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Seniors and Children First: The Future of Health Care Policy Begins with Medicare and SCHIP

| Fri Jan. 30, 2009 2:53 PM EST

When it comes to health care policy, the old and the young serve as the canaries in the coal mine, testing the political air for the rest of the population. If the new government isn't able to muster the guts--and the Congressional majorities--to improve access to health care for these vulnerable segments of the population, there isn't much hope for anyone else. On the other hand, if long-overdue changes to Medicare and the State Childrens Health Insurance Program (SCHIP) move forward swiftly, it could be a good omen for health care reform in general.

Some early signs give cause for cautious optimism: The new Congress has acted quickly on SCHIP, which gives states federal funds to help cover uninsured children who belong to relatively low-income families that nonetheless earn too much to qualify for Medicaid. Some 80 percent of Americans support legislation to expand funding and eligibility for SCHIP. In the past, such legislation has been twice passed by a bipartisan majority in Congress--and twice vetoed by George W. Bush.

Yesterday, the Senate succeeded in passing a bill increasing annual SCHIP funding by $32.8 billion, and expanding the program to cover 11 million children, rather than the current 7 million. The expansion will be paid for largely by a rise in the cigarette tax. The Senate earlier rejected two harsh amendments introduced by Republicans: one that would force some of the less impoverished families to contribute to plans costs "to stop the people moving from private plans … to a government-sponsored plan"; and one that would have limited states' ability to enroll documented immigrant children in the program. The Washington Post described the Senate debate as "rancorous"--but in the end, nine Republicans joined Democrats in voting for the bill.

Similar legislation had already passed in the House on January 14, and a final conference bill could be signed by President Obama as early as next week. Perhaps the most promising news is that the new SCHIP legislation is considerably better--more generous and more inclusive--than the two previous versions vetoed by Bush. A number of Republicans objected to this fact, accusing Democrats of double-crossing them on their earlier deals (as if that weren't what happened after every shift in party power).

SCHIP legislation has always enjoyed some bipartisan support. The same is not true of reforms to the Medicare Part D prescription drug benefit–-Bush's signature piece of health care legislation, which is in effect a massive handout of taxpayer dollars to the insurance industry and Big Pharma. So what happens with Part D is perhaps a more useful predictor of things to come.

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So How's That Working Out For You Guys?

| Fri Jan. 30, 2009 2:45 PM EST

SO HOW'S THAT WORKING OUT FOR YOU GUYS?....Lockstep opposition to all things Obama isn't working out too well for the GOP according to recent polling done by Democratic pollster Stan Greenberg. CQ's Balance of Power reports:

A survey of 1,200 voters in 40 traditionally Republican congressional districts now held by Democrats [] shows Obama's post-election honeymoon reaching a rapturous stage, with 44 percent of voters strongly supporting his policies. [Another 26% "somewhat support" his policies. –ed]

A full 64 percent favor his economic plan, compared to 27 percent against. And precisely that same proportion favors the stimulus in 13 states that are expected to have competitive Senate races in 2010: Kentucky, Florida, Missouri, North Carolina, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, Louisiana, Colorado, Ohio, Kansas, North Dakota, Wisconsin and Illinois.

If DC Republicans continue to lash their fate to the SS Talk Radio, I think they can expect to see more and more of this.

Broadband

| Fri Jan. 30, 2009 2:34 PM EST

BROADBAND....Over at TPMCafe, Yochai Benkler provides a nice little summary of the broadband provisions in the stimulus bill:

The Senate proposal is better along two dimensions. First, it stands at 9 billion dollars instead of 6 billion dollars....Second, it is all to be administered through the NTIA, through a program that was set up during the Clinton Administration to support experimentation and deployment of public and non-profit efforts, and to study public networks.

