A Big Day for a Better Senate

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Much of President Obama’s administration has been taken up by fights over nominees who would have gotten majority votes, but couldn’t get past the vote to end debate.

That ended today.

A majority of votes in the Senate ended the practice of filibusters of executive branch and lower court nominees—a practice that has become routine in recent years, spearheaded by Kentucky Sen. Mitch McConnell, the minority leader.

“In the history of the Republic, there have been 168 filibusters of executive and judicial nominations,” Sen. Harry Reid, the Senate’s majority leader, said in a statement today. “Half of them have occurred during the Obama Administration – during the last four and a half years. These nominees deserve at least an up-or-down vote.”

Reid brought the matter up for a vote today after the filibuster.
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“Ending the abusive filibuster on nominations is a big step toward restoring the functionality of the Senate,” Sen. Jeff Merkley of Oregon said after today’s vote. Merkley pointed out the broad variety of important issues overseen by the courts blockaded by the Senate’s Republican minority, and called today’s rule change “a victory for the American people.”

Granted, this would mean that if Republicans win the White House and a majority in the Senate, they’d be able to pass their own nominees just as easily. That’s how it’s supposed to work. Elections are supposed to have consequences.

Today’s a good day for people who care about democracy and governing.

Photo by sdmc on Flickr

Elizabeth Warren Takes on the Unfinished Business of Reining In the Banks

Five years after the financial collapse that caused the Great Recession, the big banks that helped tank the economy are as powerful as they’ve ever been. The 2010 financial reform bill was just a down payment on a much-needed effort to rein in the size and reach of these big banks, so that they serve the economy, rather than directing—and endangering—it.

It’s not an easy battle, because big banks have as much sway politically as they do economically. Fortunately for us, Elizabeth Warren was elected to the Senate a year ago.

In a speech yesterday to the Roosevelt Institute and financial reform advocates, Warren said that the problem of “too big to fail” is still with us. The major banks are larger than ever, deeply interconnected, complex enough to daunt regulators and influential enough to intimidate them.

Warren’s speech coincided with the launch of “The Unfinished Mission,” a new report from the Roosevelt Institute on the future of the banks, our laws and our economy.

Warren, a finance-law expert who has introduced legislation to scale down the size and complexity of banks, put it well in her speech:

What I want to know is this: how much longer should Congress wait for regulators to fix this problem? Another three months? Another three years? Until the next big bank comes crashing down?
…We should not accept a financial system that allows the biggest banks to emerge from a crisis in record-setting shape while working Americans continue to struggle. And we should not accept a regulatory system that is so besieged by lobbyists for the big banks that it takes years to deliver rules and then the rules that are delivered are often watered-down and ineffective. What we need is a system that puts an end to the boom and bust cycle. A system that recognizes we don’t grow this country from the financial sector; we grow this country from the middle class.

As David Dayen notes, what Warren is talking about isn’t some arcane quirk of financial regulation—it’s a conversation about the kind of economy we want to have and the role of the finance industry within that economy.

Food Stamp Cuts: Stupid, Pointless and Cruel Policy

Today, a congressional conference committee has come together to debate the farm bill. It seems almost certain that the result is going to be cuts to Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, also known as food stamps.

Starting Nov. 1, big cuts to food stamps are already set to happen, due to the expiration of a provision in the 2009 Recovery Act. But there are likely to be more on the way, since the House and Senate have each passed bills lowering SNAP spending. The Senate bill cuts $4.5 billion over the next ten years, while the House bill is much more drastic, with $39 billion in cuts over 10 years and an estimated 3.8 million people bounced out of the program entirely.

The automatic cuts are unfortunate on their own—mostly ignored by the press, they’re going to come as a major hit to families. The fact is that they were put in place as a temporary measure to ease the pressure of the crushing recession—but, for millions of working people, there hasn’t been much of a recovery.

Indeed, as Ned Resnikoff points out, hunger is a real problem for lower-income families, even when they have employment. The Nov. 1 cuts are already expected to strain not just these families but the charitable organizations on which they often depend.

When families get less help paying for food, it hurts the whole economy. As the Washington Post’s Reid Wilson notes:

Every SNAP recipient in every state will see their rates cut…Cutting SNAP dollars can mean cutting economic activity, too. Because SNAP recipients use their benefits so quickly, studies estimate that every $1 in SNAP money creates $1.70 in economic activity.

A striking series of charts from Mother Jones shows the positive impact that food stamps have—to the families who rely on them, to the future prospects of kids in those families, and to the economy as a whole. The program lifts 4 million people out of poverty, creates jobs in farming and food service, and improves nutrition for younger children, which in turn has lifelong benefits in educational outcomes and health.

