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[…] Starting this year, many Americans may be surprised to find that their local Walgreenspharmacy is no longer in their network. That’s because of a contract dispute between the nation’s largest drugstore chain and a company that manages prescriptions for health insurance companies.
To figure out if you’re affected by the fight, look on the back of your insurance card. If it says Express Scripts, you can no longer fill your prescription at Walgreens or its affiliates like Duane Reade under your insurance plan.
Express Scripts is one of the nation’s largest pharmacy benefit managers. These are companies that health insurers and others hire to negotiate prices for drugs and oversee prescription drug programs. Express Scripts’ clients include the insurance giant WellPoint.
Express Scripts had been negotiating a new contract to keep Walgreens in its network. But Express Scripts spokesman Brian Henry says the pharmacy chain was asking for too much money.
“Their rates and terms would be as much as 20 percent more,” Henry says, “and our clients aren’t willing to pay that premium for basically the same service you can get at many other thousands of our pharmacies.”
That’s a charge that Walgreens adamantly denies. “We did not propose any increase in our rates,” says Michael Polzin, a spokesman for the drugstore chain. “So there would not be any significant savings to Express Scripts clients for excluding Walgreens from their network. So it’s really a situation of all pain and no gain for their clients.”
Why can the companies just get along? Sean Brandle, a pharmacy benefits consultant at the Segal Company, a New York-based employer benefits firm, says tussles between pharmacy chains and pharmacy benefit managers are pretty typical.
“There’s like this dance, and at the end of it, normally what you expect is that some kind of deal is going to be struck,” he says. “But I guess in this instance, it looks like they were just too far apart.”
Brandle says he’s surprised Walgreens would walk away from so many pharmacy customers and all that in-store foot traffic. Express Scripts says of the 750 million prescriptions it processed last year, about 90 million were filled at Walgreens.
Caught in the middle of this dispute is one of the nation’s largest health insurance companies, WellPoint, and millions of its customers, like San Francisco resident David Forer. There’s a Walgreens just down the street from his office, and he used to stop in weekly to pick up insulin for his daughter, who has Type 1 diabetes.
“They knew me on a first-name basis,” Forer says, adding, “They would ask how she was doing. And now I can’t go there anymore.”
Forer has switched his family’s prescriptions to a CVS pharmacy. But while CVS is a national chain, it doesn’t have nearly as many stores in San Francisco as Walgreens does.
“I imagine there will be huge line ups,” Forer says, “because there are very few CVSes, and so many people are going to have to switch to CVS. So this is a major inconvenience.”
WellPoint says nationwide, there’s another in-network pharmacy typically within a half -mile of a Walgreens. The insurer is trying to help its customers make the transition.
Pharmacy benefits consultant Brandle says there could be an upside to all the hassle. Brandle says Express Scripts should be able to negotiate steeper discounts with CVS and other pharmacies, since excluding Walgreens will mean more business for them.
Everything that’s supposed to happen in politics this year, and everything that has happened for the last several months, has been premised on the tacit, but seemingly safe assumption: The economy will remain weak for years.
This has underlined Congressional jobs bill theatrics, campaign rhetoric about Obama’s record, debates about who’s to blame for high unemployment, and which party best represents the interests of the middle class.
But what if that assumption is wrong?
A contrarian school of thought holds that it is wrong — and its proponents have a growing cache of evidence to back them up.
If these evidence-based optimists are correct the political implications will be vast — as we all saw on Friday when a promising jobs report from the Department of Labor alighted into the political consciousness the possibility that a robust economic recovery could take hold imminently, and thus overturn a year’s worth of conventional wisdom about the trajcectory of the 2012 election.
Karl Smith, an economist at the University of North Carolina and author of the Modeled Behavior blog, is a major proponent of this forecast — what you might call Recovery Winter.Slate’s Matt Yglesias explained it here. I went straight to the source to hear why Smith concluded that a real recovery was finally looming, and decided to take his prediction public at the considerable risk of embarrassment if the gloom-and-doomers turn out to be right.
Smith’s theory isn’t new — it’s an application of the widely held understanding of how all recessions ultimately come to an end. Pent up demand overtakes people’s aversion to spending and investment, idle resources get put to use, and the country’s economic engine revs up. He just thinks we’ve reached that point now.
“I first started to think that a recovery was imminent, that we’d see a recovery coming soon was probably the middle of 2011,” Smith says.
Specifically, Smith noticed that apartment vacancies were falling, while the apartment stock remained tight. He also noticed that the nation’s auto fleet was aging extremely quickly.
“There were more older cars than there were newer cars,” Smith said. “That means not only is the auto fleet old, but it’s going to get really old really fast.”
The recession did a lot of harm to the country, but it didn’t freeze the size of the population. It didn’t eliminate peoples’ need to travel and commute. And it didn’t change the fact that people need places to live — even if their homes have been foreclosed.
“Those two parts of the economy were going to show pent up demand,” Smith reasoned. “I expected to see rents rising and used car prices rising.” Sure enough, rents started rising, used car prices started skyrocketing. That, Smith realized, would push people into buying new cars and developers into building new apartment complexes.
So far, he’s been proven correct, with potentially huge implications. “Houses and cars are the main pieces of capital we have in the economy,” Smith says, and economic theory holds that when people finally start reaching under their mattresses to invest in them, it can set off a virtuous cycle of growth, and revitalize a weakened economy.
“There’s some return on capital in the economy — when you build a new building or piece of machinery it has some rate of return,” Smith explained. That potential return is why in normal times people take risks instead of just hoarding cash — it sets what’s known as the “natural rate of interest.” During the recession, that rate actually became negative, leaving people content to let their money idle at zero interest rather than invest it in the economy.
Years later, things need to be replaced, the housing supply becomes inadequate, and demand increases, pushing that rate up. Smith thinks it’s now higher than zero — and barring an external shock, should be enough to usher a recovery.
“Watching the rents rise, watching the used car prices rise, I thought at some point this is going to catch — it’s going to be a self-reinforcing cycle,” Smith said. “Eventually any recession is going to end from this very effect. Once things get old enough people are going to go out and buy new stuff.”
If that happens in the next few months, throw everything you think you know about 2012 out the window. Republicans have one game plan for beating Obama and it rests on voters believing the country’s best days are behind it. They’re now starting to grapple with their options if by mid-year, the unemployment rate is falling fast toward eight percent.
Most major economic forecasts predict anemic growth all year — partly because models don’t reflect this dynamic, and partly because experts have grown gun-shy about wrongly claiming to see green shoots. But the numbers may be starting to tell a different story. December’s jobs numbers showed unemployment dropping again to 8.5 percent. The Congressional Budget Office didn’t expect us to hit that level until the final quarter of the fiscal year. The White House’s Office of Management andBudget predicted an average rate of 9 percent for the full year.
Some forecasters — including at Deutche Bank — have started coming around. But most have not.
“Most bank economists are more conservative than I am,” Smith says. “I think — my honest take on them is that they do sort of what I call charting, you just sort of project trends in the past into the future. Since growth has been sort of slow, you expect it to be slow in the future. That’s sort of crude, but that’s essentially what the econometric model says, and the computer predicts. The risk of going with me is that if I’m wrong, then I’m completely wrong. It something that came out of my head, it’s not a computer model.”
There are X-factors. For instance, if the European debt crisis spreads financial contagion to U.S. banks, it will tighten credit here. And all the demand in the world for new cars and apartment complex won’t translate into production if banks aren’t willing to help buyers finance them. That’s the downside risk. And, of course, Smith could be painting a false dawn.
To be fully convinced that he made the right call, he says he’ll need to see one more jobs report that reflects accelerating job employment. Friday’s report concluded that 200,000 new jobs were created. “if we go from 200 to 250 and stayed at 250 or a bit more for a few months then the computers would start to agree with me, most of the models would switch their projections,” Smith said. “I think that it’s going to happen but if we have reports like that I think it’ll be convincing for most people.”
– The Internal Revenue Service is reviving a program that lets Americans hiding their money abroad pay back taxes and penalties while avoiding criminal prosecution, an effort that in recent years has netted the government billions of dollars.
IRS Commissioner Douglas Shulman, who announced the program’s renewal Monday, said previous efforts in 2009 and 2011 resulted in the collection so far of $4.4 billion from 33,000 people, an amount he said “we never thought we’d reach.” He said the government could reap several times that amount from the newest initiative plus people deciding against stashing their assets overseas in the first place.
“If we catch people before they come in voluntarily, it’s going to be a much worse outcome for the taxpayer,” Shulman told reporters.
Under the new program, those who voluntarily disclose their offshore holdings will face penalties of up to 27.5 percent of their assets, plus back taxes and interest for up to eight years. People whose money hidden abroad does not exceed $75,000 could face penalties of 12.5 percent, and others might face fines of even less.
The IRS bolstered its attempts to locate tax dodgers hiding their assets offshore in 2009, when the Swiss banking giant UBS AG paid a $780 million fine and surrendered information on thousands of accounts suspected of holding funds hidden there by Americans. The IRS has since taken steps such as opening new offices overseas.
Shulman said the IRS could end the new program at any time or change its terms, such as stiffening the penalties. The new program’s maximum 27.5 percent fine is slightly higher than the 25 percent penalties people faced during the 2011 program.
By coming forward, people avoid the possibility of criminal charges, which could result in jail time and even higher penalties. Shulman said the odds of criminal prosecution are growing because of increased cooperation from foreign countries and leads the government has obtained from the 33,000 people who have already participated.
“People who came in earlier get a better deal,” he said. “But people who come in now, it still makes sense because the risk of us finding people hiding assets increases every day.”
For years, the IRS has allowed some tax dodgers to avoid prison if they pay big penalties plus back taxes and interest, but generally few take advantage because the fines can be huge. The money must be earned legally.
Last year’s program ran from February until September, while the 2009 program lasted from March until October.
“The long-term goal is deterrence,” Shulman said. “We want to wake up and have the next generation of taxpayers not even think about hiding their assets overseas.”
Americans are feeling confident enough in the economy to go back to a time-honored tradition — taking on a little extra debt.
Consumer borrowing surged in November by $20.4 billion, the Federal Reserve said Monday. That’s the largest monthly gain in a decade.
Consumers took out more loans to buy cars and swiped their credit cards frequently to purchase holiday gifts.
The Fed’s category that measures credit card debt rose by $5.6 billion, the most since March 2008. Its gauge that tracks auto loans increased $14.8 billion, nearly matching July’s gain that was the biggest since February 2005.
The third straight monthly increase in overall borrowing marks a departure from the more thrifty habits practiced during and immediately after the recession, when credit tumbled and the savings rate climbed.
Many Americans are taking on more debt after seeing the unemployment rate drop and the economy improve, albeit modestly.
Consumer confidence is up, holiday sales were solid and the U.S. auto industry is coming off its best two sales months for the year.
In December, employers added 200,000 jobs and the unemployment rate fell to 8.5 percent, the government said Friday. It was the sixth month in a row that the economy had added at least 100,000 jobs, the longest streak since 2006. And the unemployment rate hasn’t been that low in nearly three years.
A brighter outlook for the economy has prompted Americans to step up spending, even though their wages didn’t keep pace with inflation in 2011. Many are tapping into their savings, or borrowing more, as a result.
Borrowing has increased in six of the past nine months. And consumers saved just 3.5 percent in November. That’s the lowest savings rate since the recession began in December 2007.
Americans saved less than 3 percent of their after-tax income in the three years before the recession began. But in 2008, as the unemployment rate began to rise and home prices fell, consumers cut back on spending, borrowed less on their credit cards and saved more.
The annual savings rate rose above 5 percent in 2008 and stayed above that level until 2011. At the same time, consumer borrowing fell for 26 straight months, from October 2008 until December 2010.
