Welcome back everyone to our regular weekly roundup! We've been on our usual year-end hiatus for the past few weeks, pre-empted by our year-end awards columns (Part 1 and Part 2). But now that Congress is slinking back to the swamps of Washington, it's time to start looking forward once again. And we promise, we are going to explain that rather cryptic title, after we dispense with an initial bit of idiocy.
Speaking of Congress and swampiness (swampitude?), the Republicans in the House of Representatives decided to make its first order of business gutting a congressional ethics office. This was such blatant swampery that they had to hastily back away from the plan the next day, after meeting at night in secret to come up with the brilliant plan. Not only were they loudly denounced by Democrats, Donald Trump even had to tweet his displeasure -- although, while the Democrats opposed the idea because it was a bad one, Trump was merely annoyed at the scheduling of trashing an ethics office, implying he'd be fine if they got around to it later on. This was misreported by most of the media, it almost goes without saying.
The most amusing self-inflicted wound of the week, however, happened when the congressional Republicans decided that it'd be a dandy idea to go ahead and build that wall on our southern border -- but stick U.S. taxpayers for the bill. So much for all of Trump's "Mexico will pay for it" nonsense, eh? Trump petulantly tweeted that he'll get the money from Mexico later, just trust him.
This brings us to that headline, because this is what life is apparently going to be like under full Republican control of the government: "Trust us, we'll fix it later!" The absurdity of this reaches fantastical proportions, which is why we reach into storytelling to explain it properly. Of course, you can reach way back and just say "they're putting the cart before the horse," but that's kind of a dull way to put it, especially when there are two other great fictional examples to choose from. The first comes from Lewis Carroll's Wonderland:
"Let the jury consider their verdict," the King said, for about the twentieth time that day.
"No, no!" said the Queen. "Sentence first -- verdict afterwards."
"Stuff and nonsense!" said Alice loudly. "The idea of having the sentence first!"
"Hold your tongue!" said the Queen, turning purple.
"I won't!" said Alice.
"Off with her head!" the Queen shouted at the top of her voice. Nobody moved.
See, we're going to build the wall now with taxpayer money, then afterwards we'll somehow get the Mexicans to pay for it. We're going to repeal Obamacare now, and at some unspecified future date, we'll get around to replacing it. Just trust us! What could possibly go wrong?
But the better fictional example is more recent, since it comes from South Park. The character Butters has become a nervous wreck (even more so than usual), because he sees gnomes stealing his underpants from his dresser on a nightly basis. When the boys finally track down the lair of the Underpants Gnomes, the whole scheme is explained to them. The brilliant plan?
Phase 1: Collect underpants
Phase 2: ?
Phase 3: Profit
This is now going to be the entire Republican plan for everything. They'll do something which makes them all feel good right now, then (???), then everything will be wonderful.
Think this is overstated? Here are a few quotes from an article about how Speaker Paul Ryan isn't too concerned with the fact that Republicans simply have no idea what they'll be replacing Obamacare with, even though they're fully aware that by repealing it they're about to blow an enormous hole in the budget. First, Ryan promises a schedule, in terms Lewis Carroll would have had a good chuckle over:
"Our legislating will occur this year," Ryan told reporters.
However, the speaker suggested the replacement likely wouldn't go into effect in 2017.
"The question there is how long will it take for markets to be put in place, for markets to adjust," Ryan said. "That question we don't know the answer to, but the legislating on Obamacare will happen this year."
What's also unknown is what that replacement would actually look like, or what the effects of it may be.
Off with Obamacare's head! The only problem is that Ryan is beginning to sound like (to drag another fable into this) the boy who cried "Wolf!" since this is exactly the same promise he made last year -- which he then failed to keep.
Then there's the problem that repealing Obamacare will cost the government money, and Republicans are supposed to be such great deficit hawks. Here's their answer to complaints from people like Rand Paul, in terms that come from straight through the looking glass:
House Freedom Caucus members met with Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) on Thursday to discuss the budget related to repealing major parts of Obamacare. In that budget, Republicans lay out the "appropriate" amounts of new debt, which comes out to nearly $10 trillion over the next 10 years.
Those numbers are largely based on current Congressional Budget Office projections for the next decade. Conservatives like Paul, however, have been questioning whether Republicans would ever agree that that's an appropriate level of debt, even if the document repeals a health care law they dislike.
