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Location: Douglas, Coffee Co., The Other Georgia, United States

Sid in his law office where he sits when meeting with clients. Observant eyes will notice the statuette of one of Sid's favorite Democrats.

Saturday, March 29, 2014

Shields and Brooks - 3-28-2014 - on Obamacare with 6 million having signed up

From PBS Newshour:

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, two other things I want to ask you both about.

One, Mark, is the health care law, White House celebrating yesterday. The deadline is the end of March. They’re celebrating. They have — six million Americans have now signed up.

Is this — we know the law is still very unpopular, or largely unpopular with the American people. Does this, though, in some way take the edge off of the negative that the Republicans have made this as an issue?

MARK SHIELDS: Well, it’s the old better than expected, Judy, is where it is.


MARK SHIELDS: I mean, seven million was the target. Now it’s six million, and the Democrats are doing a little victory dance in the end zone over that.

It’s certainly far better than it was. And you can see that there’s been an all-out effort made. I do think the Republicans, quite honestly, have promised to come up with one that will cover everybody at a lower cost and at no intrusion. We’re still waiting for that. It hasn’t — it hasn’t happened.

But it has been an abject failure on the part of the Democratic administration to sell this plan. It was 36 percent approval four years ago in the CBS poll, 39 percent approval two years ago, and 41 percent approval. It’s a failure to convince people, persuade people that they’re right and the other side’s wrong.



Well, I think the plan has achieved credibility. There was some possibility — I never thought it was a large possibility — there was some possibility that people wouldn’t sign up and the whole thing would collapse just by lack of effort. It has crossed that threshold. So it is going to function. The question is whether it will function well or poorly, whether the exchanges will work, whether the cost things will work, whether innovation will be driven by this.

And then we’re simply too soon to tell. It will take two or three years to even begin to get some sign of that. What we have now is people really reacting to it individually. A lot of people are pleased. They’re getting — they’re getting insurance at lower cost. A lot of people are displeased. They’re seeing their premiums go up.

I suspect, over the next six months, seven months, a lot of those individual experiences will begin to replace the more ideological reaction which people have to the bill now. I suspect it will still be a pretty good issue, at least this election, for Republicans.

Monday, March 24, 2014

Geopolitics and the New World Order - Geography increasingly fuels endless chaos and old-school conflicts in the 21st Century. - Forget the niceties of international law. Territory and the bonds of blood that go with it are central to what makes us human.

From TIME:

This isn’t what the 21st century was supposed to look like. The visceral reaction of many pundits, academics and Obama Administration officials to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s virtual annexation of Crimea has been disbelief bordering on disorientation. As Secretary of State John Kerry said, “It’s really 19th century behavior in the 21st century.” Well, the “19th century,” as Kerry calls it, lives on and always will. Forget about the world being flat. Forget technology as the great democratizer. Forget the niceties of international law. Territory and the bonds of blood that go with it are central to what makes us human.

Geography hasn’t gone away. The global elite–leading academics, intellectuals, foreign policy analysts, foundation heads and corporate power brokers, as well as many Western leaders–may largely have forgotten about it. But what we’re witnessing now is geography’s revenge: in the East-West struggle for control of the buffer state of Ukraine, in the post–Arab Spring fracturing of artificial Middle Eastern states into ethnic and sectarian fiefs and in the unprecedented arms race being undertaken by East Asian states as they dispute potentially resource-rich waters. Technology hasn’t negated geography; it has only made it more precious and claustrophobic.

Whereas the West has come to think about international relations in terms of laws and multinational agreements, most of the rest of the world still thinks in terms of deserts, mountain ranges, all-weather ports and tracts of land and water. The world is back to the maps of elementary school as a starting point for an understanding of history, culture, religion and ethnicity–not to mention power struggles over trade routes and natural resources.

The post–Cold War era was supposed to be about economics, interdependence and universal values trumping the instincts of nationalism and nationalism’s related obsession with the domination of geographic space. But Putin’s actions betray a singular truth, one that the U.S. should remember as it looks outward and around the globe: international relations are still about who can do what to whom.

Putin’s Power Play 

So what has Putin done? The Russian leader has used geography to his advantage. He has acted, in other words, according to geopolitics, the battle for space and power played out in a geographical setting–a concept that has not changed since antiquity (and yet one to which many Western diplomats and academics have lately seemed deaf). 

Europe’s modern era is supposed to be about the European Union triumphing over the bonds of blood and ethnicity, building a system of laws from Iberia to the Black Sea–and eventually from Lisbon to Moscow. But the E.U.’s long financial crisis has weakened its political influence in Central and Eastern Europe. And while its democratic ideals have been appealing to many in Ukraine, the dictates of geography make it nearly impossible for that nation to reorient itself entirely toward the West. 

Russia is still big, and Russia is still autocratic–after all, it remains a sprawling and insecure land power that has enjoyed no cartographic impediments to invasion from French, Germans, Swedes, Lithuanians and Poles over the course of its history. The southern Crimean Peninsula is still heavily ethnic Russian, and it is the home of Russia’s Black Sea fleet, providing Russia’s only outlet to the Mediterranean. 

Seeing that he could no longer control Ukraine by manipulating its democracy through President Viktor Yanukovych’s neo-czardom, Putin opted for a more direct and mechanical approach. He took de facto control of pro-Russian Crimea, which for all intents and purposes was already within his sphere of influence. Besides, the home of Russia’s warm-water fleet could never be allowed to fall under the sway of a pro-Western government in Kiev. 

Next, Putin ordered military maneuvers in the part of Russia adjoining eastern Ukraine, involving more than 10,000 troops, in order to demonstrate Russia’s geographical supremacy over the half of Ukraine that is pro-Russian as well as the part of Ukraine blessed with large shale-gas reserves. Putin knows–as does the West–that a flat topography along the long border between Russia and Ukraine grants Moscow an overwhelming advantage not only militarily but also in terms of disrupting trade and energy flows to Kiev. While Ukraine has natural gas of its own, it relies on Russia’s far vaster reserves to fuel its domestic economy. 

Putin is not likely to invade eastern Ukraine in a conventional way. In order to exercise dominance, he doesn’t need to. Instead he will send in secessionists, instigate disturbances, probe the frontier with Russian troops and in other ways use the porous border with Ukraine to undermine both eastern Ukraine’s sovereignty and its links to western Ukraine. 

In short, he will use every geographical and linguistic advantage to weaken Ukraine as a state. Ukraine is simply located too far east, and is too spatially exposed to Russia, for it ever to be in the interests of any government in Moscow–democratic or not–to allow Ukraine’s complete alignment with the West. 

Back to a Zero-Sum Middle East 

Another way to describe what is going on around the world now is old-fashioned zero-sum power politics. It is easy to forget that many Western policymakers and thinkers have grown up in conditions of unprecedented security and prosperity, and they have been intellectually formed by the post–Cold War world, in which it was widely believed that a new set of coolly rational rules would drive foreign policy. But leaders beyond America and Europe tend to be highly territorial in their thinking. For them, international relations are a struggle for survival. As a result, Western leaders often think in universal terms, while rulers in places like Russia, the Middle East and East Asia think in narrower terms: those that provide advantage to their nations or their ethnic groups only. 

We can see this disconnect in the Middle East, which is unraveling in ways that would be familiar to a 19th century geographer but less intuitive to a Washington policy wonk. The Arab Spring was hailed for months as the birth pangs of a new kind of regional democracy. It quickly became a crisis in central authority, producing not democracy but religious war in Syria, chaos in Yemen and Libya and renewed dictatorship in Egypt as a popular reaction to incipient chaos and Islamic extremism. Tunisia, seen by some as the lone success story of the Arab Spring, is a mere fledgling democracy with land borders it can no longer adequately control, especially in the southern desert areas where its frontiers meet those of Algeria and Libya–a situation aggravated by Libya’s collapse. 

