As Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) and Mike Lee (R-Utah) pushed the Republican party to shut down the government in a bid to defund the Affordable Care Act, some House Republicans are hoping to use the coming fight over raising the nation’s debt limit as leverage to score structural reforms to entitlement programs.

In an interview with Minnesota Public Radio (9/20), Rep. John Kline (R-Minn.), Chairman of the Committee on Education and the Workforce, hinted that Republicans should refuse to raise the debt ceiling unless President Obama agrees to raise the eligibility age for Medicare, keeping millions of younger seniors from receiving health care coverage, Ignor Volsky noted at ThinkProgress.org (9/23).

“I think the real answer to the debt limit is to get some agreement from Senate Democrats and more specifically the White House that you’ve got to do something about entitlements,” Kline said, referring to Social Security and Medicare.

In particular, Kline is interested in ideas such as a higher retirement age.

When asked whether it’s appropriate to push for such complex changes with just weeks to go before the federal government runs out of borrowing room, Kline said, “yes.”

“I think it’s a better place to have this fight,” he said.

Raising the Medicare eligibility age has been floated by Republicans and President Obama, but the policy would only save the federal government a net $5.7 bln, while shifting an added $11.4 bln in health care spending to states, employers and individuals — who would in turn have to pay for the health care spending of younger enrollees, Volsky noted. In fact, one report from the Center for American Progress found that if lawmakers were to raise the eligibility age from 65 to 67, as many as 5.4 mln 65- and 66-year-olds would have to search for alternative sources of coverage by postponing retirement, enrolling in private insurance, or qualifying for Medicaid. Loss of coverage would also exacerbate the economic insecurity of workers close to retirement, 62% of whom say they will delay their retirements as a result of the recession.

NEW REPORT SEES LOWER COST FOR 95% UNDER OBAMACARE. When uninsured Americans begin enrolling in Obamacare’s new health care exchanges on 10/1, the overwhelming majority — 95% — will face health care premiums that are 16% lower, on average, than the government had previously projected, according to a new report released by the Obama administration (9/25).

In the 36 states where the federal government supports or fully runs the Health Insurance Marketplace, a 27-year old who does not qualify for tax credits will pay, on average, $163 for a plan that covers approximately 60% of health care expenses (a so-called bronze-level plan), while a 27-year-old with an income of $25,000 could pay $83 dollars per-month after subsidies. Individuals up to 30 years old will also have the option of buying cheaper catastrophic coverage outside of the marketplaces, though they will not qualify for subsidies. A family of four in Texas with an income of $50,000 would pay as little as “$57 per month for the lowest bronze plan after tax credits,” the report finds.

Under the law, individuals and families with incomes between 100 and 400 percent of the Federal Poverty Level (FPL) could qualify for premium tax credits and cost-sharing subsidies. The Congressional Budget Office projected in May that out of the 7 mln who are expected to enroll in the exchanges in 2014, 6 mln will qualify for subsidies.

Ninety-five percent of the eligible uninsured will have the choice of at least two insurance carriers, which will offer health care plans at various levels of coverage: bronze, silver, gold or platinum. In the 36 states surveyed by the report, the uninsured will have a choice of 53 different plans, on average, and 1 in 4 companies offering insurance will be doing so for the very first time in 2014.

WHY ARE 47M AMERICANS ON FOOD STAMPS? HINT: THERE’S A RECESSION. There has been a fairly basic question at the core of the current food-stamp debate in Congress, Brad Plumer noted at WashingtonPost.com (9/23) after the Republican House voted to cut $39 bln from the food program over 10 years, which would push 3.8 mln recipients out of the program next year and another 2.8 mln losing benefits each year over the decade.

“Defenders of the program typically argue that enrollment rose because we had a horrific recession and unemployment hit the stratosphere. The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) is supposed to kick in to help families hit by economic distress. The program has kept 4.7 mln people out of poverty. ...