With more jobs and better pay, consumers are likely to step up spending even further. That could lead more companies to add workers, which ultimately drives more spending and more hiring. Economists call that a virtuous cycle.
Economists caution that Europe’s debt crisis could slow U.S. growth. A recession in Europe could dampen demand for U.S. exports and weaken financial markets.
The Fed’s borrowing report covers auto loans, student loans and credit cards. It excludes mortgages, home equity loans and other loans tied to real estate.
The Obama administration, in conjunction with federal regulators and led by the overseer of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, is very close to announcing a pilot program to sell government-ownedforeclosures in bulk to investors as rentals, according to administration officials.
The foreclosure processing delays of last year created a mammoth backlog of properties yet to be processed, which are just now being re-started. One of the initiatives of this program is for the federal government to be in the position to mitigate and manage any new wave of foreclosures, sources say.
Late-stage delinquencies still in the pipeline number close to two million, according to a new reportfrom Lender Processing Services. Foreclosure starts outnumber foreclosure sales by two to one and “the trend toward fewer loans becoming delinquent, which dominated 2010 and the first quarter of 2011, appears to have halted,” according to LPS.
Knowing this all too well, the Treasury Department, Federal Reserve, HUD, FDIC, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, with their conservator, the Federal Housing Finance Agency (FHFA) at the helm, are engaged in a collaborative effort to face this new wave of foreclosures head on and figure out a way to keep these properties from sitting on the books of the government and sitting empty in the nation’s neighborhoods.
As the Federal Reserve alluded to in its white paper on housing last week, “A government-facilitated REO-to-rental program has the potential to help the housing market and improve loss recoveries on reo portfolios.” REO’s (Real Estate Owned) are bank-owned properties, or, in this case, properties owned by the government-sponsored enterprises and the FHA. Three Fed governors pushed for similar plans in speeches last week, as well.
A pilot sales program will be starting in the very near future, according to administration officials. They are working on what the market potential is, what pricing would be, how government can partner with private investors, and who has the operational experience to manage so many properties.
“I think there is a fair amount of money in the wings waiting to buy, investors doing cash raises to buy properties on a large scale,” says Laurie Goodman of Amherst Securities. “But that means they have to build out a rental organization; it means they build out a management company, because if you’re accumulating a hundred homes in Dallas that’s very different than running a multifamily building.”
A number of institutional investors have shown appetite and interest in bulk REO deals, according to officials, but the plan has to incorporate ways to help facilitate financing. That has been one of the biggest roadblocks to deals already in the works between hedge funds and the major banks. Sources close to these private bank negotiations say there is plenty of cash to buy properties, but building out a management structure for the rentals is pricey, and some investors are finding the math doesn’t add up to make it worth their while.
Larger investors want to be able to get real scale in any government program, in the range of 50, 100, 500 properties per deal, or $1 billion-plus in assets, say officials close to the plan. That’s why the government is looking to test a combination of different approaches. Fannie Mae did a $50 million sale last June, but that was on the small side. Officials are evaluating at what larger asset sales beyond that would look like.
“We expect several pilots that will involve both local investors and institutional investors. The goal here is to reduce supply by converting foreclosed homes into rental units,” says Jaret Seiberg of Guggenheim Securities. “Less supply — even less fear about a flood of foreclosed homes hitting the market — could stabilize [home] prices.”
While much of this program will focus on local areas of distress, officials say they are looking at where the assets are today but are really more focused on where all the foreclosures will be in the future. It’s not about the stock of foreclosures currently, it’s about the flow of them over time and alternative ways to manage that flow.
John Williams, the chair of the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco, gave his first news interview to The Wall Street Journal since taking office last spring. He lays out the case for greater stimulus, arguing that the unemployment rate still has a ways to go while inflation is below target:
My view of it is inflation is going to be for a sustained period below target. Unemployment is going to be sustained above a reasonable estimate of the natural rate of unemployment, which is closer to 6.5% than the 8.5% that we have now. That does make an argument that we should have more stimulus. But it really depends on how much confidence you have in that forecast…. My expectation is inflation will be below that, by half a percentage point, for a sustained period. That is a strong argument for stimulating the economy.
That said, other Fed officials are more bullish that the economy is making a genuine turnaround and doesn’t need extra help. Last week, the St. Louis Fed president pointed to recent economic gains as a sign that another round of stimulus — like the Fed’s “quantitative easing” program — is unnecessary.
A social studies lesson on Frederick Douglass prompted a Beaver Ridge Elementary School teacher to use slavery beatings to teach math concepts on a homework assignment, Gwinnett Schools officials say.
Whatever the reason, the assignment outraged some parents at the Norcross school. Beaver Ridge Elementary on Monday continued to receive complaints about a math assignment distributed to more than 100 students in four of the school’s third-grade classes last week.
The assignment made references to slaves picking oranges and filling baskets with cotton. It also included the question: “If Frederick got two beatings per day, how many beatings did he get in one week?”
Parent Christopher Braxton, who discovered the questions while helping his son with his math homework, said he will meet with Principal Jose DeJesus on Tuesday to voice his concerns. On Monday, DeJesus told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution that he couldn’t comment on the incident.
“The questions were outrageous and offensive,” Braxton said. “We don’t want to see any more kids asked these types of questions.”
This is the second time in two years race and ethnicity on a homework assignment sparked complaints at Gwinnett Schools. There was a similar incident in Cobb Schools last fall.
Last school year, third-graders at Gwinnett’s Chesney Elementary were given a reading homework packet that included a story titled “What is an Illegal Alien?” The assignment, which was copied from the Internet by a new teacher, was not reviewed by the school’s subject area department chair before it was distributed. The math sheet created at Beaver Ridge also failed to undergo a content review, officials said. Under district policy, the worksheet should have been reviewed before being handed out to students, but that process was not followed.
In September, Cobb Schools came under fire for a similar incident, an assignment by a teacher at Campbell Middle School. Students were asked to write on the issue of dress codes and read a fictional two-page letter written by a 20-year-old Saudi Arabian woman. The character wrote approvingly of wearing the Islamic veil — and of her fiance’s multiple wives and the law of Sharia.
Gwinnett Schools human resources officials are investigating the Beaver Ridge incident to decide whether punitive action is necessary. District officials said they would work with math teachers to come up with more appropriate questions.
“These particular questions were an attempt at incorporating some of what students had been discussing in social studies with their math activity,” said Sloan Roach, Gwinnett Schools spokeswoman. “One teacher developed the questions, another made the copies and it was used in four classes.”
Ed DuBose, Georgia NAACP president, had a strong view: “The teachers, the staff responsible for allowing this to go forward should be fired.”
One of the teachers involved in the incident is Hispanic, Braxton said. The district would not release the teachers’ names or races. All involved are being questioned about their role and are still employed with the district, Roach said.
School officials said the questions were not intended to be offensive and that copies of the assignment were being pulled so they wouldn’t be circulated.
Beaver Ridge mom Plechette Walker sent a note to her 8-year-old second-grader’s teacher and showed up at school Monday to voice her concerns about the assignment. She wanted to be sure her daughter would not receive it.
Gwinnett Schools campuses allow common planning time for teachers to develop assignments and discuss them. According to Beaver Ridge’s school improvement plan, teachers are participating in a yearlong course offering them professional development. The sessions cover core subjects including math.
Records show that of Beaver Ridge’s 1,261 students, nearly 60 percent are Hispanic; 28 percent, African-American; 5.3 percent, Asian; and 4 percent, white.
DuBose said the school also needs to offer sensitivity training, and he questions the competency of all involved in writing and distributing the math assignment.
John Shepherd, who has two sons at Beaver Ridge, said that the teachers involved need to be made an example of. “You have got to nip this in the bud. This should not happen again.”
Parents of children born today should be prepared to pay a hefty price for college tuition, if current trends in tuition costs don’t change. According to new analysis by The Daily, the class of 2034 will pay an average of $288,000 in 2011 dollars at a four-year private school and $123,000 at an average public school.
That’s an increase of 111 percent and 167 percent, respectively, from the average class of 2012 tuition:
New moms and dads with visions of Ivy League degrees dancing in their heads should be prepared to face a bill of $422,320 in today’s dollars if Junior heads off to one the country’s priciest colleges as a member of the class of 2034.
If college costs keep rising as they have for the last three decades, the inflation-adjusted price of four years of tuition alone will more than double at private colleges and nearly triple at public universities by the time a baby born this year is ready to enroll, an analysis by The Daily shows.
Jane Wellman, executive director of the Delta Cost Project, notes that public universities in particular have been relying on tuition increases to boost revenue and offering less financial aid.
The Daily points out that tuition increases wouldn’t be so bad if family incomes were keeping pace. But they aren’t, as “in real terms, the incomes of families with at least one child under age 18 have grown only about 1 percent since 1987.” Those bleak trends mean that college costs will put even more of a strain on families in the future, and probably result in fewer students being able to receive a college education. For the first time ever, outstanding student loans will exceed $1 trillion this year, and Americans now owe more on student loans than on credit cards.
At least 12 patients in Mumbai, India, have been infected with a totally drug-resistant form of tuberculosis. One has died.
The Times of India reported on Saturday:
Tuberculosis, which kills around 1,000 people a day in India, has acquired a deadlier edge. A new entity-ominously called Totally Drug-Resistant TB (TDR-TB )-has been isolated in the fluid samples of 12 TB patients in the past three months alone at Hinduja Hospital at Mahim [in Mumbai]. The hospital’s laboratory has been certified by the World Health Organization (WHO) to test TB patients for drug resistance. While Iran first reported TDR-TB cases three years ago, India seems to be only the second country to report this deadly form of the disease. TDR-TB is the result of the latest mutation of the bacilli after Multi-Drug-Resistant TB (MDR-TB ) and Extremely Drug-Resistant TB (XDR-TB ) were diagnosed earlier.
The Hindustan Times reports the new strain as:
[A] condition in which patients do not respond to any TB medication… The mortality rate for this strain of the infectious disease is 100%… The patients, including a 13-year-old girl were diagnosed in October. A 31-year-old woman from Dharavi died in November… Doctors treating these patients say the absolute resistance is a result of the patients being prescribed wrong antibiotics by unspecialised doctors.
Maryn McKenna at Wired writes that the news from India was first was published in a little-noticed letter to Clinical Infectious Diseases (CID) last month, and notes:
TB is already one of the world’s worth killers, up there with malaria and HIV/AIDS, accounting for 9.4 million cases and 1.7 million deaths in 2009… At the best of times, TB treatment is difficult, requiring at least 6 months of pill combinations that have unpleasant side effects and must be taken long after the patient begins to feel well. Because of the mismatch between treatment and symptoms, people often don’t take their full course of drugs.
The CID letter reports inadequate care provided to four of the 12 Indian patients, who saw as many as four different doctors, and at least three received partial, multiple courses of the wrong antibiotics:
A study that we conducted in Mumbai showed that only 5 of 106 private practitioners practicing in a crowded area called Dharavi could prescribe a correct prescription for a hypothetical patient with MDR tuberculosis. The majority of prescriptions were inappropriate and would only have served to further amplify resistance, converting MDR tuberculosis to XDR tuberculosis and TDR tuberculosis.
Worryingly, the first emergence of totally drug-resistant TB seen in 15 patients in Iran in 2009 included Afghani, Azerbaijani, and Iraqi immigrants, writes McKenna. Many health workers at the time assumed the total number of cases was higher than diagnosed, since there was (and is) little in the way of even basic medical care in those border areas.
Worldwide, only two-thirds of countries with resistant TB have the labs to diagnose those strains, with only 10 percent of multi-drug-resistant TB patients receiving treatment, at cure rates as low as 25 percent. There’s no cure for totally drug-resistant TB.