Meanwhile, Tripoli is no longer the capital of Libya but instead the central dispatch point for negotiations among tribes, militias and gangs for control of territory. Damascus is not the capital of Syria but only that of Syria’s most powerful warlord, Bashar Assad. Baghdad totters on as the capital of a tribalized Shi’ite Mesopotamia dominated by adjacent Iran–with a virtually independent Kurdish entity to its mountainous north and a jihadist Sunnistan to its west, the latter of which has joined a chaotic void populated by literally hundreds of war bands extending deep across a flat desert terrain into Syria as far as the Mediterranean.

Hovering above this devolution of Middle Eastern states into anarchic warlorddoms is the epic geographic struggle between a great Shi’ite state occupying the Iranian Plateau and a medieval-style Sunni monarchy occupying much of the Arabian Peninsula. The interminable violence and repression in eastern Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Sunnistan (covering both western Iraq and Syria) are fueled by this Saudi-Iranian proxy war.

Because Iran is developing the technological and scientific base with which to assemble nuclear weapons, Israel finds itself in a de facto alliance with Saudi Arabia. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu can be defined by his zero-sum geographic fears, including that of the tyranny of distance: the difficulty of his relatively small air force to travel a thousand miles eastward, which bedevils his search for an acceptable military option against Iran. This helps make him what he is: an obstinate negotiating partner for both the Palestinians and the Americans. 

Pacific Projection 

Then there is the most important part of the world for the U.S., the part with two of the three largest economies (China and Japan) and the home of critical American treaty allies: the Asia-Pacific region. This region too is undeniably far less stable now than at the start of the 21st century, and for reasons that can best be explained by geography.

In the early Cold War decades, Asian countries were preoccupied with their internal affairs. China, under Mao Zedong’s depredations and Deng Xiaoping’s economic reforms, was inwardly focused. Vietnam, the current territory of Malaysia and to a lesser extent the Philippines were overwhelmed by internal wars and rebellions. Singapore was building a viable city-state from scratch. And South Korea and Japan were recovering from major wars. 

Now these states have consolidated their domestic affairs and built strong institutions. They have all, with the exception of the poverty-racked Philippines, benefited from many years of capitalist-style growth. But strong institutions and capitalist prosperity lead to military ambitions, and so all of these states since the 1990s have been enlarging or modernizing their navies and air forces–a staggering military buildup to which the American media have paid relatively scant attention. 

Since the 1990s, Asia’s share of military imports has risen from 15% to 41% of the world total, and its overall military spending has risen from 11% to 20% of all global military expenditures. And what are these countries doing with all of these new submarines, warships, fighter jets, ballistic missiles and cyberwarfare capabilities? They are contesting with one another lines on the map in the blue water of the South China and East China seas: Who controls what island, atoll or other geographical feature above or below water–for reserves of oil and natural gas might lie nearby? Nationalism, especially that based on race and ethnicity, fired up by territorial claims, may be frowned upon in the modern West, but it is alive and well throughout prosperous East Asia. 

Notice that all these disputes are, once again, not about ideas or economics or politics even but rather about territory. The various claims between China and Japan in the East China Sea, and between China and all the other pleaders in the South China Sea (principally Vietnam and the Philippines), are so complex that while theoretically solvable through negotiation, they are more likely to be held in check by a stable balance-of-power system agreed to by the U.S. and Chinese navies and air forces. The 21st century map of the Pacific Basin, clogged as it is with warships, is like a map of conflict-prone Europe from previous centuries. Though war may ultimately be avoided in East Asia, the Pacific will show us a more anxious, complicated world order, explained best by such familiar factors as physical terrain, clashing peoples, natural resources and contested trade routes. 

India and China, because of the high wall of the Himalayas, have developed for most of history as two great world civilizations having relatively little to do with each other. But the collapse of distance in the past 50 years has turned them into strategic competitors in the Indian Ocean and the South China Sea. (This is how technology abets rather than alleviates conflict.) And if Narendra Modi of the Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party is elected by a significant majority in elections in April and May, as is expected by many, India will likely pursue a fiercely geopolitical foreign policy, aligning even more strongly with Japan against China. 

China, meanwhile, faces profound economic troubles in the coming years. The upshot will be more regime-stoked nationalism directed at the territorial disputes in the South China and East China seas and more rebellions at home from regionally based ethnic groups such as the Turkic Muslim Uighurs, in the west abutting Central Asia, and the Tibetans, in the southwest close to India. Can the Han Chinese, who inhabit the arable cradle of China and make up 90% of the country’s population, keep the minorities on the upland peripheries under control during a sustained period of economic and social unrest? The great existential question about China’s future is about control of its borderlands, not its currency. 

Practically anywhere you look around the globe, geography confounds. Burma is slowly being liberated from benighted military dictatorship only to see its Muslim minority Rohingyas suffer murder and rape at the hands of Burmese nationalist groups. The decline of authoritarianism in Burma reveals a country undermined by geographically based ethnic groups with their own armies and militias. Similarly, sub-Saharan African economies have been growing dramatically as middle classes emerge across that continent. Yet at the same time, absolute population growth and resource scarcity have aggravated ethnic and religious conflicts over territory, as in the adjoining Central African Republic and South Sudan in the heart of the continent, which have dissolved into religious and tribal war. 

What’s New Is Old Again 

Of course, civil society of the kind Western elites pine for is the only answer for most of these problems. The rule of law, combined with decentralization in the cases of sprawling countries such as Russia and Burma, alone can provide for stability–as it has over the centuries in Europe and the Americas. But working toward that goal requires undiluted realism about the unpleasant facts on the ground. 

To live in a world where geography is respected and not ignored is to understand the constraints under which political leaders labor. Many obstacles simply cannot be overcome. That is why the greatest statesmen work near the edges of what is possible. Geography establishes the broad parameters–only within its bounds does human agency have a chance to succeed. 

Thus, Ukraine can become a prosperous civil society, but because of its location it will always require a strong and stable relationship with Russia. The Arab world can eventually stabilize, but Western militaries cannot set complex and highly populous Islamic societies to rights except at great cost to themselves. East Asia can avoid war but only by working with the forces of ethnic nationalism at play there. 

If there is good news here, it is that most of the borders that are being redrawn–or just reunderlined–exist within states rather than between them. A profound level of upheaval is occurring that, in many cases, precludes military intervention. The vast human cataclysms of the 20th century will not likely repeat themselves. But the worldwide civil society that the elites thought they could engineer is a chimera. The geographical forces at work will not be easily tamed.
While our foreign policy must be morally based, the analysis behind it must be cold-blooded, with geography as its starting point. In geopolitics, the past never dies and there is no modern world.

Putin rekindles the glow of empire

From TIME:

Empires have spilled blood and spent treasure for control of Crimea for more than 2,500 years, ever since the ancient Greeks first made it their colony. It took Russian President Vladimir Putin less than three weeks–and not a single shot fired in anger–to wrest the peninsula from Ukraine. On March 18, two days after a referendum showed that an overwhelming majority of Crimeans wanted to be annexed by Russia, Putin signed a decree formalizing the arrangement. The U.S. and its European allies barely had time to prepare a round of mild sanctions–mainly travel restrictions and asset freezes for a handful of officials–which the master of the Kremlin shrugged off.

For Putin, the punishment pales before the political prize. The annexation of Crimea has pushed his popularity higher than it’s been in three years–to a stunning 72% in two nationwide polls, up almost 10% since the invasion of Crimea began. Roughly the same percentage of respondents said at the start of February that they did not want Russia to intervene at all in Ukraine’s internal affairs. But for Russians, the conquest of Crimea was not seen as an intervention. It felt like a rightful return to the status of empire that Russia had lost after the fall of the Soviet Union. Even for some of Putin’s harshest critics, achieving that is worth just about any rupture in relations with the West.

Just ask Mikhail Gorbachev. In an interview on the eve of Crimea’s annexation, the last leader of the USSR–the Nobel Peace Prize laureate who is credited with ending the Cold War–declared that Putin should not stop at Crimea. All of southern Ukraine, Gorbachev said, is Moscow’s rightful dominion. “In essence, in history, it’s just like Crimea,” he told a Russian news website. “Its population is Russian. It was civilized by Russians.” And with tens of thousands of Russian troops still massed at Ukraine’s eastern border, Putin may yet decide to expand his landgrab.

