Saturday, May 6, 2017

Winners and losers in the GOP health bill

The Associated Press reported on the passage of the House Health Care Bill, saying that:  "A defeat would have been politically devastating for President Trump and Speaker Paul Ryan. . . . Passage was a product of heavy lobbying by the White House and Republicans leaders, plus late revisions that nailed down the final supporters needed."

But voters have increasingly come to like Obama's Affordable Care Act, so that Republicans' persistence in their mantra of "Repeal" has lost much of its conservative luster -- and it's likely to become a political liability to the party in 2018.  Nancy Peolos warned them:  "You vote for this bill, you'll have walked the plank from moderate to radical. . .  You will glow in the dark on this one."

But Ryan and Trump had to have their win -- at any cost.   They kept revising the bill to make it more acceptable to Freedom Caucus members, hoping that they would hold on to enough moderates to squeak out a win.   Let the Senate worry about how to deal with it later.

Here are some of the major features, as described by the Associated Press:
   It eliminates the mandate to buy insurance and the penalties on those who don't.  It also erases the tax on the wealthy in Obamacare.   It makes huge cuts in the Medicaid program, and it transforms subsidies into tax credits.

Children can stay on parents' insurance until 26, and it pretends to retain protection for people with pre-existing conditions.   But that's a bit of a farce.  It allows states to set up high risk group policies that will receive some subsidies;  but the amount appropriated is totally inadequate, which will cause premiums to rise by tens of thousands of dollars.    One estimate puts premiums for someone with metastatic cancer at $145,000 a year.  It allows insurance companies to charge higher premiums on older people by up to 5 times as much, where Obamacare held it to 3 times.

A major problem in the rushed passage was that the CBO has not yet scored the bill, so no one really knows how many would lose insurance.  Most people think it will be even more than the 24 million the CBO calculated in their first version.

Republicans emphasize that their plan frees people from the mandate to buy insurance;  but it provides the "opportunity" for all to get it.   I guess when you've trained your voters, as they have, to listen to slogans and not ask questions, then you can hope they won't realize that "opportunity" and "free choice" mean nothing when you can't possibly afford what is made available for your free choice.

Sally Kliff, of Vox News, summarizes:  If this passes, the winners will be the young, the healthy, and those with high incomes.   The losers will be older, sicker, and low income people, who need it most.

In the political balance of the House, the Freedom Caucus won out over the Tuesday Group (moderate Republicans), because it was their interests that were accommodated and their votes that put it over in the win column.

First, this bill will not pass the Senate and become law.   I'd guess there's about a 50/50 chance that something will be passed that they can claim as success, and that it will not be as bad as this one is.    If that does happen, I believe the Republicans will pay at the polls in 2018, perhaps even losing control of the House.  If they can't agree on anything, however, there's no doubt they will lose 'bigly' at the polls in 2018.


Friday, May 5, 2017

Pope Francis on the power of humility

A letter writer to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution on Thursday called on our leaders in Washington to heed these words from Pope Francis.  His topic was on building honest relationships with others through humility.   Here is the quote from Francis:
"Tenderness is not weakness;   it is fortitude, it is the path of solidarity, the path of humility.   The more powerful you are, the more your actions will have an impact on people, the more responsible you are to act humbly.  If you don't, your power will ruin you, and you will ruin the others."
Thanks to Brian Dinapoll for the letter and the pope's words.

House finally passes "repeal and replace" -- but bill expected to be DOA in Senate

Jubilant House Republicans finally got to claim that they had voted to "repeal Obamacare," as they climbed on waiting buses to take them over to the White House for a celebration with President Trump.

Never mind that it has very slim chances of passing the Senate and becoming law;  and never mind, if it does, it will cause great harm to millions of American people.  And never mind that very few people understand how bad the bill is -- because part of the Republican strategy was to muscle it through before the Congressional Budget Office had a chance to score it.

No, this was largely a symbolic vote, passed by the slim margin of 217 to 213, with all Democrats and some moderate Republicans voting against it.  But they will take it as license for bragging rights.   It was a political must-win for Paul Ryan and President Trump, as well as the fulfilling of an empty promise the Republican Party has been making for seven years.

And, even though he seemed not even to understand what was in the bill, Trump did turn out to be a pretty good clinch salesman, working the phones, appealing to some holdouts with repeated entreaties of "We really need you on this."

So let them have their day to celebrate.  Their craven duplicity will catch up with them, and the gnashing of teeth will come later.  They will pay at their town hall meetings back home next week;  and it will hurt them badly at the polls in 2018.