It’s disappointing and unnecessary that the Recovery Act SNAP expansion is expiring—but further cuts aren’t just unnecessary, they’re economically counterproductive and gratuitously cruel, especially at the huge scale demanded by House Republicans.

The Shutdown Crisis Is Over. The Jobs Crisis Is Still Here.

The good news is that, last week, we managed to temporarily end the totally optional crisis created by House Republicans. The government is re-opened and the threat of a debt-ceiling default is passed.

Wouldn’t it be nice if we could address the actual crisis we’re up against?

Today’s job report—delayed because of the shutdown—is discouragingly weak. Unemployment is still over 7%, and the 148,000 jobs we added aren’t anywhere near sufficient to get us where we need to be. The effects of repeated manufactured crises—debt-ceiling uncertainty, the shutdown, and most significantly the sequestration cuts imposed in 2011—are dragging down an economy that has hardly had a chance to recover from a recession that started years ago.

And yet the talk in Washington, as we approach another budget debate, is once again about debt and deficits. As Ryan Cooper writes, we’re stuck having the wrong conversation.

Republicans in the House, like Paul Ryan, have made no secret of the fact that they intend to use every opportunity they can to cut programs like Social Security and Medicare. Unfortunately, the idea that we urgently need to cut these programs is epidemic in Washington—it has fans in both parties and much of the political press takes it for granted as a basic truth. (AFL-CIO Policy Director Damon Silvers neatly dismembers this idea here.)

Deficit reduction doesn’t cause economic growth; it is a result of economic growth. Cutting programs like Social Security and Medicare that help keep people out of poverty is a drag on our economy—as are the stupid, short-sighted sequestration cuts, which are like a slow-acting, long-term version of the government shutdown.

You’re going to hear a lot about the urgent need for more cuts. Don’t buy it. We need to be focused on what’s going to get us more and better jobs.

Medicaid Works—But State Holdouts Could Leave Millions Uninsured

Great news from Oregon: the expanded funding for Medicaid coverage, a critical part of the Affordable Care Act, is going to radically reduce that state’s uninsured population.

And in another great development, Ohio looks set to accept expanded Medicaid funding as well. That makes a real difference for 300,000 uninsured low-income Ohioans.

Unfortunately, the good news from Oregon and Ohio isn’t going to be much comfort to millions of people in states that rejected expanded Medicaid funding:

About 5.2 million Americans will be left without health coverage because of the decision by 26 U.S. states to reject expanded Medicaid insurance programs for the poor with money provided under Obamacare.
Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi and South Carolina will be particularly hard-hit, as those southern states will fail to provide coverage to at least one-third of uninsured adults.

This creates completely unnecessary disparities in coverage. Working people in New Mexico will be covered; their counterparts across the state line in Texas—where Gov. Rick Perry is one of the law’s loudest opponents—won’t. The states that are refusing the expanded Medicaid funds, sadly, are often the ones with the biggest problems of poverty and insurance. A New York Times study shows that the states that aren’t expanding Medicaid have a higher poverty rate than those that are.

In many cases, the states that aren’t accepting the expansion funds are also those that have extremely stingy Medicaid thresholds anyway—so the number of poorer people who don’t qualify is even higher. As Paul Waldman notes:

In Alabama, you can’t get Medicaid if your income exceeds 23 percent of the poverty level, or $4,500 for a family of three…the state of Alabama says if you’re that rich, you can afford to buy health insurance. In Texas, the state that will be depriving the most people of insurance by rejecting the expansion, only families under 25 percent of the poverty level, or $4,894 for a family of three, will be eligible for Medicaid.

Plenty of pundits and politicians gloat that ACA isn’t covering as many people as it should, but support Gov. Perry and his cohort’s decision to reject Medicaid expansion. It’s a little bit like bloodying someone’s nose, then saying they broke their promise to keep their shirt clean—except in this case the bullying has bigger consequences than one punch.

From The Cheap Seats: Support Your Local Labor FilmFest!

Chris Garlock, Union Cities Mobilizer for the Metro Washington Council, directs the annual DC Labor FilmFest.

If you live anywhere in metro Washington DC, or are planning to visit the area, this is a bad time to visit any of our nation’s monuments or museums – shuttered by the shutdown — but it’s a great time to catch a labor movie. The 13th annual DC Labor FilmFest kicks off this Friday with a free showing of “Brother Outsider: The Story of Bayard Rustin” at the AFL-CIO, then moves to the American Film Institute for a series of screenings that run October 11-17. But even if you don’t live here, I want to encourage you to either support your local labor film festival, or start one in your community.

