Thursday, July 30, 2009

Max Baucus, Point Man

The focal point of the health care debate is focused on the Senate Finance Committee chaired by Sen Max Baucus(D-MT).  After reading a couple of profiles of Senator Baucus, I have thought about him and the process, and this my guess as to why we are where we are in the debate.

Senator Baucus has made a career of straddling the middle.  He supported the Bush tax cuts and the Iraq War.  When the Republican passed the Medicare drug bill the only two Democrats allowed into the room during negotiations were Sen. Baucus and another moderate Democrat Sen. John Bruex(D-La).  However, Baucus led the way when congressional Democrats successfully fought Bush's plans for Social Security.

As I look at this record my sense is Baucus is a conservative in the traditional sense.  He doesn't want radical change but he will fight tooth and nail to protect what already exists.  The questions then are does health care reform require radical reform, and is the electorate calling for change?

The article from the Missoula Montana paper quotes a former Baucus aide saying, "I think we've reached a juncture, probably in history, where there's a difference between hard work and leadership.  And Max needs to show that... he can get a good bill passed through leadership, not just hard work.  If he wants to be remembered he needs to provide the leadership to solve this problem."

I 'm not sure that a person whose instincts are conservative can bring the required leadership for health care reform.  Even though the proposal is not very radical because it still keeps the anachronistic employee based health system, it still contains the seed to grow into a radical change of our health care system.  Baucus either cannot see this or wants to bring reform reform through tweeking the current system.  

However, the path of the current system is unsustainable.  More people will become uninsured and more insured people will be risking bankruptcy if they should have a major medical need.  Businesses will offer health insurance that covers less and less and continue to provide stagnant wages because health benefits eat the compensation packages.  The current proposals are a compromise from progressives desires for a single payer.  The current proposals do provide a way for more progressive options to be visited at a later date.  

Baucus' instinctual conservative view means he sees tweaking the current system is the answer, which would make harder to grow his plan in more progressive direction  and one day might require a more extensive overhaul.  Also, Sen. Baucus's conservative political instincts means he is misreading the political winds.  He cam of age in a era of Republican ascendency but is in an era of Democratic ascendency.  His sidelining of the more liberal members of committee means he risks losing big and bring the whole package down.  Chairman Baucus even locked the chair of the Health sub-committee Sen Jay Rockefeller out of the negotiations. 

Baucus' method of leading a group of centrist Democrats and Republicans means he misread the situation.  He should have led negotiations beteen more liberal Democrats and centrist Democrats to get a bill that could be supported by every Democrat in his committee.    He negotiated with those he didn't need to and left out those whose votes count.  A gentlemanly move but one that fails basic leadership.  He has attempted to lead those who he cannot and ignored those who could help him.

However, it is not too late.  The big thing now is to get the bill out of committee and onto the floor.  The other bill from the Senate HELP committee and the House bills are substantially more progressive.  Baucus can show real leadership by help combining the two bills and being willing to support the final product if it is more liberal than his original bill.  He can also show leadership by siding with his Democratic colleagues against any filibuster attempt and leading the centrist Democrats to siding with the party on the procedural votes even if some of them vote against the final legislation.  It will mean that Baucus will need to go against his every political instinct.  I realize that is hard but real leadership means being able set aside your instincts on those rare occasions when real and lasting positive change can happen.

The Highest Court in the Realm

Today, the House of Lords handed down the last judicial decisions it will ever make.  That is because the UK is getting a supreme court.  Since the Middle Ages, the highest court in the UK was the House of Lords, which is also the second legislative house of Parliament.  Twelve senior judges sit in the Lords and handle all the legal appeals that come before the body and these twelve jurists are known as the Law Lords.  These twelve, and only these twelve, are allowed to rule on judicial cases.  As members of the House of Lords, the twelve Law Lords can participate in debates and vote on legislation.  However, most wait until after they retire from the legal profession to participate in the legislative affairs in the Lords.

All of that changes in October when the UK Supreme Court starts to hear cases.  In accordance with the Constitutional Reform Act of 2005, The Supreme Court of the United Kingdom will take over the legal function of the House of Lords.  The current Law Lords will become the first justices and succeeding justice will be appointed by the Queen on the advice of the Prime Minister.  One key feature will be that, unlike the U.S. Supreme Court, proceedings of the UK Supreme Court will televised.