Ryan dismissed the issue on Thursday, saying he was "really not concerned" with a mutiny on the repeal over debt because Republicans weren't treating this budget like an actual budget. "Our members realize that," he said.
Got that? "Republicans weren't treating this budget like an actual budget." But, trust them, we'll get to Phase 3 and profits soon enough -- right after we get through that tricky Phase 2. Red Queen, meet Underpants Gnomes.
In the midst of all these fantasies, former House member Jim McDermott wrote an excellent article which is well worth reading because it contains some hard, cold facts. Washington state passed some health industry reforms when Democrats had control. Republicans then took over and attempted to do precisely what Trump now seems to want to do: keep all the goodies in the new law, but scrap all the things Republicans don't like (like a mandate to insure the widest possible insurance pool). The result was, predictably, a disaster. McDermott describes it as a "death spiral," in fact. As we said, anyone who wants to see actual evidence of the impending "repeal Obamacare -- the parts we don't like, at least" trainwreck.
What else? James Woolsey, former head of the C.I.A., has the honor of being the first major player to bail completely on Trump's transition team. He says he quit because he couldn't appear as a "senior advisor" when no one was asking his advice, but what he doesn't say is that Donald Trump is running a very real risk of alienating the entire U.S. intelligence apparatus with his disparagements. The more Trump decides to believe the voices in his head rather than the intelligence professionals, the more Republicans are going to break with him, so it'll be interesting to see how this one plays out over time.
And finally, Obama's last jobs report came out, showing more jobs added, and higher wages -- good news all around. Unemployment is still well below five percent. This puts the capstone on Obama's jobs legacy, which has now seen 75 straight months of job growth -- the best run this country has had since 1939, in fact. Donald Trump has reportedly promised he'll be adding 650,000 jobs per month, which is just not going to happen any time soon, folks. But no matter what does happen, it is incontrovertible that Obama is turning over an economy that is good and getting better to Trump.
That's not that unusual, however. In the article the Washington Post ran on the unemployment news there is a rather astounding chart, which tracks unemployment through the last eleven presidential terms (back to Eisenhower). In five out of six of the Republican presidencies, unemployment went up drastically (under Reagan it came down). In four out of the past five Democratic presidencies, unemployment shrank just as drastically (Carter's record was flat -- no improvement, but no slump either). If history is any guide, once again a Republican is set to preside over an economy that turns south. Let's hope not, but that chart is pretty eye-opening.
That's it for the roundup, so let's move along to the awards before we get to our Democratic Obamacare rant (in lieu of talking points this week).
The new Senate Minority Leader, Chuck Schumer, deserves at least an Honorable Mention this week, for doing such a good job coming out of the gate. Every time I've seen him on television, he's vowing to fight for what Democrats believe, which is a good sign. He's got a different style than Harry Reid, but he is without doubt more dynamic and forceful about stating his positions. Democrats are going to need strong leadership in the years ahead, so we're glad to see Schumer make such a promising start.
We'd also love to give out an Honorable Mention to whatever spinmeister came up with the new Democratic fighting slogan on preserving Obamacare. Riffing off Trump's campaign slogan, Democrats will be accusing Republicans of wanting to "Make America Sick Again" at every possible opportunity. We have no idea who came up with that phrase, but he or she deserves a fat raise for doing so. Well done! This is how you sloganeer successfully, folks.
But we are reserving the Most Impressive Democrat Of The Week for New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, who this week unveiled a plan to make state colleges tuition-free for all families making $125,000 or less each year. Now, Bernie Sanders deserves the lion's share of credit here (for promoting the idea so successfully during the campaign) and Hillary Clinton also deserves mention (because Schumer's plan is essentially the one Hillary adopted -- Bernie's would have made college tuition-free for all, without income limit). But Cuomo deserves the MIDOTW for actually coming up with a solid plan.
His proposal may not be perfect. It may need some tinkering before it can be declared a success. But since we've been giving Republicans such grief this week over non-existent pie-in-the-sky "plans" to make everything better, we thought it'd be appropriate to give the MIDOTW to a Democrat who is actually proactively getting out in front of an issue all Democrats should support. Bernie's idea was a good one, and we're hoping Cuomo can get the idea passed and implemented successfully.
[Congratulate Governor Andrew Cuomo on his official contact page, to let him know you appreciate his efforts.]
We were personally disappointed at hearing that Bill and Hillary Clinton will in fact attend Donald Trump's inauguration, but upon consideration we just can't ding them for doing so. Former living presidents attending is a mark of respect for the office of the presidency itself, and a longstanding tradition. It honors the office, not the person, in other words.