The DC Labor FilmFest was an instant hit when it began in 2001 and has steadily grown in both scope and popularity. We’ve screened hundreds of films about work, workers and worker’s issues over the last dozen years. We’ve shown documentaries and dramas, but also comedies, romantic comedies and even science fiction films that explore the world of work.

During the depths of the Great Depression, millions of Americans flocked to the movies each week. The new medium provided welcome solace for men and women battered by economic disaster. For a few hours at least, they could forget they were jobless, homeless and hungry.

Hard times are here again, and while we have many more entertainment choices today, people across the nation – indeed, around the globe – still turn to the movies, hungry for that brief respite from the unrelenting tide of bad news that’s crushing the lives, hopes and dreams of so many.

We turn to art not just because it entertains or distracts us, but because it helps us to see ourselves through a different lens. It helps us both to see what’s really going on, and to more vividly imagine what could be. When so many are out of work, are losing their homes and their hope, a laugh and a peek at a better future is more than welcome, it’s necessary. Call it food for the soul.

The annual DC Labor FilmFest sets a table with nourishing food for the soul, where our viewers find movies that entertain, that make them laugh, that make them cry, and that will bring them out of the theater angry and determined to do something to change the world.

Our influence is not limited to the metropolitan Washington area; we also host the Conference of Labor Film Festival Organizers, which has attracted international participation from the beginning in 2011, and this year includes labor film festival organizers from Israel, South Africa and the UK, as well as across the United States. The Conference reflects the DC LaborFilmFest’s leading role in promoting labor film festivals worldwide, which includes our online Labor Film Database and earlier this year the first-ever Global Labor Film Festival, in which nearly two dozen labor film festivals around the world coordinated screenings of labor films during the month of May to showcase the growing worldwide scope of film festivals focused on films about work, workers and their issues.

We also collaborate year-round with local organizers who are interested in starting labor-themed film festivals in their communities, looking forward to a day in the not-too-distant future when there are hundreds of labor film festivals helping bring the issues of working people to silver screens around the world.

The Debt Ceiling: What You Need to Know About Why We’re Scarily Close to a Crisis

On Oct. 17, the U.S. runs up against its “debt ceiling”—a limit on how much we can borrow to pay the costs we’re required to pay by law. It’s a potentially very dangerous situation, even worse than the shutdown. Here’s why: right now, the U.S. is a good investment, but if we declare outright that we won’t pay our obligations, that can change quickly, with big economic consequences. (Check out this Washington Post explainer for more.)

Fortunately, it should be easy to avert. There’s no cost to raising the debt ceiling—Congress can do it with a vote. You’ll hear a lot of misinformation about what’s happening, but those are the facts.

Unfortunately, House Republicans won’t raise the debt ceiling without getting something “in exchange”—as though not defaulting and driving the country into economic crisis is a favor that they’d be doing the rest of us.

One man could change this: House Speaker John Boehner.

Here’s a very good report on the bind Boehner is in. To sum up: Boehner doesn’t want to pass a bill that doesn’t have 218 Republican votes; he has 232 Republicans; but more than 17 of them are actually debt-ceiling denialists who say that going over the debt ceiling won’t cause a crisis. (See Florida’s Rep. Ted Yoho, who claims going past the debt ceiling will reassure the markets.)

Boehner has to pass a debt ceiling increase, he won’t pass something without just GOP votes, he doesn’t have the GOP votes.

Something has to give, and what should give is Boehner’s insistence on the votes of people who don’t actually understand the debt ceiling.

We are genuinely close to a genuine crisis because one of our most powerful leaders is dependent on people who don’t know what they’re doing—or are pretending to not know what they’re doing because it gives them “leverage.”

Meet WorkingAmericaHealthCare.org

We’re excited to unveil our new health care website: WorkingAmericaHealthCare.org.

In the thousands of conversations we have every week, health care is consistently one of the most important issues to our members. That’s why we’ve spent a decade as a champion for coverage, and why we fought so hard to pass the Affordable Care Act. And now that the law is taking effect, we want to do everything we can to make sure it works.

That’s where WorkingAmericaHealthCare.org comes in. We want it to be a resource where you can get the information you need to make the ACA work for you and your family—you can find out about key dates, get helpful tips and sign up to get more information by email. You can also find out about key health care-related benefits available exclusively to Working America members – at no additional cost.

As the ACA gets underway, we’ll be adding more information to the site and unveiling some exciting new pieces in our effort to expand health care coverage—including hosting health care enrollment fairs throughout the country where anyone can join and learn more information about the ACA, the Health Insurance Marketplaces and their health insurance options.