PS:  It's already started:   Bernie Sanders tweeted this:  "Donald Trump and Republicans just celebrated voting to let thousands of Americans die so that billionaires get tax breaks.  Think about that."

And Peter Daou joined in:  "This celebratory atmosphere over stripping health care from the sick is one of the most obscene political spectacles I've witnessed."

Thursday, May 4, 2017

FBI's James Comey testifies before Judiciary Committee

FBI Director James Comey testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee concerning the presidential election. The big issue concerned Comey's informing this same committee, less than two weeks before the election, that he was looking into new data that might be relevant to the investigation of Hillary Clinton's emails.

Meta-data of thousands of emails, to and from Clinton, had just been discovered on the computer of Anthony Weiner, the husband of Clinton's long-term aide, Huma Abedin.

Sen. Diane Feinstein (D-CA) asked him to explain his decision.    Comey described the context.   He had already announced back in July 2016 that no charges would be brought against Clinton.   At that time, he also told the Judiciary Committee that if anything changed, he would keep them informed.

Thus, when these new emails emerged, and knowing that the FBI had never found any emails from Clinton's server for her first three months as Secretary of State, he realized that he had to look into the possibility that these could be relevant.   And, at that point, he would have to acquire a warrant to allow the FBI to examine the emails' contents, and he did not know if there was time to accomplish that prior to the election in just 11 days.

Comey said he always observed the tradition of avoiding any action that might influence an upcoming election, if at all possible.   But in this case he saw only two options:  "speak" or "conceal."  He felt "no action" was ruled out by his commitment to the committee to keep them informed if anything new turned up on this investigation.

Speaking "would be really bad," he said, because the election was only 11 days away.  But concealing this information "would be castastrophic."   So he informed the committee in writing, which he should have known would immediately have leaked -- as it did.   The resulting media and political storm was not assuaged on Nov. 6th (two days before the election), when Comey announced that they had been able to examine enough of the emails to say there was nothing new in them.

So, in effect, he dropped a bomb, and then said 'never mind' -- causing great furor among Clinton supporters who blamed him, at least in part, for causing her narrow and unexpected defeat.  In his testimony Tuesday, Comay said:  "Look, this was terrible.   It makes me mildly nauseous to think that we might have had some impact on the election, but honestly, it wouldn't change the decision."

He said he had been asked by one of his junior lawyers in the department whether he should consider that what he was about to do might help elect Donald Trump.  Comey, always self-righteous and confident in his judgment, said he answered, "Not for a moment.  Because down that path lies the death of the FBI as an independent institution in America.   I can't consider for a second whose political fortunes will be impacted in what way."

Feinstein said, in her opinion, "everyone knew that the letter would have a massive impact, and that the election was 'lost' as a result."  The Justice Department's Inspector General is currently investigating Comey's decision.

Nate Silver posted a series of articles called "The Real Story of 2016," the latest one titled, "The Comey Letter Probably Cost Clinton the Election."  It can be found at:

I once admired Comey as an attorney of great principle, when he stood up to Dick Cheney's stooges in Attorney General Ashcroft's hospital room and, as Acting AG, refused to renew the authorization of torture that they were pressuring the gravely ill Ashcroft to sign.

But in that instance, he knew what he was dealing with;  and he knew it was wrong.   He even knew his boss (Ashcroft) opposed it;  and he knew torture was a violation of international law and the U.S. Military Code.   So he was on safe legal ground, even if under intense political pressure from the president.

In the Clinton case, he was not weighing whether to conceal known incriminating evidence.   He was weighing only a possibility -- maybe even only a slight possibility.  He simply didn't know what he had and whether there was time to find out before the election.  And he didn't want the responsibility of not informing the Justice Committee and being blamed for that if it turned out to be incriminating for Clinton.

Thus Comey weighed the outside chance that he would wind up having to answer for having kept quiet, let Clinton be elected, and then be accused of having failed to reveal the possibility of damaging information.   Instead, he did the opposite:  he spoke without knowing there was nothing to it, and thus at least added to Clinton's defeat -- with all the negative consequences in this disaster that we are living out.

Comey sought to preserve his reputation for courage and legalistic purity -- and he is right to an extent.   But it would have taken more courage, I would argue, to have accepted the responsibility of that small risk to his reputation rather than the result that we did get.   I believe he has hurt his reputation even more by what he did, because he seems almost pathologically inflexible, given that he was not concealing known wrong-doing, only the possibility -- which was going to have grave consequences for the nation.