As long as he can follow the Crimean formula–a bloodless and surgical takeover–even his enemies in Russia will applaud. Maria Baronova is a case in point. Last year she stood trial in Moscow for “inciting mass unrest.” Her crime? Organizing a protest against Putin on the eve of his third presidential inauguration. Few Putin critics are more outspoken, but on Crimea, Baronova is fully behind her President. Her generation of savvy, liberal urbanites suffered through the Soviet loss of empire when they were just coming into their own, and Baronova remembers it as “a palpable, physical discomfort, a sense of helplessness in knowing that our state can do nothing to counter the will of the West.”

The most painful object lesson for them was NATO’s intervention in the war in Kosovo in 1999, when Russia was forced to watch Serbia, a nation with deep religious and cultural ties to the Russians, bombed by Western warplanes and then, after a plebiscite backed by the West, lose control of Kosovo. “Watching that gave us a deep inferiority complex,” says Baronova.

Some of her older friends in Moscow even volunteered to go fight in Bosnia back then. “It was a mad time,” says Mark Feygin, who was in his early 20s when he went to Bosnia to fight alongside the Serbs in 1993. “Everything was falling apart–the Soviet Union, everything we knew–and our country was in no condition to help our brothers. So we went and did what we could.” Twenty years later, Feygin has become one of Russia’s most prominent civil rights lawyers; he defended the activists of Pussy Riot when three of them were put on trial in 2012 for protesting against Putin. But Feygin, too, supports the return of Crimea to Russia. “It really is a historical injustice that Crimea was given to Ukraine like some kind of toy,” he says.

That gift was made in 1954 on the whim of Nikita Khrushchev, who was then the leader of the Soviet Union. He decided to take Crimea away from Russia and transfer it to Ukraine at a time when the placement of their borders didn’t really matter. (Legend has it that Khrushchev was drunk when he signed the papers.) All three were part of the Soviet Union, whose collapse seemed unthinkable. But when it all broke apart in 1991, Crimea and its majority-Russian population found themselves in what felt like a foreign land. Ukrainian nationalism was on the rise, and a popular movement in Crimea pleaded for Moscow to take it back in the early 1990s. Those appeals were ignored. The Kremlin had too many other fires to fight across its crumbling empire.

So when Putin sent in troops to take back Crimea, he didn’t just increase Russia’s variety of Black Sea beaches. To his supporters, he corrected a historical anomaly. “Crimea is our common property, the most important factor of stability in the region,” Putin said during a speech in the Kremlin on March 18, just before signing a treaty to annex the peninsula. “This strategic territory should be under strong, stable sovereignty, which realistically may only be Russia today.”

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Shame on you Mrs. Obama; this is like something you would expect from Jimmy Carter. I am embarrassed. You invited yourself to this country as a trip billed as cultural exchange.

From The New York Times:

On a visit that was supposed to be nonpolitical, Michelle Obama delivered an unmistakable message to the Chinese on Saturday, saying in an address here that freedom of speech, particularly on the Internet and in the news media, provided the foundation for a vibrant society.

The forthright exposition of the American belief in freedom of speech came against a backdrop of broad censorship of the Internet by the Chinese government. The government polices the Internet to prevent the nation’s 500 million users from seeing antigovernment sentiment, and blocks a variety of foreign websites, including Twitter, Facebook and YouTube. The authorities compel domestic Internet sites to censor themselves.

The White House has stressed that Mrs. Obama’s trip to China during the spring break of her daughters, Malia and Sasha, is intended to highlight the importance of education, and foreign exchanges in particular.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

The federal government would cover the entire cost of Medicaid expansion for the first 3 years, with its share gradually dropping to no less than 90% thereafter. Money will be flowing out of Georgia into states that have accepted Obamacare.

From the AJC's Political Insider:

One of the year’s grandest acts of political rebellion in the state Capitol took place last Tuesday, deep into the 39th day of a 40-day session of the Legislature.

“I am concerned that my party is going to lose thousands of health care workers and independent voters over this,” said state Sen. Chuck Hufstetler, R-Rome. “The majority of Georgians do oppose Obamacare, but six out of 10 believe we ought to expand Medicaid. There is a difference between the two.”

Hufstetler is a first-termer and a back-bencher. Literally. His seat is on the final row. But he is the sleepy, quiet type. No bomb-thrower. In fact, by trade he is an anesthetist at Redmond Regional Medical Center, the smaller of two hospitals in his district.

The occasion of Hufstetler’s outburst was the Senate debate over HB 990. The bill was the lesser of two anti-Obamacare measures in circulation, a greased piece of legislation that would take the decision of whether to expand Medicaid, as recommended by the ACA, out of the hands of the governor. Legislative approval would be required.

Gov. Nathan Deal had endorsed the whittling of his own authority, so the Senate vote and the words that went with it were mere formalities. Until Hufstetler took the well.

First, the former member of the Floyd County Commission presented his credentials. He had opposed the 2009 passage of the Affordable Care Act, he said, primarily because of its mandate that individuals purchase insurance or be fined.

But President Barack Obama has issued so many waivers for the requirement that it is almost meaningless, Hufstetler said.

What worried the Rome senator was Gov. Nathan Deal’s decision – which will soon be in the hands of the GOP-controlled Legislature – to refuse to expand the federal-state health care program for low-income Georgians.

Hufstetler cited a list of Republican governors in Arizona, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Ohio and Utah who have made their peace with the Affordable Care Act, expanding health care coverage to poorer residents in their state.

In Georgia, Medicaid expansion would wrap in an estimated 650,000 more low-income earners. The program currently covers about 1.7 million children, pregnant women, plus elderly and disabled residents.

The federal government would cover the entire cost of Medicaid expansion for the first three years, with its share gradually dropping to no less than 90 percent thereafter – a promise that most Republicans treat with high skepticism.

But Hufstetler sees something else. He sees his state giving up billions upon billions of dollars at the cost of thousands of health care jobs. With no impact on the federal deficit. Money will be flowing out of Georgia into states that have accepted Obamacare.

“I believe this transfer of wealth is going to hurt Georgia as numerous studies by Kaiser [Permanente], the University of Georgia, and Georgia State have pointed out,” Hufstetler said.
Huftsetler was the only Republican to cast a vote against HB 990. He also voted against a measure sent to the governor that will eventually force the University of Georgia to drop a federally funded program to train the “navigators” that point consumers to health insurance exchanges.

“I don’t know why we as Republicans would vote to not allow the University of Georgia to help enroll people at no cost to the state, to help enroll people in private insurance,” he later said.

At the very least, Hufstetler’s speech, which startled even Democrats, was inconvenient to the chief resident of the state Capitol’s second floor.

The next day, the governor would tell a gathering of rural legislators that he would back a plan allow rural hospitals in south Georgia – which are gasping for cash that could come their way under an expansion of Medicaid – to reduce the services they offer as a way of cutting expenses.

For many health care centers, the only other alternative is to shut down. Four rural hospitals have closed in the last two years. The Department of Community Health recently advanced $800,000 to a small hospital and nursing home in Fort Oglethorpe, Ga., so that it could make payroll.

The singularity of Hufstetler’s comments might be hard to understand, unless you’ve sat through a dozen or so Republican gatherings. There is a playbook, and unwavering opposition to Obamacare is at the very top of it.

Right now, when it comes to Medicaid expansion, Hufstetler stands alone among Republicans in the state Capitol. “I can’t think of anybody else,” said Matt Caseman, executive director of the Georgia Rural Health Association – who quickly declared his sincere and deep appreciation for Deal’s efforts to help rural hospitals.

As for Hufstetler, he will survive in the Legislature at least through 2016.

“I haven’t really had any negative reaction to this. I think it helps that in my eight years on the county commission, we lowered taxes six times,” Hufstetler said. “The people in my district know my record as a fiscal conservative.”

Perhaps more important, Hufstetler’s speech came after qualifying closed – he has no opposition in 2014. He might be fearless, but he’s not stupid.

NRSC chairman: Obamacare has helped ‘dramatically’ expand Senate map for GOP

From The Washington Post:

The head of Senate Republicans' campaign arm said Friday that problems associated with the Affordable Care Act have "dramatically" expanded the Senate map for Republicans, who are gaining steam in their quest to win back the majority.

