Political MoJo

Congress Raises the Roof on Debt

Fri Mar. 17, 2006 3:20 PM EST

The national debt is currently $8.3 trillion , and Congress just approved a $781 billion increase in the government's debt limit, raising the ceiling for the fourth time in Bush's presidency. Previous increases of $450 billion in 2002, a record $984 billion in 2003 and $800 billion in 2004 have all contributed to the statutory debt limit rising more than $3 trillion since Bush took office.

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The new Paul Hackett: "Some have alleged that our president led us to war on false pretenses. I believe we should look into this

| Fri Mar. 17, 2006 3:19 PM EST

Hilarious Daily Show clip on Paul Hackett, erstwhile Democratic congressional candidate and subject of this Mother Jones cover story and these follow-ups. Hackett recently dropped his bid for an Ohio Senate seat, claiming he'd been sandbagged by establishment Dems.

Some highlights:

Paul Hackett: "I was asked by Senator Schumer and Senator Reid and others to get out of the race.... They backed away from supporting me because they realized that I'm outspoken, that I believe in what I say and I'm willing to fight for what I
believe in."

Ed Helms: "There's your problem right there."

On today's Democratic Party:

"If you take a look back at the party of FDR ... and ... of Truman and even Kennedy. That was a party that had balls. The new Democratic Party eventually is going to have to get back to that"

By the end of the segment the "Democratic Party machine" has smoothed out Hackett's rough edges ("Try it again, but without the emotion."), and he's back on message:

Hackett: "Some have alleged that our president led us to war on false pretenses. I believe we should look into this.... I believe we should take care of our environment. That's why I'm standing in front of a river."

Voiceover: "Paul Hackett for Senate—because he won't rock the boat."

Can the WTO Alleviate Poverty?

| Fri Mar. 17, 2006 3:14 PM EST

Trade-bashing probably gets tiresome after awhile, but here's some more of it. A few months ago I looked at some research suggesting that the Doha Round of WTO talks, if completed, was likely to produce very, very tiny gains for developing countries—so tiny that they probably wouldn't offset many of the bad effects from trade liberalization. Well, now Sandra Polanski the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace has put out a new study that comes to an even more dire conclusion.

How Lobbyists Control Health Care Policy

| Thu Mar. 16, 2006 2:22 PM EST

I believe the technical name for this sort of thing is Dingbat Kabuki. Yesterday Republicans in the Senate appeared to do something good and benevolent on the health care front when they voted to allow Medicare to use its vast bargaining power to negotiate lower drug prices. The GOP had originally forbidden the government to do this when it crafted the drug benefit back in 2003, succumbing to pressure—and lavish campaign contributions—from the pharmaceutical industry. Now, however, the party seems to be scared of a senior backlash over the entire Medicare fiasco, and wants to do something.

Well, sort of. Really, though, it's extremely unlikely that anything will come of this. What the Senate actually passed yesterday wasn't in any way a binding resolution or piece of legislation. It's merely an amendment to a budget resolution that "provides only guidance for future legislation." In other words, cheap talk. A quick prediction: This measure will never make it into law. The GOP would never, ever go against the wishes of Big Pharma, and this amendment is only meant to help the party look like it's trying to fix the disastrous Medicare drug benefit. Seniors, after all, tend to have a lot of influence when midterm elections roll around. Best to try to appease them, quietly.

That's not a bad prediction. For further proof that the GOP will only ever pass bills paid for and written by lobbyists, look no further than a second Los Angeles Times story on yet another health care vote. Yesterday a Senate Committee also approved "a bill that would preempt state laws that require insurance policies to cover specific services, such as maternity care and supplies for diabetics." It's a terrible idea for, you know, actual people. Guess who came up with it.