PS:  Comey tried to explain why he spoke about the Clinton investigation but did not reveal that the FBI was also investigating the Trump/Russia connection.  He said that, when he first spoke about the Clinton investigation, it had already been ongoing for three months.   Well, he began the Trump/Russia investigation in July 2016;  the election was not until November -- a little over three months.

Wednesday, May 3, 2017

If you're going to kill someone, why worry about making him uncomfortable?

[WARNING:    Strong language about a gruesome topic.]

I just don't get it when people, who so easily support capital punishmentget upset when it doesn't go smoothly.

Case in point:   Arkansas was trying to complete eight executions before the end of April.  Why?   Because the "use by" date on one of the drugs they use in the execution was going to expire on April 30th;  and it's a difficult drug to obtain, because some drug companies don't want their products association with executions.

That drug happens to be the powerful sedative that allows the executioners to put the executionee in a deep sleep so he doesn't suffer from the muscle-paralyzing second drug that makes it impossible to breathe.   It's part of the pretense that we're being humane while we're putting people to death.

Also it brings up the question of participation of a medical doctor in inserting and monitoring the IV drug delivery.   It's against AMA ethics to participate in a killing.   But there have been some instances of botched jobs where, instead of the person being quietly put to sleep for the rest of the killing procedure, something went wrong, leaving him conscious, struggling to breathe, or in severe pain as he is being killed.

Pardon my crude language.  I'm trying to illustrate something that has bothered me for a long time.   I have been strongly opposed to capital punishment since college days.   I am not a total pacifist.   I would make an exception for use of force to prevent someone inflicting serious harm or death on another person -- but, even for that, I think police should be trained to shoot to incapacitate rather than to kill.

Don't misunderstand me.   I'm not denying the pain and suffering the person about to be put to death probably caused others.   That's another subject all together.   I'm focusing only on society's process, through our justice system, of taking a life, when it is not immediately necessary in order to protect others.  Is it not murder because we do it as a society rather than as an individual?   Does one murder justify another?

I object to the death penalty, period.   But the focus of my objection here is to what seems to me so hypocritical.   How can you be cold and inhumane enough to end another's life (regardless of the heinousness of his crime) and at the same time worry so much about making him suffer for a short time while you're killing him?

But then I don't understand that whole relationship between that part of the justice system that deals with convicted killers.   I lack the instinct for revenge killing, which seems to be part of the motive.   An eye for an eye.   Don't say it is a deterrent to other murders.  It's never been proven that the death penalty affects crime rates -- except for that one person that the state is killing.

The racial inequality in the use of the death penalty, as well as the abysmal record of executing innocent people, proven now by DNA evidence years later, are more than enough reason to end this barbaric practice.   I could not participate in it myself.  The death penalty should be abolished nationwide.   And, if you're not going to do that, go back to using the electric chair or the firing squad.   At least those are quick and usually efficient.   Stop fooling around with the three-drug combination, pretending that you're preventing him from suffering.



Tuesday, May 2, 2017

Democrats get the better deal over Trump in spending bill.

We'll have to wait to see what actually gets to the House floor, and then what gets passed;  but a negotiating team of Republicans and Democrats reached an agreement on Sunday night on a spending bill that would have bipartisan support.

It only goes through the end of this fiscal year at the end of September, but any bipartisan agreement these days seems like a cause for celebration.   Here are some of the highlights, reported by the Washington Post.   I'll cautiously say that it looks like the Democrats got the better deal and that President Trump is the big loser.

1.   Republicans got defense and border security:   The Defense budget will go up by $12.5 billion, with $1.5 billion more for border security, specified to be used for technology investments and for repairs of existing fencing and infrastructure.   But the language is very clear:  there will be no money for Trump's border wall.

2.  What the Democrats got:    Planned Parenthood continues to receive federal funding (only through September in this bill, of course).   Instead of eliminating the National Endowments for the Arts and for the Humanities, each will get a $2 million increase.    NPR and PBS survived without any cuts.  The National Science Foundation and other science programs are fully funded on a par with  last year.  The CDC is cut by a smaller amount than originally proposed, and NIH gets $2 billion increase.  There will be no punitive defunding of "sanctuary cities."   A small decrease in the food stamp program is consistent with declining enrollment as the economy improves.

Pell grants for college students are increased.  An EPA program to help communities clean up drinking water remains fully funded, while 99% of the overall EPA budget will be maintained.   The Office of Management and Budget will be required to detail the "expected costs" of Executive Orders and Presidential Memorandums.  Trump had wanted a large increase in Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) funding -- and got only a small increase, part of which will go for hiring more immigration judges.   The Legal Services Corporation, which Trump wanted to eliminate, would be funded through this period.