“Some conservatives, meanwhile, have emphasized that a big chunk of the increase is due to policy changes by Washington. In 2008, Congress allowed states to relax their standards for who could join the program. (Jobless adults could stay in the program if they lived in high-unemployment areas, for instance.) Then, as part of the 2009 stimulus bill, Congress temporarily boosted food-stamp benefits — the average benefit was $133 per month last year, although that increase expires this November.

“So which explanation is right? Most evidence suggests that food-stamp enrollment has mainly risen due to the recession — although policy changes have played a smaller role.”

Republicans argue that the cuts will give people incentive to get back to work. But critics of the food-stamp cuts counter that these changes will only increase hardship. Robert Greenstein of the progressive Center on Budget and Policy Priorities argues that many of these adults kicked out of the program are unlikely to find jobs anytime soon, seeing as how the economy is still weak. So the cuts are tantamount to to “denying benefits to needy people who try to find jobs but cannot do so and who aren’t offered a work program or job training slot.”

The Senate’s farm bill included a $4 bln cut to SNAP over the next decade.

SAFETY NET PROGRAMS KEPT 40M OUT OF POVERTY. The official poverty rate was essentially unchanged at 15.1% in 2012, but alternative measures show that safety net programs like food stamps, unemployment insurance, Social Security, and tax credits for the working poor keep tens of millions of Americans out of poverty each year, the Census Bureau reported (9/17).

The official poverty statistics are based solely on income and do not include the cash and voucher transfers that federal anti-poverty programs provide, such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly known as food stamps) and the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC). In 2011, the Census Bureau began calculating an alternative set of statistics that include those transfers, as well as costs of living that aren’t captured by the official data. The alternative statistics are called the Supplemental Poverty Measure (SPM) and they offer a sketch of who and how many are served by safety net programs.

The Census Bureau reports that Social Security kept 15.3 mln people out of poverty, unemployment insurance kept 1.7 mln people out of poverty, and SNAP kept 4 mln people out of poverty in 2012. Without the EITC, 3.1 mln more children would have lived in poverty in 2011. A total of 40 mln individuals were lifted out of poverty by federal benefits programs in 2011.

IMMIGRATION REFORM LOOKS DEAD. The hopes of passing immigration reform in the current Congress took a blow recently as Republicans have backed off from the bipartisan “gang of seven” plan that would provide a path to citizenship for 11 mln undocumented immigrants. “It doesn’t appear that we’re going to move forward with the group of seven,” Rep. Luis V. Gutierrez (D-Ill.), a key player on immigration as a member of the gang, told Greg Sargent of WashingtonPost.com (9/23). “The process is stalled. I don’t believe we’re going to produce a bill anytime soon.”

Gutierrez said that House Republicans on the gang of seven — who have been trying to negotiate comprehensive reform that members of both parties can support for a long time — are just not prepared to embrace a final plan. He said he believes this is because House GOP leaders are not providing Republicans on the gang with support.

Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) may try to force the issue by introducing a version of the bipartisan Senate immigration reform bill in the House in an effort to pressure House Republicans to sign on as co-sponsors, an aide told Sargent.

POPE ATTACKS GLOBAL ECONOMICS. Pope Francis showed he is no fan of global capitalism (9/22), telling Sardinian workers the world economy could no longer be based on a “god called money” as he urged the unemployed to fight for work. Francis put aside his prepared text at a meeting in Cagliari with unemployed workers, including miners in hard hats who told him of their situation. He told them: “We don’t want this globalized economic system which does us so much harm. Men and women have to be at the center (of an economic system) as God wants, not money,” Reuters reported. “The world has become an idolator of this god called money,” he said.

The pope made clear that his assessment was not limited to the local situation.

“It is not a problem of Italy and Europe ... It is the consequence of a world choice, of an economic system that brings about this tragedy, an economic system that has at its center an idol which is called money,” he said to the cheers of the crowd.

Francis’s predecessor, Pope Benedict, also called for changes to economic systems, but he was more likely to use dense intellectual language.