Of course, Hillary isn't covered by this tradition, but if Bill attended alone, her absence would be awfully conspicuous and would only give rise to stories about her pouting and whatnot, so we fully understand why she's decided to attend as well. Sure, the Clintons could have made a statement by not attending, but the chance it would have backfired on their public image was pretty high.
In fact, perhaps we're still feeling that holiday glow, because we didn't notice any disappointing Democrats in the past few weeks. Of course, outside the Trump transition it's been pretty quiet in the political world, but if anyone has a candidate to offer for the MDDOTW award in the comments, we'll consider it. Barring that, we have no Most Disappointing Democrat Of The Week this time around.
Volume 420 (1/6/17)
Before we begin, the more eagle-eyed among you may have noticed that this is Volume 420 of this column. So feel free to celebrate in any way that (ahem) seems appropriate for such an auspicious number.
In related news, Donald Trump's inauguration will be much easier to bear, it was announced, since pot advocates plan to pass out 4,200 free joints to those attending.
It is legal in D.C. to give away marijuana, although it is still illegal to sell it or to smoke it in public (or to possess it on federal land, which the Mall definitely is). But with all those people, are the cops really going to be bothered by a few (thousand) who decide to spark up? Inquiring minds want to know, to put it bluntly (heh). Should be a high time for all, one might say.
OK, with that silliness out of the way, let's get on with the talking points. What with the brewing battle over Obamacare's repeal (and non-replacement), the urge to rant overtook us today. Congressional Democrats are, so far, standing pretty strong in their position, so what we came up with is a gauntlet we'd love to see Chuck Schumer or Nancy Pelosi toss down in front of the Republicans.
We had already been thinking along these lines, when we read an interview President Obama just gave, in which he clarifies the challenge in a nutshell. Here are excerpts from the interview, where Obama speaks directly to Republicans considering repealing and replacing Obamacare:
If they are so convinced they can do it better, then they shouldn't be afraid to make that presentation. I'm saying to every Republican right now, if you in fact can put a plan together that is demonstrably better than what Obamacare is doing, I will publicly support repealing Obamacare and replacing it with your plan.
. . .
If they can come up with something better, I'm for it. But they have to show it. And that's not too much to ask.
. . .
The idea of repeal first and replace later is just a huge disservice to the American people and something that whether you're a Republican or Democrat you should be opposed to doing. These are real lives at stake.
Obama put it very succinctly, but we felt the subject deserved a somewhat longer treatment. This is going to be the first big political battle of the year, and Democrats have got to make their case stronger than ever right now. The public needs a reminder that Obamacare has helped millions of people -- even those who don't use the exchanges. Remind people what they'll be losing if Republicans repeal with no replacement. And point out in no uncertain terms that whatever Republicans eventually do come up with, it will probably mean worse coverage or more federal money spent. Possibly both. This is the very reason they haven't managed to come up with any magic plan yet, in fact. So point it out!
A challenge to congressional Republicans from Democrats
Republicans in Congress are currently falling all over themselves in the rush to repeal the dreaded Obamacare -- and replace it with nothing but promises that they'll do something about it later. Their plan, they tell us, will be better than Obamacare. We're all just supposed to trust them in the meantime, while the insurance marketplaces fall apart.
There's only one problem with this, and it is that they cannot agree even among themselves how to reform the healthcare industry. This means that if they can't get their act together, we're going to go straight back to the bad old days -- when insurance companies could just cut your insurance off if you got sick. Where if you had ever been sick, they could deny you coverage from the get-go. Where the biggest cause of bankruptcy in America was to pay hospital bills. Where terms like "lifetime limits" and "rescission" and "pre-existing condition" condemned millions to living without health insurance.
Obamacare has cut the uninsured rate in this country in half -- it is now lower than it has ever been, period. Tens of millions of people were able to buy insurance through the exchanges, and hundreds of millions more were aided by other parts of the law.
All of that will be reversed if Republicans never come up with a replacement plan. Children will no longer be able to stay on their parents' insurance. All the people covered under the Medicaid expansion will lose their insurance. The Medicare drug benefit donut hole will open wide once again, meaning some seniors will have to choose between food and the drugs they need to keep them alive.