Every political system has its anachronisms(The goings on in the U.S. Senate come to mind), but some countries seem to be able to reform their systems when the need arises.  The UK seems just such a country.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Book Review

On my honeymoon I picked up William Hague's biography of William Wilberforce from the The Parliamentary Bookshop.  Hague is an MP and served in later cabinets of John Major.  In 1997 Hague became leader of the Conservative Party but left the leadership after the Tories landslide defat in 2001 general election.  Hague returned to the frontbench when David Cameron made Hague the shadow foreign secretary.  During his sojourn on the backbenches, Hague turned his attention to the political leaders of the late 18th and early 19th century.  Hague wrote a biogrpahy of the great Prime Minister William Pitt the Younger.

The story of William Wilberforce is a marvelous one, and Hague tells it well.  He puts Wilberforce's drive to abolish the slave trade squarely within Wilberforce's own beliefs in evangelical Christianity.  Hague also demonstrates how Wilberforce was essentially a conservative man determined to pursue the radical goal of abolishing the slave trade.

The fight to abolish the slave trade took twenty years and the fight to completely abolish slavery went on for another 17 years.  Hague's real talent comes from situating Wilberforce's crusade within the larger historical movements of the early 19th century.  For instance, the greatest setbacks to Wilberforce's attempts to end the slave trade came as a result of actions in France.  Hague also does a good job of dealing with Wilberforce's work inside the House of Commons.  There are extended sections dealing with elections in the early 19th century and also on how Parliament conducted its business.  With Wilberforce such a towering political figure, the book also gives insights to the political issues of the day; including how politicians and the royal family interacted.

Hague also includes Wilberforce's non- political affairs.  Wilberforce contributed much to evangelical thought in early 19th century Britain, and the book shows how much of Wilberforce's life centered around religion.  Wilberforce and his relationship with his family are detailed but not as much as some other relationships.  One of the best parts is how many people came through Wilberforce's life; everyone from John Newton to William Pitt to the Royal Family.  Wilberforce was at the center of British political life and the book can give a reader some insight into life in early 19th century Britain.  

A lot of times I find books written by British authors to be a little dense to get through.  Wilberforce took some time to get through but that is because the book is so meaty.  However, Hague's style makes the book accessible and a real informative treat to read.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Backbencher of the Week

This week a sub-committee of the House Judiciary Committee passed the Fairness in Cocaine Sentencing Act.  The at is designed to end the sentencing disparity between powder and crack cocaine.  Crimes involving crack cocaine are often sentenced at a rate 100 times higher then powder cocaine, and this difference disproportionately affects African-Americans.  The bill still has to pass the entire Judiciary Committee and both the full House and Senate.  However, during the confirmation hearings for Judge Sotomayor, Sen. Jeff Sessions(R-AL) seemed to indicate that the Senate wold pass a bill to rectify the disparity.

The sponsor of the Fairness in Cocaine Sentencing act is Rep. Bobby Scott(D-VA-3) and he is this week's Backbencher of the Week.  There is still a long a lot work that needs to be done to bring sanity to our system of dealing with illegal drugs.  However, the work of Rep. Scott is an important step towards bringing a sense of fairness to how the justice system deals with narcotics.  Congratulations to Rep. Bobby Scott for bringing some fairness to our justice system and for being Backbencher of the Week.

If it Weren't for Bad Luck

Even though Parliament is now in its summer recess, there is still some political goings on.  This week there was a by-election in the constituency of Norwich North.  The by-election came about because the former MP, a Labour member named Ian Gibson, was forced out in the expenses scandal.  Local Labour leaders, and Gibson himself, thought that the Prime Minister and national Labour official formed a "star chamber" and  made Gibson a scape goat.  The result was that Labour voters stayed home and a 5,000 vote Labour majority turned into a 7,000 vote Conservative majority.