Francis, who as bishop of Buenos Aires sided with unemployed workers in their conflict with government austerity plans, ended his improvised speech with a prayer asking God to “give us work and teach us to fight for work.”

Francis criticized “unbridled capitalism” in May and he has condemned austerity policies and instead encouraged lawmakers to implement pro-growth policies to fight poverty. But Rebecca Leber noted at ThinkProgress.org (9/22) that the US Catholic Church has attempted to rein in the efforts of a group of US Catholic nuns to champion economic and health care programs that help the poor.

PIG FARMS, MANURE FERTILIZERS TIED TO MRSA INFECTIONS. Researchers from the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health have for the first time found an association between living in proximity to high-density livestock production and community-acquired infections with methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, commonly known as MRSA. Their analysis concluded that approximately 11% of community-acquired MRSA and soft tissue infections in the study population could be attributed to crop fields fertilized with swine manure. The study is the first to examine the association between high-density livestock operations and manure-applied crop fields and MRSA infections in the community. The results were published online 9/16 in JAMA Internal Medicine.

According to the US Food and Drug Administration, nearly 80% of antibiotics in the US are sold for livestock feeds. The manure produced by these livestock and applied to crop fields contains antibiotic-resistant bacteria, resistance genes, and about 75% of the antibiotics consumed by the animals.

The researchers found a significant association between community-associated MRSA and application of swine manure to crop fields. A similar but weaker association was found between swine operations and community-associated MRSA. No association was found between dairy farms and MRSA infections.

PLUMMETING SALES FORCE WALMART TO INCREASE WORKFORCE. After cutting employees’ hours so deeply that stores could not keep their shelves stocked, Walmart is adding more full-time workers in time for the holiday shopping season. The retail giant has been shedding customers recently due to disorganized stores and empty shelves, Aviva Shen noted at ThinkProgress.org (9/24).

Walmart started aggressively cutting staff during the recession. Over the past five years, its total American workforce dropped by 120,000, even as the company opened more than 500 new US stores. The result is longer check-out lines, backlogged inventory and poor customer service — not to mention employee protests all over the country. Now, amid plunging sales and massive strikes, even Walmart has conceded it can’t run a business on a skeleton crew. Over the next few months, the company will move 35,000 part-time workers to full-time, and another 35,000 temporary workers will become part-time staff.

After the Affordable Care Act kicks in (1/1/14), Walmart’s new full-time employees will be eligible for health insurance after 90 days, a vast improvement on the retailer’s usual 6-month waiting period. To qualify for benefits, part-time staff must work an average of 30 hours a week for a year — no small feat at a company known to abruptly cancel shifts, cut hours, and lay off workers.

LABOR DEPT. EXTENDS WAGE PROTECTION TO HOME CARE. The Labor Department announced a new rule that will extend minimum wage and overtime protections to 2 mln home care workers, one of the fastest-growing occupations in the country.

As of 1/1/15, the long-awaited change will end a 38-year-old carveout that excluded workers who attend to the elderly and disabled in their homes from the basic labor protections enjoyed by most Americans. The home care industry had waged a prolonged lobbying campaign against the proposal, claiming it would raise prices on low-income customers and force companies to cut workers’ hours.

The White House, however, has said that such a rule would rectify an injustice for a large pool of workers who log long hours for generally low pay. The change will also deliver on a personal promise that President Barack Obama made on the issue.

The Labor Department posted the final rule on its website (dol.gov, 9/17).