"The map and opportunities have expanded dramatically in a year, in part because of the consequences of the Affordable Care Act," said Sen. Jerry Moran (R-Kan.), chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee.

Moran spoke on a conference call with reporters to mark the four-year anniversary of President Obama's signing of the health-care law, which is Sunday. Moran said that in January of 2013, he felt like Republicans could "gain five, six, maybe seven seats." Today, Moran said, "we have strong credible candidates in races that can be won by those candidates in 10, 11, 12, 13 states."

Republicans must pick up six seats to win back the Senate majority. They recently landed top candidates or potential candidates in New Hampshire and Colorado when former Massachusetts senator Scott Brown (R) and Rep. Cory Gardner (R-Colo.) entered the mix. Former Republican National Committee chairman Ed Gillespie's decision to run in Virginia made another Democratic-held seat more competitive. Democrats, meanwhile, are playing offense in Georgia and Kentucky.

Moran was joined on the call by Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus and National Republican Congressional Committee Chairman Rep. Greg Walden (Ore.). Walden pointed to Republican David Jolly's recent win in Florida's 13th district special election as evidence that Democrats' keep-it-but-fix-it refrain is a "total flop."

Obamacare, Walden said, is "not the only issue," but it's a "brutal issue."

The outcome of the Florida race "showed what will happen to Democrats in November," added Priebus.

Wow!: As U.S. war ends, Russia returns to Afghanistan with series of investment projects

The article from The Washington Post is definitely worth reading.  Just a sample:

Russia’s recent incursion into its neighbor, Ukraine, and its annexation of Crimea reflect its intent to maintain influence in some former Soviet republics. It also reaching out to old allies further afield.

Last month, President Vladimir Putin received Egyptian army chief Abdel Fatah al-Sissi, whose relations with Washington have been strained since a coup last summer, and expressed support for the military man’s expected presidential bid.

Moscow is also negotiating a major arms deal with Sissi and agreed in 2012 to sell Iraq $4.3 billion in weapons. In Syria, Putin is strongly backing the government of President Bashar al-Assad as he seeks to crush a rebellion that has received support from the West.
In Afghanistan, Russian officials point to their development activities as a counterexample to U.S. aid projects, which many Afghans criticize as wasteful and misguided.
“The mistake of the last 12 years is that people were eager to give money, but without the proper strategy,” said Russian Ambassador Andrey Avetisyan, who was also based in Kabul as a young diplomat in the 1980s.
Many Afghans, including President Hamid Karzai, praise the Soviet model even though they fought a bloody 10-year war against the country’s army, which invaded in 1979 to support an unpopular communist government.
“The Soviet money went to the right place. They were efficient in spending their money and doing it through the Afghan government,” Karzai said in an interview with The Washington Post this month.
The new warmth between the Kremlin and Afghanistan was visible this week when the Afghan government released a message from Putin marking the Persian new year. It was the only such message made public, and was released at a time when the United States and European governments are imposing sanctions on Russia for its expansion into Ukraine.
“I am certain that friendly ties and cooperation between Russia and Afghanistan in the future will add to the goodness and welfare of our people,” Putin said in the message to Karzai, which was translated into Dari, the local language.
The Russian government has compiled a list of 140 Soviet-era projects that it would like to rehabilitate, according to the embassy. The Kabul Housebuilding Factory, the country’s largest manufacturing facility, was the first to receive assistance last fall: $25 million in new equipment.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Tax Experts: Brace for Insurance Tumult - Uncertainty About Health-Law Penalties Is Flagged as Potential Source of Confusion at Tax Time

From The Wall Street Journal:

Headaches over the health-care overhaul are likely to grow in the coming year as tens of millions of Americans face the task of establishing that they have insurance coverage to avoid paying penalties, tax experts say.

"We believe it's going to create massive confusion," said Mark Ciaramitaro, vice president of health-care enrollment services for H&R Block."There's so much now that confuses people. We think it gets much worse next tax season."

Perhaps the biggest problem is a lack of public understanding of the complex and frequently-changing program, tax experts say. They expect that to be compounded by a misunderstanding of the penalties, as many don't realize they could pay more than the minimum $95 for not having insurance.

"With respect to the individual shared responsibility provision under the Affordable Care Act, the rules are clear, and taxpayers should be able to determine very simply whether they had health coverage for 2014 or, if not, whether they owe a fee," said a Treasury spokeswoman, adding that the administration will impose the fee on anyone who doesn't have an exemption.

And Kathleen Sebelius, secretary of Health and Human Services, recently told lawmakers: "That's what the law says, and that is what will happen."

But the potential for confusion about the law is feeding speculation among some tax experts that the administration might end up waiving the individual-mandate penalty for 2014, or minimizing its impact by granting widespread exemptions.

The mandate—which generally requires consumers to get health coverage or face a tax penalty—is a pillar of the 2010 health law, designed to ensure that young, people become part of the insurance pool to help offset the cost of covering older, often less healthy individuals.

The administration's efforts to ease the burdens of launching the program, by delaying some deadlines for businesses, for example, have added to the public's bewilderment, experts say.
"Given the administration's repeated shifting of deadlines and changing requirements, I wouldn't be surprised if [President Barack] Obama decides to waive the 2014 penalty for some or all folks who would otherwise owe it," said Roberton Williams, a senior fellow at the Tax Policy Center, a think tank.
One worrisome finding: an Urban Institute study last month determined that knowledge of the individual mandate penalty is particularly low among those who lack health insurance—the people who would be responsible for paying it.
Given that the penalty can run into hundreds or even thousands of dollars, some tax experts worry that many consumers could be in for a nasty surprise when they file their taxes in 2015.
The $95 penalty for 2014 is only for low-income people. For most, the penalty would be higher—1% of adjusted income. For a married couple with two children making $50,000 a year, the penalty could run about $300 a year. The same couple making $100,000 a year on this basis could be fined nearly $800.
Another problem is that the government has made it difficult for the IRS to enforce the program.
For example, at least this year, the administration generally isn't requiring many insurers to report to the IRS on the coverage status of people they cover. That means the IRS won't have any ready means of double-checking the coverage claims of millions of filers as they send in their 2014 returns next year.
Reporting begins in earnest for the 2015 tax year. The IRS said it would provide instructions for calculating and noting the penalty as part of the Form 1040 for 2014, to be finalized this year.
Another question involves the numerous exemptions from the penalty. According to administration guidelines, there are 14 categories of reasons for allowing hardship exemptions, including floods or other disasters; death of a close family member; or cancellation of an existing health-care policy—a provision that the administration clarified this month will run through 2016.
A final category allows an exemption for "another hardship in obtaining health insurance."
Those provisions have raised questions—particularly among congressional Republicans—about whether the administration is laying the ground work for allowing many taxpayers who would otherwise face the penalty to avoid it for 2014.
Government officials say the final exemption isn't a blanket exemption, and some people might seek exemptions to qualify for catastrophic coverage.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Obama's Health-Care Pitch Takes Quirky Route - Cat Videos, College Basketball Are Part of Strategy to Persuade Young People to Sign Up

From The Wall Street Journal:

The White House is counting on cat videos, college basketball and a dancing first lady to help persuade young people to sign up for health coverage under the Affordable Care Act.

President Barack Obama's appearance on the mock talk show "Between Two Ferns" last week drew wide notice and millions of views. The online parody, it turns out, was part of a broader effort that has resulted in Mr. Obama and the first lady chatting up quirky radio DJs and self-proclaimed "digital influencers" on YouTube.

Administration officials say they are using a mix of platforms that reach young adults, but it isn't yet clear whether winning over the host of YouTube's "My Drunk Kitchen" will translate into higher enrollment numbers.
And critics contend the first couple risks looking unpresidential.
The intensified sales pitch comes as the White House scrambles to meet enrollment targets by March 31, the deadline for signing up for a health plan under the law this year.

Monday, March 17, 2014

House Republican leaders craft their vision for an alternative to health-care law

From The Washington Post:

House Republican leaders are adopting an agreed-upon conservative approach to fixing the nation’s health-care system, in part to draw an election-year contrast with President Obama’s Affordable Care Act.

