Mojo - January 2013

Russ Feingold: Democrats Sold Out in 2012 and Need to Quit Big Money

| Thu Jan. 10, 2013 12:01 PM EST
Former Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wisc.).

President Obama's decision to let his 2013 inauguration committee accept corporate cash and million-dollar donations marks quite a reversal for the president: for his first inaugural in 2009, he capped individual donations at $50,000 and banned corporate money. The Associated Press calls the decision "part of a continuing erosion of Obama's pledge to keep donors and special interests at arm's length of his presidency." But for former Sen. Russ Feingold, it's yet another sell-out by his friends in the Democratic Party to the big-money forces so dominant in politics today.

No Democrat has so publicly ripped his own party for embracing super-PACs and dark-money nonprofits than Feingold. In a new article for the journal Democracy, Feingold, who co-wrote the 2002 McCain-Feingold Act, the last major campaign finance restriction in the US, takes Democrats to the mat. He calls 2012 "a big step" back for Democratic-led efforts to get big money out of politics, and singles out Obama's reversal on super-PACs. In February 2012, the president encouraged his donors to give to Priorities USA Action, the super-PAC backing him, while allowing his top deputies to appear at Priorities events. On the PBS NewsHour, top Obama strategist David Axelrod defended Obama by saying that the president hadn't warned at all toward super-PACs but had to play by the rules of the game. You heard that a lot from Democrats in 2012. Yet with statements like that, Feingold says, Democrats were posing as a pro-reform party while tripping over themselves to "exploit any avenue to accept unlimited, corporate dollars to fund elections."

Beltway Democrats, Feingold argues, aren't going to reform big-money politics from the inside; they're addicted and they just can't quit. The task of fighting for real reforms to money in politics, of building what Feingold—who now runs his own pro-reform nonprofit, Progressives United—calls a "permanent majority" for reform, falls instead to liberal donors and activists outside of Washington.

Feingold says the most important thing big donors can do is stop giving—to super-PACs or any of the other Citizens United-enabled fixtures of our big-money politics. "Donors hold more leverage to create a movement for reform than almost any other actor in the political system," he says. If donors ignore super-PACs and nonprofits, "Washington will notice." And as for the liberal activists out there, they should redirect all the energy they've invested into passing a constitutional amendment reversing the Supreme Court's Citizens United decision and channel it into "achievable goals"—public financing of elections, disclosure of donors to dark-money nonprofits and shell corporations, overhauling the dysfunctional Federal Election Commission, the nation's top elections cop.

The stakes are high, in Feingold's view, for the Democrats. "Unless Democrats embrace election reform as a central tenet of our platform," he writes, "we will face another era reminiscent of soft money—when the dominance of corporate interests meant that no matter what party held power, the influence of Big Money always won."

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NRA's Armed Security Guard Proposal Kind Of Popular

| Thu Jan. 10, 2013 10:23 AM EST

The National Rifle Association's proposal to eliminate school shootings by putting an armed guard in every public school was greeted with ridicule when it was unveiled last month. (MoJo was no exception.) After all, armed guards hadn't prevented massacres at Columbine and Virginia Tech, and as I reported on Monday, the push seemed all the more dubious given that the NRA's point man on the issue was on the board of a private security company.

But the NRA may have been on to something—at least insofar as public opinion is concerned. According to a new poll released by Quinnipiac on Thursday, Virginians favor putting armed police officers in schools by a more than two to one margin. The proposal has bipartisan support, with 79 percent of Republicans and 58 percent of Democrats backing it.

The most revealing finding in the poll may be this: Although voters broadly favor many forms of gun control—59 percent support banning high-capacity magazines; 62 percent think assault weapons "make the country more dangerous"—most Virginians aren't necessarily prepared to do anything about it. Just 24 percent of those surveyed said that a candidate's position on gun control would be a deal-breaker come election time.

We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for January 10, 2013

Thu Jan. 10, 2013 9:58 AM EST
A United States gun crew fires illumination rounds at Forward Operating Base Hadrian. The 1st Section Bravo Battery 1-9 Field Artillery from Fort Stewart, Ga., have been conducting intensive training and fire missions to support operations in Uruzgan province, Afghanistan. US Army photo.

Bad News for Vampire Cops Everywhere

| Thu Jan. 10, 2013 9:55 AM EST

So this is where the Roberts Court draws the line on civil liberties: warrantless, forced blood tests. The Supreme Court heard arguments Wednesday in Missouri v. McNeely, on whether someone arrested for drunk driving can be forced to provide blood samples without consent or a warrant.

Missouri’s top court had unanimously rejected a argument by the state that there should be a categorical exception to the Fourth Amendment warrant requirement in all DWI cases. And it looks as though the highest court in the land will go the same way.

Corn on Hardball: Will Republicans Shut Down the Government?