A ruling party losing a by-election is not that uncommon and often marks a party on its way out.  John Major saw his majority of 22 turn into a minority of -1 by the time of the 1997 general election.  However, there are a couple of things to take away from this by-election.  First is that people are as angry about how Brown handled the expenses scandal as much as they are upset over the scandal.  Second is that Labour does not have an effective attack against the Tories.  Labour tried at attack the Tories over the possibility of a Conservative government making spending cuts but the attacks had no effect.

There was the usual grumbling from Labour quarters about Brown's leadership but again the opposition is not yet strong enough to topple the Prime Minister and Labour is now looking to electoral reform as its main issues.

In the meantime, Chloe Smith is now the the youngest member of Parliament and has a year to use incumbency to strengthen herself for what appears to be a good election for the Tories.  The Backbencher congratulates Chloe Smith on her election.

Rickey be Rickey

This weekend is the Baseball Hall of fame induction weekend and one of the inductees is Rickey Henderson.  As a boy growing up in the San Francisco Bay Area, Ricky Henderson was one of the first sports icons that I can remember.  I still recall watching TV and following his chase to break the stolen base mark, and I also remember being excited to skip church one Sunday to drive out to Oakland to see Ricky and the Oakland A's play.  What makes Henderson such an icon is more than his skills, and as the greatest lead-off hitter of all time his skills are prodigious, but the stories that surround him.  Here are some of my favorites

Once Ricky was getting on the team bus after a game and he was looking for a seat.  Tony Gwynn told him he could sit at the front of the bus because he had tenure.  "Ten year," Henderson said, "Ricky has fifteen years in the majors."

Another time, team officials noticed that there books were A million dollars off.  After looking into the matter they discovered Ricky had not deposited one of his checks.  When they asked why Ricky had not deposited the check, he said that he framed it on his wall. 

One year, Ricky was interested in playing for the San Diego Padres and he called Padres General Manager Kevin Towers and left the following message, "This is Rickey calling on behalf of Rickey.  Rickey wants to play baseball."

One time Dan Patrick asked Rickey about his chances of coming back to play baseball and Rickey said, "My condition is in good condition."

Anyway, congratulations to Rickey Henderson for making the Hall of Fame.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

This Week in Misogyny

Democrats for Life kicked Rep. Tim Ryan(D-OH-17) off its board because Rep. Ryan supports legislation that attempts to reduce the need for abortions by increasing access to contraception.  Ryan responded by calling Democrats for Life "a fringe group", and also said "I can't figure out for the life of me how to stop pregnancies without contraception."  I am glad that Rep. Ryan realized that much of the anti-abortion movement is in reality anti-woman and anti-sex.  

In Ohio a Republican state legislator named John Adams introduced a bill that would make it illegal for a woman to get an abortion without the written consent of the father.  If the woman cannot identify the father then there can be no abortion.  There are also criminal penalties for women seeking abortions without the father's permission.  This is some high quality misogynistic wankery that puts a man in complete control over the body of any woman he impregnates; 13th amendment be damned.  Nice job Mr. Adams, you have the set the bar on misogynistic wankery pretty high.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

We Have the Capability

Glen Greenwald writes about a report that concludes that U.S. Federal Courts are completely capable venues for the trying and convicting of terrorism suspects.  Sadly, I have come to the conclusion that many of those who take oaths to defend the constitution believe that you can't follow the constitution and defend it at the same time.

Greenwald briefly touches on the argument that some terrorists are too dangerous to release but our conduct prevents them from getting a fair trail.  My own is that I don't know why we are quick to excuse sloppy work.  The are serious consequences when our government does a alck a*s job.  However we the people bare the ultimate responsibility.  If our government's refusal to follow the constitution puts us in more danger then we need to demand they follow the constitution and uses the tools that the constitution provides.  Today's report demonstrates that it is possible to follow the constitution and still go after terrorism.   

If we can't trust our government to put forth its best efforts on the most serious issues of the day(such as terrorism) then we have to live with the consequences.  The answer is not to excuse sloppy work but to demand that our government's actions match its words when it comes to torture and the constitution.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

A People's Republic of the Heartland?

First the Iowa Supreme Court decided unanimously that same sex marriages are constitutional and now state officials will be holding hearings about making medical marijuana legal.  Who would have thought that Iowa would become a liberal paradise?