3.  Bipartisan wins:  The big one that everyone favored was a big increase in funding to combat opioid addiction, as well as overall increases in substance abuse and mental health programs.

Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid are not mentioned -- I think because this is for discretionary spending;  entitlement programs come under a separate bill.

The bill is expected to come to the floor this week.   It may be change quite a bit in the give and take of floor debate.   But at this point, it looks like the Democrats come out ahead -- at least when measured against President Trump's rhetoric about all the things he was going to cut.

Referring to Trump's 100 day accomplishments, Paul Krugman (New York Times) put it this way:  "The gap between big boasts and tiny achievements has never been wider."


PS:  One observation to add.   It looks like the Republicans in Congress aren't paying much attention to the blustering threats coming from the Oval Office (or rather the Oval Tweet) concerning programs to slash and eliminate.    RR.

Monday, May 1, 2017

Rep. Jason Chaffetz is acting like he's guilty . . . but of what?

If I were writing a play about a politician who was about to be exposed as guilty of something that would be career-ending, all I'd need to do is follow Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-UT) around . . .  and take notes.

Last week, Chaffetz suddenly announced that he would not run for re-election in 2018.   He gave as the reason a (sudden?) desire to spend more time with his family back in Utah, especially given that he has teenage children.  [Yes, we've heard this many times before, usually as a prelude to some career-ending scandal being revealed.]

Let's put this in context:    Chaffetz has seemed one of the more ambitious young Republicans in the House.  He is the stern chairman of the House Oversight Committee, given to lecturing government witnesses.   He's not quite as awful as his predecessor Darrell Issa, but he can do a pretty good imitation.

Chaffetz's announcement came right on the heels of the joint announcement with ranking Democratic member of the Oversight Committee, Elijah Cummings (D-MD), that their request for documents relevant to Gen. Mike Flynn's vetting, security clearance, and firing had been denied by the White House.   Or, rather, the White House said they had no documents relevant to the request.  It's unclear whether that means there are no documents or whether the White House is refusing to comply.

Speculation was still running high about this when Chaffetz began hinting that he might not even finish out his current term.   And it seemed pretty obvious that his decision was going to be determined by something he was waiting to hear about.   He didn't say that;   I'm reading between the lines.  A day later, he began intimating that his resignation might even be imminent.

Then it all just died down for a couple of days.  I thought that probably the big job he was hoping to get hadn't materialized.   But no!  Suddenly Chaffetz had another reason . . .  out of the blue.    He would be taking a leave of absence, because his doctor says he urgently needs corrective surgery to remove the metal screws used in an old, complicated foot fracture.  He will be out for the next four or five weeks -- just as his committee's fight with the White House heats up.

This has all the earmarks of a man in trouble, desperately searching for a cover story.  And he's not very good at it, not at all.  If I were going to place a bet, I would dismiss the "spend time with family" and the "urgent" ankle surgery.   I would also dismiss the tabloid hint at a long-standing sexual affair.   My hunch would lead me to bet that he's desperate to get as far away as he can from the Trump/Russia investigation.

Why do I say that?  First, it's timing.   This came up immediately after this new revelation of an escalation of the Flynn story -- and the obvious conclusion that the Oversight Committee is going to lock horns with the Trump administration on this issue, or else it's going to just back down and push no further.   We know that Elijah Cummings is not going to let this be swept under the rug.

None of Chaffetz's "explanations" really answer the "why now, so urgently?" question. And why, other than the obvious awkwardness of a Republican congressman going after a Republican administration, would Chaffetz run away from this career-defining opportunity to be the courageous, truth-finding crusader, even if it does bring down his party's leader?   Because it could also be a career-ending outcome for Chaffetz.   Politically, certainly, if Trump wins.

Or, here's another possibility.   Perhaps the Trump folks have something compromising on Chaffetz, which they are using to blackmail him.   Look what they did to Devin Nunes and how he cooperated -- until his ineptness raised too many questions and exposed the whole deal.  This would explain Chaffetz's choice to take himself out of the whole thing.   Or maybe one of Trump's wealthy donor-sponsors is offering Chaffetz a fantastic job in the private sector that he can't turn down, thus removing him as a crusading investigator.

I guess we'll just have to wait to find out.   But we will find out.   The Flynn debacle keeps growing.   It's now possibly about to expose the fact that the Trump transition team brought people on board in highly sensitive, security positions without vetting them -- or perhaps hired them -- Flynn as the prime example -- in spite of suspicious things that should have disqualified them.