Wed Jan. 9, 2013 9:04 PM EST

When Congress debated the fiscal cliff in December, Republicans threatened to shut down the government in order to get the spending cuts they wanted. During the next budget showdown this March, it looks like they might do the same. DC bureau chief David Corn and Salon editor-at-large Joan Walsh discuss how the Republicans will handle the next fiscal cliffa "three cliff circus," Corn calls it, referring to the debt ceiling, the sequester, and the expiring continuing resolutionon MSNBC's Hardball.

David Corn is Mother Jones' Washington bureau chief. For more of his stories, click here. He's also on Twitter.

Is Health Care Spending Finally Under Control?

| Wed Jan. 9, 2013 6:57 PM EST

Health care spending in America grew by 3.9 percent in 2012—the lowest rate since 1960, when the government began collecting this data. Last year was the third in a row that health care spending grew slower than expected, according to a government study published this week in Health Affairs.

Has America finally started to get a handle on health care spending? It's possible, but not likely: according to the report, the slowing growth in health care spending is mostly due to the recession. A dive in the number of people enrolled in private health insurance—probably due to job losses—was one of the biggest factors in slowing growth. Between 2007 and 2010, 11.2 million people left private health insurance:

chart of private health insurance

Hartman et. al, Health Affairs, January 2013

Many of these people ended up uninsured—the number of people without health insurance increased by 7 million during that time. Uninsured people, as you might expect, spend less money on health care. Meanwhile, hospital stays, perscriptions, and other services don't cost any less than they used to. The chart below shows the reasons for growth in individual and national health spending. Note how medical prices are the main factor driving growth, while the effects of an aging population and other "nonprice factors," namely how much and how often people are using medical services, vary from year to year:

Factors Accounting For Growth in Per Capita National Health Expenditures and Personal Health Care Expenditures

 

Hartman et. al, Health Affairs, January 2013
 

Now that the economy is beginning to recover, health care spending is expected to rebound; the most recent government projections expect it to grow 7.1 percent in 2014, then an average of 6.2 percent annually between 2015 and 2021. Some argue there are signs that health care spending is slowing down in the long run, though it will still be growing as a share of the economy.

The silver lining is Obamacare, which will add to the amount the government spends on health care but is expected to reduce the growth of health spending in the long run. Additionally, more people will be insured, and with better insurance, so (at least in theory) each dollar spent on health care will go further and help more people in need of medical care.

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Proposed Legislation Would Block Bank Execs From Regulating Banks

| Wed Jan. 9, 2013 3:09 PM EST

Four years after the financial crisis, and two years after "financial reform," top bank executives are still allowed to serve on the boards of regional Federal Reserve banks—institutions that are partially responsible for regulating the financial industry. People like Jamie Dimon, the JP Morgan Chase CEO whose term at the New York Fed just ended, have influence over whether banks get bailed out by taxpayers when they screw up. Dimon was on the New York Fed board during the 2008 financial crisis, and his bank got over $390 billion in low-interest emergency bailout loans from the Fed.

If liberal Senator Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) has his way, all that may soon change.

Sanders announced Wednesday that he will reintroduce legislation to forbid financial industry executives like Dimon from sitting on any of the 12 regional Fed boards of directors.

Flashback: Obama's Treasury Secretary Pick Claimed Deregulation Did Not Cause the Financial Crisis

| Wed Jan. 9, 2013 12:51 PM EST
Jack Lew.

President Barack Obama is expected to nominate Jack Lew, the wonky White House chief of staff and former director of the Office of Management and Budget, as the new secretary of the US Treasury. The current secretary, Tim Geithner, plans to step down soon.

Here's a crucial piece of information about Lew: He has said he doesn't believe financial deregulation was a major cause of the financial crisis. In 2010, Lew testified before Congress that the deregulation of Wall Street in the Clinton era—the repeal of Glass-Steagall, say, or the ending of real regulation of complex derivatives—wasn't a critical factor. "The problems in the financial industry preceded deregulation," Lew told members of the Senate budget committee in September 2010. He added that he didn't "personally know the extent to which deregulation drove it, but I don't believe that deregulation was the proximate cause."

Lew knows that period of deregulatory zeal well, having served as President Bill Clinton's director of the Office of Management and Budget from May 1998 to January 2001. Lew has spent much of his career in government, is a savvy negotiator and budget wonk, and is respected by Republicans and Democrats. Republicans, though, have been grumbling about him more recently—after all, in 2011, he outsmarted the congressional GOP in intense budget talks. And liberals have criticized Lew for his post-Clinton work for the mega-bank Citigroup, where he ran a unit that profited off shorting the housing market

Lew's 2010 claim that deregulation wasn't a major cause of the financial crisis is disputed by many experts as well as the government's own investigatory body, the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission. In its final report (PDF), the commission stated that "widespread failures in financial regulation and supervision proved devastating to the stability of the nation's financial markets."

The commission went on to conclude, "More than 30 years of deregulation and reliance on self-regulation by financial institutions, championed by former Federal Reserve chairman Alan Greenspan and others, supported by successive administrations and Congresses, and actively pushed by the powerful financial industry at every turn, had stripped away key safeguards, which could have helped avoid catastrophe."