Even if marijuana has no discernable medical value, if it makes somebody who is terminally or chronically ill feel better than I think it should be legal for those people to use with a doctor's prescription.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

A Small Crack in the Wall

Today, the Senate inflicted a defeat of the military-industrial complex when it voted 58-40 to strip funding for F-22 warplane.  According to the Washington Post, the F-22 is a plane that requires 30 hours of ground maintenance for every hour in the air and is "vulnerable to rain."  Both Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and Chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Michael Mullen, who are both Bush appointies, favored this move and so did Sen. John McCain(R-AZ). The major reason that 40 Senators voted for such a clusterf**ck is the military-industrial complex ensures that military projects are built in as many congressional districts as possible.

It is only a small victory but it is nice to see that some in Washington realize that defense dollars are real dollars that when spent on wasteful weapons programs it means that those dollars can't be used on more deserving projects.  Perhaps we can one day divert all the money we spend on killing foreigners on things like health care for all people.  I can dream can't I.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Backbencher of the Week

This week I finally get to recognize one of my favorite members of Congress because this week's Backbencher of the week is Rep. Dennis Kucinich(D-OH-10).  I initially voted for Kucinich in the 08 Iowa Caucus before switching to Obama in the 2nd round of voting.  My initial support for Kucinich was because he supported an immediate withdrawal from Iraq and was the only supporter of a single payer health care system.

Congress is in the midst of the big health reform debate.  Two House committees and a Senate committee passed a health reform bill.  One of those committees was the House Education and Labor Committee; which Kucinich belongs to.  During the mark-up of the bill, Kucinich proposed an amendment that would allow states to create their own single payer systems.  Kucinich's amendment passed 25-19-2.  If the amendment stays in the bill through all the stages the U.S. may be on the way to some form of a single payer.

For gaining a small but necessary victory for single payer health care Dennis Kucinich is this week's Backbencher of the Week.  Congratulations Rep. Kucinich.

Friday, July 17, 2009

DC's House of O God! O God! O God!

The Family is a fundamentalist Christian group that caters to Washington politicians.  They provide a house on C street in Washington D.C. where many conservative politicians reside.  Sen. John Ensign(R-NV) lives there and South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford lived there when he was in Congress.  After today's news it is clear the the house on C Street was a rocking place to be.  

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Health Reform Blogging

Last night I was talking to my friend Legs about the health reforms bills that Congress is working on.  I felt like I was having trouble explaining the bill and so I refreshed my memory today.  What follows is a summation of what I found out today.

Both the House and the Senate HELP committee have released their plans, and both are pretty similar.  The underlying goal is to keep the existing employer based health system for those who are in it but find a way to maker it more efficient.  The plan also wants to cover those people who care currently not covered by health insurance.  To that end both bills include an individual mandate which would make having health insurance mandatory.  The key then is too make that mandate affordable.

Both bills include a strong public plan which would compete alongside plan from private insurers in a health insurance exchange.  The exchange would be a place where individuals and businesses would use their large numbers as leverage to choose among competing health insurance plans.  In the House bill there are various types of plans that vary based on much the the ratio of cost sharing.  The insurance exchanges in both bills are nationally run, but states can opt opt out if they agree to certain conditions.  

In addition there are subsidies for people and families to buy  the insurance and cap on how much a person will be forced to pay out of pocket for insurance.  The subsidies are based on a sliding scale that goes up to 400% of the poverty line.   There is also an increase in Medicaid eligibility that increases coverage to include up to 133% of the poverty line and also sets the stage for a potential complete federal take over of Medicaid.

The real issue then is how to pay for this bill.  The Congressional Budget Office has scored the bills to be in the neighborhood of 1 trillion dollars over a 10 year period.  About half the bill will be paid for by making Medicare and Medicaid more efficient.  Both bills also include a marginal surtax on incomes above $350,000.  The President has proposed eliminating some tax deductions and raising the marginal tax tates to Clinton era level, and some in Congress are considering some type of value added tax(VAT). 

There is still some concerns about how the bill will control costs, which is way the Senate Finance Committee has not presented their bill yet.  The major concern for the Finance Committee is how to contain costs.  What the Finance Committee wants to do is cap the tax exemption for employer based health care but nothing is definite.