....The House bill is, however, clearer on the access conditions imposed on those who receive funds. It requires grantees not only to adhere to the minimal net neutrality standards adopted by the FCC's Statement of Principles, but also to run both wired and wireless broadband networks on an "open access basis." The FCC is charged with defining what "open access" means within 45 days of the passage of the Act, but historically (that is, before the Bush-appointed FCC reversed course), open access was the loose term applied to the approach that typified the 1996 Telecommunications Act: that is, competition from new entrants would be the best check on incumbent abuses, and competition would be created by forcing the incumbents to let the new entrants use some pieces of the incumbents' network as leverage to overcome the very high startup costs associated with offering any useful service at all to customers.

There's more at the link, including this weird factlet about the House bill: it stipulates that half the broadband money would be under the control of the Secretary of Agriculture. Because, um, who else comes to mind when you think of high-speed telecommunications infrastructure policy?

Anyway, it would be nice if the final bill makes at least a start at reinstituting the principles of net neutrality as part of its language. I think this is a more complex issue than a lot of the blogosphere likes to admit, but it's fundamentally the right direction to go. This is a good sign that Barack Obama agrees.

GAO: Treasury's Vision for TARP is "Unclear"

| Fri Jan. 30, 2009 2:27 PM EST

The Government Accountability Office has just released its second report [PDF] on the Treasury Department's Troubled Asset Relief Program, and the troubling key takeaway is this: Treasury's "strategic vision for TARP remains unclear." Uh-oh. At present, TARP is the primary mechanism for ensuring the nation's economy doesn't entirely collapse. In other words, having more than an ad hoc plan for spending billions of taxpayer money needed to happen, like, yesterday.

With trademark understatedness, the GAO explains the problem:

[E]arly on Treasury outlined a strategy and approach to purchase whole loans and mortgage-backed securities from financial institutions, but changed direction to making capital investments in qualifying financial institutions as the global community opted to move in this direction. Moreover, once Treasury determined that capital infusions were preferable to purchasing whole mortgages and mortgage-backed securities, Treasury did not clearly articulate how the various programs (such CPP, SSFI, and TIP) would work collectively to help stabilize financial markets.

Virginia Could Finally Close Gun-Show Loophole

| Fri Jan. 30, 2009 2:22 PM EST

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Get ready. There's a battle brewing in Virginia over gun rights, and if the comments to my recent piece on assault weapons are any indication, it's not going to be pretty. After years of trying, the Senate Courts of Justice Committee last week voted 8-7 to pass legislation closing the so-called "gun-show loophole."

While commercial sellers are already required to perform instant background checks before completing a sale, small-time, amateur dealers (who, according to the Washington Post, make up an estimated 35 percent of sellers are Virginia gun shows) are not. The fear is that this opens an opportunity for the mentally insane or criminally minded to bypass safeguards meant to keep weapons out of their hands.

The bill's provisions are modest at best. It does nothing more than extend the intent of the law to cover all gun transactions. Gun show operators would be required to ensure that all dealers, including amateurs, have the ability to conduct instant checks. In practice, this would amount to the small inconvenience of strolling across the aisle to use computers already maintained by professional dealers.

The law would not apply to black powder or antique weapons, nor would it affect buyers with permits to carry concealed firearms.

The bill must now pass the full Senate, before moving on to the House of Delegates, where Republicans are expected to fight fiercely to defeat it.


Photo used under a Creative Commons license from Michael (mx5tx).

The World's Most Famous Shoe

| Fri Jan. 30, 2009 2:07 PM EST

THE WORLD'S MOST FAMOUS SHOE....An orphanage in Tikrit has constructed a giant statue of a shoe to commemorate the "heroic action" of Muntadhar al-Zeidi, the journalist who threw his shoes at George Bush last month. Seriously. But then the government took it down. Spoilsports.

