allowing the center right Democrats in the Senate to push ahead to victory with one or two Republicans in tow. 

Remember, from the very beginning Obama never committed himself to any specific form of legislation; he only said that he wanted some kind of a health reform bill. And sooner or later, that’s what we’ll get.

Say What? Harry Reid Parses the Health Care Deal

With the Senate wrangling over spending over the coming weekend, there isn’t likely to be much happening on the health care front until the first of the week. That provides a much needed breather from the Senate charade, and for junkies, an opportunity to decode Harry Reid’s description of his deal Tuesday night. Here, as recorded by the New York Times, is what he had to say:

Thanks everyone, for being patient and waiting for us. It goes without saying that this has been kind of a long journey. We have confronted many hurdles and had to take some big steps and a lot of little steps. But tonight we have overcome a real problem that we have had. I think it’s fair to say that the debate at this stage has been portrayed as a very divisive one and many have assumed that people of different perspectives can’t come together. But I think what we were able to work out the last few days, which culminated tonight belies that fact. We have a broad agreement. Now I know that people are going to ask to be given every detail of this.

I have talked 20 minutes ago to Doug Elmendorf. I told the head of the C.B.O. that we were going to send him something tomorrow that he would have to score and the reason I mention that to you, I also went over in some detail about what we were authorized to say about what we are going to send him. We know what we are going to send him, we have to write it up in legislative language. And he said the same as when you sent over your merged bill. We have had a rule here for 40 years or however long we have been in existence, if you start talking about the plan and start shipping it around, it will be made public. And we want not that to be the case because we want to know the score before we start giving all the details even to our own members.

So you are not going to get answers to those questions. I asked Senators Schumer and Pryor to work together with a group of moderates and progressives. Everyone thought it’s an impossible job. But these two fine senators have done an outstanding job of leading these two groups of people. Everyone knows who the 10 are; they have worked very hard for days now.

This is a consensus that will help ensure the American people win in a couple of different ways. One, insurance companies will certainly have more competition. And two, the American people will certainly have more choices. I already know all 60 senators in my caucus don’t agree on every piece of the merger. I know that we have sent over there to C.B.O., or will send to them tomorrow, not everyone is going to agree to every piece that we have sent over there. But that doesn’t mean we disagree on what we sent there.

I applaud and congratulate the 10 senators led by Schumer and Pryor. I think it’s important to mention their names, Brown, Carper, Feingold, Harkin, Landrieu, Lincoln, Nelson, Rockefeller. As I have indicated, we can’t disclose the details of what we have done, but believe me we have got something that is good and that I think is very, for us, it moves this bill way down the road.

Let me just say, we have seen all kinds of articles in newspapers that Senator Schumer, Senator Pryor, I have said things, other parts of the tent, as Elmendorf and I talked tonight, all the things you have read in the newspapers, all the things you have read in the newspapers. The public option is gone. It’s not true. O.K. Everyone understand that. So we are not going into detail. But you have heard to this point, you could be surprised what we’ve sent to CBO.

Health Care Reform: What Would LBJ Do?

In my last post, I compared the current Democratic leadership to Lyndon Johnson, and speculated that if LBJ were alive today, he might have been able to get a decent health care reform bill through Congress. I suspect he could have done it without at least some of the compromises and concessions to corporate interests, which have now made the Democrats’ legislation—including the public option—so weak that it is getting close to meaningless.

800px-Lyndon_Johnson_signing_Medicare_bill%2C_with_Harry_Truman%2C_30_July%2C_1965

LBJ signs the Medicare Bill in 1965, with Harry Truman by his side

This reminded me of a post about LBJ that I wrote nearly a year ago, as Obama prepared to take office with the promise that health care reform would be among his first priorities. It refers to Johnson’s successful effort to create the Medicare and Medicaid programs–the only single-payer health care this nation has ever known. Like a lot of LBJ’s War on Poverty programs, they were far from perfect. But compared with what today’s Democratic leadership is offering, they were something close to radical, and represented a triumph of political will on Johnson’s part. 

When it came to getting legislation through Congress, LBJ—both as Senate Democratic leader and as president—had skills that make Nancy Pelosi, Harry Reid, and Rahm Emanuel, along with President Obama, look like rank amateurs. But more than this, he had the level of commitment—and the spine—required to stand up to opposing interests when it came to a basic need like health care.