Few hospitals in India can test for resistant TB and cases there might be more prevalent as well.
Novartis Consumer Health is recalling Excedrin, Bufferin, Gas-X Prevention and NoDoz in the United States after reports of chipped and broken pills.
Novartis also reported inconsistent bottle-packaging practices at the company’s Lincoln, Neb., facility, which could result in the bottles containing foreign tablets, caplets or capsules, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration said Monday.
“Mixing of different products in the same bottle could result in consumers taking the incorrect product and receiving a higher or lower strength than intended or receiving an unintended ingredient,” the FDA said in a statement. “This could potentially result in overdose, interaction with other medications a consumer may be taking, or an allergic reaction if the consumer is allergic to the unintended ingredient.”
The voluntary recall includes all lots of select bottle-packaging configurations from retailers of Excedrin and NoDoz products with expiration dates of Dec. 20, 2014, or earlier, and Bufferin and Gax-X products with expiration dates of Dec. 20, 2013, or earlier.
Newly released national health expenditures data shows record slow growth in health care costs of only 3.9 percent in 2010. Of course, the severe recession has had a lasting impact on private insurance coverage and consumption. But the actions of the Obama administration also contributed to this slowdown in several ways:
– Growth in Medicare spending slowed significantly, and this can be directly attributed to cuts in payments to private health plans under Medicare. Over the next few years, the Affordable Care Act will cut inefficient subsidies to these plans, slowing Medicare growth even further and leveling the playing field between Medicare and private plans.
– Medicaid spending on prescription drugs slowed significantly from 6.1 percent to 0.3 percent. The Affordable Care Act—which increased the rebates that drug manufacturers must pay, lowering drug prices—contributed to this slowdown.
– Medicare spending on home health care slowed significantly from 11.1 percent to 5.2 percent. The administration’s crackdown on fraudulent billing contributed to this slowdown.
The data also show that Medicare is better at containing costs than private health plans. Medicare continues to have lower growth in costs per enrollee than plans in the private sector. This is because private plans pay higher rates to health care providers and have significantly higher administrative costs.
Finally, the data show why the Affordable Care Act is so needed. The administrative costs and profits of health insurance companies grew at 8.4 percent in 2010—the fastest growing spending category. But starting in 2011, the Affordable Care Act required public review of unreasonable premium increases and put limits on insurance company administrative costs and profits. Once the Affordable Care Act is fully implemented, it will continue to slow the growth in health care costs. That’s because the ACA included an array of reforms to the way health care is paid for and delivered. These reforms reward the value and quality of care, and not just the quantity of care:
— Reducing payments to hospitals with high rates of preventable readmissionsand hospital-acquired infections
– Creating pilot programs to bundle payments together for multiple providers as an alternative to paying a fee for each service
– Creating accountable care organizations—teams of providers accountable for all of a patient’s care—that will coordinate care and share the savings
– Linking payments for hospitals and physicians to performance on quality measures—so-called value-based purchasing
– Creating an independent payment advisory board to recommend additional proposals to slow Medicare spending and improve the quality of care
– Creating a patient-centered outcomes research institute to identify what works best to improve the quality of care and outcomes
– Creating an innovation center to develop and expand innovative payment models to improve the quality of care and reduce costs
Such reforms to the payment and delivery system are essential to reducing health care costs over the long term — and the ACA made a substantial down payment.
[…] From the volunteer’s report:
At approximately 9:00 a.m, two sheriff’s deputies arrived and were uncertain as to what the issue was. We showed them the back of our Walker Volunteer “IDs” which described the role of petitioning and free speech. I asked them specifically what ordinance or statute we are violating. They could not identify one.
At approximately 9:10 a.m, Sheriff Beth arrived in his car. He stated that we can petition, but we can not have any signs of any kind as this would imply that the town is endorsing a candidate. Our signs made no mention of a candidate; they said “Recall Walker – Sign Here.” Additionally, our signs were on our cars, not staked or affixed to the ground. I inquired if we could carry our signs or use sandwich boards. He informed me that I was “pushing it”. He did say that our buttons were ok on our coats. Sheriff Beth repeatedly asked us if we were “all on the same page?” We complied and removed all of our signs.
On the phone, I was told that the deputies seemed pretty perplexed as to why they were there. The signs were taken off the car and put in the front seat. A sign was still visible through the window. One of the deputies informed the volunteer that “he needed to make itinvisible.” While the volunteers were complying, the deputies, who were at all times “professional and polite” were asking the sheriff (their boss) what statutes they were following.
According the the Kenosha News article:
The sheriff, who was out of town when he later spoke with the News, said he didn’t have the laws with him. “But it’s been drilled into my head that a town cannot support a candidate,” he said. “You can’t make town property look like campaign headquarters.” He said his understanding was that political signs were prohibited on all public property.
It should be noted that one of the volunteers has frequently employed the exact configuration throughout various sites around Kenosha county, and at numerous times deputies had seen, and not responded, to his signage. In fact, during a prior discussion about allowability, a GOP County Supervisor had directly stated that “a sign simply can not be staked or affixed to the ground” which is why they used no “yard style” signage.
When asked if the volunteers could wear “sandwich board” style signs, Sheriff Beth first responded with “that is pushing it,” but later said, “probably.” The sheriff did specifically note that it was okay for the volunteers to wear their buttons and 3″ by 3.5″ “Recall Walker” lanyards around their necks.
The volunteers pointed out that having no visibility was more dangerous for them. They would have to approach people, which would “increase the possibility of confrontation.” This issue of safety got no response from the sheriff.
From my phone conversation:
We stayed and collected more sigs… had our buttons on and lanyards around our necks… we kept going. Later on, deputies came by and were polite and nice.
The sheriff stated his support for Governor Walker… and we all heard it…. We were putting our signs away and the deputies were trying to find the citation of any relevant statute… the Sheriff almost backed into a car when he was leaving. It was comical.
I see it like this: a guy goes to drop his garbage off. He sees us, disagrees with our politics, and he loses it. The problem is, this guy has power. He misused his power. A key word in “law enforcement” is law. He couldn’t come close to citing a statute.
So what size sign is okay? 3″ x 3.5″? What about 4″x5″… would that be okay? Do we cross the line with a 6″ x 8″ sign? This guy was just shooting from the hip. He’s a Republican in a Democratic district, and this isn’t going to help him at all. It is an elected position.
The law is anecdotal for the sheriff. He “has it drilled into his head” that he is right, though logic and observation would tell him that if he is right, all the other sheriffs around the state must be wrong. As any advertiser knows, the scale of visibility is also about proximity and distance. The smaller the message, the closer the reader must get to the text. But in this case, the message isn’t on the sign. The message is the diminishment of visibility. It is the power of a petty official to be ridiculous on a Saturday morning, make up arbitrary graphic standards for public display, and consequently shut down the constitutional rights of three citizens with whom he disagrees.
Media coverage of climate change continued to tumble in 2011, declining roughly 20 percent from 2010′s levels and nearly 42 percent from 2009′s peak, according to analysis of DailyClimate.org’s archive of global media.
The declining coverage came amid bouts of extreme weather across the globe—historic wildfires in Arizona, drought in Texas, famine in the Horn of Africa—and flashes of political frenzy. Australia’s approval of a carbon tax, the U.S. presidential election, a Congressional inquiry into the failed solar startup Solyndra all generated significant coverage within the mainstream press, but it was not enough to stem the larger trend.
“If you thought last year…was the year that media coverage collapsed, the headline this year would be ‘What coverage?’” said Robert Brulle, a professor of sociology and environmental science at Drexel University in Philadelphia.
19,000 stories in 2011
Last year, at least 7,140 journalists and opinion writers published some 19,000 stories on climate change, compared to more than 11,100 reporters who filed 32,400 stories in 2009, according to DailyClimate.org.
The decline was seen across almost all benchmarks measured by the news service—20 percent fewer reporters covered the issue in 2011 than in 2010, 20 percent fewer outlets published stories, and the most prolific reporters on the climate change beat published 20 percent fewer stories.
Particularly noticeable was the silence from the nation’s editorial boards—In 2009, newspapers published 1,229 editorials on the topic. Last year, they published less than 580—half as many, according to DailyClimate.org’s archives.
Broadcast down, too
Other media analysts back up the findings.
The Center for Science and Technology Policy Research at the University of Colorado, which has tracked media coverage of climate change since 2000, finds a similar slide in five major U.S. newspapers during 2011.
Drexel’s Brulle has been watching TV coverage on climate change since the late 1980s. The three network news stations broadcast 14 climate change stories with a total air time of 32.5 minutes in 2011, he said, down from 32 stories and 90.5 minutes in 2010 and well below the 2007 peak of 147 segments totaling 386 minutes. “It’s an enormous drop,” Bruelle added.
Despite the downward media trend, public opinion saw a slight uptick on the issue. Last month Pew Research Center reported a “modest increase” over the past two years in the percentage of Americans who say there is solid evidence of global warming. And 38 percent of those polled said they considered global warming a “very serious” problem, up from 32 percent last year but below the 43 percent to 45 percent who said so from 2006 through 2008.
The poll was conducted in mid-November among 2,001 adults. It has a margin of error of plus or minus 3 percent.
Brulle is not surprised that public opinion on climate change has taken a similar dive as the reporting on the topic over the past two years.
“People take their cues about what’s important from what shows up in the headline of the newspaper. It doesn’t matter really what (the articles) say,” he said.
Australia’s coverage jumps
There were some exceptions to the downward trends in media coverage.
In Australia, debate over a carbon tax kept the issue in the news throughout the summer. The Australia Broadcasting Corp. published 60 percent more climate stories in 2011 than it did in 2010, while the Sydney Morning Herald saw a 21 percent jump.
Extreme weather was also increasingly linked to climate change. Hurricane Irene delivered a rare punch to the East Coast, reviving the debate about hurricanes and global warming. Of the 19,000 stories published in 2011, almost a quarter—reported on climate impacts. The 4,250 stories covering the consequences of climate change-represent a 10 percent increase from last year’s coverage.
But in almost every other category, the numbers were down.
Major world outlets gave the issue less ink and air time in 2011 than in 2010—The British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), for instance, produced some 326 pieces on climate-related issues last year, down 30 percent from 2010. The New York Times found room for 953 stories and blog posts, against 1,116 in 2010 and 1,408 in 2009. Reuters, perennially the most prolific outlet for climate news, was again the top source in 2011. But while Reuters published 1,235 stories in 2011—more than three per day—its output was down 27 percent from last year.
The pool of most-productive climate reporters—those writing at least 30 stories a year, or about a story every 12 days—also dropped. Last year just 55 reporters cleared the bar, against 66 in 2010 and 86 in 2009.
Byline counts are an imprecise—and flawed—way to measure a journalist’s productivity. A ground-breaking investigation often requires weeks or even months of research and reporting. And many journalists post news on blogs, a format DailyClimate.org aggregates sporadically.
But those 55 reporters accounted for 2,903 stories last year—15 percent of the total. Fiona Harvey of theGuardian led the pack, with 132 stories. Andrew Revkin, who runs the DotEarth blog on the New York Timeswebsite, was second with 118 posts. New York Times energy and environment reporter Matthew L. Wald was third with 96 stories and posts.
Jodi Kantor, author of a new book making headlines for unveiling details of tension between first lady Michelle Obama and West Wing staffers, defended her reporting in a TV interview Monday, saying the White House has not found problems with any specifics in “The Obamas.”
“The White House has not pushed back on the specific reporting in the book. They have not disputed any of the facts. And the book is clear about the fact that it’s based on interviews with people closest to the Obamas,” Kantor said on the “Today” show.
Soon after excerpts of the highly anticipated book surfaced online on Friday, the White House issued a statement strongly finding fault with Kantor’s reporting.