WORLD FOOD PRIZE TO BE OCCUPIED. Organizers of the World Food Prize on 10/15 will kick off a week of celebrations in Des Moines that will include a 10/17 ceremony honoring three biotech scientists: Marc Van Montagu, founder, CropDesign, and president, European Federation of Biotechnology, Belgium; Mary-Dell Chilton, Science Fellow, Syngenta Biotechnology; and Robert T. Fraley, Executive Vice President and Chief Technology Officer, Monsanto. But one of the speakers at the World Food Prize event, Cardinal Peter Turkson of Ghana, president of the Vatican Council for Justice & Peace and a critic of genetically modified seeds and factory farming, also will speak at an alternative event sponsored by Occupy the World Food Prize the night before the WFP award ceremony. Turkson will share the bill with Jim Hightower, who will be speaking on “From Factory Farms to GMOs, the Upchuck Rebellion is Taking Root,” at First United Methodist Church in Des Moines and other events are scheduled throughout the week. For information see occupytheworldfoodprize.com or phone 515-282-4781

SOMETIMES A POX ON JUST ONE HOUSE WILL DO. As the deadline approached to avert a government shutdown, the New York Times reported (9/22) that congressional leaders from both parties passed around blame and accused each other of being responsible for the impasse. Steve Benen wrote at MaddoxBlog.com: “Of course, this makes it sound as if the ongoing disputes on Capitol Hill are just the usual partisan bickering, instead of a debate in which one side is being needlessly destructive and extreme.”

But a Washington Post op-ed from Steve LaTourette, a former Republican congressman from Ohio who was relatively moderate, pushed the “blame both sides” tack to the breaking point, Benen said.

“The focus on Boehner has been more intense because House Democrats have abdicated any meaningful role in passing legislation,” LaTourette wrote. “Few bills are able to garner Democratic support, often not because of policy differences but because House Democratic leaders have decided they would rather wash their hands of responsibility for governing and, instead, focus on winning back the majority.

“The role of the minority party is to be the ‘loyal opposition,’ and Democrats have gotten it half right — they are opposed to everything House Republicans do, but there is not much loyal about it,” LaTourette added.

“For the record, I don’t think LaTourette was kidding and the piece wasn’t presented to readers as some kind of attempt at satire,” Benen commented, not altogether convincingly.

“In reality, the notion that House Democrats refuse to work constructively on policymaking is demonstrably ridiculous,” Benen wrote. “The Democratic minority has offered to be a governing partner on all kinds of issues — the budget, immigration, energy, the Voting Rights Act — only to be ignored or rejected.”

In the government-shutdown impasse, for example, “Boehner could have easily avoided it by reaching out to Dems and striking a bipartisan deal. The Speaker, however, never even considered the possibility; immediately gave in to right-wing demands; and passed a scheme even Republicans expect to fail. ...

“‘Blame both sides’ instincts notwithstanding, there’s an objective truth here for those willing to acknowledge it. Radicalized congressional Republicans, who refuse to compromise, are ignoring election results and relying on extortion politics to try to advance their far-right agenda. It’s actually quite obvious...”

STILL RECOVERING FROM THE BUNGLING OF GEO. W. BUSH & CO. While President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry move toward talks with Iran under its new moderate President Hassan Rouhani, Dexter Filkins of *The New Yorker* (9/30) reminds us that in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, the Iranians offered to help the US take out the Taliban, in a report on Qassam Suleimi, the head of Iran’s Quds Force, an elite branch of the Revolutionary Guard which has been operating in Syria to protect its besieged President Bashar al-Assad,.

Ryan Crocker, who was then a senior State Department official, met in Geneva with Iranian diplomats. “It seemed clear to Crocker that the Iranians were answering to Suleimani, whom they referred to as “Haji Qassem,” and that they were eager to help the United States destroy their mutual enemy, the Taliban,” Filkins wrote. The Iranians shared operational details on the disposition of Taliban forces in Afghanistan and advised Crocker where to hit them and the flow of information went both ways — at least until January 2002, when Crocker, then the deputy chief of the American Embassy in Kabul, was awakened one night by aides who told him that President George W. Bush, in his State of the Union Address, had named Iran as part of an “Axis of Evil.” “Like many senior diplomats, Crocker was caught off guard. He saw the negotiator the next day at the UN compound in Kabul, and he was furious. ‘You completely damaged me,’ Crocker recalled him saying. ‘Suleimani is in a tearing rage. He feels compromised.’ The negotiator told Crocker that, at great political risk, Suleimani had been contemplating a complete reëvaluation of the United States, saying, ‘Maybe it’s time to rethink our relationship with the Americans.’ The Axis of Evil speech brought the meetings to an end. Reformers inside the government, who had advocated a rapprochement with the United States, were put on the defensive. Recalling that time, Crocker shook his head. ‘We were just that close,’ he said. ‘One word in one speech changed history.’”

