The Obama administation has taken an important first step toward reducing what are basically a set of handouts to private insurers, embedded in the Medicare system. These government subsidies to private industry enrich insurance companies at the expense of taxpayers and beneficiaries.

The particular handouts in question come in the form of subsidies to so-called Medicare Advantage plans. As the Wall Street Journal reported on Monday:

The federal government made good on its plan to cut 2010 payments for private Medicare plans, whittling the subsidies to health insurers sooner than the industry originally expected.

The cuts, announced late Monday by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, are slightly less severe than the 5% reduction the federal agency signaled in February, but still raise concerns about what has been a critical source of profit growth for many health insurers. Reimbursements to private insurers that administer so-called Medicare Advantage plans would fall by as much as 4% to 4.5% next year.

Even the WSJ acknowledges that “Republicans during the Bush administration pushed the plans’ extra benefits for seniors and subsidies to insurers to promote more private-sector involvement in Medicare.” 

Even as Defense Secretary Robert Gates initiates an historic review of the Pentagon's budget, recommending that many of the department's big-ticket programs be scrapped after years of mismanagement and bloat, a new report from the National Priorities Project is a useful reminder of just how bad things have gotten. The report breaks down how Washington spent a median-income family's 2008 tax dollars. The results speak for themselves: 

As taxes come due on April 15, taxpayers can take stock of how the federal government spent each 2008 income tax dollar: 37.3 cents went towards military-related spending, while environment, energy and science-related projects split 2.8 cents...

37.3 cents for military-related spending breaks down as follows: 29.4 cents for current military and war spending coupled with 7.9 cents for military-related debt. At 3.8 cents of each dollar, veterans' benefits receive similar proportions of a federal tax dollar as housing and community programs and food-related programs.

In 2007, congressional Democrats called for the chair of the Consumer Products Safety Commission, Nancy Nord, to resign after she failed to respond quickly to news of lead-tainted toys imported from China. Not only did she refuse to step down before her term expires in 2012, but she actively opposed Congress' move to double her agency's budget. In early 2008,  an exasperated Lou Dobbs, examining her record, asked, "is she as imbecilic as she appears to be as absolutely insensitive to American consumers, as absolutely lacking the judgment to run a federal agency designed and created to protect the American consumer?"

Nord managed to survive not just Dobbs' tirade but a change in administrations. But today, Florida Sen. Bill Nelson revived the "Nord must go" movement, writing to the Obama administration to demand Nord's firing for "neglect of duty." His beef? The CSPS under Nord's leadership has failed to recall or ban the import of toxic Chinese drywall that's been installed in thousands of homes across the South, particularly those built after Hurricane Katrina. The drywall has been linked to sulfide gasses that corrode electrical wiring, air conditioning units and household appliances. “The agency is doing too little, too late to help residents of Florida and other states who are reporting serious health and safety problems associated with living in homes built with tainted drywall,” he writes.


Now that the American crew members of the Maersk Alabama have retaken the ship from four Somali pirates (USA! USA! USA!), it's important to note that like all the people involved with the safe landing of US Airways Flight 1549 in the Hudson River in January, the crew members of the Maersk Alabama are union members. (Thanks to Marcy Wheeler for the blog title and the meme.) The unions in question are the Seafarers International Union, which represents 12 of the 20-person crew, the Marine Engineers’ Beneficial Association (MEBA), and the International Organization of Masters, Mates & Pilots (MM&P). As former safety chairman of the Airline Pilots Association, Chesley Sullenberger, the hero pilot of Flight 1549, fought to make sure his colleagues got the training they needed to do what he did in January. And as I just heard on Fox News (and confirmed with the SIU), crew members of the Maersk Alabama received anti-piracy training from (where else?) their union. You can see an SIU member at small arms training at the union's Paul Hall Center for Maritime Training and Education in the photo to the right (more photos here). In addition to small arms training, the Hall Center offers anti-terror, basic safety, first aid, and other security-related courses.


Generally speaking, I don't blame Norm Coleman for doing everything he can to win his razor-close Senate race against Al Franken.  If there are legal avenues open during a recount, candidates have the right to use them.

But that's getting harder and harder to defend.  Minnesota's election procedures may not be perfect (whose are?), but there's never been any serious evidence of widespread fraud or favoritism, and Franken's lead has increased at every step.  Even Scott Johnson, a conservative Minnesota attorney, writing in National Review today, agrees.  Coleman's recount strategy may have been poor, he says, but Franken "didn’t steal the election."

Coleman has nothing left now except an equal protection claim so poorly conceived that it plainly has no chance at either the state or federal level.  In a system where votes are counted and tallied locally, there will inevitably be small differences in procedure, but Coleman has no plausible evidence that a class of voters was mistreated or that election officials were systematically biased against him.  Even conservatives are finally starting to admit that, as much as they dislike Franken, Coleman's effort has turned into little more than a shabby campaign of retribution and spite.  It's past time to let it go, guys.

