Erika Eichelberger

Erika Eichelberger

Reporter

Erika Eichelberger is a reporter in Mother Jones' Washington bureau. She has also written for The NationThe Brooklyn Rail, and TomDispatch. Email her at eeichelberger [at] motherjones [dot] com. 

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The GOP's New Attack on Obamacare May Be the Most Destructive Yet

GOPers claim their legislation would keep companies from reducing worker hours to cut health benefits. In fact, the bill would do the opposite.

| Thu Jan. 8, 2015 7:30 AM EST

On Thursday, House Republicans will vote on an anti-Obamacare bill that could toss up to 1.5 million Americans off their employer-sponsored health plans. To make the case that this is a good idea, top GOPers are misrepresenting what the legislation would do. They claim the measure would help prevent companies from reducing worker hours in order to cut employees' health insurance benefits. Yet the legislation would likely encourage businesses to decrease hours so the firms could avoid providing health insurance to workers. "While political leaders often stretch the truth to make their case, they usually don't claim the opposite of the truth," Robert Greenstein, the president of the left-leaning Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP), noted Wednesday. "That, however, is essentially what Republican congressional leaders are doing."

The bill House Republicans introduced Wednesday would change the way the Affordable Care Act defines full-time work and, thus, who is eligible for employer-sponsored health care. Currently, the ACA requires companies with 50 or more employees to provide affordable health coverage to 95 percent of their full-time workers or pay a penalty. This measure, called the employer mandate, begins to go into effect this year. Under the 2010 health care law, full-time work is defined as 30 or more hours per week. The GOP bill would change the law's definition of full time to 40 hours per week.

Such a move would obviously lead to the loss of employer-sponsored health insurance for many people who work between 30 and 39 hours per week. But there's the bill would have another impact too: It would give employers a powerful incentive to cut the hours of Americans who work 40-plus hours per week to escape the obligation to provide them health insurance. And health care policy experts note that it is more likely that a firm would slice the hours of a 40-hours-per-week worker than an employee who toils 30 hours a week. (More on that below.) Changing the full-time threshold to 40 hours would put some 1.5 million Americans at risk of having their hours docked and their insurance yanked, according to a recent report by the Congressional Budget Office.

Yet top Republicans are claiming the opposite. On Tuesday, Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) said the bill would enable "more people [to] work full time." Late last year, House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) argued the measure would protect the 40-hour work week by "removing an arbitrary and destructive government barrier to more hours and better pay created by the Affordable Care Act."

As I reported Monday, here's why companies would be more likely to reduce workers' hours under the GOP bill's 40-hour threshold than under the current 30-hour per week cutoff:

The 30-hour threshold was intended to discourage companies from cutting workers' hours. Nearly half of Americans work 40 hours a week or more—meaning that, under current law, employers would have to cut those workers' hours by more than 25 percent to avoid buying them health insurance. But if the threshold were 40 hours, as the GOP envisions, many employers would only have to cut workweeks a tiny bit to avoid buying health insurance for their employees. "Raising the threshold to 40 hours would place more than five times as many workers at risk of having their hours reduced," Paul van de Water, a senior fellow at the [CBPP], wrote in 2013.

A flock of prominent conservatives—including political analyst Yuval Levin and columnist Ramesh Ponnuru—have also chimed in against the 40-hour bill.

On Wednesday, President Obama vowed to veto the law if the Senate approves it. But that doesn't mean the bill won't become law. It's possible that Republicans will attach the measure to a must-pass spending bill this year that would be extremely difficult for Obama to oppose.

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The Cost of US Wars Since 9/11: $1.6 Trillion

And military spending isn't set to drop off any time soon.

| Tue Dec. 23, 2014 7:15 AM EST
Marine Infantry Officer Course students stand by before a helicopter drill in Arizona.

The cost of US war-making in the 13 years since the September 11 terrorist attacks reached a whopping $1.6 trillion in 2014, according to a recent report by the Congressional Research Service (CRS).