“The book, an overdramatization of old news, is about a relationship between two people whom the author has not spoken to in years,” White House spokesman Eric Schultz said. “The emotions, thoughts and private moments described in the book, though often seemingly ascribed to the president and first lady, reflect little more than the author’s own thoughts. These secondhand accounts are staples of every administration in modern political history and often exaggerated.”
One detail Kantor discusses in her new book is about how the White House hosted an Alice in Wonderland-themed Halloween Party in 2009, some of the details of which the West Wing, according to the author, covered up to dispel the image of an elaborate celebration in the middle of an economic recession.
Kantor on Monday stood by her reporting surrounding the Halloween party, saying on the “Today” show, “If you look at the text of the book, the sort of outside trick-or-treating was public with press. The inside party, which was the more lavish party, was kept very quiet.”
The White House has earlier rejected claims about the party, saying, “If we wanted this event to be a secret, we probably wouldn’t have invited the press corps to cover it, release photos of it to Flickr or post a video from it on the White House website … Just goes to show you can’t believe everything you read in books these days.”
Kantor maintained that the real point of the book, which she said was largely ignored over the weekend, is about Michelle Obama’s transformation as first lady. “Because she, at this point in the narrative, is moving away from an emphasis on fashion and style and toward much more substantive work,” said Kantor.
U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta let slip on Sunday the big open secret that Washington war hawks don’t want widely known: Iran is not developing nuclear weapons.
Appearing on CBS’s Face the Nation on Sunday, Panetta admitted that despite all the rhetoric, Iran is not pursuing the ability to split atoms with weapons, saying it is instead pursuing “a nuclear capability.”
That “capability” falls in line with what Iran has said for years: that it is developing nuclear energy facilities, not nuclear weapons.
“I think the pressure of the sanctions, the diplomatic pressures from everywhere, Europe, the United States, elsewhere, it’s working to put pressure on them,” Panetta explained on Sunday. “To make them understand that they cannot continue to do what they’re doing. Are they trying to develop a nuclear weapon? No. But we know that they’re trying to develop a nuclear capability, and that’s what concerns us. And our red line to Iran is, do not develop a nuclear weapon. That’s a red line for us.”
Republicans have been beating the drums of war in recent weeks as tensions in the Iranian gulf have soared. Iran has threatened to shut down the Strait of Hormuz, a key oil transport hub crucial to global industry, if U.S. warships return to monitor their activities.
Iran said it was planning to hold military exercises in the Strait of Hormuz in the coming weeks, and prior wargames saw the Iranians test missiles that are designed to sink warships.
President Barack Obama recently agreed to fresh sanctions on Iran targeting the country’s central bank, in hopes of slowing down their nuclear program. The European Union was also considering fresh sanctions, and details were expected later in January. The U.N., as well, has sanctioned Iran repeatedly over its nuclear program.
Iran said recently that it had created the country’s first ever nuclear fuel rod made from domestic uranium enriched at their own facilities.
Nuclear fuel enrichment is much different from enrichment for weapons. Most commercial nuclear reactors use lightly enriched uranium, which is between 3-5 percent enriched. Weapons-grade uranium must be enriched to approximately 85 percent or more of a key radioactive isotope for it to be usable in an atomic bomb.
Iran added on Monday that it had also enriched uranium up to 20 percent in an underground facility, explaining that the isotopes were to be used to help cancer patients.
The International Atomic Energy Agency said late last year that Iran had carried out tests that suggested they may be taking the first steps toward building a nuclear weapon, but former agency insiders disputed the claim as being misleading.
This video is from CBS News, broadcast Sunday, Jan. 8, 2012, as clipped by ThinkProgress.
Former Defense Secretary Robert Gates championed a rebalancing of foreign policy funding away from the military, arguing that the United States should pool soldiers’ and diplomats’ shared resources to better manage projects in warzones. Now, after his departure, the first true test of that idea is going into effect.
Gates, who famously warned in 2008 of the “creeping militarization” of U.S. foreign policy, was talking about his idea for a new $2 billion pooled fund that State and Defense would share for security capacity building, stabilization, and conflict prevention in dangerous areas of the world, where both the military and the diplomatic core operate, until his departure this year.
The Obama administration acted on that idea this year by proposing a $50 million starter fund in its fiscal 2012 budget request which it called the Global Security Contingency Fund (GSCF), meant for responding to “urgent and emergent challenges.” The idea is that approval to spend the money would require the approval of both secretaries, but the State Department would be more or less in charge.
“Secretary Gates called for pooled funding and this is the direct result of that and the first test of whether State and DOD can really work together on this kind of thing,” a senior State Department official said in an interview with The Cable. “This is really an example of how State and DOD, rather than engage in bureaucratic gamesmanship, have decided to work together to solve these problems.”
“For us, GSCF is the new model,” the official said. “This is the model we think makes the most sense, particularly in budget-constrained times.”
The new GSCF office will have a State Department official as a director, a Pentagon official as a deputy director, and will be located at the State Department, the official said. Nobody has been selected for the positions yet. The rough model for the office is the interagency “Pakistan cell,” which manages various aspects of Pakistan funding now.
There’s only one hitch: Congress. In the fiscal 2012 budget bill passed by Congress last week and signed by President Barack Obama, the $50 million to start GCSF was omitted. But Congress did give the administration the authority to start the project using funding from other accounts, including money earmarked for the Pakistani military.
Accordingly, GSCF will be funded this year by money appropriated to Foreign Military Financing (FMF) and what’s called the Pakistani Counterinsurgency Capability Fund (PCCF), a pool of cash that is used to reimburse the Pakistani military for money it spends helping the United States fight Islamic extremists.
The PCCF program, meanwhile, is another ongoing saga in the jostling between State and DOD for control over money and power in countries where they both operate.
Originally housed at the Pentagon as the Pakistani Counterinsurgency Fund (PCF), the program was originally supposed to be transferred over to State in 2009. But at that time, State didn’t have the capacity to manage it, so the transfer was delayed. In 2010, State finally took over the program, only to lose it again in 2011 during the last-minute budget slashing that accompanied the April 2011 deal to raise the debt ceiling. Now for 2012, the program is back at State again.
State will receive $850 million for PCCF in fiscal 2012, and this year State put the funding in its Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO) account. By placing the program in the OCO account, the money is not counted as part of State’s regular budget and therefore is more protected from the budget-cutting knives on Capitol Hill. The Pentagon is still heavily involved: In order to get the money to the Pakistani military, State actually passes the funds through the Pentagon, which implements the program on the ground by doling out the cash to the Pakistani army.
Passing the PCCF funds though the Pentagon this year will subject them to new policy restrictions in the fiscal 2012 defense authorization bill that require the administration to certify that Pakistan is using the money to fight extremists, rather than to build up conventional forces opposite India.
“The administration did have concerns that [these new restrictions] would hinder the flexibility of the program, but the Congress, obviously concerned about the nature of our relationship with Pakistan, insisted on these requirements,” the State Department official said.
But how do you certify the Pakistanis are spending the money as intended? “That’s going to be the issue,” the official said.
Kosovo-born man was charged with plotting to attack Tampa-area nightclubs and a sheriff’s office with bombs and an assault rifle to avenge wrongs done to Muslims, federal authorities said Monday.
According to a federal complaint, 25-year-old Sami Osmakac recorded an eight-minute video shortly before his arrest explaining why he wanted to bring terror to his “victims’ hearts” in the Tampa Bay area. Osmakac is a naturalized American citizen born in Kosovo, then part of the former Yugoslavia in eastern Europe.
In the video, Osmakac is seen cross-legged on the floor with a pistol in his hand and an AK-47 behind him. Osmakac said in the video that Muslim blood was more valuable than that of people who do not believe in Islam, according to the complaint. He said he wanted “payback” for wrong that was done to Muslims, according to the complaint.
There is no indication that Osmakac planned to attack the Republican National Convention, which will be held in Tampa in August, federal authorities said.
The area’s Muslim community helped provide authorities with information, said Steve Ibison, the special agent in charge of the FBI’s Tampa division.
“This case is not about the Muslim religion and it’s not about the Muslim community,” Ibison said. “It’s about an individual who committed a crime.”
Hassan Shibly, a Tampa attorney and the executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, said he met Osmakac briefly over the summer. Osmakac was “ranting” about how CAIR was an “infidel organization,” Shibly said.
“It was very clear he was very disturbed very angry and very misguided about the Islamic faith,” said Shibly, adding that Osmakac did not appear to be a member of any of the area’s mosques and had “disassociated himself” from those houses of worship. “He was very, very ignorant of Islam. He didn’t know Arabic or anything about basic Islamic teachings about promoting peace.”
Shibly said the CAIR office received calls from people in the Islamic community who were concerned about Osmakac’s extreme views.
“Contact the authorities as soon as possible,” Shibly said he told those people.
Osmakac gave only brief answers to basic questions during his first appearance in federal court Monday. He wore a blue jail outfit and was shackled at his wrists and ankles. His public defender, Alec Hall, declined to comment afterward.
U.S. Magistrate Judge Anthony Porcelli ordered Osmakac held without bail. If convicted on the single count of attempted use of a weapon of mass destruction, Osmakac could face life in prison.
Osmakac was arrested Saturday – the day officials said he was planning his attack – after he allegedly bought explosive devices and firearms from an undercover agent. The firearms and explosives were disabled before the sale.
Osmakac lived with his parents in a tan stucco home in Pinellas Park, Fla., a small city west of Tampa. He worked occasionally at the Balkan Food Store and Bakery in St. Petersburg, a small store owned by his parents.
On Monday, a man identifying himself as Osmakac’s older brother was at the store. He would not give The Associated Press his name but said his brother was innocent.
“It’s all made up,” the man said. “I don’t believe it.”
According to public records, Osmakac had one prior brush with the law. In April 2011, Tampa Police said Osmakac, dressed in “what appeared to be traditional Middle-Eastern attire with a small cloth” on his head, got into an argument over religion outside a Lady Gaga concert in downtown Tampa.
A police report said anti-gay Christian protesters outside the concert saw Osmakac driving by in a truck and turned their attention to him because of his appearance.
“The protesters began verbally berating the man and the Muslim faith and their attacks became personal and nasty,” wrote Tampa officer Kevin Krupa.
The report said Osmakac parked his vehicle, walked up to the protesters and got into an argument with one man who insulted Allah, Mohammed and the Quran. Osmakac was accused of head butting one man and was charged with battery – although Krupa noted that the protesters were “not promoting peace or tolerance, but rather of inciting violence and hate.”
That case had not yet been resolved, according to court records.
Federal officials say Osmakac’s new charges stem from information given to them by a confidential source in September 2011.
According to the federal report, Osmakac walked into the source’s business looking for al-Qaida flags. The confidential source then hired Osmakac and was in constant contact with federal officials and audio or video taped their conversations.
Two months later, the federal complaint said, Osmakac and the confidential source discussed and identified potential targets in Tampa that Osmakac wanted to attack.
Osmakac allegedly asked the source for help getting firearms and explosives for the attacks, and the source put him in touch with an undercover FBI employee.
On Dec. 21, Osmakac met with the undercover agent and allegedly told the agent that he wanted to buy an AK-47-style machine gun, Uzi submachine guns, high capacity magazines, grenades and an explosive belt. During a later meeting, Osmakac gave the agent a $500 down payment for the items.
Osmakac also asked the undercover employee to build bombs that could be placed in three different vehicles and detonated remotely, the U.S. Justice Department said in a press release. Osmakac then planned to follow up with an attack using the other weapons he asked for, authorities said.
On Jan. 1, Osmakac told the agent he wanted to bomb nightclubs, the operations center of the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office and a business in Tampa.
Osmakac told the undercover FBI agent that he wanted to detonate a car bomb and use the explosive belt to “get in somewhere where there’s a lot of people” and take hostages.