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*Who's Your Sugar Daddy?

| Fri Jan. 30, 2009 1:16 PM EST

WHO'S YOUR SUGAR DADDY?....Is the massive U.S. stimulus plan sucking up all the liquidity in the world, preventing developing countries from stimulating their economies? Apparently this is the complaint du jour at Davos, but Daniel Drezner is unimpressed:

To be generous, these complaints are not completely without foundation. They are a little odd, however. If the United States does not engage in greater stimulus, then other countries are going to have to pick up the slack, or this recession will last a long time. Indeed, count me in the Martin Wolf/Brad Setser camp of those who would love to see other countries — *cough* China, *cough* — starting to boost their own consumption as a means for igniting global growth, because that would also help to redress the macroeconomic imbalances that are at the heart of the current predicament.

To date, however, the efforts by most of these other countries have been underwhelming. [What about China?–ed. Their stimulus has targeted investment rather than personal consumption, so yes, them too.] If I were Obama, I wouldn't trust other countries to provide the locomotive power necessary to get the global economy moving again. So I don't see how they can blame the United States for doing what they are choosing not to do.

Agreed. But we still need a long-term plan to address those macroeconomic imbalances eventually.

Root Causes

| Fri Jan. 30, 2009 1:00 PM EST

ROOT CAUSES....Ryan Avent, plugging a blog that will remain nameless because it inexplicably continues to host anonymous posts, a practice I despise, says:

This week, the blog is hosting a discussion among economists on IMF economist Olivier Blanchard's suggestion that pervasive uncertainty is at the root of the crisis....

Sounds like a fine discussion. But just as an aside, why do people so frequently insist on trying to root out the cause of the crisis? Can't it be a liquidity crisis and a solvency crisis and a confidence crisis and a regulatory crisis all at once? Who says there has to be one true cause?

Upshot of Boy Scouts' Anti-Gay Policy: Logging Their Forests

| Fri Jan. 30, 2009 12:57 PM EST

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From the San Francisco Chronicle:

"The Boy Scouts had to suffer the consequences for sticking by their moral values," said Eugene Grant, president of the Portland, Ore., Cascade Pacific Council's board of directors. "There's no question" that the Scouts' anti-gay, anti-atheist stance has cost the organization money, he said. As a result, he said, "every council has looked at ways to generate funds. . .and logging is one of them."

According to an investigation by the Chronicle and four other Hearst papers:

  • Scout councils have ordered the logging of more than 34,000 acres of forests--perhaps far more as forestry records nationwide are incomplete.
  • More than 100 scout groups--one third of all Boy Scouts councils nationwide--have conducted timber harvests.
  • Councils logged in or near protected wildlife habitat at least 53 times.
  • Councils have authorized at least 60 clear-cutting operations and 35 salvage harvests, logging practices that some experts say harm the environment but maximize profits.

I was a Scout as a kid, and this is not the Boy Scouts that I used to know. It's sad that an obsession with what should be an irrelevant social issue has sabotaged their core principles. We've seen the same thing happen with other organs of the Religious Right as churches that should be doing good works have become obsessed with gay marriage and abortion. But while many evangelicals have begun moving back toward the center--look at Creation Care--the Boy Scouts are inexplicably going the other way. Let's just hope their vast land holdings aren't destroyed as they they slowly implode.

What do Trader Joe's and Whole Foods Have Against Canada Anyway, Eh?

| Fri Jan. 30, 2009 12:51 PM EST

Trader Joe's, Whole Foods, WinCo, and Houston's restaurants are just a few of the 5,000 establishments pledging to boycott Canadian seafood.

Why, eh? We thought you'd ask. The ban is a part of the Humane Society's ProtectSeals campaign to curb commercial seal hunting in the Great White North—the world's largest massacre of marine mammals.

Says Whole Foods: "(We're) suspending any purchase of seafood from the areas where the brutal killing of baby seals is taking place until the fishermen commit to stopping this practice."

According to HSUS's countdown clock, 2009's hunt is due to commence in a mere two months. Last year, seal hunters promised a more humane approach—but as Mother Jones' Julia Whitty noted, it was far from humane.

If you too care about protecting the seals, you can sign a pledge not to buy Canadian seafood, urge your local grocer to join the boycott, or purchase products like this adorable T-shirt:

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—Nikki Gloudeman