Charles P. Pierce noted at Esquire.com (9/23), “David Frum wrote that speech. He was very proud of it. His wife was so proud that she bragged about it on-line, which likely was enough to get young David [fired]. Everytime he appears on TV now, this anecdote about how close we were to (maybe) reaching a modus vivendi with an (admittedly brutal) Iranian pragmatist should be kept in mind. This is the kind of bungling out from under which all those former Bush administration flunkies are trying to crawl. Sorry, gang. We are still only learning now how badly you screwed up everything on your watch. Jesus, these people.”

SENATE RACE SPLITS WYO. GOP. Liz Cheney’s challenge of Sen. Mike Enzi continues to split the Republican Party in Wyoming, as her mother, Lynne Cheney, told former Sen. Alan Simpson to “shut your mouth” after learning that Simpson was supporting the incumbent senator.

Lynne Cheney, wife of former Vice President Dick Cheney, “just unloaded” on Alan Simpson at a Wyoming event (9/21), Simpson told The Huffington Post. Simpson said he explained to Cheney that he has a history with Enzi that goes back decades — and that, in fact, Simpson is the reason Enzi is in public life at all.

“I am unqualified in my support of Mike Enzi, but it’s not about Liz Cheney for God’s sake,” he told The Huffington Post (9/24). “It’s about the fact that I’m the guy who talked Mike Enzi into running for public office. I met him when he was the president of the Wyoming Jaycees. I explained that to Lynne but she didn’t seem to listen.”

The flare-up became public when Simpson’s daughter-in-law, Deb Oakley Simpson, posted about it on her Facebook wall. She said Lynne Cheney told the former senator to “shut your mouth” about his support for Enzi.

In a statement, Lynne Cheney denied the brush-up, saying, “We love Al and Ann. We have been friends for over 40 years. As to the story posted on Facebook, I have to admit I am at a bit of a loss. That simply did not happen.”

Simpson declined to address the specific “shut your mouth” allegation to The Huffington Post, but did say he was shocked by Cheney’s approach.

APPEALS COURT OVERTURNS DELAY CONVICTION. A three-judge panel from a Texas appeals court, voting along partisan lines, overturned the 2010 felony money-laundering convictions of former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas), but the Travis County District Attorney announced her intention to appeal that decision to the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals.

“We strongly disagree with the opinion of Judges Goodwin and Gaultney that the evidence was insufficient,” Travis County DA Rosemary Lehmberg said )9/23). “We are concerned and disappointed that two judges substituted their assessment of the facts for that of 12 jurors who personally heard the testimony of over 40 witnesses over the course of several weeks and found that the evidence was sufficient and proved DeLay’s guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.”

The “money laundering” in question involved some $190,000 received from a number of different corporations in 2002 by DeLay’s Texans for a Republican Majority PAC (TRMPAC). That group subsequently gave $190,000 to the Republican National State Elections Committee (RNSEC), a committee formed by the RNC, with an agreement that $190,000 be given to seven different Republican candidates who were running for the TX state legislature in 2002.

Brad Friedman noted at Salon.com (9/23) that the strategy paid off. Republicans gained the majority in the Texas legislature that year for the first time since Reconstruction. They then were able to gerrymander the state’s congressional districts, in a highly controversial maneuver, since it came in-between the usual ten-year census redistricting. The unprecedented off-year gerrymandering then resulted in five new Republican seats in the US House of Representatives during the 2004 election.