States require insurers to cover specific services because otherwise, those insurers could end up making certain services—like maternity care and supplies for diabetics—unaffordable for certain people. For their part, insurers have always complained that all those burdensome state requirements force them to raise premiums. Maybe they have some small point, but then again, they would say that, and the insurance industry is pretty much the last industry to get the benefit of the doubt, ever. They've also been complaining for years that an epidemic of malpractice lawsuits has driven up premiums—a line that's totally false. It was never even sort of true. On the bright side, the new bill, if passed, should help pad the industry's profit margins. And Republicans on the Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee can look forward to fatter re-election campaign chests.

Missouri House bans contraception for poor women

| Thu Mar. 16, 2006 9:51 AM EST

The Missouri House voted yesterday to ban contraceptive funding for low-income women, and to prohibit state-funded programs from referring those women to other programs. The sponsor of the proposal, Rep. Susan Phillips, declared contraceptive services an "inappropriate use of tax dollars."

According to the Kansas City Star, the proposal does not save Missouri any money. Rather, it restricts how state agencies can spend $9.23 million set aside for public health programs for people with low incomes who do not qualify for Medicaid.

Phillips says that both Missouri Right to Life and the Missouri Catholic Conference supports her proposal. Opponents repeatedly pointed out that eliminating contraception paves the way for increased abortions, but Republicans and a couple of Democrats voted for passage.

Foreign Aid Goes to Banks, Not Poor

| Wed Mar. 15, 2006 8:48 PM EST

In Rolling Stone this month, Joshua Kurlantzick takes a look at the Bush administration's Millenium Challenge Corporation—which was supposed to revolutionize foreign aid by giving it only to countries that met certain accountability benchmarks—and discover that it's (shockingly) a mess.

The MCC, Kurlantzick discovered, is led by conservative ideologues rather than foreign aid experts, it's too understaffed to dispense all of the $5 billion it's supposed to dispense, and much of the money it does dole out ends up going to help banks and other financial interests overseas rather than to programs that directly aid the poor, like health care and education. It's the foreign aid version of trickle-down economics:

Poor nations are being told, in effect, that projects won't be considered for funding unless they can generate a profit. "Every indication they get from the MCC is that this is about economic growth," says Asma Lateef, senior policy analyst for the aid organization Bread for the World. "You have to yield economic rates of return in three to five years." But for many impoverished nations, such profitability is simply impossible. "In such poor countries, you're not going to be able to guarantee things like economic growth," says Patrick Cronin, a former U.S. AID official who helped create the MCC. "You might lose money [on projects like health and education], but you'll help people. But if you're used to making investments, you may be biased toward that instead." […]

In fact, while the MCC steers aid to business, the president has slashed funding for children's health in the world's poorest countries. "Resources for fragile states in Africa -- such as the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Ethiopia, Liberia and northern Uganda -- have been cut from last year, despite unmet needs they have right now," said Rep. Nita Lowey, who initially supported the MCC. "I find it extraordinary that the MCC model is being touted by the administration as an ideal and successful solution to poverty alleviation."Luckily, the Bush administration seems to be on top of this stuff. The last CEO of the corporation, Paul Applegarth—who was "a Republican campaign contributor with limited experience in foreign aid"—has stepped down. His replacement? John Danilovich. Not a foreign aid expert per se, but he is "a businessman who contributed $20,000 to the Republican National Committee." It's sort of like the Bush administration's version of staying at a Holiday Inn. He should fit in just fine.

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USA Today Misleads on Spending Statistics

Wed Mar. 15, 2006 7:40 PM EST

A recent—and misleading—USA Today headline states: "Federal aid programs expand at record rate." The lede: "A sweeping expansion of social programs since 2000 has sparked a record increase in the number of Americans receiving federal government benefits such as college aid, food stamps and health care."

Sounds like out-of-control spending. But there are a couple particulars the article buries towards the bottom. Most notably, being that the expansion of services is actually due to "a rise in the poverty rate from 11.3 percent in 2000 to 12.7 percent in 2004, the most recent year." That's not quite how the newspaper presented the problem at first.

