Pictures on the Wall

A long story about the gains that unions and working people have made under the Obama administration ends with a telling anecdote:

OSHA’s acting director, Jordan Barab, signaled a new tone at the agency in a speech to the Wisconsin AFL-CIO last month. One of the first things he did when he arrived, Barab said, was to replace pictures of OSHA managers displayed in a conference room with photos of workers who had been killed on the job.

What could be a better reminder of why OSHA staff go to work each day? Pictures on the wall are symbols, but powerful ones that speak directly to the priorities of the organization as a whole.

And those priorities, extending beyond OSHA, are seen in many ways—and have corporations and anti-worker voices squealing. They got used to having everything their way with the active help of the Bush administration, and now they see any challenge to their power as terribly unfair politicizing and an unlevel playing field and it’s just so unfair. But then, to them—to the Chamber of Commerce and WalMart and just about any company faced with the prospect of workers speaking with a united voice and an administration that actually enforces the laws that protect working people—anything less than a Mt. Everest slope in their favor is unfair.

Solidarity Off the Field, Too

Yesterday I wrote about the 12 members of the Major League Baseball Players Association who have come out in active support of the Employee Free Choice Act. That was an important reminder of some of the very prominent union members in this country, and it reminded me to go back a couple weeks to a story about a union member in another sport: Tom Brady.

Brady’s teammates have elected him an alternate representative in the NFL Players Association. Brady’s teammate and player representative Adalius Thomas explained the significance of the move:

“Very rarely do you see quarterbacks be that,’’ said Thomas. “So I think that says a lot about what his teammates think, and how important it is to him, some of the issues that may be going on with the union. I think it definitely adds power to it because of his status in the league and the respect he has from owners to coaches as well as players.’’

Acting as a proxy for his fellow players is not something Brady takes lightly.

“You’re a part of the meetings. You have a voice for whatever issues that may come up,’’ said Brady. “There are certainly a lot of them. The players obviously don’t want to see a lockout. We want to keep working, but if the owners lock us out, we’ve got to be informed. Hopefully, it doesn’t come to that, but it’s not really in the players’ control.’’

Brady also expressed solidarity extending beyond his team—solidarity that any union member should be able to understand:

“We’re only as strong as each other, whether it’s me or Drew Brees or Vrabel, or [Larry] Izzo,’’ said Brady. “We’re all in this together.’’

House Health Care Reform Bill Released

A few reviews of the House health care reform bill.

Seth Michaels at AFL-CIO Now:

Today, U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi unveiled a comprehensive reform bill that would guarantee coverage for 96 percent of the U.S. public.

Among other things, the bill, H.R. 3962, includes a public option, expands Medicaid coverage to families who earn up to 150 percent of the federal poverty level, provides help for middle-class families to get coverage and sets tough new rules for insurers, making sure that no one can be denied care or be rejected from coverage because of pre-existing conditions. It’s fairly funded through a combination of employer responsibility, cost savings and a surtax on the extremely wealthy—and does not get its funding from taxes on middle-class workers’ benefits. All that, and it will reduce the deficit in the long term.

Jason Rosenbaum at Health Care for America Now:

This bill makes health care more affordable to people, it regulates insurance company bad practices, it is fairly financed and asks employers to pitch in their fair share, and it gives us the choice of a public health insurance option to keep insurance companies honest.

There will be a lot more to say on this bill in the coming hours and days as it is passed through the House of Representatives, but the historical significance of today shouldn’t be understated.

Amanda Marcotte at Pandagon:

One big thing the bill does that will help a lot of people out is it not only bans denials based on pre-existing conditions, but it also bans premium increases. This was a major concern of mine, because simply mandating that insurance companies cover everyone doesn’t really help that much, if they just jack the rates up on the people with pre-existing conditions. The elimination on caps will also help people with catastrophic illnesses.

What makes reading this summary of the bill really exciting is that not only did the House make sure to get the minimum basic decency standards covered, but they threw in a bunch of goodies on top of the necessities:

# Guarantees that every child in America will have health care coverage that includes dental, hearing and vision benefits.

# Provides better preventive and wellness care. Every health care plan offered through the exchange and by employers after a grace period will cover preventive care at no cost to the patient.

# Increases the health care workforce to ensure that more doctors and nurses are available to provide quality care as more Americans get coverage.

If you think about it, moves like eliminating the co-pay on preventive care will save a lot of money over the long run, because it will encourage people to get that preventive care.