I did most of my research by looking at the House Education and Labor website and by reading Matthew Yglesias and Ezra Klein.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Backbencher of the Week

Blue Dog Democrats are Democrats who claim to be fiscally conservative.   In practice they often obstruct or water down more progressive legislation, and they often voted with the Bush Administration on issues regarding war funding and civil liberties.  In the past week week some members of the Blue Dog coalition tried to slow down progress over the health care reform legislation and objected to the public plan.  There are 52 members of the Blue Dog Coalition and together they are enough to derail the public plan. 

However, not all of the blue dogs are supporting their coalitions stances.  Rep. Loretta Sanchez(D-CA-47) came out Friday in support of a strong public plan.  Rep. Sanchez, unlike some of her other blue dogs, understands that the public plan is way to save money.  In fact, an early Congressional Budget Office report says that the public option will save $150 billion dollars over 10 years.

For understanding that the public option is the fiscally responsible option we are proud to name Rep. Loretta Sanchez as this week's Backbencher of the Week.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

The Gospel According to Steve King

Rep Steve King(R-IA-5) voted against commemorating the fact that slave labor helped build the Capitol Building in Washington D.C.   Rep. King's reasoning is that God is more interested in getting a mention at the Capitol Visitors Center than in people dealing honestly with the impact of slavery on our history.

Rep. King's Bible must not include, among other things, this passage: "I hate, I despise your festivals, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies.  Even though you offer you burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them; and the offerings of well being of you fatted animals I will not look upon.  Take away from me the noise of your songs; I will not listen to the melody of your harps.  But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an everflowing stream(Amos 5:21-24).

I shudder to think what is in the Bible Steve King reads.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Harry Reid, Occasional Leader

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid(D-NV) told Senate Finance Committee Chair Max Baucus(D-MN) to "stop chasing Republican votes on a massive health care reform bill."

I have not understood Sen. Baucus' fetish for a bi-partisan bill.  Perhaps, in the some odd-chance someone who understand the interpersonal relationships in the Senate reads my blog, someone could explain why Senator Baucus could not sit down with Sen. Charles Grassley(R-IA) the Ranking Member of the Finance Committtee and say, "Senator Grassley I can't compromise without bringing down all sorts of fury on my head and the same goes for you.  I will keep us from having to go through a painful series of compromises.  I have the votes to pass health care reform out of the committee.  Democrats will vote for it and Republicans will vote against it.  That way everyone knows who is responsible for the success or failure of health care reform and they can act accordingly at the ballot box."  

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Book Review

Let me start off by saying that unless you are a big UK political nerd then Chris Mullin's A View From the Foothills will be of limited interest to you.  However, for those you who are fascinated by the mother of all parliaments, then Chris Mullin's diary is a wonderful read.

Mullin is the Labour MP for Sunderland South and served as junior minister during the middle years of the Blair government.  The diary covers the years between 1999 and 2005.  During this time, Mullin served as junior minister in the Department of Enviroment, Transport and Regions; where he served under Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott.  Mullin then moved over to the Department of International Development.  After the general election of 2001, Mullin moves to the backbenches and chairs the Home Affairs Select Committee.  Mullin then concludes his career in the foothills by serving in the Foriegn Office as Minster to Africa before being shuffled to the backbenches after the 2005 general election.

Mullin is clearly less than enthused about his initial foray into ministerial life and he approaches his job with a wry skepticism.  During his stint under John Prescott, Mullin apparently feels that many of his assignments are no win affairs that are subject to forces greater then he possess.  Mullin's attempts to focus on the few initiatives he cares about, and he feels he can address, causes him no little amount of grief with the civil servants who seem to want more from a junior minister.  Mullin's look at Whitehall from the bottom of the ministerial ladder is equal parts bemusing and exasperating.  Much of the first part of the book, for example, deals with Mullin's conflict with the government agency that provides car to governmental officials.  The car agency wants him to ride in a government car everywhere he goes but Mullin would prefer to walk or take a bus if he is just traveling a short distance.