The Century Foundation explains why the entire article is a giant mess:

The front page graph shows enrollment in 25 "federal aid" programs is up 17 percent, increasing from 263 million to 307 million. That's quite something, considering that there are only 300 million U.S. citizens. Oh, right, there is a note in agate type to the effect that some people participate in multiple programs. But what then is the logic behind combining numbers for age-dependent universal programs like Social Security and Medicare, to which recipients have paid dedicated taxes, with means-tested safety net programs? And if one person falling into poverty can add three, four, or five to the enrollment count of safety net programs, disproportionately elevating percentage increases, how are readers supposed to begin to make sense of what that number means?
USA Today then concludes with a quote from conservative Minnesota Rep. Gil Gutknecht, who points out social services should, in fact, not be growing since unemployment is so low. The solution? Cuts! "It's probably time to revisit food stamps and its goals and costs," he said. But Gutknecht is basing his argument on faulty statistics—low unemployment is perfectly compatible with "growing" social services so long as growing means "people are signing up for multiple problems" rather than "more total people are signing up."

Wal-Mart and Banking

| Wed Mar. 15, 2006 6:40 PM EST

In a just world, Wal-Mart would have received the corporate death penalty long ago and we'd be done with it. (For reasons why: see T.A. Frank's piece here, or the essay "Inside the Leviathan.") But given that Wal-Mart's not going anywhere anytime soon, I should say I'm fairly persuaded by David Leonhardt's two-part argument as to why Wal-Mart should be allowed to open its own banks.

A Wal-Mart banking system that becomes insanely popular isn't likely to put low-wage workers out of work—it will just hurt other banks—and it is true that many low-income families don't have checking or savings accounts because, as I reported here, of steep fees and barriers to entry. Perhaps Wal-Mart could use its magic to lower those fees and barriers and help more people get savings accounts, which in the abstract would be a good thing. (No doubt the store could figure out ways to screw borrowers over, though.)

Perhaps progressive legislators can strike some sort of compromise: Wal-Mart gets the right to open its own banking services, but in return they'll be required to offer the sorts of not-entirely-profitable services that regular banks don't ever offer yet low-income families often need—such as payday lending—that would enable many poorer workers to escape the exorbitant fees they have to endure on the secondary lending market. That seems pretty unobjectionable.

Cartoongate Continues at College

Wed Mar. 15, 2006 3:56 PM EST

The editor of the University of Illinois student paper, The Daily Illini, was recently fired for republishing the controversial Mohammed cartoons. Accusing the board of setting a "bad precedent," Acton Gordon called the cartoons newsworthy and stood by his decision to act quickly and publish them. "We had a news story on our hands, with violence erupting about imagery, but you can't show it because of a taboo, because of a taboo that's not a Western taboo but a Muslim taboo?" he said. "That's a blow to journalism."

China Propping Up Dictatorships

| Wed Mar. 15, 2006 3:42 PM EST

Tim Johnson of Knight Ridder takes a look today at how China has been propping up the military junta in Burma (now, of course, called Myanmar by those who run the country) through trade and other economic ties:

China has a habit of coddling repressive regimes. In places such as Sudan, Iran, Zimbabwe and Myanmar, all under some type of international sanction, China has stepped in with diplomatic protection, usually in exchange for market access for its goods or a stake in oil fields or other natural resources.

Yet in remote corners such as this one, snug against the hilly frontier with the nation once known as Burma, China is resisting global efforts to end a decades-old military dictatorship. How China deals with Myanmar reflects how it wields its power in the early 21st century. It seems more than a little bizarre to refer to the Myanmar government as a "decades-old military dictatorship" without noting that the junta's currently carrying out genocide—or something very, very close to it—against ethnic minorities in the eastern part of the country. (See Nicholas Thompson's excellent report in Legal Affairs last year about one man's attempts to raise awareness about this issue.) All the same, this is a serious issue.