On the Daily Show last night, Jon Stewart had a killer bit about the conservative commentators who are shrieking about America's descent into tyranny. His central point: they're confused; what they're experiencing isn't tyranny, it's simply the very uncomfortable experience of being in the minority. When the federal government is doing all sorts of things that you disagree with, it doesn't mean that America is becoming a fascist state. It just means you lost.

Looking at the Christian Right's response to the Vermont gay marriage legislation and the Iowa gay marriage court ruling, I can't help but feel like Stewart's wisdom applies. Heads are exploding over this thing, folks. Think Progress rounds it up.

Tony Perkins, Family Research Council: "Same-sex 'marriage' is a movement driven by wealthy homosexual activists and a liberal elite determined to destroy not only the institution of marriage, but democracy as well."

Mathew Staver, Liberty Counsel: "By redefining marriage, the Vermont legislature removed the cornerstone of society and the foundation of government. The consequences will rest on their shoulders and upon those passive objectors who know what to do but lack the courage to stand against this form of tyranny."

And so on. Someone needs to explain to these people that the creeping acceptance of gay rights isn't the end of democracy. It isn't the onset of tyranny. It's simply a byproduct of a society's slow crawl toward tolerance. And please, let's drop this idea that if you stand against gay rights somehow you stand with democracy and liberty. You can be a devout Christian and on the right side of progress. It's not impossible. If you stand in opposition to the expansion of rights, you're far closer to tyranny than anyone on the American left.

President Obama has been preoccupied with Iraq, Afghanistan, and most recently North Korea, but his attention will soon inevitably turn to one of Washington's greatest diplomatic wild cards: Iran. A new white paper (PDF) prepared by a group of former US ambassadors and progressive foreign policy experts urges the Obama administration not to succumb to hawks pushing an unduly harsh and counterproductive stance regarding Iran. At issue is how to prevent Tehran from acquiring nuclear weapons. In clear reference to Iraq invasion (remember those elusive WMDs Saddam was supposedly stockpiling?), the Iran Nuclear Policy Group warns, "publicly assuming the worst in the absence of evidence--and issuing an ultimatum based on that assumption--is a singularly bad idea."

The Group instead suggests a three-part approach to the problem, emphasizing reliance on facts rather than hype (a novel idea), a clear expression of US foreign policy goals in a way that leaves Iran space to manuever and save face, and "true diplomacy" that emphasizes not "the bad things that American can do to Iran but... things that the United States can withhold," namely foreign investment, diplomatic respect, and help developing Iran's oil and gas sectors.

Yesterday, I noted how strange it was that MSNBC's First Read leavened their usual breathless coverage of polling and public opinion with the sentence, "But [Obama's] presidency won't be judged by what happened on this trip; rather, it will be judged on what happens afterward." Ordinarily, First Read would read deep into polls and proclaim a "public image problem" or a "public image triumph" (or some such) for some political actor. But yesterday the writers seemed to acknowledge that basing one's political journalism on day-to-day polling was silly; long-term events, they acknowledged, have far more to do with our leaders' successes and failures. Had First Read learned an important lesson about the way journalists do our work?

Nope. Here's the gang today:

[Republicans] have maintained (for the most part) a unified opposition to Obama and the Democratic agenda. All Republicans, save for three moderate GOP senators, voted against Obama's stimulus. And every single Republican voted against the Democratic budget. But looking at recent polls, we've got to ask: Where has this gotten the GOP so far? The recent New York Times/CBS poll showed the Republican Party's favorability rating at an all-time low, matching the result from last month's NBC/WSJ poll.

Guys, come on. If Obama will be judged not based on what he does now but on the long-term results of very major decisions, as you said yesterday, doesn't the same standard apply to the congressional opposition?

Charts Charts Charts

CFR's Paul Swartz has a whole passel of horrifically grim charts for you today.  Bottom line: our current recession is the worst since World War II by practically every measure.  And on some measures, it's even worse than that.  U.S. trade, for example, is now collapsing at nearly Great Depression velocity.  Eichengreen and O'Rourke concur.  The only good news is that we're responding to events better than our ancestors did.  We hope.

The New Republic asked a few defense experts who won and who lost in the Pentagon procurement reshuffling announced yesterday.  Here's one answer:

NAME: Andrew Krepinevich

POSITION: President of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments

WHO WON: The Navy, which "essentially emerges unscathed. I talked to Gates this morning. According to him, they'll get to keep their eleven carriers through 2040, and [the budget] left the proposed increase in submarine production intact."

WHO LOST: The Air Force, because of the slashed F-22 program. "You look across the board, and you say, ‘The Air Force had a pretty tough day.'" Also, the Army, which was "already in a state of disrepair after the cancellations of the Crusader Artillery System and Comanche helicopter" over the past decade. Under the new budget plan, the Army will see huge cutbacks to FCS (Future Combat Systems), which is "the crown jewel of the Army's modernization program."

The Navy's reduction from 11 carriers to 10 won't happen until 2040?  Since their only other "loss" was the DDG-1000 destroyer, which they wanted to cancel anyway, I guess they really did come through this whole thing pretty unscathed.  The other services must be pretty hosed off about this.