2010 - %3, February

The Garbage Patch Bird

| Wed Feb. 3, 2010 7:00 AM EST

The remains of an albatross chick lie on Midway Atoll, a tiny stretch of sand that is one of the world's most remote marine sanctuaries. Midway is more than 2,000 miles from the nearest continent—but it's also in the middle of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, a vast oceanic swirl of plastic debris. Nesting chicks fill their bellies with plastic as their parents collect and feed them bits that look to them like food. As a result, tens of thousands of albatross chicks die from starvation, choking, internal bleeding, and poisoning each year. See more of Chris Jordan's Midway photos at chrisjordan.com and watch a slideshow of his project below.

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In Worsening Recession, State Health Care Programs Suffer

| Wed Feb. 3, 2010 7:00 AM EST

For many people, the constant flow of news about the end of the recession, rebound of the economy, along with the President’s pledge to create new jobs through drizzle-down tax cut economics embo, seems like a bad joke. Not only are jobs not recovering, but the states which supply the basic safety net in hard times are cutting back their budgets.  Within those budgets low income people who are searching for jobs while living day to day on food stamps, face growing health care problems.

The Center for Budget and Policy Priorities, the Washington, DC-based think tank which tracks social programs, reports:

The worst recession since the 1930s has caused the steepest decline in state tax receipts on record. As a result, even after making very deep cuts, states continue to face large budget gaps. New shortfalls have opened up in the budgets of at least 41 states for the current fiscal year (FY 2010, which began July 1 in most states). In addition, initial indications are that states will face shortfalls as big as or bigger than they faced this year in the upcoming 2011 fiscal year. States will continue to struggle to find the revenue needed to support critical public services for a number of years.

New gaps in 2010 budgets: An increasing number of states are struggling to keep their 2010 budgets in balance as the mid-point of the fiscal year approaches. Because revenues have fallen short of projections, mid-year shortfalls have opened up in 41 states—some of which have already addressed them—totaling $35 billion or 6 percent of these budgets.

These new shortfalls are in addition to the gaps states closed when adopting their fiscal year 2010 budgets earlier this year. Counting both initial and mid-year shortfalls, 48 states have addressed or still face such shortfalls in their budgets for fiscal year 2010, totaling $194 billion or 28 percent of state budgets—the largest gaps on record.

The crimp in funds is forcing cutbacks in basic social services like health care in certain states. Kaiser Health News in conjunction with USA Today has run down some of these states:

The recession is forcing states such as Washington to pare back health insurance programs for low-income people, even as growing joblessness boosts demand for help. Five of six states that use state funds to assist adults not covered by Medicaid are considering cuts, barring new enrollment or raising fees.

The more than 250,000 people in the state programs are adults who don’t qualify for the joint federal-state Medicaid program, either because they don’t have children or earn more than the tight limits states impose on Medicaid eligibility. They represent a tiny fraction of people who get government health insurance, yet the state programs are often their sole option for coverage.

States facing serious problems, according to this article, include:

 

Housekeeping Note

| Wed Feb. 3, 2010 2:14 AM EST

I'll be traveling for a couple of days, and Nick Baumann from our DC bureau will once again be filling in for me during my absence. (Thanks, Nick!) I may contribute a post or two while I'm gone, but that depends on time and the WiFi gods. If not, I'll be back Friday afternoon. See you then.

Corn on Countdown: Obama's Still Got It

Wed Feb. 3, 2010 1:00 AM EST

David Corn appeared on MSNBC's Countdown with Keith Olbermann to discuss President Obama's recent Q & A session with House Republicans and the administration's political strategy moving forward with the jobs bill.

Obama Budgets for Changes to NCLB

| Tue Feb. 2, 2010 9:00 PM EST

President Obama's 2011 budget proposals for the Department of Education suggest the president wants to overhaul No Child Left Behind, the main law outlining the federal government's role in public schools. But it's unclear whether the administration can successfully shepherd a reauthorization through this Congress, considering its legislative calendar is already brimming with other reform efforts. 

The budget calls for an additional $3.5 billion in education spending, most of which education secretary Arne Duncan would dole out to school districts that have increased testing standards and enforced teacher accountability. Aside from these proposals and Race to the Top (another competitive grant program Duncan introduced last year that challenges states to write ambitious yet achievable plans for implementing comprehensive education reforms) states receive most of their federal education money through well-worn funding streams like Title I for poor students and Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act (IDEA) for students with special needs, formulas that don't leave room to reward districts that are excelling.