The plan includes an expansion of high-risk insurance pools, promotion of health savings accounts and inducements for small businesses to purchase coverage together.

The tenets of the plan — which could expand to include the ability to buy insurance across state lines, guaranteed renewability of policies and changes to medical-malpractice regulations — are ideas that various conservatives have for a long time backed as part of broader bills.

But this is the first time this year that House leaders will put their full force behind a single set of principles from those bills and present it as their vision. This month, House leaders will begin to share a memo with lawmakers outlining the plan, called “A Stronger Health Care System: The GOP Plan for Freedom, Flexibility, & Peace of Mind,” with suggestions on how Republicans should talk about it to their constituents.

The Republicans’ plan is hardly intended as a full replacement of the federal health-care law — and that is by design. They would prefer to see a shift away from the federal government and to the states, with an emphasis on getting more consumers on private plans.

As they finalize their alternative, House Republicans are continuing their years-long effort to take a legislative hammer to the law, passing a bill Friday that would delay the individual mandate and repeal Medicare’s sustainable-growth rate.

Conservative leaders in the House, such as Rep. Tom Price (Ga.), a physician from the Atlanta suburbs, and Rep. Steve Scalise (La.), chairman of the Republican Study Committee, have also played critical roles. Their involvement has enabled the leadership to avoid complaints from the right flank — and ensured that Republicans would not veer from conservative doctrine.

But some conservatives are wary of the push to have House Republicans sing as a unified chorus.

A complete health-care overhaul remains the GOP’s overarching goal. GOP leaders, however, are open to adopting conservative versions of elements of the law. Regarding people with preexisting conditions, for instance, they point to the high-risk insurance pools, which would be managed and subsidized by states. On allowing children to stay on their parents’ health insurance plans until age 26, they said Republicans may back that policy.

Meanwhile, Senate Republicans are closely watching the House GOP’s activity. This year, Sens. Tom Coburn (Okla.), Orrin G. Hatch (Utah) and Richard Burr (N.C.) proposed their own alternative, which they suggested could be the basis for the party-wide pitch on health care.

“There are only so many answers — that’s the thing,” Coburn said. “I don’t care about the politics of it. I want to solve the problem. Eventually we’re going to have to roll up our sleeves and have some kind of combined message.”

Sunday, March 16, 2014

The intended message will not be worth the price that will be paid: Deportation Review Creates Potential Conflict for Obama

From The Wall Street Journal:

President Barack Obama's review of deportation practices creates a potential conflict between two of his goals: Responding to mounting pressure from Hispanic voters to ratchet back the removal of illegal immigrants, and working with Republicans to pass an overhaul of immigration laws.
The White House said late Thursday that Mr. Obama has ordered administration officials to study whether deportation policies could be carried out "more humanely within the confines of the law." The review could wind up scaling back deportations, which have hit record levels under the current administration.
Hispanic groups have long called for such a move, but doing so likely would anger Republican lawmakers needed by Mr. Obama to push through a rewrite of immigration laws.
"It's not going to help," said Rep. John Carter (R., Texas). "The fingerprints of executive decisions being made without working with the Congress just adds coals to the fire."
In 2012, Mr. Obama acted without Congress to stem the deportation of young people brought to the U.S. illegally, a decision that boosted Latino support for his re-election. The outcome of the administrative review on deportations may be far more modest.
A senior administration official on Friday said the White House isn't considering a halt to deportations. Rather, the review is likely to look at whether the administration is adhering to existing guidelines that make it a priority to deport people who present a public safety risk, as well as those trying to enter the country illegally, the official said.
The review, to be headed by Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson, may also consider whether a person's family ties in the U.S. should play a bigger role in deportation decisions. Hispanic and activist groups have long complained that deportations break up families in which some members are in the country legally and others illegally.
"We can do a more effective job prioritizing enforcement," the official said. "Are we going to take huge chunks of people off the table? No."
Mr. Obama delivered the same message to about a dozen immigration advocates at the White House Friday, according to two advocates who attended. One said Mr. Obama didn't promise any changes would be made to existing policy. And he said that when people made suggestions for policy changes, the president replied with skepticism about his authority to do so.
Still, the review is likely to quiet, at least for a time, demands by advocates that deportations be scaled back. The president announced the move in a meeting with leaders of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus that he called less than an hour before they were to pass a resolution demanding a halt to deportations of anybody who would qualify for legal status under legislation passed by the Senate last year. That resolution is now off the table, officials said.
The review likely will also complicate the already difficult path of immigration legislation by fueling Republican complaints that the president enforces laws selectively. This week, the GOP-led House passed a bill that would expedite lawsuits brought by Congress against a president who fails to enforce federal laws.
Many House Republicans say they aren't moving ahead with changes to immigration law because they don't trust Mr. Obama to fully enforce it. Brendan Buck, a spokesman for House Speaker John Boehner, said the immigration system is "failing families and our economy" but that the president is obligated to enforce the law, nonetheless.
The White House says it faithfully enforces the law, including immigration laws, and that its executive actions have been well within presidential authority.
Republicans have also complained about Mr. Obama's moves, taken without congressional agreement, to raise the minimum wage for federal contractors and change overtime-pay rules. Both carry possible political benefits for Democrats.
Democrats say the GOP will act on immigration based on its own political interests. Some Republicans have said it is a mistake to take up the issue this year, because it divides the party and the GOP should focus on the troubles of the Affordable Care Act ahead of the fall elections.
"Their argument about the president exceeding his authority is an excuse and not a real reason," said Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D., Calif.). "The president doesn't have limitless authority in this arena. I think he has more authority than he has used."

Noonan: Warnings From the Ukraine Crisis

Peggy Noonan writes in The Wall Street Journal:

What has been happening in Ukraine is not a wake-up call precisely but a tugging at the attention, a demand to focus.
There's a sense that in some new way we are watching the 21st century take its shape and express its central realities. Exactly 100 years ago, in August 1914, the facts that would shape the 20th century gathered and emerged in the Great War. History doesn't repeat itself; you can't, as they say, step into the same stream twice. But it does have an unseen circularity.
Sept. 11 started the century and brought forward the face of terrorism. It is still there and will continue to cause grave disruptions. Since then we have seen we are living in a time of uprisings, from the Mideast to Africa to the streets of Kiev. We are learning that history isn't over in Europe, that East-West tensions can simmer and boil over, that the 20th century didn't resolve as much as many had hoped.
A Mideast dictator last year used poison gas on his own population and strengthened his position. He's winning. What does that tell the other dictators? What does it suggest about our future?
I keep thinking of two things that for me capture the moment and our trajectory. The first is a sentence from Don DeLillo's prophetic 1991 novel, " Mao II ": "The future belongs to crowds." Movements will be massive. The street will rise and push. The street in Cairo, say, is full of young men who are jobless and unformed. They channel their energy into politics and street passions. If they had jobs they'd develop the habits of work—self-discipline, patience, a sense of building and belonging—that are so crucial to maintaining human society. But they don't, so they won't.
The second is the title of Tom Wolfe's most recent book, "Back to Blood." He was referring to tribalism, ethnicity, the enduring call of clan. But also just blood. Another enduring and even re-emergent force in human affairs.
We see Vladimir Putin as re-enacting the Cold War. He sees us as re-enacting American greatness. We see his actions as a throwback. He sees our denunciations as a strutting on the stage by a broken down, has-been actor.
Mr. Putin doesn't move because of American presidents, he moves for his own reasons. But he does move when American presidents are weak. He moved on Georgia in August 2008 when George W. Bush was reeling from unwon wars, terrible polls and a looming economic catastrophe that all but children knew was coming. (It came the next month.) Mr. Bush was no longer formidable as a leader of the free world.
Mr. Putin moved on Ukraine when Barack Obama was no longer a charismatic character but a known quantity with low polls, failing support, a weak economy. He'd taken Mr. Obama's measure during the Syria crisis and surely judged him not a shrewd international chess player but a secretly anxious professor who makes himself feel safe with the sound of his voice.
Mr. Putin didn't go into Ukraine because of Mr. Obama. He just factored him in.
A great question for the future: Will Mr. Putin ever respect an American president again? He knows our political situation, knows we're a 50-50 nation, would assume we're blocked from consensus barring unusual circumstances such as a direct attack. He's not impressed by our culture or our economy. He might also make inferences from America's demographic shifts. If we are a more non-European nation than we were 30 years ago, might he think us less likely to be engaged by—and enraged by—unfortunate dramas playing out in Europe? Mr. Putin, as Henry Kissinger says, is a serious strategist acting on serious perceived imperatives. He would make a point of figuring out the facts of his potential foe.
Three points on his overall tactics, all of which suggest what we'll be seeing more of in the future.
First, we tend to think the Big Lie in foreign policy as antique, pre-Internet, as dead as Goebbels. It is not. For days Mr. Putin insisted he went into Ukraine to protect innocent people from marauding fascists. To some degree it worked, including among a few foreign-policy professionals. Big lies can confuse the situation, fool the gullible, and buy time. Expect more of them.
Second, after the invasion Mr. Putin murked up the situation and again bought some time—and some tentativeness among his foes—by contributing to the idea that he was perhaps crazy—"in another world," as Angela Merkel is reported to have told Mr. Obama. (Imagine the White House relief: It's not our fault, you can't anticipate a madman! I guess that's why it leaked.) Mr. Putin helped spread the idea in his March 4 postinvasion news conference in Moscow. From the grimly hilarious account of The New Republic's Julia Ioffe : "He was a rainbow of emotion: Serious! angry! bemused! flustered! confused! So confused. Victor Yanukovich is still acting president of Ukraine, but he can't talk to Ukraine because Ukraine has no president." It was apparently quite a performance.
But Mr. Putin isn't crazy. Nor was Khrushchev when some of his communications were wild enough during the Cuban Missile Crisis that the Kennedy White House wondered if he was drunk or undergoing a coup. "We will bury you!" No, we will unsettle you. Mr. Putin may be psychologically interesting, but he's not mad. Allowing the idea to circulate added to the confusion, bought time and kept people wondering. Expect more of this from Mr. Putin.
Third, there is the matter of the unmarked Russian troops. Reporters in the Crimea had to shout, "Where are you from?" to be certain who they were. That added a new level of menace.
And it had a feeling of foreshadowing the wars of the future. Normally nations make it clear: We are Japan bombing Pearl Harbor, look at the rising sun on our planes. We are the Soviets in Afghanistan, look at our lumbering tanks!
But we have entered a time of war by at least temporary stealth. If there were a huge, coordinated, destabilizing cyberattack on our core institutions, it could be a while before intelligence agencies knew for certain who did it, and with whose help. If an entity attempted to take down the electric grid it might be some time before we knew who exactly was responsible. The same with a chemical or biological attack on any great city. Who are you? Who sent you?
It could be hard to know unless someone quickly claimed responsibility, as al Qaeda did after 9/11. Otherwise we are looking at a new kind of war, in which the fog is thicker and aggressions cannot be responded to quickly.
The most obvious Ukraine point has to do with American foreign policy in the sixth year of the Obama era.
Not being George W. Bush is not a foreign policy. Not invading countries is not a foreign policy. Wishing to demonstrate your sophistication by announcing you are unencumbered by the false historical narratives of the past is not a foreign policy. Assuming the world will be nice if we're not militarist is not a foreign policy
What is our foreign policy? Disliking global warming?

Obama Factor Adds to Fears of Democrats

From The New York Times:

Democrats are becoming increasingly alarmed about their midterm election fortunes amid President Obama’s sinking approval ratings, a loss in a special House election in Florida last week, and millions of dollars spent by Republican-aligned groups attacking the new health law.

The combination has led to uncharacteristic criticism of Mr. Obama and bitter complaints that his vaunted political organization has done little to help the party’s vulnerable congressional candidates.
Interviews with more than two dozen Democratic members of Congress, state party officials and strategists revealed a new urgency about the need to address the party’s prospects. One Democratic lawmaker, who asked not to be identified, said Mr. Obama was becoming “poisonous” to the party’s candidates. At the same time, Democrats are pressing senior aides to Mr. Obama for help from the political network.
Mr. Obama’s approval rating of 41 percent in a Wall Street Journal/NBC Poll last week matched that of a New York Times/CBS News survey in February and represents one of the clearest reasons for Democratic malaise. Since the post-World War II era, that measurement has been one of the most accurate predictors of midterm results, and any number below 50 means trouble for the party that holds the White House.
Historical trends over all also argue against the president’s party in a sixth year. In 1958, Republicans lost 48 seats in the House and 13 in the Senate; in 2006, Republicans lost 30 seats in the House and six in the Senate. In the past 50 years, only Bill Clinton in 1998, when his approval ratings were much higher than Mr. Obama’s today, did not drag down his party in a second midterm; Democrats picked up five House seats.
Most Democrats up for re-election are trying to put some distance between themselves and the president, choosing surrogates such as Mr. Clinton to campaign for them, particularly in the South and parts of the West.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Health Insurance Rates Likely to Rise in 2015 - Obama Administration Sees Pace of Increase Slowing

From The Wall Street Journal:

Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius said health-insurance premiums are "likely to go up" in 2015, an acknowledgment that the Obama administration doesn't believe the sweeping changes to the health-insurance marketplace will end premium increases in the near term.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Why he is doing stuff like this in an election year is beside me - the hole continues to get deeper: Obama Will Seek Broad Expansion of Overtime Pay

From The New York Times:

President Obama this week will seek to force American businesses to pay more overtime to millions of workers, the latest move by his administration to confront corporations that have had soaring profits even as wages have stagnated.

On Thursday, the president will direct the Labor Department to revamp its regulations to require overtime pay for several million additional fast-food managers, loan officers, computer technicians and others whom many businesses currently classify as “executive or professional” employees to avoid paying them overtime, according to White House officials briefed on the announcement.

Mr. Obama’s decision to use his executive authority to change the nation’s overtime rules is likely to be seen as a challenge to Republicans in Congress, who have already blocked most of the president’s economic agenda and have said they intend to fight his proposal to raise the federal minimum wage to $10.10 per hour from $7.25.

Mr. Obama’s action is certain to anger the business lobby in Washington, which has long fought for maximum flexibility for companies in paying overtime.
In 2004, business groups persuaded President George W. Bush’s administration to allow them greater latitude on exempting salaried white-collar workers from overtime pay, even as organized labor objected.
Conservatives criticized Mr. Obama’s impending action. “There’s no such thing as a free lunch,” said Daniel Mitchell, a senior fellow with the Cato Institute, who warned that employers might cut pay or use fewer workers. “If they push through something to make a certain class of workers more expensive, something will happen to adjust.”
Marc Freedman, the executive director of labor law policy for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, said the nation’s overtime regulations “affect a very wide cross section of employers and our members.”
“I expect this is an area we will be very much engaged in,” Mr. Freedman said.
Mr. Obama’s authority to act comes from his ability as president to revise the rules that carry out the Fair Labor Standards Act, which Congress originally passed in 1938. Mr. Bush and previous presidents used similar tactics at times to work around opponents in Congress.
The proposed new regulations would increase the number of people who qualify for overtime and continue Mr. Obama’s fight against what he says is a crisis of economic inequality in the country. Changes to the regulations will be subject to public comment before final approval by the Labor Department, and it is possible that strong opposition could cause Mr. Obama to scale back his proposal.
The overtime action by Mr. Obama is part of a broader election-year effort by the White House to try to convince voters that Democrats are looking out for the middle class. White House officials hope the focus on lifting workers’ pay will translate into support for Democratic congressional candidates this fall.
Under current federal regulations, workers who are deemed executive, administrative or professional employees can be denied overtime pay under a so-called white-collar exemption.
Under the new rules that Mr. Obama is seeking, fewer salaried employees could be blocked from receiving overtime, a move that would potentially shift billions of dollars’ worth of corporate income into the pockets of workers. Currently, employers are prohibited from denying time-and-a-half overtime pay to any salaried worker who makes less than $455 per week. Mr. Obama’s directive would significantly increase that salary level.
In addition, Mr. Obama will try to change rules that allow employers to define which workers are exempt from receiving overtime based on the kind of work they perform. Under current rules, if an employer declares that an employee’s primary responsibility is executive, such as overseeing a cleanup crew, then that worker can be exempted from overtime.