Osmakac told the agent that after he took hostages he wanted to demand something from the “kuffar” – an Arabic word that means infidels or disbelievers of Islam, federal authorities said.
According to the affidavit, he also said, “Honestly, I would love to go for the Army people, but their bases are so locked up, I have to do something else.”
Osmakac said he wanted to take down the bridges that link Tampa to neighboring Pinellas County.
“This will crush the whole economy,” he allegedly said to the agent. “This would crush everything man, they would have no more food coming in. They would, nobody would have work.”
During that meeting, the agent told Osmakac he could always change his mind about his plot.
“According to the complaint, Osmakac immediately shook his head in the negative and stated, `We all have to die, so why not die the Islamic way?'” according to the press release.
[…] Daley’s departure raises a bigger question, however. Brought in to rebuild the White House’s relationship with the business community and Congress, Daley leaves the job as Obama seems to have found his stride by explicitly running against Congress and, to a lesser extent, the business community.
“What he learned was that business refused to make nice regardless of what he did,” said one former White House aide of Daley. “Wall Street was just never going to be there.”
Another former aide said only that Daley was “not the right fit for the job”, adding: “ [Incoming White House chief of staff Jack] Lew is well-liked and a perfect fit for no-drama Obama team in a key year.” The aide would not expand on that critique.
The choice of Daley, which was formally announced on Jan. 6, 2011, to replace the combative and controversial Rahm Emanuel as the top staffer in the White House went over like a lead balloon with many in the Democratic base who believed his business background and moderate politics were the wrong move for the president.
Wrote Jon Chait: “I think liberal criticism of some potential Obama nominees is overblown — the fact that Gene Sperling got paid a lot of Wall Street money to run a charitable program doesn’t bother me. But putting a figure like Daley in a position of strategic importance seems like a major blunder.”
The defining moment of Daley’s first nine months as chief of staff was the debt ceiling fight, which began in earnest in the spring and continued into early August.
That fight was highlighted by the failure of the Republican-led House and the White House to find any real common ground, typified by the collapse of the negotiations between Obama and House Speaker John Boehner (Ohio) to produce a so-called “grand bargain”.
The aftermath of the debt ceiling debate — at least in terms of the electorate — was a “pox on both your houses” mentality that drive approval ratings for Obama and Congress lower and lower.
Asked about his efforts to build bridges between the White House, Congress and the business community, Daley joked this fall: “Oh, it’s going great. Can’t you tell? I mean, things are just really great. The debt ceiling was no problem, and the business community loves us. They love the rhetoric. And, just, no problems.”
As summer turned to fall, Obama’s numbers continued to languish amid a drumbeat of bad economic news. By the end of September, Gallup polling showed Obama’s job approval at 41 percent with disapproval running at 51 percent.
Then Obama and his team made a drastic course correction that ran exactly counter to why Daley was brought in as chief of staff: the President started to fight Congress — purposefully and deliberately.
It began in late October with a series of executive orders signed by the President aimed at making clear he would do everything in his power to act even as if Congress would not. Then came Obama’s speech in Kansas in early December that amounted to a populist broadside against the Republican-led Congress.
And then there was the showdown over an extension of the payroll tax cut at the end of December where Obama stood his ground on the need for a temporary, two-month extension and dared Congressional Republicans to let the tax cut expire. Republicans blinked, Obama won.
As Obama began to treat Congress as the enemy rather than as a wayward friend with whom detente was possible, his numbers moved upwards. In the latest Gallup three-day tracking poll, Obama’s approval rating (46 percent) was a virtual match for his disapproval rating (47 percent).
It’s no surprise then that Obama made waves last week by recess appointing Richard Cordray to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau; “For almost half a year, Republicans in the Senate have blocked Richard’s nomination,” said Obama in announcing the appointment. “This is not because Richard is not qualified.”
Despite the fact that Obama has found success by abandoning the strategic impetus of outreach to Congress and the business community of which Daley’s hiring was supposedly symbolic, several former White House aides and Democratic strategists insisted the fault lay not with the outgoing chief of staff.
“The failure is purely the fault of the Republican Congress,” said Democratic strategist Steve Murphy. “It has nothing to do with Daley and everything to do with the them.”
Added one former senior White House aide of Daley: “He left things better than he found them.”
What Daley’s year-long tenure ultimately seemed to prove within the White House is that attempts to court independent voters by reaching out to Republicans in Congress (and business leaders off Capitol Hill) were doomed to failure. Republicans simply view the right way forward for the country — on the economy and everything else — through a fundamentally different lens than does the White House and their Democratic counterparts.
Deciding who has more of the right in that fight is, of course, what the 2012 election will tell us.
[…] Here are five things you may not know about Lew, a man who has been working in policy circles since starting as a congressional aide in 1983:
Defense budgets: Lew is the key official behind the Obama administration’s two major decisions to cut defense spending. Last April, he managed the process that led to a last-minute deal to raise the debt ceiling, which resulted in the Pentagon’s six-month review to find $450 billion in savings over ten years, compared to defense spending projections by the Congressional Budget Office. That deal also included the sequestration trigger, which looks set to force the Pentagon to find another $600 billion in savings because the bipartisan “super committee” couldn’t strike a deal.
“Make no mistake: the sequester is not meant to be policy. Rather, it is meant to be an unpalatable option that all parties want to avoid,” Lew wrote at the time.As chief of staff, he will have an increased role in working with Congress to find a way around those cuts. He has also forcefully argued that Congress should not cut more from the federal budget than absolutely necessary.
Afghanistan: During his time at the State Department, Lew was the senior official responsible for the civilian surge in Afghanistan, which accompanied the administration’s 2009 military surge there. That increase, which added over 1,000 civilians from across the U.S. government to the Afghanistan mission, is slated to wind down this year along with the military surge. But as the United States shifts its focus in Afghanistan from military to civilian involvement, Lew might be the man in the government who knows that issue best.
His religion: Throughout Lew’s government career, he has maintained his commitment to Orthodox Judaism — including the rules about not working on the Sabbath, which stretches from Friday sundown to Saturday sundown. During his time at State, he observed the Sabbath religiously and refused to work during those hours.
But if there was a real emergency at the White House, Lew could decide to break the Sabbath. He reportedly did that once when serving as OMB director for PresidentBill Clinton. After refusing to take an urgent phone call from Clinton, as the story goes, Clinton said over the speakerphone “I know it is the Sabbath, but this is urgent. G-d would understand.” Lew consulted with his rabbi, who told him that it’s okay to answer the phone on the Sabbath when the president calls urgently.
Ethics: Lew is regarded by his peers as above reproach on ethical matters, but he did face one controversy when he reentered the White House as OMB director. In 2010, Lew came under fire because of a $944,578 bonus he took from Citigroup, where he was chief operating officer of Citigroup’s Alternative Investments from 2006.Lew had already disclosed a $1.1 million compensation package covering his Citigroup work in 2007, but the amount of the second bonus wasn’t disclosed until much later.
A State Department official defended Lew at the time as a man whose reputation for following ethics rules was well known. “If this city and government were filled with Jack Lews, we wouldn’t need ethics rules,” the official said, “because, like Hebrew National, Jack holds himself accountable to a higher authority.”
His replacement: One thing nobody knows about Jack Lew is who will replace him at OMB. The president’s 2012 budget request is being finalized right now, and its February release will kick start a whole season of squabbling and negotiating with Congress in what promises to be a partisan election year. Jeffrey Zients served as the acting director of the office before Lew was confirmed. Since then, Heather Higginbottom, former deputy director of the White House Domestic Policy Counsel,was confirmed as OMB’s deputy director. Given the recent GOP outrage over Obama’s controversial recess appointment nomination of Richard Cordray to head the newly created Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, confirming a new OMB director won’t be an easy sell any time soon.
The New Republic:
Before we get to whether liberals will warm to Jack Lew, the incoming White House chief of staff, in a way they never did to his just-ousted predecessor, Bill Daley, it’s worth pointing out that Lew is, at the very least, absolutely beloved by the president and the top West Wing operatives. He’s an egoless Obama-type guy with something the president appreciates almost as much as the low profile: Deep, institutional knowledge of Capitol Hill and the way money is doled out there.
It was Lew who devised and, along with White House congressional liaison Rob Nabors, executed the strategy of accepting large-looking cuts to the 2011 budget—that’s the one Republicans nearly shut the government down over last March and April—while implementing the cuts in ways that avoided real pain. (Much of the phantom cutting affected money that had been assigned to certain “mandatory” spending programs, like children’s health insurance, but wasn’t likely to be spent in 2011 anyway.) In this way, the president was able to give John Boehner and the House Republicans the $38 billion in cuts they were demanding, while mostly shielding the fragile economy. As one top White House official put it while I was reporting out my forthcoming book on Obama’s economic team, “Look at the deal. Boehner and his guys got snookered by Rob Nabors and Jack Lew. … We protected what we wanted to protect.”
Forget his specific rivals. The biggest threat to Mitt Romney is hitting now and set to fully detonate in South Carolina: It’s the Bain bomb.
While conservatives look unlikely to unite around one alternative to Romney, the campaigns themselves are uniting around the theme that the former head of Bain Capital looted companies, tossed people out of jobs and is now exaggerating his success at the venture capital firm.
In the context of this moment in American politics, in which frustration with the privileged is boiling hot, the attack, from Republicans on one side and the Obama campaign on the other, will test Romney. If he ends up looking more like an opportunist who profited for the few than like a man who created jobs for the many, it’s hard to imagine his polls numbers won’t drop.
Inadvertently, Romney created a new opening on the topic here Monday morning as he tried to explain his health care position with a comment almost custom-made for endless repeats in attack ads — and a Web video the Democratic National Committee already has up.
“I want individuals to have their own insurance. That means the insurance company will have an incentive to keep you healthy,” Romney said. “It also means that if you don’t like what they do, you could fire them. I like being able to fire people who provide services to me. You know, if someone isn’t giving the good service, I want to say, ‘I’m going to go get someone else to provide this service.’”
Romney clearly knows he has a problem. At events, starting Sunday, Romney started offering a broader explanation of his days at Bain.
But it’s about to get worse: Newt Gingrich, fresh off accusing Romney of “looting” companies, is about to see his friends spend $3.4 million in South Carolina, much of it hitting this theme. Rick Perry, who in December put out an ad slamming Romney for making “millions buying companies and laying off workers,” is already in the state, stepping up the campaign he’s trying to salvage there.
Romney will continue to benefit from the splintered field, which might mitigate the coming barrage. But it also means the attacks will continue on multiple fronts at once, including the DNC and the 27-minute movie set to be released by the Gingrich-friendly super PAC Winning Our Future that promises to “highlight just four of Romney’s many targets. Four businesses and the thousands of employees who work there,” according to a trailer released on YouTube on Sunday.
Titled “When Mitt Romney Came to Town,” the movie includes testimonials from aggrieved workers who were laid off. “We had to load up our U-Haul because we done lost out home,” says one woman in the video. The super PAC has also launched a website called kingofbain.com.
Previewing the approach to Bain he himself will take in South Carolina and beyond, Gingrich on Monday morning cheered and echoed the super PAC attacks. […]
“Mitt Romney hasn’t been vetted on Bain. I don’t think David Axelrod and the Occupy movement are going to give him a pass on this,” Tyler said. “He’s been running for six years. How much do we know about his 20 years at Bain?”
Gingrich isn’t alone. Perry localized the argument at an event Monday morning in Anderson, S.C., speaking of the millions in management fees that he portrayed Bain as looting from a nearby photo album business in Gaffney and a steel company in Georgetown.