Mullin's later stops are much more positive experiences.  He enjoys working at the Department for International Development and thinks it is one of the best departments in all of Whitehall but there is not enough work for a cabinet minister and a junior minister.  Mullin enjoys a brief return to the backbenches.  He resumes his committee work(where he works alongside future Tory leader David Cameron) and enjoys the freedom that comes with being a member of parliament with no governmental obligations.  He feels free to focus on issues he wants to focus on and that he feels like he can contribute something to.  During his time on the backbenches, Parliament votes on the war in Iraq.  Mullin votes no because there is not a second UN resolution.  However, the section on the Iraq war does give a view into the pressures facing MPs during this period.

The last stop on Mullin's trip through Whitehall is the Foreign Office where he serves as the Minister for Africa. he enjoys the work and actually does a little bit of good in negotiations between Ethiopia and Eritrea.  However, Mullin never loses the fact that he is a bit player in these affairs and that he possess little power to do more then nudge events a little way forward.

Mullin's book is a diary and the usual caveats about this being one person's view apply.  However, the real value and joy in this book comes from the fact that Mullin's view is that of a partial insider.  He does not have the complete view but he can catch glimpses of what is going on above him.  At the same time, Mullin is sufficiently rooted enough to not get carried away by these glimpses of what he calls the "Olympian Heights" and he is often cognizant of the fact that he was often not much more then a minister in the "Department for Folding Deck Chairs."

The real juicy bits are Mullin's observations of New Labour in the middle of it period in government.  Mullin maintains a high regard Tony Blair("The Man") but does not care much for the New Labour movement that brought Blair to power.  Other major players do not come off so well.  John Prescott has a lot of good qualities but reading Mullin I get the sense that none of those qualities were enough to run the Department of Enviroment, Transport and the Regions.  Mullin are goes into some lengths on the tension between the supporters of Blair and Chancellor of the Exchequer Gordon Brown.  These tensions are reported second hand but they give the narrative a lot of its external tension.  David Cameron and William Hague both have cameo roles, and both(especially Cameron) earn Mullin's respect.  President George Bush also makes a few appearances and if the book has a villain it is President Bush who Mullin calls "an intellectually and morally deficient serial killer." 

This book might be the most accurate 1st person account of the Blair years.  Mullin was high enough to catch glimpses of what went on when Labour was at the peak of its power but he is sufficiently low enough that Mullin does not have an agenda to pursue or scores to settle.  This relatively straight view of the Blair government, when combined with Mullin's gift at documenting petty absurdities, make this book a real treasure to read.

Backbencher of the Week

Just before Congress took its July 4th recess, the House passed the Waxman-Markley climate change bill that included a primitive version of a cap-and-trade system.  The bill barely passed 219-212 with 44 Democrats voting against the bill.  With 44 Democrats voting no, the bill passed, in part, because 8 Republicans voted aye.

One of the 8 Republicans is Rep. Mary Bono Mack(R-CA-45).  Rep. Bono Mack was first elected to Congress to fill the open seat of her late husband Rep. Sonny Bono(yes, that Sonny Bono).  Currently, she is married to Florida Congressman Rep. Connie Mack IV.

Rep. Bono Mack, and the other 7 Republicans who voted aye, are now targets of conservative ire.  Unlike the other 7, Rep. Bono Mack also voted on the opposite side from her husband.  For standing against both party and family connections, and voting for a first step in addressing climate change, we are glad to award this week's Backbencher of the Week to Rep. Mary Bono Mack.

Friday, July 3, 2009

Blogging Grand Rapids, Summation

On Wednesday night, I returned from Grand Rapids.  I spent the last part of my trip looking at lighthouses.  On Monday, I drove to the towns of Grand Haven and Holland to see the lighthouse on the eastern shore of Lake Michigan.  It was a cloudy, windy day and the waves broke hard against the pier.  

Tuesday was a quiet day and I spent most of the last day of synod around Grand Rapids.

Grand Rapids is nice little city.  The eating was spectacular.  I recommend, eating at Bistro Bella Vita, The Sunset Grill, and at the BOB.

My favorite moments were seeing the watergate tools at the Gerald Ford Museum and hearing Barbara Brown Taylor.

I am glad to be back and have a happy 4th.