So here is a promise from the Democrats in Congress -- if you break it, you own it. If you repeal because you think it'd be fun to toss some red meat to your base but then come up with nothing to replace it with, Democrats already have a slogan ready to go to explain it to the American people: "Make America sick again." Because that is precisely what the Republicans seem to want to do.
They can't even agree on how long it is going to take them to come up with a replacement. Some Republicans are pushing for full Obamacare repeal immediately, some want a year to come up with a replacement, some want two years, and some even want four -- to conveniently push the hard choices past the next presidential election.
I say to these Republicans: What are you so scared of? Are you terrified that your numbers just won't add up? Are you afraid of headlines stating the fact that "millions will lose insurance under GOP plan"? Are you afraid your own constituents will be noticeably worse off under the Republican plan and will punish you at the ballot box? That seems to be the only real answer -- pure political cowardice.
Think about it -- it has been almost seven years since the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act passed. In all that time, Republicans have not held one single floor vote in either house of Congress on a replacement plan. Not one. Oh, sure, they've had fun voting to repeal Obamacare, because that part's easy. But in all that time, they have not come up with their own plan -- an actual piece of legislation that can be scored by the budget office so we can all see how many people will lose their coverage and how big a hole they're going to blow in the budget.
So why should we believe them now when they tell us that they're going to put together a wonderful plan in the next year or two? Because they've had seven years, and they have produced nothing but moonbeams and smoke -- no actual plan with actual numbers in it. None. If they couldn't do it in the last seven years, why should anyone in their right mind expect they'll be able to do it now? Republicans have held both the House and the Senate for large parts of those seven years, and yet they still couldn't do it.
In politics, when you try to solve a problem, you have to come up with something better and then convince the public your way is best. Failing to do so is admitting that you have no idea how to solve the problem at all -- which is fine for a minority party in Congress simply trying to make an obstructionist point, but which just does not fly when your party controls Congress. What, after all, is stopping Republicans? What has stopped them for the past seven years? If their ideas are so great, why aren't they on the table? If their answer will fix the problems better than Obamacare, why can't they tell us what it is?
Some Republicans are actually beginning to understand that repeal without replace is a very bad idea. One Republican House member just conducted a Twitter survey to see how many people wanted to immediately repeal Obamacare. Only 16 percent voted for repeal -- 84 percent supported continuing Obamacare. When you get past the label, most of the law is actually incredibly popular -- even among Republican voters. It is our job as Democrats to point out exactly what the GOP is putting on the chopping block, because repeal without replace is nothing short of "Make America sick again."
It is time to put up or shut up for Republicans in Congress. President Obama recently made a promise that congressional Democrats can also get behind -- if the Republicans can manage to put together a plan that meets two criteria, then Democrats will support it and help enact it. But the two bars the legislation must clear are big ones. First, it has to cover as many people as Obamacare. Period. Kellyanne Conway just promised on television that any plan Trump supports will do precisely that -- nobody will lose coverage under the GOP plan. That's the first hurdle.
The second is that it can't cost more money than Obamacare. Republicans love to talk about what big budget hawks they are -- when there's a Democrat in the White House, that is. When their guy's in charge, then adding trillions to the debt is just fine and dandy with them. We see this already in the squabbling over repealing Obamacare -- the Tea Partiers and budget hawks are going to agree to "look the other way" while trillions are added to the deficit projections. Because Obamacare saves money. They'll also probably look the other way when the GOP builds Trump's wall and sticks the taxpayers with the bill and when they pass massive tax breaks for the ultra-wealthy without paying for a dime of it, too. There'll doubtlessly be other instances where the deficits just suddenly don't matter, but this time around Democrats are going to be the fiscal hawks. Because if a replacement plan costs the federal government more money for a worse outcome, then we are simply not going to agree to it.
So that's our position. We challenge the Republicans to come up with a plan -- before they repeal Obamacare -- that both covers as many people and doesn't add any additional spending. If their plan can't manage to do both of those things, then by definition it will be a worse plan than Obamacare.
It is both fiscally and morally irresponsible to tinker with such a large portion of the American economy with no idea of where you are going. Millions of lives will be affected. Absent a replacement plan that is measurably better than what we've got now, it would be the height of irresponsibility to repeal Obamacare. When the Republicans can show us such a plan then we will consider supporting it, but not until. If the Republicans are so set on introducing massive uncertainty to the health insurance market with no clue what they'll do next, then we refuse to aid them in their irresponsibility. Because "Make America sick again" is not the way to go.
-- Chris Weigant