Health-Care Costs Are Shifting to Workers

From The Wall Street Journal:

The health-insurance landscape of American corporations is in flux right now, thanks to pressure to keep costs in line and the moving targets of the Affordable Care Act.

But a few trends are clear, according to a recent Towers Watson survey on employee benefits. The consulting company polled 595 U.S. employers with 1,000 or more employees, and the results confirm what many people already suspect: costs are shifting to workers, and employers are chipping away at the benefits they offer.

Among the key takeaways:

—Workers are paying more for employer-sponsored health insurance, in both premiums and out-of-pocket costs. Workers this year are paying about $100 more a month in medical costs than three years ago. In the past year alone, employees' share of premium costs rose to $2,975 from $2,782, on average, an increase of almost 7%. In all, workers are taking on 37% of total health-care expenses this year, up from 34.4% in 2011.

—Coverage for spouses won't last. Only 56% of companies say subsidized insurance for spouses is an important benefit in the future, compared with more than 70% that offer it today.

—The number of employers offering subsidized insurance to retired workers, especially those under age 65, is declining. More than 60% of companies that currently offer pre-65-year-old retirees access to an employer-sponsored plan say they expect to eliminate those programs in the next few years.

Employers may not even offer health insurance in a few years. Only 25% say they're confident they'll provide this benefit to workers by 2024.

Monday, March 10, 2014

Little-Known Health Act Fact: Prison Inmates Are Signing Up - Health care experts estimate that up to 35 percent of those newly eligible for Medicaid under Mr. Obama’s health care law are people with histories of criminal justice system involvement, including jail and prison inmates and those on parole or probation.

From The New York Times:

In a little-noticed outcome of President Obama’s Affordable Care Act, jails and prisons around the country are beginning to sign up inmates for health insurance under the law, taking advantage of the expansion of Medicaid that allows states to extend coverage to single and childless adults — a major part of the prison population.

State and counties are enrolling inmates for two main reasons. Although Medicaid does not cover standard health care for inmates, it can pay for their hospital stays beyond 24 hours — meaning states can transfer millions of dollars of obligations to the federal government.
But the most important benefit of the program, corrections officials say, is that inmates who are enrolled in Medicaid while in jail or prison can have coverage after they get out. People coming out of jail or prison have disproportionately high rates of chronic diseases, especially mental illness and addictive disorders. Few, however, have insurance, and many would qualify for Medicaid under the income test for the program — 138 percent of the poverty line — in the 25 states that have elected to expand their programs.
Health care experts estimate that up to 35 percent of those newly eligible for Medicaid under Mr. Obama’s health care law are people with histories of criminal justice system involvement, including jail and prison inmates and those on parole or probation.

Sunday, March 09, 2014

Presidential Power Undergoing a Transformation

Gerald Seib writes in The Wall Street Journal (2-18-2014):

It's just possible that the modern presidency is changing right before our eyes.

Much has been made of the problems President Barack Obama has had getting things done via the traditional method of working with Congress to enact laws and launch programs—and of his resolve this year to work around Congress.

It's commonly assumed that this represents a temporary state of affairs, born of Washington's recurring gridlock and the president's recent troubles, to prevail only until another election sorts out the political alignment and restores normal patterns.

But perhaps this is the new normal, not a temporary aberration. Perhaps what we think of as presidential power is changing in fundamental and lasting ways.

A series of forces are converging to change how a president can best hope to have an impact: The nation's deep and abiding political divide makes political consensus elusive on the biggest issues. A gerrymandered House of Representatives renders Congress virtually irrelevant on some matters. Long-term fiscal constraints make it hard to conjure up traditional government programs, while the public has lost confidence in many conventional government solutions.

Meantime, states, cities and nongovernment organizations are rising as venues for problem-solving. And the emergence of new technology and social media now allow a president to step outside the standard political and media channels to mobilize millions of people and dollars.

Odds are that many of these forces will persist not just through the remainder of President Obama's term, but into future presidencies. These changes mean the old pattern of exercising presidential power by proposing programs, cajoling Congress into passing them and then setting up a government apparatus to implement them may be giving way to a new pattern in which a president uses the White House as a platform to focus national attention on an issue and to mobilize forces outside Washington to devote time and resources to address it.

Consider it the 21st century version of what Teddy Roosevelt called the bully pulpit.

Thus the president is launching this month an enterprise called "My Brother's Keeper" to keep young minority men in school and out of trouble by bringing together corporations and foundations at the White House to agree on strategies and donate funds.

Similarly, when the president was unable to persuade Congress to extend unemployment benefits for the long-term jobless, he summoned some of the nation's largest employers to the White House late last month and extracted from them promises not to discriminate against the long-term unemployed in making hiring decisions.

When the White House was having difficulty getting Congress to enact legislation extending low-rate student loans, it generated a wave of social-media messages to lawmakers urging them to come up with a new plan, which they did. More recently, Mr. Obama has been creating pressure on colleges and universities to lower costs not by proposing a program for more student aid but through public lectures on the need to use new approaches such as online courses and three-year bachelor's programs to lower the bill for earning a degree.

In recent days, when the White House wanted to expand the acceptance of same-sex marriage, it simply had Attorney General Eric Holder issue a federal order extending a series of federal rights and privileges for married couples to gay couples. Meantime, the administration has begun beating the drums for restoring the right to vote to many felons, particularly those trapped by harsh crack cocaine laws that disproportionately affected minorities—even though voting-rights laws are enacted by states rather than the federal government.

Some of this is being done by using what White House officials call a president's "convening power," which is the ability to use the clout and magnetism of the Oval Office to bring together people and organizations to take on problems, contributing time, focus and money. That's the inside game of this new theory of presidential power.

The outside game is the ability to use social media to mobilize supporters around the country to push in the same direction. The power of social media was a big force in Mr. Obama's two successful presidential campaigns. White House officials acknowledge, though, that they haven't yet been as effective in harnessing the power to push governing goals.

One of the harsh realities underlying this new approach to presidential power is the simple fact that, in an era in which the federal government is hobbled by deficits, and an increasing amount of the budget that remains is gobbled up by sending out checks to pay for Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security, there simply isn't much left for the kinds of initiatives presidents enjoy launching.

That trend line doesn't figure to change, meaning that Barack Obama isn't likely to be the last president who has to rethink the concept of what power a president really holds.

North Carolina Is a Case Study in Jobless-Benefits Cut - State's Experiment Provides Some Answers to a Prickly Policy Question

From The Wall Street Journal (3-3-2014):

Six years after the country plunged into recession, politicians and economic-policy makers face a prickly question: What happens when the government ends long-term unemployment benefits meant to help the jobless through the downturn and its aftermath?

One state, North Carolina, is running an experiment that offers some real-life answers.

Long-term unemployment benefits ended in North Carolina in July, six months before the federal government ended $25 billion in long-term jobless benefits for all the other states at the start of the new year.

The Tar Heel State's unemployment rate since then has plunged, as people who were receiving benefits scrambled to find jobs or stopped looking for work. Employers report a flood of applicants.