“There is something inherently wrong when getting rich off failure and sticking it to someone else is how you do your business,” Perry said. […]
“I had to shake my head yesterday when one of the wealthiest men, I suppose, that’s ever run for the presidency of the United States — the son of a multimillionaire — Mitt Romney, he said, ‘I know what it’s like to worry about whether you’re going to get fired,’” Perry said at a restaurant here. “There were a couple of times when I wondered whether I was going to get a pink slip. He actually said this. Now, I have no doubt that Mitt Romney was worried about pink slips, whether he was going to have enough of them to hand out. Because his company, Bain Capital, with all the jobs that they killed. I’m sure he was worried he’d run out of pink slips.”
It’s the “ultimate insult” for Romney to come to South Carolina, Perry added, “and tell you he feels the pain, because he caused it.”
Even Jon Huntsman got in on the action, pouncing immediately on Romney’s “fire people” line from the morning.
“I will always put my country first. It seems that Governor Romney believes in putting politics first. Governor Romney enjoys firing people. I enjoy creating jobs,” the former Utah governor told reporters at a late morning press availability Monday in Concord.
Huntsman added that Romney’s comment shows that the former Massachusetts governor is “slightly out of touch with the economic realities.”
Meanwhile, the DNC will also sharpen its attacks on Romney as a “corporate raider,” as Obama adviser David Axelrod again dubbed the former Massachusetts governor in an appearance on ABC’s “This Week” on Sunday.
The DNC is set to deliver faux pink slips to attendees of Romney town halls in New Hampshire today. And after days of New Hampshire events with a worker laid off by Bain in New Hampshire, the DNC also released its first Web video mentioning Bain on Monday that challenges Romney’s claim of creating 100,000 jobs.
And Romney’s starting to get a new round of independent fact-checking on his Bain record, too. At Saturday’s debate, George Stephanopoulos pressed him on his claim of creating 100,000 jobs, and The Wall Street Journal on Monday ran an extensive analysis that found of 77 business Bain invested in from 1984 to 1999, 22 percent either filed for bankruptcy or closed within eight years, and another 8 percent lost all the money Bain invested.
Romney’s already mounting an increasingly strong defense, starting in appearances on the trail Sunday, after finishing the second debate in which he was pressed on the topic, and continuing Monday morning.
Speaking to the Chamber of Commerce in Nashua, Romney continued his attempt to humanize his venture capital experiences by recalling early conversations with the CEO of Staples, which Bain was an early and key investor in.
“We opened that first store, we stock the shelves, and what happens if people don’t show up? He said, ‘Easy, we lower prices and advertise more.’ I said, ‘What happens if they still don’t come?’ ‘Then we lower prices some more, and advertise more.’ In the business world, we understand that things are not static, they are dynamic and by incentives you can make behaviors change.”
Later Monday, while appearing at the Gilchrist Metal Fabricating factory in Hudson, Romney said his comment about firing people from the morning was taken out of context and insisted he could indeed connect to workers’ everyday struggles.
“I started at the bottom. I came out of school and I got an entry-level position like the other people that were freshly minted M.B.A.s, and like anybody that starts at the bottom of an enterprise, you wonder, when you don’t do so well, whether you’re going to be able to hang onto your job and you wonder if the enterprise gets in trouble, you know, will you be one of those that’s laid off,” Romney said. “That’s what’s happening around the country to a lot of people today, and it breaks your heart to see people lose their jobs. Like everybody else, everybody in the private sector knows that there’s some prospect that you might lose your job.”
Romney said that enabled him to identify with people who’ve been laid off.
“You know, if you think I should spend my entire campaign carefully choosing how everything I say relates to people, as opposed to saying my own experience and telling my own experience than that would make me a very different person than I am. I’m going to tell people my own experiences in life — and I realize, they’re not the same as everyone else I speak with,” Romney said. “If they want President Obama and a loss of 2 million jobs, a decline of median income in America by 10 percent, and people looking at very difficult prospects going forward, they can choose President Obama. But if they want someone who understands how this economy works at the level of job creation — of businesses of failing and succeeding — that’s what I can bring to the table.”
[…] But a closer examination of the prospectus paints a different picture of Bain’s operation. Under Romney’s leadership, Bain became one of the nation’s top leveraged-buyout firms, helping lead a trend in which companies were acquired using debt often pledged against their own assets or earnings.
Bain expanded many of the companies it acquired. But like other leveraged-buyout firms, Romney and his team also maximized returns by firing workers, seeking government subsidies, and flipping companies quickly for large profits. Sometimes Bain investors gained even when companies slid into bankruptcy.
Romney himself became wealthy at Bain. He is now worth between $190 million and $250 million, much of it derived from his time running the investment firm, his campaign staffers have said.
Bain managers said their mission was clear. “I never thought of what I do for a living as job creation,” said Marc B. Walpow, a former managing partner at Bain who worked closely with Romney for nine years before forming his own firm. “The primary goal of private equity is to create wealth for your investors.”
Four of the 10 companies Bain acquired declared bankruptcy within a few years, shedding thousands of jobs. The prospectus shows that Bain investors profited in eight of the 10 deals, including three of the four that ended in bankruptcy.
Leveraged buyouts allow investors to purchase businesses with the acquisition funded sometimes by significant amounts of debt. To critics, these leveraged deals can make acquired companies more vulnerable to economic downturns, leading to a greater likelihood of bankruptcy and job cuts. At the same time, the deals sometimes introduce discipline to firms and even whole industries that need it.
Either way, Bain investors typically profited.
That was true in the case of GS Industries, the 10th-biggest Bain investment in the Romney years. Bain formed GSI in the early 1990s by spending $24 million to acquire and merge steel companies with plants in Missouri, South Carolina and other states.
Company managers cut jobs and benefits almost immediately. Meanwhile, Bain and other investors received management fees from GSI and a $65-million dividend in the first years after the acquisition, according to interviews with company employees.
In 1999, as economic challenges mounted, GSI sought a federal loan guarantee intended to help steel companies compete internationally. The loan deal was approved, but in 2001, before it could be used, the company went bankrupt, two years after Romney left Bain.
More than 700 workers were fired, losing not only their jobs but health insurance, severance and a chunk of their pension benefits. GSI retirees also lost their health insurance and other benefits. Bain partners received about $50 million on their initial investment, a 100% gain.
“It makes me sick,” said Steve Morrow, a retired GSI steelworker, recalling what happened to his fellow workers after the Kansas City shutdown. Some top managers received bonuses from Bain, he said. “But the salaried and hourly people ended up with the shaft.”
Union officials say they tried to work with GSI management and Bain to assure workers and retirees that they would have some benefits even if the heavily indebted company went under. But they said their appeals fell on deaf ears during and after the time Romney was running the firm.
“We didn’t take things apart and cut them off and sell them off,” Romney said in a GOP debate this fall. “We, instead, helped start businesses…. Sometimes we acquired businesses and tried to turn them around, typically effectively. And that created tens of thousands of new jobs.”
But in 2007, during his first run for the presidency, he said he regretted extracting payments from companies that were failing: “It is one thing that if I had a chance to go back I would be more sensitive to,” he told the New York Times.
He was making a reasonable point about the need for choice and competition — just as John Kerry was making a reasonable point about the different stages of the legislative process when he said “I actually voted for the $87 billion, before I voted against it.” It was completely “unfair” to use that line against Kerry, because if you stopped to listen to his reasoning, the phrase was merely one clumsy out-of-context portion of a larger “sensible” statement about how Congressional politics works. Exactly as with Romney and “firing.”
But of course that clip hurt Kerry — in part because the Bush campaign team immediately rammed it home, and in part because it connected with an existing vulnerability or impression about Kerry. I think this moment from Romney may hurt him too, for all the “unfairness” of criticizing what he said, because it touches something so emotional and raw.
It’s the word fire. I have fired people, and I have been fired — and there is no comparison in how much more excruciating the former process is. I know, agree with, and have even written a book about all the reasons why “flexibility” in the labor force is a good thing for companies and for the overall economy. People need to be held accountable for good or bad performance. Economies need to be able to move from the old — old markets, technologies, regions, emphases — and open up to the new. Companies very often need to “right-size” to survive. We all understand these truths. They are part of America’s strength.
But people with any experience on either side of a firing know that, necessary as it might be, it is hard. Or it should be. It’s wrenching, it’s humiliating, it disrupts families, it creates shame and anger alike — notwithstanding the fact that often it absolutely has to happen. Anyone not troubled by the process — well, there is something wrong with that person. We might want such a person to do dirty work for us. (This might be the point where the Romney campaign wants to take another look at Up In The Air.) We might value him or her as a takeover specialist or at a private equity firm. But as someone we trust, as a leader? No – not any more than you can trust a military leader who is not deeply troubled when his troops are killed.
Here’s a test: If you were making the point about the need for competition, can you imagine yourself saying, “I like being able to fire people…” ?
I don’t think this will stop Romney in New Hampshire or in his likely progress to the nomination. It may not make any difference in the general election. But for me, it’s a bell difficult to un-ring — “Ilike being able to fire people” — once it has been heard.
Of course, Mitt Romney’s comment — “I like being able to fire people” — was taken out of context. But Brad Phillips argues it doesn’t matter.
“Gaffes that reinforce an existing narrative about a candidate are almost always the most harmful ones, and Gov. Romney is already enduring increasing attacks from opponents and Democrats alike for being more of a job ‘cremator’ than job creator during his tenure at Bain Capital.”
As Michael Kinsley once said, a “gaffe” is when a politician tells the truth.
Romney’s comment is actually quite similar to John Kerry’s, “I voted for it before I voted against it.” The context didn’t matter and the damage was done.
New Hampshire might seem like ground zero for a tea party offensive.
But ahead of the Republican primary Tuesday, there’s no sign that the populist conservative movement is poised to shape the presidential results in the “Live Free or Die” state — or anywhere else, for that matter.
The situation in New Hampshire and across the country has left some tea party organizers worried that their young movement’s foray into presidential politics could dilute its brand, disappoint its members or simply prove they were not quite ready for the big leagues.
“The tea party has not been around long enough to have a real impact on presidential politics because it hasn’t developed the mechanism to reach national agreements to back a candidate,” said Ned Ryun, president of a nonprofit group called American Majority that trains local activists in political organizing.
The small government movement had high hopes for 2012 after helping power Republicans to landslide wins in the 2010 midterm elections only a year and a half after exploding onto the scene in opposition to President Barack Obama’s agenda.
But Ryun said the movement’s “highly individualistic, decentralized” nature might be better suited to local, state or congressional campaigns. “It’s like herding cats,” he said. “It just doesn’t move cohesively as one unit yet, and who knows if it ever will. Maybe by 2016.”
In the meantime, though, Ryun and other tea party organizers concede that some in the movement set unrealistically high expectations for the presidential race. Activists were disappointed when the campaigns of movement darlings Herman Cain and Michele Bachmann collapsed and that of Rick Perry’s floundered.
“They’re kind of left with none-of-above, or one of the lesser candidates, and some of them now are willing to compromise their core,” said Erick Erickson, founder of RedState, a conservative blog with wide tea party readership.
Erickson has challenged the small government bona fides of a pair of GOP presidential candidates who have had some recent success courting tea party support – former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who last month briefly soared past Romney in polls, before plummeting amid a barrage of attack ads painting him as supportive of Big Government. And Erickson has been dismissive of tea party favorite Texas Rep. Ron Paul, banning his supporters from RedState in 2007 and more recently comparing his chance of assuming the Oval Office to that of pigs flying, while writing last month that Paul “cannot, I do not believe, actually build enough of a coalition to be the nominee.”
Nonetheless, Paul continues to have strong support among the more libertarian wing of the tea party. Gingrich and Santorum, meanwhile, have picked up support from Cain, the former Godfather’s Pizza CEO who ended his bid amid mounting allegations of sexual impropriety; Bachmann, the Minnesota congresswoman who dropped out after a disappointing sixth place finish in Iowa; and Perry, the Texas governor whose debate stumbles sent his campaign reeling.