Mcjoan at Daily Kos, following a conference call with Speaker Nancy Pelosi:

Stressing that this bill is the “manifestation of rejecting business as usual,” the theme on which Barack Obama ran and won, Pelosi hit particularly strong on the fact that the House bill is stronger than the Senate bill in a number of ways, but particularly in rejecting the PhRMA deal–which she stressed the House was not a part of–struck between the White House, Senate and PhRMA. Answering a question from Ryan Grim, Pelosi stressed that the provisions included in this bill will recoup $120-130 billion to help bring costs down.

An addition key difference between the House and Senate bills she focused on is the “pay for” strategy. While the White House “clearly prefers” the Senate’s excise tax on high-value insurance plans, Pelosi stressed that “99.7 percent of the American people will be excluded” from the tax increases, which will raise over $400 billion, and “while it’s a few people, it’s a lot of money.”

These two issues–the additional money wrung out of PhRMA and the excise tax–are likely to be key flash points when the bill goes to conference. A third, employers mandates, wasn’t discussed in this call, but will be another point of contention in conference. The Senate bill (as far as we know, since they haven’t released details of which provisions of which bill–HELP v. SFC are going to be used) does not include the employer mandate, the House does.


Batters Up for Employee Free Choice

Players in the MLB (and the NFL and the NBA) aren’t just on teams with each other. They also share a membership that transcends teams and that they maintain even as they get traded around the country: They’re union members.

Twelve members of the Major League Baseball Players Association have come forward to say that they want the union representation that they have to be more easily available to other workers, through the Employee Free Choice Act.

The players—Shane Victorino, Jimmy Rollins, Mark Teixeira, Heath Bell, Dave Bush, LaTroy Hawkins, Torii Hunter, John Lannan, Andrew Miller, J.J. Putz, Justin Verlander and Adam Wainwright—said in a statement:

All Americans should have the same opportunity we’ve had—to be able to join a union without being fired and to negotiate with their employers without being penalized. Today, our country is facing some tough times. Health care costs are skyrocketing. Families are losing homes. Savings and retirement income are disappearing overnight.

Now more than ever, we need a strong union movement to protect our jobs, our pensions, and our future. The Employee Free Choice Act simply guarantees a level playing field for all workers. It makes sure everyone plays by the same rules. That’s as important in the workplace as it is in baseball.


Steel Cities Then and Now

This video features Braddock, Pennsylvania, the location of the steel mill that Bendygirl and I got to tour during the Netroots Nation convention in August. It’s a fascinating, if depressing, look at what’s happened to these manufacturing-based cities:

Regular Human Beings’ Lives

What DougJ at Balloon Juice said:

I agree that CBO scores are important and should be discussed. And I understand why politicians’ futures are always a subject of discussion in DC. But can there be any discussion of regular human beings’ lives here? I know that everyone who appears on tv or writes for a national paper has a good health care plan already. But don’t they ever wonder what it’s like for other people they pass on the street, for the people who serve them coffee or wait their tables?

I realize that if you’re poor in this country, then everything is your fault. If you take out a loan you shouldn’t have taken out, it’s proof that you’re too much of an idiot to handle money, whereas when rich people are fleeced by Bernie Madoff it’s proof that Madoff is a super-genius monster. If you’re hit by a stray bullet, you were probably in a gang. If you’re sick, it’s because you smoke and you’re overweight. And whatever trouble you have getting a job, it’s all because of your genetically determined low IQ. And if you weren’t poor, overweight, genetically deficient and so on you wouldn’t have trouble getting disqualified because of preconditions and you’d never get scammed by bogus insurance outfits.

But still, even in a society that accepts these myths, shouldn’t there be some concern about 45 million Americans without health insurance?

And I guess I’d ask you this: the politicians and pundits who stand by and watch millions of lives destroyed by our health care system—are they any better than the people who watched that horrible crime in Richmond? I think you know the answer.

I’d add to what Doug says, though. Because even if you don’t care about 45 million people without health insurance, what about the millions who have it but are vulnerable to losing it, or to being denied coverage because their insurance company doesn’t want to pay, or to going bankrupt from the bills their insurance won’t pay even though they did everything “right” even according to the “blame the poor” system? That’s the level of standing by we see in some politicians and pundits.


Health Care Reform Must Not Follow Stimulus Path

After Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid announced that he would include a public option in the Senate health care bill, it didn’t take Sen. Joe Lieberman long to threaten to block the bill altogether.