Rachel Maddow put together evidence showing that even VP Pence must be lying in saying that he knew nothing about Flynn's working for a foreign government before he was hired.   Rachel points to (1) newpaper stories long before Flynn's hiring that he was working for the Turkish government;   (2)  Pence was head of the Transition Team, which was directly informed in writing about Flynn's representation of Turkey;   (3)  Acting Attorney General Sally Yates directly informed the White House counsel that Flynn was susceptible to blackmail because he had lied to the FBI about his foreign connections.   The counsel may not have shared that with Pence;  but, if he didn't, that raises much more serious questions for the White House, even if not for Pence himself.

Whatever . . . it's going to be a doozy.   Either a doozy of an exposure right up to the Oval Office -- or else a doozy of a bigger coverup than Watergate.   And maybe somehow Chaffetz himself is already involved in the coverup . . . and desperately wants out.

Or maybe I'm too cynical.   Perhaps there's more of a family crisis story that we don't know about.    Stay tuned.


Sunday, April 30, 2017

100 day approval rating of presidents

Yesterday was the 100th day of Donald Trump's presidency.   The Gallup Poll has published the approval ratings of our last nine presidents on their 100th day.

83%     Kennedy            55%     Clinton
62%     Nixon                 62%     Bush II
63%     Carter                 65%     Obama          
68%     Reagan               39%     Trump
56%     Bush I

Howard Fineman: Trump's first 100 days

As regular readers know, I often quote from the thoughtful political analyses written by journalist Howard Fineman, political analyst for Huffington Post and NBC.

He began a discussion of Trump's 100 days by quoting Trump's close friend, newpaper publisher Christopher Ruddy, who told Fineman that the key lesson Trump has learned in these 100 days is that there is a Congress -- and that he does not run it.

Ruddy added that this was a revelation to Trump.  Fineman added that it was a revelation to others, too -- meaning Democrats in Congress, who have realized that they do have power, even in their minority status.

Fineman acknowledged, then quickly moved past, Trump's "long list of misdeeds" to focus on more general themes.

"In politics, he has coarsened discourse and made meaning meaningless. . . .  But he is the ultimate wind-tunnel test for the bulky, complex aircraft we call the United States.  Will the bolts hold?   Will the thing stay aloft?

"In a sense, there are signs that Trump's multiple challenges to our centuries-old constitutional system -- and to our society as whole -- are having a positive effect.  People now know what's at stake and that law and society itself must not be easily Trumped.

"Start with the courts. . . . Trump . . . will have a chance to stack our judicial system with justices who distrust Washington power.   But in the meantime, federal judges everywhere from Hawaii to D.C. are asserting the judiciary's role as a co-equal branch."

Fineman gives as examples the judicial blocking of Trump's anti-Muslim immigration bans, as well as their block of AG Sessions' threat to punish "sanctuary cities."  He then reminds us that Trump's election shows us how important it is to vote:   we choose the president who will appoint all those federal judges.   He also chides the media for its "inexcusable campaign slumber," the results of which should be the needed wake-up call for a return to "old school journalism . . . . in the face of Orwellian leadership."

Fineman continues:  "For too long, Democrats relied on the theory that shifting demographics and the cultural changes that come with them would vault them into power. . . .  But Trump has shown that demographics is not necessarily political destiny.  Now that he is in power, he will do everything he can to keep the two apart.

"Trump is forcing the Democrats to rethink everything.   There is no going back to the "big government" programmatic thinking of the New Deal.   There is no future in the 'Wall Street + worker' theory of the Clintons and the Obamas.  So where to?

"Trump actually provides the starting place.   His definition of America is simply too narrow, too negative, too fearful, too xenophobic, too based on mere money as the only social good in America.

"That is not what this country is, or [not] primarily what it is.  The Democrats need to define anew what it is to be an American, and build an American society according to what President Abraham Lincoln called the "better angels of our nature."

"And they'll need to propose a "sharing economy" in a national sense. . . .  [They] will have to offer a coherent, upbeat alternative to Trump's vision of America, deploying better salesmanship in the process.

"Trump is the man America's founders feared:  a demagogue who mixes elements of both the monarchy and the mob.  If we can't survive him, we don't deserve what our predecessors gave us."

"But we can, and we do."

Thank you, Howard Fineman, for this inspiring message on this 100th day of disorientation and dismay.   Chris Hayes (MSNBC) was in line with this thinking when he said, on Friday night in conversation with Michael Moore:  "The biggest story of the first 100 days is not about Donald Trump.   It's about the resistance, the mobilization of the civil society in opposition."   He meant the marches, the protest rallies, the petitions, the calls to congressional offices -- becoming active citizens.