The splintering is on display in New Hampshire, where several prominent tea party leaders made conflicting endorsements in recent weeks. Last week, Jane Aitken, co-founder of the New Hampshire Tea Party Coalition, endorsed Ron Paul, urging fellow conservatives to “defy the establishment’s effort to dictate the outcome of our elections” and jabbing “elitist Republicans who can only call themselves ‘conservative.’”
Failed congressional candidate Jennifer Horn, who runs the grass-roots group We The People, recently backed Romney.
Former Bachmann backer Jerry DeLemus, who chairs the Granite State Patriots Liberty PAC, endorsed Santorum, and DeLemus’s predecessor as PAC chairman, Jack Kimball, had switched to Gingrich when his previous pick, Cain, dropped out.
If you write the most controversial opinions of a sincere and thoughtful man down in a list, you are in danger of ending up with a caricature. Google the words “Santorum” and “bigot” and you will get about 5m results. But is it fair to dwell, as the media caravan now will, on Mr Santorum’s divisive attitudes to sex, abortion, family values and gay marriage instead of his many interesting ideas about economics and foreign policy (for example, that “all of the people who live in the West Bank are Israelis”)?
The case for doing so is threefold. First, these are undoubtedly the opinions that appealed most to the caucus-goers of Iowa when they placed him in second place behind Mr Romney, the front-runner in the nomination race. Mr Santorum was the clear favourite of those who described themselves as evangelical or born-again Christians (Mr Romney was the favourite of the rest). They are also the views that will repel a lot of voters, not least in secular New Hampshire, who might otherwise be intrigued by Mr Santorum’s qualities. Last, Mr Santorum argues in his own 2005 book, (“It Takes a Family”), that family values are not just one page in a portfolio of policies. They are the foundation on which all else must stand. A former aide once told the New York Times that he thought of his boss less as a politician and more as “a Catholic missionary who happens to be in the Senate”.
Besides, Mr Santorum’s thinking on public morality highlights a division in his party. He says in his book that the family, not the individual, is “the fundamental unit of society”. This idea, plus his religiosity, undergird his wider politics. Before he went down to defeat (by a margin of 17%) in Pennsylvania’s senatorial election of 2006, he was a champion of George Bush junior’s notion of “compassionate conservatism”, ie, giving taxpayers’ money to faith-based organisations, on the theory that do-gooders who had God on their side perform better than social workers.
Such ideas do not grate only on liberals. They also collide with the strand of conservatism represented in this cycle by Ron Paul, whose army of avid followers insist that the best thing government can do is to get out of people’s way—and certainly out of their bedrooms. Mr Santorum prefers government to serve as an instrument in the urgent task of remoralising a society that has lost its spiritual moorings. These philosophies are opposites, hard to accommodate in the breast of a single political movement. The eventual Republican nominee, even if it is the elasticated Mr Romney, will not find it easy to regroup his party.
[…] That’s Elizabeth Warren shaking hands in the cold, at Fenway Park, during a college hockey doubleheader. (Here she is standing outside Fenway, for you sticklers.)
As for Warren’s campaign, the most recent survey of the race, from theBoston Herald, gave her a seven-point lead over the incumbent. And Brown appears to be feeling the heat. Last Monday, after Obama announced he’d appointed former Ohio Attorney General Richard Cordray to chair the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau—crafted by Warren—Brown broke with his party to endorse the move: “I support President Obama’s appointment today of Richard Cordray to head the CFPB. I believe he is the right person to lead the agency and help protect consumers from fraud and scams.”
A new Pew Research survey finds 51% of Republican and Republican-leaning voters say the GOP candidates are excellent or good, while 44% say they are only fair or poor.
The percentage expressing positive views is largely unchanged over the last six months.
Key findings: “In 2008, both Democrats and Republicans grew increasingly satisfied with the quality of the candidates for their party’s nomination as the campaign progressed. By contrast, the continued lackluster ratings offered by Republicans this year track more closely with how Democrats viewed their options in early 2004.”
Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas, run neck-and-neck with President Obama in a general-election matchup, according to a new CBS News poll released late on Monday that shows the two front-runners in Tuesday’s New Hampshire GOP primary running stronger against the president than their fellow Republicans.
Romney posts a two-point lead over Obama, 47 percent to 45 percent, within the poll’s margin of error of plus or minus 2.8 percentage points. He leads Obama, 45 percent to 39 percent, among independent voters.
Obama’s lead over Paul is just one point, 46 percent to 45 percent, as Paul leads among independents by 7 points.
The president posts more significant leads over the other GOP candidates, but against each he is below the critical 50-percent threshold: He leads former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, 49 percent to 41 percent; former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, 48 percent to 41 percent; Texas Gov. Rick Perry, 49 percent to 42 percent; and former Sen. Rick Santorum, R-Pa., 47 percent to 43 percent.
Among all adults, just 45 percent of Americans approve of the job Obama is doing as president, slightly worse than the 47-percent approval rating he posted last month. Among independents, 38 percent approve of Obama’s job performance, while 49 percent disapprove.
Results released earlier Monday among Republicans who said they intend to vote in their state’s presidential nominating contest showed Romney running slightly ahead of the rest of the field, but nearly a third of Republicans are undecided or seeking a candidate not currently in the race.
The CBS News poll was conducted Jan. 4-8, surveying 1,413 adults, for a margin of error of plus or minus 2.6 percentage points. The poll includes a subsample of 1.247 registered voters.
This afternoon, the Supreme Court heard arguments in a Texas redistricting case that could have major implications for minority voters — as well as determine which party is likely to control Congress after the 2012 elections.
Here’s our guide to why the case matters, why it could pose a challenge to part of the Voting Rights Act, and what impact the Court’s ruling could have on voters across the country.
How did this case end up in front of the Supreme Court?
At its most basic, the case is contesting which district maps Texas will use in the 2012 elections.
This seems like a dry question, but it’s not. Thanks to population growth, Texas is gaining four seats in Congress, and how the district lines are drawn is likely to determine whether those additional seats will be won by Democrats or Republicans — and how big an impact minority voters will have in deciding who the new representatives will be.
Because those four seats could help determine which party controls the House of Representatives, the Texas case is being closely watched across the country.
As it has done before, the Republican-dominated state legislature drew maps that heavily favor Republicans.
At least three of the four new congressional districts were drawn in a way that seemed likely to favor Anglo Republican candidates — even though Latinos and African-Americans accounted for most of the state’s population growth.
The legislature’s maps immediately faced legal challenges from minority groups who argued that the lines were drawn to purposefully weaken the ballot power of Latino voters — as well as from the Department of Justice, which argued that Texas’ state house and congressional map plans are illegal because they diminish the ability of minority voters to elect the candidate of their choice.
Because the ongoing legal battle over the legislature’s maps was interfering with thestate’s election schedule, the federal district court in San Antonio drew an alternate set of maps for the state to use.
These maps are seen as being more favorable to minority voters — as well as much friendlier to Democrats.
Rather than use these court-drawn maps, the state of Texas appealed the case to the Supreme Court, arguing that the state court overstepped its bounds, and that, because of the time-crunch, the legislature’s original plans should be used for the 2012 elections — even though the federal government has yet to give the plans “preclearance.”
The Problem with ‘Preclearance’
This is where the case bumps up against the Voting Rights Act. Section 5 of the 1965 act requires that certain states with a history of racial discrimination — including Texas — get federal “preclearance,” or approval, before implementing any laws that affect voting.
The Texas legislature’s original plans haven’t received preclearance yet — and it’s unlikely that they will before this year’s elections.
While most states simply ask for preclearance from the Department of Justice, Texas has taken the less-common, more-expensive route of asking for approval from a panel of federal judges in Washington.
In denying summary judgment on the case, those judges have already concluded that “the State of Texas used an improper standard to determine which districts afford minority voters the ability to elect their preferred candidate of choice.”
But the final ruling on preclearance is unlikely to come soon enough to get Texas’ already delayed election season underway.
By asking the Supreme Court to use the state legislature’s maps before they have received federal preclearance, Texas is essentially trying to perform a temporary end-run around the Voting Rights Act’s “preclearance” requirement.
Texas is arguing that this move is perfectly legal, and would not affect the state’s “undisputed obligation” to get federal preclearance before using its new maps “on a permanent basis.”
Nina Perales, the director of litigation for the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund, told the Washington Post that this move “flips Section 5 completely on its head,” and argued the state was trying to squeeze in one more election cycle before having to reckon with the growing power of Latino voters.
How is the Court likely to rule?
The fact that the Supreme Court decided to hear the case at all makes it seem unlikely that they will simply endorse the maps drawn by the federal court in San Antonio.
But whether the court will approach Texas’ redistricting quandary narrowly, or take a broader stance on the constitutionality of preclearance, remains to be seen.
At minimum, the Supreme Court will have to rule on what maps Texas should use in its upcoming election.
As Lyle Denniston of SCOTUSblog put it, “The Court must either draft maps of its own, accept — even grudgingly — something that already exists, or find a streamlined way to get the District Court in San Antonio to craft a plan that minimally alters the state’s maps.”
But there’s been speculation that the Court could also use the case as an opportunity to address the constitutionality of Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, the part that requires certain states to obtain preclearance of plans that affect minority voters.
The Washington Post’s Aaron Blake called this “the Nuclear Option.” One of the key elements of preclearance is that it places the burden of proof on the state governments to prove that their plans are not discriminatory, rather than requiring minority groups to organize and pay for expensive legal challenges. By invalidating the Section 5 preclearance requirement, the Supreme Court “would allow these states greater freedom to draw their maps and increase the burden on minority groups and others who may fight the maps in court,” Blake wrote.
The Supreme Court seemed to come close to overturning Section 5 two years ago, inanother case from Texas. That decision made it clear that the Court had serious reservations about the limits the Voting Rights Act places on a state’s sovereignty.
In that ruling, Chief Justice John Roberts Jr. wrote that “the Act now raises serious constitutional concerns,” and that it “differentiates between the States in ways that may no longer be justified.”
This time around, the conservative Cato Institute has submitted an amicus brief to the Texas case asking the Court to review the constitutionality of the Voting Rights Act, arguing that the statute “no longer serves its original purpose.”
But some experts doubt that the Supreme Court will tackle Section 5’s constitutionality in the Texas case.
Richard Pildes, a New York University law professor, told MSNBC, “The court recognizes that it must act more quickly than usual, given the time pressures involved with primary elections looming shortly down the road. For all those reasons, the court is likely to focus on the narrowest issues needed to resolve the particular legal issues presented.”
Cato isn’t alone in its opposition of the Voting Rights Act. Georgia Congressman Lynn Westmoreland, the Republicans’ point man for congressional redistricting, has long opposed the act, calling it “outdated, unfair and unconstitutional.” In a speech opposingthe extension of the act in 2006, Westmoreland argued that Georgia’s record of voter equality “can stand up to any other state in the nation” and that the Voting Rights Act’s renewal would “keep my state in the penalty box for 25 more years based on the actions of people who are now dead.”
But the Voting Rights Act also has strong, bipartisan support. President George W. Bushgave it high praise. Executives from Wal-Mart, AT&T, Pfizer, Coca-Cola, Disney and other large corporations wrote to Bush urging him to reauthorize the law and describing it as a cornerstone of American society. The Senate ultimately approved the 2006 extension of the act 98-0, and the House 390-33.
[Please see original for numerous links.]
3:30 PM — House Democrats end walk-out
The Indiana House went into session for the first time in 2012, as Democrats ended their walk-out which began on Wednesday.
But while Democrats returned today, they made no promise that they won’t boycott the floor again to slow up the so-called “right to work” legislation.