The $1.6 trillion in war spending over that time span includes the cost of military operations, the training of security forces in Afghanistan and Iraq, weapons maintenance, base support, reconstruction, embassy maintenance, foreign aid, and veterans' medical care, as well as war-related intelligence operations not tracked by the Pentagon. The report tracks expenses through September, the end of the government's 2014 fiscal year. Here's a breakdown of where most of that money went:

The key factor determining the cost of war during a given period over the last 13 years has been the number of US troops deployed, according to the report. The number of troops in Afghanistan peaked in 2011, when 100,000 Americans were stationed there. The number of US armed forces in Iraq reached a high of about 170,000 in 2007.

Although Congress enacted across-the-board spending cuts in March 2013, the Pentagon's war-making money was left untouched. The minimal cuts, known as sequestration, came from the Defense Department's regular peacetime budget. The Pentagon gets a separate budget for fighting wars.

In the spending bill that Congress approved earlier this month, lawmakers doled out $73.7 billion for war-related activities in 2015—$2.3 billion more than President Barack Obama had requested. As Mother Jones' Dave Gilson reported last year, US military spending is on pace to taper far less dramatically in the wake of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars than it did after the end of the Vietnam War or the Cold War.

Other reports have estimated the cost of US wars since 9/11 to be far higher than $1.6 trillion. A report by Neta Crawford, a political science professor at Boston University, estimated the total cost of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan—as well as post-2001 assistance to Pakistan—to be roughly $4.4 trillion. The CRS estimate is lower because it does not include additional costs including the lifetime price of health care for disabled veterans and interest on the national debt.

Chart by AJ Vicens.

Elizabeth Warren: Wall Street Just Got Another Giveaway

Banks won't have to comply with one of the most important new post-crisis banking rules until 2017.

| Fri Dec. 19, 2014 4:54 PM EST

Last week, Congress did Wall Street a solid. When lawmakers passed a giant spending bill that funds the government through September, they included a provision written by Citigroup lobbyists that allows banks to make more risky trades with taxpayer-insured money. Then, on Thursday, bankers got another giveaway: The Federal Reserve announced it would delay for up to two years implementation of a crucial section of the Volcker rule—one of the most important regulations to come out of the 2010 Dodd-Frank financial reform bill. The rule generally forbids the high-risk trading by commercial banks that helped cause the financial crisis. The move by the Fed pushes the deadline for banks to comply past the next presidential election and gives Wall Street lobbyists more time to weaken it.

"Less than a week after Wall Street slipped a bailout provision written by Citigroup into the government spending bill, the Fed has given the big banks another victory," Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) said in a statement Friday.

"It's really hard to see an excuse for this," says Marcus Stanley, the financial policy director at Americans for Financial Reform, an advocacy group.

The Volcker rule ensures that financial institutions don't engage in something called proprietary trading, which is when a bank trades for its own benefit as opposed to for the benefit of its customers. Banks were supposed to comply with the Volcker rule by July 21, 2014. Last year, when banking watchdogs finalized the rule, the Fed granted banks a year-long extension. The Fed's Thursday announcement gives banks another year to get rid of certain investments—including those in private equity firms and hedge funds. The central bank also noted Thursday that it plans to push out the deadline again next year, by another 12 months. That brings the new compliance deadline to July 2017, far past the 2016 election. If the new president is a Republican, he could fill his administration with Wall Street insiders opposed to the rule, making it even easier for lobbyists to gut it.

Before the Volcker rule was finalized last year, the financial industry fought like mad to weaken it. The regulation could slash the total annual profits of the eight largest US banks by up to $10 billion, according to an estimate by Standard & Poor's. Banking reform advocates were fairly happy with way the final reg turned out. But now the financial industry has extra time to take a few more whacks at rule before banks actually have to obey it. "Wall Street’s loophole lawyers and other hired guns will… continue to hit at the rule as if it were a piñata," Dennis Kelleher, the president of the financial reform advocacy group Better Markets, said when regulators completed the rule in 2013.

The Dodd-Frank law already contains a provision allowing banks that will have difficulty getting rid of particular investments before the initial compliance deadline to request an extension from banking regulators. The Fed's announcement yesterday amounts to an unnecessary "blanket" extension, Stanley says. "It's hogwash."

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