But the experience in North Carolina has exposed two persistent problems dogging the workforce: many experienced workers are settling for lower-skill jobs, and a lack of skills is blocking many other workers from settling into an abundance of openings.
Many of the long-term unemployed have taken jobs for which they appear to be overqualified, based on experience or education, and some are piecing together multiple part-time jobs to fill the benefits gap.
At the same time, some employers say they face challenges finding the right people to fill openings.
The shifts in North Carolina have been dramatic since lawmakers in the state changed the law early last year to trim benefits by more than 30% and to include more work requirements.
That move disqualified North Carolina from extended federal unemployment benefits, which ended in July.
The jobless rate plummeted from 9.5% at the start of 2013 to 6.9% at the end, as 110,930 people left the labor force and overall employment rose by 13,414, according to data compiled by South by North Strategies Ltd., an economic- and social-policy research firm in Chapel Hill.
North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory, a Republican, said there was great uncertainty over what would unfold when benefits in his state were curtailed. But his administration, he said in an interview, kept hearing from employers "saying people weren't taking jobs that were available."
"We made the decision, 'let's try something different, because whatever has been tried for the last three years wasn't working,' " Mr. McCrory said.
At Charlotte Works, a public-private partnership that tries to align job training with skills needed by local employers, Steve Partridge has seen the job scramble up close.
"Some people have jumped into employment, but they are clearly underemployed," said Mr. Partridge, the group's president. "You've got someone who has an associate's or bachelor's degree, and they are working at a retail store to make ends meet."
Eddrena Morris, 51 years old, was laid off from her marketing job in 2012 and lost her long-term unemployment benefits in July. She has some college credits and is working to get a degree in graphic design but said she took temporary work at conventions to earn some income.
She has applied for between 75 and 100 jobs in the past year, including one stocking shelves at a Wal-Mart store, she said, adding, "I didn't even get called."
Several employers, though, point to a misalignment between jobs and the necessary skills in a state that has struggled for decades to rebuild its labor force after heavy job losses in manufacturing, tobacco and textiles.
Kip Blakely, vice president of industry and government relations at Timco Aviation Services in Greensboro, said his airline-maintenance company is trying to fill roughly 75 jobs in the state, though the jobs almost always require extensive certification.
"It's not real practical when someone is unemployed, out of work and underemployed" to tell them to spend two years getting certification from a local community college, Mr. Blakely said.
At the same time, competition for lower-skill jobs has been intense.
David Burleson, superintendent of the school district in Avery County, in the western part of the state, said dozens of people recently applied for a single job that paid between $20,000 and $22,000 annually, a trend he says has intensified in the past six months.
"When we post a clerical position, especially those positions that have limited skills, we just are flooded," Mr. Burleson said. "We have tried to figure out ways to reduce the number of eligible people by including some skill tests, because interviewing that many people really drains your staff."
The skills gap is something that Democrats and Republicans are weighing as they try to continue to address the elevated unemployment rate across the nation.
Mr. McCrory said it was going to be a particular focus in North Carolina, and the White House is reviewing all federal job-training programs to see if there is a better way to avoid duplication and more closely align training with job demand.
How closely—and quickly—the politics align with economics could determine whether policy can be effective in tackling long-term unemployment.

Thursday, March 06, 2014

Obama Gives Health Plans Added Two-Year Reprieve - Plans That Don't Meet ACA Rules Could Stay in Place Through 2016

From The Wall Street Journal:

The Obama administration further postponed a provision of the Affordable Care Act on Wednesday, the latest in a series of changes that have delayed or pared back the health overhaul so much that many of its ambitious goals won't be achieved during its first years in full effect.

Democrats sought to create a new health-care landscape when they passed the law in 2010, with millions of uninsured Americans gaining coverage, employers facing fines if they didn't insure workers and skimpy health plans disappearing.

But a series of delays by the administration—and decisions by states on implementing the law—have taken a toll. The latest delay came Wednesday, when federal officials said insurance companies could continue selling plans that don't meet the law's more rigorous standards until 2016 in some instances. It was the second time the administration delayed that requirement after the law's tougher standards prompted insurers to cancel millions of people's health plans last year. The latest delay averts another raft of cancellations before this year's midterm elections.
Employers are largely sitting on the sidelines after the Obama administration twice delayed the law's requirement that larger firms provide coverage or pay a fee. The rule was supposed to take full effect this year, but was first delayed until 2015 and now won't kick in until 2016 for many firms.
Fewer Americans are expected to gain coverage under the law thanks to its troubled rollout, legal challenges and Republican opposition in many states. Problems with the HealthCare.gov insurance enrollment site initially discouraged consumers from signing up. About half of states have opted not to expand Medicaid eligibility under the law after the Supreme Court ruled they weren't required to do so, leaving millions of low-income Americans with no subsidized options for gaining coverage.
"The Affordable Care Act has fundamentally improved the health-care marketplace, as it set out to do when the law passed," said Obama adviser Phil Schiliro, who cited statistics about a recent surge in enrollments on the HealthCare.gov site, coverage extended to people under 26 years old and seniors saving money on prescription drugs.
In the Carolinas, "the notion of some kind of universal coverage, which I think was the essence of the act, just isn't manifesting itself," said Joseph Piemont, chief operating officer of the Carolinas HealthCare System, which includes 900 physician offices, hospitals and other care centers across North and South Carolina. Both states have chosen not to expand their Medicaid programs under the law.
Still, big parts of the law are already in place this year. Insurance companies are no longer denying policies to people who have a black mark on their health history, or charging them more. Many policies are more robust, and include coverage of preventive services without out-of-pocket costs. And lower-income earners can get tax credits toward the cost of premiums, and some are paying less for coverage as a result.
Millions of younger Americans have stayed on their parents' health plans until their 26th birthdays—a provision so popular that some GOP lawmakers opposed to the law as a whole want to keep it.
But the law will only make a dent in the ranks of the roughly 50 million uninsured people in the U.S. in 2014. By 2020, there will still be 30 million people without coverage, according to projections by the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office.
In 2014, some six million people will be using the exchanges to get private coverage, the CBO said. Many of those people already had coverage and switched to new plans, rather than gaining coverage. To date, around four million people have picked a plan through the exchanges. Most people have until March 31 to sign up.
Some eight million additional people are expected to be in Medicaid, down from an estimate of 13 million people in 2014 that was made a few months before the Supreme Court ruling. Both the exchanges and Medicaid projections were also revised downward recently by one million to take into account the rough start of the online insurance portals.
Republican lawmakers have criticized each administration announcement of delays in the program. "If Obamacare is as great as Democrats say it is, why are they constantly having to delay parts of it?" Sen. John Thune (R., S.D.) said Wednesday. "Each and every delay of Obamacare is an admission that the Democrats' signature law is hurting Americans and an obvious attempt to try to save the jobs of vulnerable congressional Democrats come November."
The changes in the law haven't always been well-received by the businesses intended to benefit from them. Jeff Wesley, chief financial officer of Two Men and a Truck, a moving franchise, said that the constant changing of the rules had made it "almost impossible to react."
"We did our homework because we care about our franchise system…We had options ready if we had to execute them," he said. "It's very difficult with the unpredictability and uncertainty to adapt to something."
Other specific provisions of the Affordable Care Act have fallen by the wayside. The Independent Payment Advisory Board, described by backers as a way to improve Medicare and lower costs, is nonexistent, because the White House hasn't nominated anyone for the board, and Republicans have explicitly refused to make recommendations.
Under the law, the board's members could have begun writing advisory reports as early as this Jan. 15. But it only has to recommend spending cuts if Medicare's cost growth exceeds certain targets.
Administration officials have said there was currently no need for it because that spending growth is within the limits.
The administration said in October 2011 that it wouldn't implement a long-term-care insurance program that was a significant provision in the 2010 overhaul, in what was its first major policy reversal. The program, known as the Class Act, was shelved after the Department of Health and Human Services said its actuaries couldn't design a voluntary program that still met the requirements of the law that it remained fiscally solvent.
For some individual Americans who have benefited from the law's new insurance rules, 2014 has brought changes that are real and welcome.
Jed Weiner, a communications consultant in Chicago, said he would have paid $834 a month this year to continue buying his insurance through the Illinois high-risk pool for a plan that had a $5,000 deductible. The 59-year-old had been unable to buy commercial insurance after he left his previous job, because of a heart bypass 14 years ago.
The law's guaranteed-issue requirements mean that he is instead paying $780 a month for a medical plan bought in the individual market that has a $1,000 deductible. "I'm paying less money for a substantially better plan," he said.
Democrats who voted for the law say they consider the sheer fact of its survival to be a success and are taking a longer view on how it is implemented.
"I guess all I would say is, given the tremendous obstruction that Obama has been facing on the implementation of this program, it's a miracle that it's off the ground at all," said David Obey, who retired from Congress in 2011. "People are not going to remember 10 years from now whether [a certain section] went into effect in 2014, 2015 or 2016."