Check out WorkingAmericaHealthCare.org today and stay tuned for more updates on how to make the most of the new health care law.

8 Things You Need to Know About the Shutdown

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In case you haven’t heard, the government shut down at midnight last night as Congress failed to pass a “continuing resolution” to keep it operating. You’ll hear a lot of people saying this is a “standoff” or a simple case of two sides being unable to compromise. But it’s not politics as usual—it’s an unusual, and dangerous, hijacking of politics by a determined minority. Here are eight things to keep in mind as you watch this play out.

1. It’s Totally Optional: First and foremost, there’s no reason for a shutdown, except that House Republicans refuse to pass a continuing resolution (CR) without attaching unrelated provisions to undermine the Affordable Care Act. This is not an inevitable crisis. It’s a manufactured one.

2. About 800,000 People Aren’t Working, Many Working Without Pay: That’s according to this good, comprehensive overview by Brad Plumer of the Washington Post. “Non-essential employees” like medical researchers, pesticide regulators, wage-law enforcement officials and veterans’ benefits processors are staying home today and it’s unclear whether they’ll get back pay. That hit households hard.*

3. A Lot of People Could Go Without Benefits: Per Plumer’s report, some services provided by the government—like disability claims and pensions for veterans and food aid for low-income parents—will fall short if the shutdown goes on too long.

4. That’s Awful for the Economy: When people don’t get the money they’re expecting to get, they can’t do things like buy food or pay rent. When families and businesses don’t know when government will re-open, that makes matters worse. One economic research firm estimates the cost of a shutdown to our economy at $300 million a day.

5. Senate Democrats Have Already Compromised: The CR that Senate Democrats have passed, multiple times, isn’t based on their ideal budget. It’s based on the House Republicans’ lower spending levels, which lock in place sequestration cuts. Here’s an image from economist Michael Linden that explains it:

6. Keeping the Government Open Isn’t a Concession: House Republicans are trying to say that they’re just trying to “negotiate” with the Senate. But “do what we say or the economy gets it” isn’t a “negotiation.” It does not constitute a compromise on their part to “offer” to fund government operations. It’s called “governing.”

7. Many Republicans Understand What They’re Doing Is Crazy, Are Doing It Anyway: It’s simply not the case that most, or even all, Republicans, are enthusiastic about forcing a standoff. Even conservative writers admit that this is about a small, committed ideological caucus within the Republican party. As Kate Nocera reports, Wisconsin Republican Reid Ribble called the shutdown strategy “irrational” and admitted that it would cause “risk to our economy.” And yet—out of loyalty to leadership, fear of a primary opponent, or some other mysterious reason—he voted with the rest of his party for the “irrational” and economy-damaging strategy at every opportunity. You get zero credit for knowing the right thing if you keep doing the wrong thing anyway.

8. It’s Undemocratic: Government by manufactured crisis and hostage-taking violates the basic norms of democracy—and the polls show that shutting down government to block or undermine the new health care law is a deeply unpopular position. Republicans are engaging in this behavior because they couldn’t win enough power in elections to get what they want any other way. It’s absurd to accept that as normal.

As this situation unfolds, keep those eight points in mind.

*Full disclosure: as the spouse of a federal employee, I’m part of one of these hard-hit households.

The Texan Who Is Really Undermining Health Care Isn’t Ted Cruz

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Sen. Ted Cruz, a Texas Republican, took to the floor of the Senate today to stage a pretend filibuster. He’s been talking for a long time, and claims it’s his effort to derail the Affordable Care Act.

Fortunately, Cruz’s grandstanding will have zero effect on the new health care law. But as Tara Culp-Ressler notes, what Cruz is doing is just a distraction from the real attack on ACA. If you want to see a Texas Republican sabotaging the new law and preventing people from getting the coverage they need,

  • Perry refused to accept federal funds to expand Medicaid coverage. That means hundreds of thousands of low-income Texans will have no coverage whatsoever.
  • Perry declined to set up a Health Insurance Marketplace, forcing the federal government to step in.
  • Perry imposed tons of new regulations on organizations and agencies who want to assist people in signing up for health care in the Marketplace.

Millions of Texans go uninsured—it has one of the highest uninsured rates of any state. There are few places that need the ACA more. But Rick Perry is doing everything in his power to break the law and make it less functional.

That might play well at right-wing fundraising events. But it means people in Texas are going to have a harder time getting health care.

Ted Cruz is making a lot of noise. Rick Perry is actually, critically undermining the ACA.

Tell Governor Perry to accept federal Medicaid funds and help nearly 2 million Texans afford health insurance.

Photo by Gage Skidmore on Flickr

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