Obama, Lew's boss, has said before that deregulation played a major part of the financial meltdown. In October 2008, Obama, then the Democratic candidate for president, said "we know that it's because of deregulation that Wall Street was able to engage in the kind of irresponsible actions that have caused this financial crisis."

Upon signing the Dodd-Frank financial reform bill, which was chock-full of new regulations, in July 2010, Obama noted the failure of the regulators and the banks: "It was a crisis born of a failure of responsibility from certain corners of Wall Street to the halls of power in Washington. For years, our financial sector was governed by antiquated and poorly enforced rules that allowed some to game the system and take risks that endangered the entire economy."

It's clear Obama believes deregulation played a role in the crisis. Apparently, he's fine with a treasury secretary who's a former Clintonite not eager to acknowledge the Clinton era's mistakes.

Florida Gov. Rick Scott Wants A Favor—From Obama

| Wed Jan. 9, 2013 11:43 AM EST

Florida Gov. Rick Scott (R) was in Washington, DC on Monday to make a deal. Florida, along with a handful of other Republican-run states, is still trying to wage war against Obamacare by refusing to take the generous expansion of Medicaid provided for in the new law. The expansion would provide government insurance to around a million poor and lower-middle-class Floridians, and the federal government has promised to foot almost all of the bill.

Last June, after the Supreme Court decision making the Medicaid expansion optional for the states, Scott said he won't take the money. But when Florida hospitals realized Scott's decision could cost them about $650 million a year in other federal payments, they started lobbying furiously to get him to change his mind. So now, after two years suing, demonizing and otherwise attacking President Barack Obama and the Democrats' health care bill, Scott wants to negotiate. He came to Washington saying that he'd like to "work with the administration to reduce the cost of health care." But that doesn't mean he's changed his mind.

Instead, what Scott wants from Kathleen Sebelius, Obama's secretary of health and human services, is something that might actually make Florida’s dismal insurance situation—nearly 4 million Floridians are uninsured—even worse. Scott wants the Sebelius to give him official permission, called a waiver, to hand over the entire existing Medicaid program to private managed care companies. Don't count on that happening.

Here's why. Florida already has a small pilot project approved by George W. Bush's administration that shunts Medicaid participants into HMO-type organizations. Scott has hailed this as a genius innovation that keeps costs down. But a close look at the program reveals no such miracles. A study by the Georgetown University Health Policy Institute concluded that there was no evidence the pilot project was saving money—and even if it was, any savings could have been from denying people needed care. (Anecdotal reports suggested that was the case.)

The Georgetown group also found that it would be all but impossible to make Medicaid more efficient, especially compared with private insurance. Between 2007 and 2012, private sector family insurance premiums rose more than 31 percent, but Florida's per-person Medicaid costs actually fell by five percent. And the idea that Rick Scott is giving the federal government tips on making health care more efficient is interesting given that when he ran his own health care company, Columbia/HCA, it was systematically bilking the federal government of millions of dollars in what turned out to be the biggest health care fraud case the US has ever prosecuted.

So maybe it's not surprising that the Obama administration has so far refused to allow Scott to expand the Medicaid pilot project, much less add another million people to it. And that's not all Scott wants: He's also asked Sebelius to allow Florida to charge all Medicaid patients unprecedented co-pays, such as $100 for emergency room visits not deemed an emergency, plus $10 monthly premiums. The Georgetown Health Policy Institute concluded that such a change would prompt about 800,000 poor parents and children to leave the program, an outcome that flies in the face of the administration's goal of extending Medicaid in the first place. After Monday's meeting with Sebelius, Scott said he was optimistic that he'd get what he wanted, or at least another meeting. Given his track record, he probably shouldn't hold his breath.

Donald Berwick: The Next Elizabeth Warren?

| Wed Jan. 9, 2013 10:36 AM EST
Donald Berwick.

Stop me if you've heard this one: Harvard professor goes to Washington and becomes a policy wonk. Harvard professor is nominated for a top agency position. Harvard professor becomes conservative bogeyman. Harvard professor returns to Massachusetts and runs for office.

Elizabeth Warren? Nope, Donald Berwick. The Boston Globe reported on Wednesday that the former head of the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services is mulling a run for governor when term-limited Democrat Deval Patrick retires in 2014:

Berwick ran the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services and is one of the nation’s leading ­experts on health cost and quality. Obama installed him using a ­recess appointment in 2010, but Berwick resigned in late 2011 when Republicans made clear they would strongly oppose his confirmation. At the time, the height of the national debate over Obama’s health care overhaul, Republicans accused ­Berwick of wanting to ration services, a charge he called a mischaracterization.

Berwick, a Newton pediatrician and longtime Harvard faculty member whose wife is the chairwoman of the department of public utilities in the administration of Governor Deval ­Patrick, said he has been contemplating a run for the past two or three months, meeting with 40 or 50 people, including political veterans and consultants. He did not give a time frame for a final decision, but said it would be soon, after he meets with more people.

If Republicans thought blocking their appointments would keep Berwick and Warren out of public policy, they may have miscalculated.