NCLB didn't leave much room for reward either. It sanctioned districts whose students were not passing and labeled some 30,000 schools as failures, even if their students' test scores had improved from the previous year. Duncan told reporters in a conference call Monday that these skewed methods of accountability did not reward schools that had, for example, raised the reading proficiency among sixth grade students from a 2nd to a 5th grade level. Instead, NCLB led failing schools to compete in a "race to the bottom" to dumb down standards and get more students to pass. Duncan hopes to replace this broken accountability system with one that measures whether schools are preparing students to graduate high school "college and career-ready," he said, a process that begins by maintaining students' grade-appropriate reading levels in elementary school.

Ambitious plan. So will Obama be able to pass it by year's end?  Not likely said Chester E. Finn Jr., an assistant secretary of education in the Reagan administration, in a blog post last week: "One can only wish them well, but reworking this mosterously complex statute is apt to prove almost as challenging as health care." And Finn told the New York Times, "The odds of getting a full-dress re-authorization done between now and August are very very slender."

"I Have Served With Homosexuals Since 1968"

| Tue Feb. 2, 2010 7:35 PM EST

Some of Obama’s top Defense officials delivered testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee today, weighing in on the ever-weighty issue of whether or not homos should be allowed to serve in the US military. To no one’s surprise, the issue left the GOP digging their heels in against change, and Democrats generally supporting the idea of ditching "Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell."  

Senator John McCain started things off on a grumpy note, offering up anecdotal evidence that "numerous military leaders" have told him DADT works. Defense Secretary Gates then read a prepared statement, saying that the question "is not when, but how" the repeal of DADT will occur. Gates said that he’s establishing a panel to study the issue, and that the study will take a year or more to complete.

Admiral Michael Mullen, the most senior uniformed figure in the US military, maintained that getting rid of DADT was the right thing to do, saying, "I cannot escape being troubled in the fact that we have in place a policy that forces young men and women to lie about who they are in order to defend their fellow citizens. For me, personally, it comes down to integrity."

McCain loved that, of course, and replied with a demand that Mullen report back with the opinions of other chiefs of staff. Senator Udall (D-Colo.) chimed in, adding: "I think it was a fine senator from Arizona, Barry Goldwater, who used to say 'You don't have to be straight to shoot straight.'" Zing! (McCain faces a tough primary battle for his Senate seat in Arizona right now.) Another catty moment, described in Spencer Ackerman’s piece at the Washington Independent:

Some suggested that Mullen was carrying Obama’s water instead of presenting his own advice. "If it was a trial, perhaps we’d raise the undue-command-influence defense," said Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.).

That drew Mullen’s ire. "I have served with homosexuals since 1968," the chairman said, raising his voice. “Everyone in the military has… A number of things, cumulatively, for me, got me to this position." 

Well said, highly decorated Admiral who has served with homosexuals for more than four decades. We’re all looking forward to an entire year of this sort of back and forth as the Defense Department studies whether or not it’s prudent to let homosexuals serve—openly—in the armed services. 

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The Paul Volcker Surge

| Tue Feb. 2, 2010 7:03 PM EST

After a spell in the political wilderness, where his financial reform proposals received scant attention, Paul Volcker looks to be fully back in the mix. The former Federal Reserve chairman from 1979 to 1987, Volcker now has the ear of both Obama and the current Fed chair, Ben Bernanke. According to a Bloomberg story today, Volcker met with Bernanke six times—five of which were one-on-one meetings—between January and November 2009; by contrast, Volcker met with Bernanke only once in the year before that. And it's obvious that Volcker has had plenty of contact with the top financial gurus in the Obama administration: After all, the president's push to ban proprietary trading by throwing up a firewall between commercial banks' deposits and their riskier trading operations is being called the "Volcker Rule." 

For the most part, this surge of Paul Volcker's is a good thing. Since Obama took office last year Volcker has been pushing rigorous, important reforms—reining too-big-to-fail institutions, restoring parts of the Glass-Steagall Act—but had clashed with administration officials like National Economic Council Director Larry Summers and hadn't exerted much influence despite his stature as one of the leading economists in the country. A veteran of Beltway economic policy, Volcker also appears to have little patience for powerful lobbyists like the US Chamber of Commerce or the Securities Industry and Financial Markets Association (SIFMA) who support "reform lite." And while Volcker's backing of the Fed to keep its watchdog role overseeing financial institutions and consumer protection may not be best for the country, given how poorly the Fed did that job before the crisis, his rise within the financial reform debate can only improve the odds for a bill that actually limits excessive risk-taking and tries to prevent future crises.