In stating his opposition to a public health insurance option, Lieberman sounded familiar notes from reform’s opponents, calling it a “government entitlement program” that will cost the government more money. Neither assertion is true. The public health insurance plan would be paid into, not subsidized, and as the Congressional Budget Office has repeatedly stated, the plan would reduce both premiums and government costs.

Not only are these assertions false, they represent a major change in Sen. Lieberman’s own position on health care. During his reelection campaign in 2006, he highlighted his positions on health care, which included something similar to the public option.

What Lieberman’s objections may well signal now, however, is a potential threat to health care reform with a public option from a gang of Senate “centrists” despite overwhelming support for the public option in recent polls. And that is likely what Majority Leader Reid had in mind yesterday when he said “Joe Lieberman is the least of Harry Reid’s problems.”

Today’s Washington Post reports that the usual suspects of “centrists” in the Senate are “unsure about Reid’s public option”.

The New York Times reported:

Among the Senate Democrats who have not committed to supporting the bill are Evan Bayh of Indiana, Mary L. Landrieu of Louisiana, Blanche Lincoln and Mark Pryor, both of Arkansas, and Ben Nelson of Nebraska.

Including Lieberman, this new “Gang of Six” has the potential to significantly damage health care reform in insidious ways. For example, on the public insurance option, they could withhold support for a cloture vote on the entire bill unless it was further compromised into either an “opt-in” plan, separate state-based plans, or a bogus down-the-road-but-never-happening “trigger” plan.

But the Senate’s public insurance plan with the “opt-out” provision for states, agreed to by Reid, Dodd, Baucus and the White House, is already a compromise. In fact, it’s a compromise of a compromise of a compromise of a compromise of a compromise!

Enough! There can be no more compromises on the public insurance option.

But even if they lose on that key component of reform, the “centrist” gang could — if allowed — still severely undermine other features of the bill. Under the rubric of “deficit reduction” they could try to reduce the number of people helped through subsidies for insurance and reduce those actual subsidies as well. They could push to reduce employer payments for those not covered, putting more of the burden on the middle-class and working families. And they could try to build in additional safeguards to protect the markets and profits of the private insurers — all under the assertion of “reducing costs”.

The lesson for the Democratic leadership and the White House shouldn’t be too tough to have learned. One simply needs to recall the progression of events back in February as the final versions of the stimulus bill were taking shape. In a nutshell, a relatively small group of Senate “centrists” — then led by Senators Lieberman, Ben Nelson (D-NE), Olympia Snowe (R-ME) and Susan Collins (R-ME) — succeeded in cutting roughly $100 billion in actual economic stimulative funding from the bill, substituting a non-stimulative tax reduction for wealthier Americans, thereby significantly hampering the plan’s ability to generate a real recovery.

And all under the rubric of getting to 60 votes, meaning their votes.

Here’s how that brouhaha went down.

On February 5 The New York Times reported “There’s a new gang in town” and they were intent on impacting the pending Recovery Act.

The group was frustrating the Senate majority leader, Harry Reid of Nevada, who was trying to bring the debate over President Obama’s economic program and top legislative priority to a close.

“I have explained to people within that group, they cannot hold the president of the United States hostage,” said Mr. Reid, who added that he was willing to work with them if they intended to be constructive rather than obstructive.

Stimulus Talks Set to Continue After Centrists Push Cuts The Times then reported:

By early evening, aides said the group had drafted a list of nearly $90 billion in cuts, including $40 billion in aid for states, more than $14 billion for various education programs, $4.1 billion to make federal buildings energy efficient and $1.5 billion for broadband Internet service in rural areas. But they remained short of a deal, and talks were expected to resume Friday morning.

The next day’s report was Senators Reach Deal on Stimulus Plan as Jobs Vanish:

The fine print was not immediately available, and the numbers were shifting. But in essence, the Democratic leadership and two centrist Republicans announced they had struck a deal on about $110 billion in cuts to the roughly $900 billion legislation — a deal expected to provide at least the 60 votes needed to send the bill out of the Senate and into negotiations with the House, which has passed its own version.

On February 7 columnist Paul Krugman warned in “What the centrists have wrought”:

Now the centrists have shaved off $86 billion in spending — much of it among the most effective and most needed parts of the plan. In particular, aid to state governments, which are in desperate straits, is both fast — because it prevents spending cuts rather than having to start up new projects — and effective, because it would in fact be spent; plus state and local governments are cutting back on essentials, so the social value of this spending would be high. But in the name of mighty centrism, $40 billion of that aid has been cut out.

