Tag Archives: Nancy Pelosi

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.

Petition to Stop the Entitlement-Cutting “Catfood Commission”

Readers of Unsilent Generation may be interested in a new online petition directed at members of Congress, concerning the work of the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility of Reform, which I’ve written about here many times before. Here is the introduction to the petition, which was started by Alternet. You can read the text of the petition, and sign it, here at Change.org

Right-Wing “Deficit Hawks” and their enablers are on a march to destroy the social safety net we built for our seniors and retirees. Shockingly, some of the most notorious advocates are actually in charge of the presidential commission that will soon determine the future of Social Security and Medicare. We need to stop them in their tracks! Join us in calling on Congress to Stop the Catfood Commission.

The National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform has been dubbed by progressives the “Catfood Commission” because its goal appears to be cutting benefits so drastically that retirees will only be able to afford to eat pet food. It’s hard to tell exactly what the commission is planning because its meetings are closed to the public and the press. Based on past statements and the background of its members the proposals are likely to include raising the retirement age to 70, turning large portions of Social Security over to Wall Street, and cutting Medicare benefits.

The commission’s co-chairman Alan Simpson, a former Republican senator from Wyoming, has stated he believes the founders of the Social Security program never expected anyone to actually live to 65 and collect. “People just died,” he has said. “Social Security was never [for] retirement.” Erskine Bowles, the other co-chairman, negotiated a secret but ultimately unsuccessful deal between Bill Clinton and Newt Gingrich to cut Social Security benefits. Any chances that the commission would make cuts to the US defense budget in its pursuit of fiscal responsibility seem slim owing to the fact that the CEO of Honeywell, a major defense contractor, is a member of the panel.

We can’t sit back and count on a Democratic-controlled Congress to protect our social safety net. Just a day before the July 4th holiday weekend, the House of Representatives passed a measure that would guarantee an up-or-down vote on the Catfood Commission’s recommendations in the current session of Congress if they pass the Senate. With this measure House Speaker Nancy Pelosi relinquished her power to prevent the vote from coming to the floor.

Your representatives need to hear from you NOW.  Let’s stop the Catfood Commission from raiding the Social Security trust fund and slashing medical benefits for current and future retirees.

Share

Docs Discover New Socialist Plot

It took a couple of days, but sure enough, the hospitals and doctors recovered their senses to see the Reid-proposed Medicare buy-in as, Oh My God, back-door socialism. In place of an enfeebled public option, now beaten to death in the back rooms of the Senate, the Dems are  proposing to make the biggest single-payer medical enterprise in the United States even bigger. Never mind that the buy-in would cost more than most people could afford; it’s still a step down the slippery slope to socialized medicine. As the Washington Post writes Friday morning:

The 10 moderate and liberal Democratic senators who negotiated the tentative agreement regarded the buy-in as a compromise. They dropped the idea, central to the health-care bill adopted by the House, of a government-sponsored insurance system. Instead, the buy-in would provide a new public alternative to people within a 10-year age span.

Some critics characterize this approach as disingenuous. “This was in the context of an alternative to a public program, when [Medicare] is . . . perhaps the biggest public program in health care in the universe,” said Richard J. Pollack, executive vice president for advocacy and public policy for the American Hospital Association, which sent out an alert urging hospitals nationwide to complain to their members of Congress.

AARP, health insurance mogul and self proclaimed voice of the geezer, nixed the idea. From the same article:

“I just don’t see it being that popular,” said John Rother, executive vice president for policy and strategy for AARP, an enormous lobby for people 50 and older.

He and others said it remains unclear whether the program would be designed with the same health benefits, co-payments by patients, or access to private health plans and supplemental coverage as the rest of Medicare. Depending on such details, Rother said, “it’s not even Medicare, but that’s a brand name everyone likes.” Still, he said, AARP always has favored the creation of a buy-in, as long as it would not worsen the Medicare system’s already shaky finances.

Then came the kiss of death. Yesterday, Nancy Pelosi came out for the buy-in.

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.”

Ignagni v. Obama: Another Victory for the Health Insurance Industry

For months, even as other Democrats fell by the wayside, Nancy Pelosi has been saying she wouldn’t put through health reform without a “robust” public option. Instead, she this week agreed to a provision that would make any public plan weak to the point of meaninglessness.

In announcing the House Democrats’ health reform plan, Pelosi made it clear that she has abandoned any ideas that the public option’s payment rates should be based on Medicare rates, or otherwise standardized and set by the government. Instead, the government-run  insurance plan will negotiate rates with doctors and hospitals, just as the private insurers do.

What this means is that plan rates under the public option will be pegged to those of the insurance industry, eliminating any real chance that the public option will bring down health care costs by “competing” with the private companies. There is no waffling here. Just complete capitulation to private industry.

Pelosi apparently gave in under pressure from members of her own party. But the real winner in the health reform debate are not the so-called moderate Democrats, or the Republicans, and certainly not Obama or Pelosi or Harry Reid. It is Karen Ignagni, president and CEO of America’s Health Insurance Plans. She called the politicians’s bluff—and won.

She knew from the very beginning, as did most of Washington, that the profit-making industries who control the American health care system would emerge victorious. Billy Tauzin, mouthpiece for Big Pharma, whined about Obama’s duplicity but sat tight, knowing the drugmakers had in the end gotten a sweet deal. Ignagni, likewise, didn’t make threats. She waited, then executed her own double-cross and  amidst  liberal yelps ran right through the opposition without a scratch.

Could anyone have blocked Ignagni’s breakaway run? Not in this crew, that’s for sure. LBJ would have stopped her. Liberals scorn Johnson because of Vietnam. But LBJ had a domestic program that he never lost sight of, and that he refused to concede enitrely to the power of corporate America. It was Johnson, after all, who got the bill creating Medicare through Congress, over the objections of the AMA and a lot of other powerful interests. Neither Pelosi nor the  oh-so-clever Rahm Emanuel has Johnson’s dealmaking abilities–or his spine. 

What to Look for in Obama’s Speech Tonight

First, nothing specific. Here’s how the BBC reports it this morning:

When asked if Americans will find out in his speech whether or not he is willing to sign a healthcare reform bill without a public scheme, he said:

“Well, I think the country is going to know exactly what I think will solve our healthcare crisis.”
Mr Obama said the speech will be directed at the American people, as well as members of Congress…..

“The intent of the speech is to, A, make sure that the American people are clear exactly what it is that we are proposing,” Mr Obama said.

“And B, to make sure that Democrats and Republicans understand that I’m open to new ideas, that we’re not being rigid and ideological about this thing, but we do intend to get something done this year.”

Second, some version of the Baucus plan seems likely to survive. Mitch McConnell, the Senate Republican leader, is softening opposition to the idea of of “reform” –if it’s the “right” reform. That means spending less money, which means cutting existing benefits in Medicare and elsewhere. Remember–Republicans apparently think we are over-insured!

Meanwhile in the House, the Blue Dog leader Mike Ross says he’s flat out against a public option. There are 52 Blue Dogs. In addition, Pelosi,with her stated insistence on a public plan, is beginning to look isolated as part of the leadership caves on that issue. Steny Hoyer, House Majority leader, indicates he won’t insist on the public option.
What’s likely to survive as pivotal in the final plan will be the “exchanges,” which, in fact, are modeled on the federal employees health benefit plan. It will be through these exchanges that insurers will be required to meet certain standards, including accepting everyone with or without pre-existing conditions. Pricing will be left to the insurance companies.

In the end, my guess is Baucus will carry the day with details of a weak bill hammered out in conference.