It was quite a coup at the time, and something DeLay was quite proud of.

Trouble is, it’s illegal in the state of Texas for corporations to give money to political candidates. And that’s where the “money laundering” charges come in. Prosecutors alleged, and the jury agreed “beyond a reasonable doubt”, that the money the corporations gave to TRMPAC, which, by law, could not be spent directly on candidates, was used for that purpose anyway after DeLay gave it to the national committee with the agreement that they distribute it to the candidate’s campaigns.

Funneling the corporate money through the national committee, in order to bring it back to Texas to give it to candidates amounted to laundering those funds, according to the State and the jury.

But the appellate court panel’s majority concluded that “the evidence was legally insufficient to sustain DeLay’s convictions” and so they reversed the trial court judgement and rendered acquittals for DeLay.

Essentially, their argument is that it was not illegal for the corporations to give the money to TRMPAC in the first place, since corporations are allowed to do so, so long as the money is not for candidate campaigns, but for other things, such as administration or for work on ballot initiatives. Therefore, they argue, the corporations did not knowingly attempt to violate the law and so there were no “proceeds from criminal activity” which, the laws says, would be necessary in order for there to be the felony crime of money laundering.

Chief Justice J. Woodfin Jones, the lone Democrat on the three-judge panel, disagreed, finding in his dissent that there were indeed crimes committed when the corporations gave hundreds of thousands of dollars to DeLay’s TRMPAC without otherwise earmarking it for one of the legal purposes that corporate money would otherwise be allowed for.

The dissent makes the case that both the corporations and DeLay knew that using that money for candidates would be illegal, and yet, as the state noted, the money was eventually used for that purpose anyway.

GUN STUDY FINDS: MORE GUNS, MORE MURDER. The largest study of gun violence in the US, released 9/12, confirms a point that should be obvious: widespread American gun ownership is fueling America’s gun violence epidemic, Zack Beauchamp reported at ThinkProgress.org (9/13).

The study, by Professor Michael Siegel at Boston University and two coauthors, has been peer-reviewed and is forthcoming in the American Journal of Public Health. Siegel and his colleagues compiled data on firearm homicides from all 50 states from 1981-2010, the longest stretch of time ever studied in this fashion, and set about seeing whether they could find any relationship between changes in gun ownership and murder using guns over time.

No good data on national rates of gun ownership exist (partly because of the NRA’s stranglehold on Congress), so the authors used the percentage of suicides that involve a firearm (FS/S) as a proxy. The theory, backed up by a wealth of data, is that the more guns there are any in any one place, the higher the percentage of people who commit suicide with guns as opposed to other mechanisms will be.

With all this preliminary work in hand, the authors ran a series of regressions to see what effect the overall national decline in firearm ownership from 1981 to 2010 had on gun homicides. The result was staggering: “for each 1 percentage point increase in proportion of household gun ownership,” Siegel et al. found, “firearm homicide rate increased by 0.9″ percent. A one standard deviation change in firearm ownership shifted gun murders by a staggering 12.9%.

To put this in perspective, take the state of Mississippi. “All other factors being equal,” the authors write, “our model would predict that if the FS/S in Mississippi were 57.7% (the average for all states) instead of 76.8% (the highest of all states), its firearm homicide rate would be 17% lower.” Since 475 people were murdered with a gun in Mississippi in 2010, that drop in gun ownership would translate to 80 lives saved in that year alone.

Of course, the authors don’t find that rates of gun ownership explain all of America’s gun violence epidemic: race, economic inequality and generally violent areas all contribute to an area’s propensity for gun deaths, suggesting that broader social inequality, not gun ownership alone, contributes to the gun violence epidemic. Nevertheless, the fact that gun ownership mattered even when race and poverty were accounted for suggests that we can’t avoid talking about America’s fascination with guns when debating what to do about the roughly 11,000 Americans who are yearly murdered by gunfire.

From The Progressive Populist, October 15, 2013



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