I’m going to run most of that post again here, since its relevance has only increased with each passing month.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

December 2008. An NPR story earlier this week included excerpts from Lyndon Johnson’s White House tapes, featuring his behind-the-scenes efforts to pass the bill that created Medicare and Medicaid in 1965.

The idea of a Medicare-type program for seniors had been debated for more than 20 years, ever since Harry Truman’s post-World War II calls for a national health care system. But it was Johnson, famous for his arm-twising skills, who finally succeeded in sheparding the legislation through Congress. He did so against the wishes of the American Medical Association and much to the chagrin of conservatives, who saw it as a step down the slippery slope toward socialized medicine.

The Oval Office tapes feature Johnson’s typically colorful language. As NPR describes it, “Just moments after [the] bill…got through a key House committee in March of 1965, Johnson sounds like he’s in no mood to celebrate. He gets on the phone to demand that legislators keep the bill moving”:

“You just tell them not to let it lay around. Do that,” Johnson barks. “They want to, but they might not,” he continues. “Then that gets the doctors organized, then they get the others organized. And that damn near killed my education bill. Letting it lay around. It stinks. It’s just like a dead cat on the door. When a committee reports it you’d better either bury that cat or get some life in it.”

The NPR story is based on an article in this week’s New England Journal of Medicine by David Blumenthal, who teaches at Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School and served as an Obama campaign adviser on health care. Blumenthal thinks Johnson’s strategy could be instructive to the new president as he seeks to pass health care reform.

But what Johnson had going for him was not only his skill in dealing with Congress, but his  commitment to expanding Americans’ access to health care, regardless of the cost. In March 1965, he told Vice President Hubert Humphrey:

“I’ll go a 100 million or billion on health or education. I don’t argue about that any more than I argue about Lady Bird buying flour. You got to have flour and coffee in your house. And education and health, I’ll spend the goddamn money.”

Public Option: Insurance Industry’s Trojan Horse

As I suggested yesterday, the latest reincarnation of the public option, endorsed by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, in all probability will lay out one more circuitous route back into the insurance industry. The Senate plan apparently will follow the lines of an idea originally suggested by Senator Tom Carper, a Delaware Democrat. Today, nobody—journalists, politicans—know the details of this plan. But earlier in October, Carper talked to reporters and, according to an account in TPM, set forth his ideas in some detail.  

I think at the end of the day there will be a national plan probably put together not by the federal government but by a non-profit board with some seed money from the federal government that states would initially participate in because of lack of affordability…..

How would it work? First, this won’t be a government run, government funded enterprise. Two, there should be  a level playing field so that this non-profit entity that would be stood up would have to play by same rules basically as for-profit insurance companies–the idea that secretary of Health and Human Services [will be] running or directing the operation of this–no way.

We ought to have a non-profit board–it could be appointed by the President but a non-profit board. They’d have to retain earnings, create a retained earnings pool, so that if they run into financial problems later on the financial needs of the plan could be met by the retained earnings 

Carper’s plan begins to sound very much like Blue Cross-Blue Shield, long ago launched as a non-profit cooperative that over time turned into a hellish health insurance conglomerate that includes both for-profit and non-profit franchises. (The huge–and hugely loathed–WellPoint is now the largest member of the network.)

Carper and other designers of weak-assed public options like to say “non-profit” over and over again, as if this were some cure to all the ills of the private insurance industry. This is far from the case: As I wrote back in June:

Almost half of Americans with private health insurance are currently covered by non-profit plans.  As a whole, they haven’t proven themselves much—if any—better or cheaper than the for-profit insurers….The giant Kaiser Permanente is a non-profit. And while some of them have privatized, many of the Blue Cross-Blue Shields are still non-profits as well—and, in fact, got started as co-ops. Some of these non-profit insurers are well known for paying huge executive salaries and hoarding huge reserves, while charging the same high rates and offering the same rationed care as private plans—and enjoying tax exemption to boot. One report by the Consumers Union found the non-profit “Blues” stockpiling billions in cash even as they raised premiums and co-pays.