That legislation bans companies and labor unions from negotiating a contract that requires non-members to pay fees for the representation unions are required to provide all members of a bargaining unit.
Gov. Mitch Daniels has made passage of the law his top legislative prioirity. Today, he welcomed the Democrats’ return to the House.
“I respect their right to make a gesture that indicates the depth of their
conviction on the subject. I don’t think three or four days — or whatever it was — was excessive. I’m glad they’ve come back to business now,” he said.
A rare joint House/Senate committee held a five-hour hearing on the issue Friday, taking public testimony for and against the legislation. While the Senate members vote 6-4 for the legislation, the House members could not vote because of the walk-out. The House Employment, Labor and Pensions Committee will meet again at 8:30 a.m. Wednesday to consider possible amendments and vote on the bill. That clears the way for the full House to debate changes to the bill on Thursday and vote on it on Friday.
That, at least, is the schedule House Speaker Brian Bosma, R-Indianapolis, has in mind.
But House Minority Leader B. Patrick Bauer, D-South Bend, said Democrats still think that is too fast. Bauer, in a speech to the House this afternoon, told lawmakers that the public doesn’t have enough information on the bill and cited hundreds of people who attended regional meetings Democrats held on the bill this weekend and this morning.
“We do not think he should do (the amendment stage, planned for Thursday) until we have another weekend of hearings, because the public doesn’t know about this,” Bauer said. “It was really gratifying and amazing how many people came to four forums” in Gary, Evansville, Anderson and Fort Wayne.
Crooks and Liars:
The Teamsters have been active in fighting for workers rights across the country in the last year, yet few in the media have covered numerous strikes the union’s members are engaged in around the country. The Teamsters is a varied union including warehouse workers, tankhaulers, solid waste workers, rail workers, public services, port workers, newspaper, magazine, and electronic media, industrial trades, freight workers, food processing, dairy, building materials and construction, bakery and laundry workers and numerous others. Currently hundreds of Teamsters members are on strike across the country and some of them have been on strike for more than a year, but very little coverage or actions of solidarity have supported the Teamsters’ actions.
We Party Patriots has good summaries of many of the actions:
Pipe Line Contractors Association (PLCA)
This strike started with 200 Pennsylvania and West Virginia workers walking off the job but has since gained support from Teamsters pipeline workers nationwide. The National Pipe Line Agreement between the Teamsters and the PLCA expired on January 31st, 2011 but was extended twice last year. The PLCA’s inability to negotiate a fair deal has caused workers to strike after the latest December 31st, 2011 deadline passed. What is at the heart of the issue is that the PLCA wants to force the Teamsters into 401K retirements instead of their traditional pensions. 401K plans are more vulnerable to Wall Street fluctuations and do not provide the same security as the current pension system the workers are fighting to keep.
CertainTeed — Norwood, MA
In New England, Teamsters have been heading to Norwood, Massachusetts to show their solidarity with CertainTeed employees who have been on strike since their contract expired on December 19th. CertainTeed is a French based company that makes roofing products and asphalt shingles. The 90 affected workers are striking because they need relief in their health care costs which have continued to rise despite past concessions:
C.H. Guenther & Son — San Antonio, TX
Members of Teamsters Local 657 working at C.H. Guenther & Son flour mill in San Antonio, Texas have been on strike since April 25th, 2011. The workers, who make Pioneer brand pancake and pancake mixes, are demanding a raise in wages to counter the rising healthcare costs they are incurring. Another key issue is safety. The union filed charges against the company with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) accusing C.H. Guenther & Son of illegally surveying striking workers. The strike continues today in its 9th month.
Sotheby’s — New York, NY
As has been reported in the past, Sotheby’s art house has locked out 43 art handlers represented by the Teamsters for refusing to take a 10 percent pay cut in the same year their company’s CEO, Bill Ruprecht, saw his salary double to $6 million and the company saw a profit of $680 million. Throughout the lockout, Sotheby’s has spent $2.4 million on union-busters. On January 1st of this year the 43 workers lost their health care benefits.
Redburn Tire Company –- Phoenix, AZ
Members of Teamsters Local 104 went on strike this July to fight rising health care costs at this 100 percent union shop. The owners of Redburn Tire have been accused of union-busting throughout the strike. The mood in Arizona is particularly tense…
Daycon Products — Washington, DC
Teamsters Local 639 fought Daycon Products’ powers-that-be throughout 2011. The year started off with the NLRB filing a petition against Daycon for refusing to reinstate workers who had made an unconditional offer to return to work. The NLRB heard their case in mid-December but did not publish its decision. The strike, which dates back to April of 2010, continues.
The list does not quite end there. Teamsters also currently on strike or locked out include: Local 104 (Phoenix, AZ) and Local 384 (Norristown, PA) in solidarity against JDM Materials Co.; Local 682 (St. Louis, MO) against Wholesale Plumbing Supply; and Local 89 (Louisville/Bowling Green, KY) representing 69 workers against Irving Materials.
AND IN OTHER NEWS…
A 21-year-old Iranian man has a permanent semi-erection after having “borow be salaamat” (good luck with your journeys) and the letter “M” (his girlfriend’s initial) tattooed on his penis.
The man, whose name is unknown, was diagnosed with nonischemic priapism — a condition resulting from the inability of blood to exit the penis. His case was detailed in the latest issue of the Journal of Sexual Medicine.
“In our case, most probably, the handheld needle penetrated the penis too deep, creating an arteriovenous fistula,” wrote the study authors fromKermanshah University of Medical Sciences in Kermanshah, Iran. A fistula is a connection between two organs or vessels — in this case an artery and a vein — that normally don’t connect.
“For eight days after tattooing, the penis was painful, and thus there were no erections,” the authors wrote. “After that, the patient noticed longer-than-usual sleep-related erections. This progressed, within a week, to a constantly half-rigid penis, day and night.”
Men are advised to seek medical attention for an erection lasting more than four hours.
During a normal erection, blood rushes into the penis through the arteries to build up pressure and later leaves through the veins. But in nonischemic priapism, blood continues to enter faster than it can leave, causing persistent pressure and a permanent erection. The problem resolves naturally 62 percent of the time, the researchers reported. And when it doesn’t, men have the option of selective arterial embolism — a procedure that blocks the offending artery.
Instead, the Iranian man chose to have a shunt implanted to drain the excess blood, according to the report.
“Predictably, the procedure was unsuccessful,” the authors wrote. “Because of the painless nature of erections, moderately good preservation of erectile function during intercourses, and disappointment with former surgery, the patient has declined to undergo further therapies, and lives with his condition.”
Despite his permanent erection, the man has no regrets over his penis tattoo, according to the report. Nevertheless, the report authors advise against the practice.
“Based on our unique case, we discourage penile tattooing,” they wrote.
Puppy eats and levitates his butt at the same time.
With last week’s Iowa Caucuses in the United States, we’re starting the long haul to November’s election day where we’ll be inundated by hundreds of advertisements and speeches filled with all kinds of promises. But how do you know whether those promises will be kept, or what the your member of Congress is really about? The truth is, a candidate can tell you a lot more about what they’re going to do via their actions and their associations than their advertisements and speeches. And thanks to the work of a lot of great watchdog groups, a lot of that information is now publicly available online.
So how do you get started digging underneath the rhetoric and into the good stuff?
First, let’s figure out who all your representatives are. Project VoteSmart makes this easy just type in your zip code, and they’ll tell you who all your representatives are from the state level on up. If you live in a relatively dense area, chances are you live in a five digit zip code that has more than one legislative district in it, so the chances are that you’ll need to know your Zip+4— you can figure that out courtesy of the USPS.
Now that you know who your rep is, it’s time to put on your private investigator hat on. Start local! — but I think that’s a much better place to start. Your local city council and state representatives impact your daily life far more frequently than your representative or even the president. If you live in California, Texas, Louisiana, Wisconsin, Maryland or Minnesota, you’re really in luck, because OpenGovernment.org is pulling together a great website for you to see what’s happening in your area. For everyone else, Google for your state’s state legislative website, or if you’re a developer, check out the Sunlight Foundation’s OpenStates project, which has bulk data available for 44 states.
We’re still a little behind with county and municipality votes and websites. But search for yours, you may have something useful out there. The most important thing about local candidates is that they’re accessible. While you can (and should) try and meet with your federal representatives, sometimes the travel to Washington can be too burdensome. But local candidates are there and waiting for you to call them. Call their office, and ask for a meeting, and ask them what they’re about. You’ll be amazed at the reception you get.
There are two great tools for researching federal (President, Congress) office-holders:GovTrack.us and OpenCongress.org. If you live in the 7th Congressional District of Virginia, for instance, here’s Eric Cantor’s page in on GovTrack, and on OpenCongress. Take a look at the bills they’ve sponsored and co-sponsored, and what they’ve voted on, and see if they align with your issues. And if they don’t — well, you know what to do.
As important as the voting record is the company your member keeps. InfluenceExplorer.com, from the Sunlight Foundation is a great place to start. If you’re interested in Ron Paul for instance, you can see how much money he’s raised, as well as what his top Earmark requests are. Over on OpenSecrets.org you’re able to see what industries have Ron Paul as a top recipient of money, and even sort donors by zip code. At the state level, the National Institute on Money in State Politics offers the same service on FollowTheMoney.org.
Another interesting thing to look at is how politicians invest their money. OpenSecrets also has the neat feature of being able to see the kinds of investments that your member of Congress makes — they’ve catalogued each member of Congress’ “Personal Financial Disclosure” form — the form all high-level government employees have to fill out when they get their job. What’s the top asset held by a member of Congress you ask? That’d be the Milwaukee Bucks, owned entirely by U.S. Senator Herb Kohl.
If you want to dig deeper, *all* of this data is generally a hard-working non-profit compiling and delivering government data in a usable format. The federal financial contribution stuff comes from fec.gov, laws come from Thomas.gov (which celebrates its 17th birthday this week), and state official information comes from elections, ethics, and secretaries of state websites across the country. With a little sleuthing, you can figure out whether or not your politicians are right for you and make a little more sense out of how your government works.
In 2012, don’t just listen to what the candidates have to say, or even listen to what everybody else has to say about them. Part of a healthy information diet means getting closer to the source: watch what they do, instead. If you can, meet directly with them, too. In my 10 years working in Washington, I’ve yet to hear a scheduler complain that their member has too many meetings with their constituents. Book some travel to Washington (April is a great time to visit, for the Cherry Blossoms), meet with your member of Congress, and participate in democracy.
It was a slow-moving Occupy Wall Street protest, but it was an effective one. A dozen senior citizens calling themselves “the wild old women” succeeded in closing a Bank of America branch in Bernal Heights Thursday.
The women, aged 69 to 82, who live at the senior home up Mission street from the Bernal Heights Bank of America branch, decided to hold their own protest by doing what they called a “run on the bank.”
Tita Caldwell, 80, who led the charge of women with walkers and wheelchairs, said that they’re demanding the bank lower fees, pay higher taxes, and stop foreclosing on, and evicting, homeowners.
”We’re upset about what the banks are doing, particularly in our neighborhood and neighboring areas, in evicting people and foreclosing on their homes,” said Caldwell. “We’re upset because the banks are raising their rates because it really affects seniors who are on a fixed income.”
As they arrived, Bank of America closed and locked its doors, to the surprise and delight of the elderly protestors, who said that they had no intention of storming the bank.
The women waved signs, but didn’t march or chant, with one woman on supplemental oxygen adding that the group was too old for that.
QUOTE OF THE DAY:
Our government… teaches the whole people by its example. If the government becomes the lawbreaker, it breeds contempt for law; it invites every man to become a law unto himself; it invites anarchy.
Justice Louis D. Brandeis