My first cut says that the changes to the Senate bill will ensure that we have at least 600,000 fewer Americans employed over the next two years.

But that wasn’t the end of it, as the competing House and Senate versions of the stimulus still had to be merged into a single bill.

But the competing bills now reflect substantially different approaches. The House puts greater emphasis on helping states and localities avoid wide-scale cuts in services and layoffs of public employees. The Senate cut $40 billion of that aid from its bill, which is expected to be approved Tuesday.

The Senate plan, reached in an agreement late Friday between Democrats and three moderate Republicans, focuses somewhat more heavily on tax cuts, provides far less generous health care subsidies for the unemployed and lowers a proposed increase in food stamps.

When it was clear that the Senate, with their 60 vote fetish, would likely win out, Paul Krugman wrote of “The Destructive Center”:

What do you call someone who eliminates hundreds of thousands of American jobs, deprives millions of adequate health care and nutrition, undermines schools, but offers a $15,000 bonus to affluent people who flip their houses?
A proud centrist. For that is what the senators who ended up calling the tune on the stimulus bill just accomplished.

On February 11 The New York Times reported the House-Senate “deal”:

The package of spending increases and tax relief, intended to spur an economic recovery and create jobs by putting money back in the pockets of consumers and companies, ended up smaller than either the House or Senate had proposed.

Even before final Congressional passage it had become clear that the stimulus package had been severely impacted by the Senate centrists, as The Times reported in “Details of a Trimmer Stimulus Emerge” on February 12:

Even before the last touches were put to the bill, some angry Democrats said that Mr. Obama and Congressional leaders had been too quick to give up on Democratic priorities. “I am not happy with it,” said Senator Tom Harkin, Democrat of Iowa. “You are not looking at a happy camper. I mean they took a lot of stuff out of education. They took it out of health, school construction and they put it more into tax issues.”

Mr. Harkin said he was particularly frustrated by the money being spent on fixing the alternative minimum tax. “It’s about 9 percent of the whole bill,” he said, “Why is it in there? It has nothing to do with stimulus. It has nothing to do with recovery.”

But even as Congressional leaders and top White House officials went through the package with a carving knife, it was clear that the three Republicans who agreed to support the bill in the Senate wielded extraordinary power, and along with conservative Democrats, had put a firm stamp on the stimulus package.

The lessons from the stimulus legislative process are clear. The question now, in the context of the current battle for health care reform and the public option, is whether the Democratic leadership and the White House have learned those lessons. Or will they allow the perverse conceit of the centrists to win out over the interests of the American people?

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The Stimulus is Working–But Not Enough

Every piece of evidence that comes out bolsters the same point: The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act has created or saved a lot of jobs and helped the economy—but much more of the same is needed.

WASHINGTON — States have reported using stimulus money to create or save more than 388,000 jobs so far this year, buttressing the Obama administration’s claim that the $787 billion plan has had a significant impact on the economy.

That total, based on a USA TODAY review of reports from 33 states and Puerto Rico, includes teachers, construction workers, and others whose jobs were funded by stimulus money awarded to states. The administration plans Friday to release reports from all 50 states, providing the broadest accounting yet of the stimulus plan’s impact.

Ethan Pollack of the Economic Policy Institute is quoted urging that the numbers be taken with a grain of salt, but

Still, Frank Lichtenberg of the Columbia Business School says the figures show a significant economic impact. Obama’s Council of Economic Advisors estimated that the stimulus had saved or created 600,000 to 1.1 million jobs. Lichtenberg said the states’ reports “make that sound like a reasonable estimate.”

That’s more than a few jobs. It’s also more than a few less than there are unemployed people. That’s why the stimulus should have been bigger to begin with, and why further government action should be taken.


Interesting Things Around the Internet

Scariest Pumpkins Ever

We’re not screwing around this Halloween. Ghosts, bats, vampires…whatever. If they can make it into a “sexy ______” costume by throwing some teeth or ears or whatever in a bag and putting a picture of a woman in said teeth and ears and a cheap miniskirt on the front, how scary can it really be?

On the other hand, try making a health insurance company into a sexy Halloween costume. Can’t be done—those guys really are scary.

But we have made them into some of the scariest pumpkins ever. Check it out:

That there is a pumpkin that will deny you for a preexisting condition in a heartbeat.

See our other scary-ass pumpkins, take action, carve your own pumpkin. And if you do manage to make a sexy health insurance costume, tell us how, because that’s remarkable.

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