The Kitchen Sink

| Tue Feb. 2, 2010 5:09 PM EST

Josh Marshall makes the point today that one thing hurting congressional Democrats is that they aren't doing enough to force Republicans to cast embarrassing votes that can be used against them during the upcoming midterm elections.  Matt Yglesias calls this belief "a bit dangerous and delusional":

Look out the window at the state of the labor market. Not the labor market for the Washington DC metro area or for the kind of college-educated professionals likely to be social acquaintances of congressional staff, but of the country as a whole. How on earth is the electoral situation not going to be bleak for the party in charge? This is the worst recession since World War II.

Under the circumstances, there are two useful things a member of congress can do. One is to take actions that improve the economic situation. The other is to pass laws that tackle important long-run problems. But if you can’t do the first thing, I think you’re really fooling yourself if you think some kind of parliamentary hijinks are going to transform the situation.

I think my take is different: there's no reason Dems shouldn't be able to walk and chew gum at the same time. Fixing the economy would clearly do Democrats more good than anything else, but honestly, it's too late for anything passed this month to have much effect by September. And although I'm in favor of tackling long-term problems, that probably has a pretty negligible effect on short-term opinion too.

So whatever happens on these fronts, that's the background that you have to accept. If the economy sucks, it's going to be bad news for Dems. But once you've done everything you can to improve the economy and address things like healthcare reform, why not also do whatever else you can to scare up a few votes? Playing games with wedge votes probably won't have a huge effect, but you might as well give it a try. Unless it's literally preventing you from doing more important stuff, there's no reason not to.

Accountability Time for Contractors?

| Tue Feb. 2, 2010 5:01 PM EST

When a federal judge recently tossed out the Justice Department's case against five Blackwater contractors accused of massacring Iraqi civilians in Baghdad's Nisour Square, the episode raised troubling questions of accountability—or lack thereof. These questions are by no means new. Jurisdictional uncertainty over crimes committed by contractors overseas has persisted for years, even as the federal government has dramatically ramped up its reliance on military contractors and security firms in Iraq and Afghanistan. But if a trio of Democratic lawmakers have their way, the legal grey area could become black and white.

On Tuesday, Senators Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) and Ted Kaufman (D-Del.), along with Rep. David Price (D-N.C.), introduced bills intended to clarify the legal authority over contractors, who are currently subject to a patchwork of statutes. The legislation expands on the Military Extraterritorial Jurisdiction Act (MEJA), which provides criminal jurisdiction over personnel "employed by or accompanying the armed forces” and primarily applies to DOD employees and contractors. The Blackwater contractors were being prosecuted under MEJA, though their lawyers had argued that the law didn't apply to them since they were on the payroll of the State Department, not the Pentagon. (The case was dismissed not on these grounds, but because the judge concluded that government lawyers had built their prosecutions on statements the contractors were compelled to make when they were debriefed by State Department officials following the shooting. The Justice Department is expected to appeal the decision.) 

A Ray of Hope on Healthcare

| Tue Feb. 2, 2010 4:41 PM EST

Greg Sargent flags the latest robopoll from Public Policy Polling as good news for the cause of healthcare reform. It turns out that Republican are ahead in the generic congressional ballot regardless, but there's a direct pair of questions asking for support levels if healthcare passes vs. healthcare failing. If it fails, Republicans lead by five points. If it passes they lead by only four points. In other words, there's no difference: Dems don't lose anything by passing healthcare, so they might as well do the right thing and then do their best to sell it to the public over the next ten months.

As much as I'd like to believe this, I was all ready to disagree with Greg. After all, what matters isn't the national sample, but how people in each state respond. And if swing states have more Republicans and fewer Democrats, "no difference" could easily lead to a several point deficit once you look at the crosstabs.

But then I went and looked at the crosstabs. And guess what? The news is actually better than I expected. Basically, Republicans are already as opposed to Democrats as they can get: 85%-4% if healthcare fails vs. 87%-4% if it passes. So it's not as if passing healthcare is going to cost any Republican votes. Likewise, Democratic support for Democrats goes from 76%-8% if healthcare fails to 79%-11% if it passes. It's the same margin either way.

But take a look at independents. If healthcare fails they support Republicans by a 14-point margin. But if it passes they support Republicans by only an 8-point margin. Democrats clearly make up some ground.

This is only one poll, and state-by-state results still matter more than a national sample. But it sure looks as though independents would be noticeably less disgusted with Democrats if they have the spine to pass their healthcare plan. What's more, since this poll makes it clear that independents are more open on the subject than either confirmed Democrats or confirmed Republicans, there's a real opportunity to win them over once healthcare is passed and everyone calms down a little.

This is a small beacon of hope, but it's real. It really does look as if passing healthcare is better for swing-state Democrats than not passing it.